Innovation in Teaching and Learning in VET

Campus Review, 22 October 2002

Leading VET researchers John Mitchell, Berwyn Clayton, John Hedberg and Nigel Paine argue that teaching and teachers remain a critical bridge between students’ present and future success

A PROJECT focused on innovation in teaching and learning in VET is being conducted from late 2002 to April 2003 with funding from the Australian National Training Authority and managed by the Victorian Office of Training and Tertiary Education.

One of the first products from the project is a discussion paper on innovation in teaching, learning and assessment, prepared by the project consultants above, led by John Mitchell from John Mitchell & Associates. A synopsis of the paper follows.

Why focus on both teaching and learning?

The discussion paper takes the position that the point of promoting innovation in teaching and learning is to achieve better student outcomes. We take the view that what teachers do is critical to VET’s impact, and that good process and outcomes that result from good teacher judgement is the central defining feature of the effective professional VET provider. We strongly believe that teaching and teachers remain one critical bridge between a client’s present and future success. For us, education and educational values are in no way diminished by acknowledging VET’s central tasks – which we think is about helping people to realise their potential, extending peoples’ capacity to pursue and realise knowledge, and partnering people into the future with appropriate and meaningful support. These tasks are personal and professional roles that give meaning to, as well as take energy from, the professional teacher and trainer.

Why focus on innovation in assessment?

This project also focuses on innovation in assessment. Effective assessment by teachers and trainers is an integral part of the knowledge and learning cycle that guides the behaviour and practice of VET professionals. Effective assessment also guides people in their knowledge of themselves and their capacities and capabilities, as well as providing feedback on their personal progress and performance. In addition to these intrinsic qualities, learner assessment also provides the means of awarding formal recognition and accreditation.

Given this interlocking range of functions, learner assessment is a critical part of teaching and learning. Its role, always central to good pedagogy, has been accentuated by national training reform in the VET system and assessment is firmly located within teacher effectiveness and teacher value. Improvement in assessment in VET is based around innovative ways of collecting evidence and making good judgements while maintaining consistency and achieving quality. (Clayton et al, 2001).

Why is innovation needed?

We are all facing increasing personal, professional and organisational challenges. For example, Burns (2002, p22) suggests that we are moving into a world that is complex and unpredictable; network-based and horizontally integrated; information rich; and, uncomfortably, largely beyond our personal control. For work organisations and work-focused societies, one response is to assist people to capitalise on their learning capabilities in order to learn more rapidly and to apply that learning in knowledgeable ways:

The new economic paradigm requires flexibility, quality, innovation and knowledge at all levels. Success now depends on how quickly and well employees can transform ideas into better products and services. In the new economy, employees capable of rapid learning and willing to undertake retraining in complex tasks/skills are critical. (Burns, 2002, p22)

The drivers of innovation in teaching and learning in VET are numerous and are not limited to economic or business imperatives and they include:

  • rising complexity and uncertainty in society
  • the changing structures of work
  • the changing structures of industry and employment
  • the growing economic value of knowledge and skills
  • public policy changes about the role of education and training
  • new technology
  • shrinking time-to-market
  • the change from mass production to catering for market segmentation and customised or personal learning that meets learner requirements

As a result of these kinds of drivers, much of what has been taken for granted in the recent past is being contested; and this has important psychological implications for people and society, including the cultures of the VET workforces.

As a consequence, wider, deeper and more frequent innovation is now appropriate in VET teaching and learning practices. In particular, the sharper focus is on supporting teachers and trainers to encourage more focused outcomes and performance for learners, based on:

  • ensuring relevance
  • ensuring personal service
  • providing “just for me” training
  • supporting “learning in context”

Innovation in learning is needed by VET students, so the students can quickly and effectively acquire skills to meet the pace of change. For example, in industry there is the need for the following:

  • continuous skilling to meet new and emerging industry needs
  • re-skilling of some staff following the disappearance of many entry-level jobs
  • re-skilling of older employees
  • recognising the current skills of the existing workforce and reskilling them if necessary
  • developing competencies in new domains such as in e-business
  • expanding personal and interpersonal skills and knowledge work

Innovation in learning is also needed by VET students so they can better cope with the changes to the world of work, including the increase in self-employed workers; the growing casualisation of the Australian workforce; and the emergence of “portfolio” workers holding a cluster of part-time positions. Innovation is also required to stimulate learner creativity, motivation and improved learner performance in personal and social settings, as well as in industrial and occupational arenas.

What innovation is needed in teaching?

Innovation is very much about application and practice and is distinguishable from invention, viz

Invention is imagining a good idea or concept and turning this concept into a reality. Innovation is turning an invention into a product or service that is successful in the market because it fulfils a need or desire of the market (Ellyard, 2001, p158).

This perspective places the emphasis on innovation providing value for people and society.

VET learners need teachers and trainers constantly looking for ways of adding value to the learning experience and its outcomes. This is an ongoing professional challenge that requires both recognition and continued improvements in professional practice. The challenges are even more evident when it is acknowledged that the modern VET learners can be located in a profit or not-for-profit organisation, be self-employed, unemployed or not yet in the labour market.

