Learning Needs of the Postsecondary Vocational Student

This research was designed to answer the questions, “what are the learning style needs of postsecondary vocational students?” and “how do the principles of democratic education relate to these needs?” In this conclusion I will first discuss the learning style needs of the postsecondary vocational student drawing on my literature review and my research to answer that question. I will then relate these individual needs to the principles of democratic education.

From the research, the literature, and the students’ voices it appears that postsecondary vocational education must:

  • Allow for multiple styles of learning in a single program or class.
  • Embrace diversity in the student population.
  • Enable students to participate with varying schedules and time commitments.
  • Include students with learning disabilities.
  • Maintain student motivation by listening to their voices.
  • Greater involvement between the community and the school and the students in the community.

In this chapter I will validate each one of the above needs using the student survey results, the student interviews, the classroom observations recorded in my journals, as well as classroom observations made during my tenure as an instructor. I will then follow this validation with student suggestions, suggestions from relevant parallel research, and thoughts from my own experiences as a vocational instructor/researcher. Following the discussion of each point I will evaluate one or more principles of democratic education as a possible solution.

Postsecondary Education Must Allow for Multiple Learning Styles

From the interviews, student surveys, and the classroom observations recorded in my journals the need to reach students with multiple learning styles in a single vocational classroom became apparent. For example my journal entry of March 10, 2010 described a student, Steve, who learns better by reading and studying a book than performing “hands-on” work. In the same class the journal entries of February 22, 2010 and February 23, 2010 describe students who are learning in their own ways when given the opportunity; some are learning more in the classroom, and some in the shop. A journal entry of February 10, 2007 describes a class that is learning by designing their own shop projects and then building them. The journal recorded my classroom observations of two students on March 10, 2010 approaching the same project in two separate ways. These methods were both correct but different enough that there was no way they could work together without conflict. Soden (1994) described the different ways people learn with respect to transferring knowledge, and developing critical thinking and problem-solving skills.

            In addition to the journal entries, the results of the student surveys showed a mix of learning styles as well. For example, based on the total number of respondents 39.2% of the students are convergers, and the remainder of the students are split between assimilators (18.1%), accommodators (14.2%), divergers (7.8%), or some mix of the above learning styles (37.7%).

The student interviews also illuminated the differences in learning styles as well. The majority of the students preferred to learn in shop rather than in the classroom. However, a small number of students felt the other way. While Steve from the journal entry I mentioned above was not a part of my interviews, he fits the learning better from book and classroom category as well. When we discussed their experiences learning in the shop-based program, as well as from my classroom observations, students wanted to choose their shop partners rather than have the instructors assign them. The reason for this is that they can select partners with similar ways of doing things, or perhaps similar learning styles.

One student, in his interview, as we were discussing the shop partners, the classroom, and how we could improve our methods of teaching, suggested that we allow the students to move at their own pace. He told me that he felt “held back” by those slower than him, and told me that this was not fair and caused him to miss classes and lose the motivation to attend. It appears that learning style makes a difference in how students approach projects, learning skills, approach time commitment for school and studying, and participate in the classroom.

Wlodkowski (1999) wrote that acknowledging the various learning styles had a direct connection to enhancing students’ motivation to learn. Marklein (2010) indirectly described learning styles as well when he wrote about a dropout student from a public high school being enrolled in a school-to-work program and becoming successful. All students do not learn in the same ways. The two students who made suggestions during their interviews about improving the program have valid points. One suggested allowing students to learn at their own pace, and the other suggested that we allow students to choose their own shop partners. By nature, democratic education encourages students to be self-starters (Appleton, 2000) and the stewards of their own education (W. Harrison, 2002; Morrison, 2007). Each student must take some responsibility for how they learn, the groups they learn in, and what they learn (Miller, 2008).

In the January 2010 term I validated the idea of allowing students to choose their own shop partners and found that it was successful in keeping the students on task and motivated. Students appeared to be working harder and retaining more of what they learned; since I also decreased testing during this term it was difficult to confirm. All students did very well on their practical (hands-on) exams at the end of the term as well as their written exams. Additionally the school surveys that rate student satisfaction were 98% positive with regard to the students’ classroom experiences, which was an increase from the 77% that these students had rated their classroom experiences the prior term.

The principles of democratic education address the varying learning styles found within a classroom (Bennis, 2009). This inclusion may perhaps add to the value of using democratic education in a vocational setting.

Postsecondary Vocational Education Must Embrace Diversity

In the same manner as the importance of acknowledging difference in learning styles became apparent during my research, the importance of embracing different age groups, cultures, and cultural backgrounds became important. The student surveys demonstrated that 52% of the respondents were between 18 and 25 years old, 25% of them were between 26 and 35 years old, and the remaining 33% of them were 36 and older. The same survey showed that 53.5% of the surveyed population was White/Caucasian, 16.3% of the respondents were African American, 21.8% were Hispanic, and the remaining 8.4% were from other cultural/ethnic backgrounds. Besides age and cultural diversity a range of prior educational achievements were demonstrated among the surveyed population as well. The research site requires that all enrolled students have a minimum of a high school diploma or equivalent. Out of the respondents 46.1% had a high school diploma (or equivalent) as their highest prior educational achievement, and 35.3% had some college experience, and the remaining 18.6% had a college degree. These survey results show that there is large diversity in the backgrounds of the student population.

My journal entries and classroom observations showed some of the challenges that can arise because of this diversity in a traditional vocational program. One of the issues with cultural diversity that I have witnessed in the classroom was discussed in my journal entry of November 17, 2007 when two students of different backgrounds conflicted with each other over how to learn, and their frustrations with how learning was happening. While these students