This emphasis on the teacher providing value fits the view offered by Rossett & Sheldon (2001) of the expanding roles of the training professional. On the one hand, they see the conventional roles of the training professional as designer, developer, deliverer, demonstrator and coordinator. But, increasingly they allow for the roles of the teacher to include those of learning manager, knowledge systems’ expert, learning broker and learning strategist. These newer roles continue the focus on achieving learner and organisational outcomes as well as providing more stimulating work and career paths for the teachers and trainers engaged in these roles.

Applying this to the VET context in Australia, we anticipate that teachers and trainers are likely to address innovation across four broad areas of practice, viz.

  • vocational skills: such as a knowledge of tourism or engineering
  • adult learning/teaching skills: such as how to support learner autonomy
  • vet sector specific skills: such as how to assess competencies in the workplace
  • generic personal skills: such as developmental skills, including managing personal and professional growth
  • Each segment has three domains: techniques for effective application; content knowledge; and context- experience and understanding of the learner and also of themselves as teachers.

A VET teacher or trainer can be innovative by drawing on her/his skills in one or more of the above areas of practice.

What innovation is needed in learning?

The competency based movement was, and remains, only one response to a much broader process of learning reform that is still unfolding. This shift is demanding that learning be recognised and encouraged and supported much more broadly – firstly to meet the needs of industry and, more recently, to support the concept of recurrent or lifelong learning for the active citizen.

As the role of learning has begun to change, so too has the identity of appropriate pedagogy. By the mid-1990s commentators were noticing the need for wider recognition of learning processes and clearer relationships with learning outcomes. For example, one view (Tinkler, Lepani & Mitchell 1995) was that at least eight different types of learning would be needed in order to satisfy demand, as follows:

  1. Lifelong learning
  2. Learner-directed learning
  3. Learning to learn
  4. Contextualised learning
  5. Customised learning
  6. Transformative learning
  7. Collaborative/cooperative learning
  8. Just-in-time learning. ( p79)

Many of these have now been adopted as single or multi-strand learning strategies in VET. For example, Burns (2002, pp.260-305) notes VET’s innovative use of:

  • workbased and workplace learning
  • activity-based and problem-based learning
  • guided experiential learning
  • simulations and games
  • mentoring and coaching
  • informal learning such as peer tutoring and virtual communities
  • flexible learning, e-learning, online learning and now blended learning
  • learning organisations, learning communities and communities of practice

Burns believes that the current movement in learning in VET is toward “flexible, interactive, self-directed and self-paced learning” (p305). The trend is towards the development of lifelong learning, and is:

“based on flexible delivery and permitting adults to enhance their sense of identity, self-determination, autonomy, mastery and self-worth”. (p305)

While the general case for adult learners wanting change is quite well known, what is less emphasised is that some learners will not take easily to the degree of responsibility implicit in the more ambitious self-directed, collaborative learning models. It is all well and good to present how idealised learners behave. But, in the real world we can expect reluctance, resistance, or lack of interest from many learners. This is due to a wide variety of factors – including a lack of skills or confidence to learn, or lack of obvious motivators to acquire such learning capabilities – that conspire to hold back learners back. Such cultural, attitudinal, situational and societal factors are powerful barriers to any sense of orderly progress in learner needs and behaviours. “Youth at risk” groups are but one example of this cautionary tale.

Continuing dialogue

The abridged discussion paper provided is simply a starting point for conversations and dialogue with VET practitioners about recognising and celebrating good examples of innovative pedagogy.

Readers are invited to email feedback on any issues or questions raised by the discussion paper to the principal consultant, John Mitchell by November 30, 2002.

Two discussion papers have been prepared for this project. The first, on trends in innovation, was discussed above. The second discussion paper examines possible mechanisms for promoting and sustaining innovation in VET. Both papers are available at, together with companion literature reviews.

John Mitchell, Managing Director, John Mitchell & Associates, is a leading Australian VET researcher, author and consultant in professional development, strategic Planning and change management. Berwyn Clayton is director of the Centre

Undertaking Research in Vocational Education (CURVE), Canberra Institute of Technology and president of AVETRA. John Hedberg is professor of education at the University of Wollongong. Nigel Paine is head of training and knowledge management at the BBC in London.


Burns, R. (2002), The Adult Learner at Work, Business and Professional Publishing Pty Ltd, Warriewood, NSW

Clayton, B., Booth, R. & Roy, S. (2001) ‘Maximising confidence in assessment decision-making: A springboard to quality in assessment’ , paper presented at 4th AVETRA conference, Research to reality: Putting research to work, AVETRA, Alexandria, NSW

Ellyard, P. ‘Imagining the future and getting to it first’, in Australian Institute of Management (2001), Innovation and Imagination at Work, McGraw Hill, Sydney

Rossett, A & Sheldon, K. (2001), Beyond the Podium, Delivering Training and Performance to a Digital World, Jossey-Bass Pfeiffer, San Francisco

Tinkler, D., Lepani, B., & Mitchell, J. (1996), ‘Education and Technology Convergence: A Survey of Technological Infrastructure in Education and the Professional Development and Support of Educators and Trainers’ in Information and Communication Technologies, commissioned report No. 43, NBEET, AGPS, Canberra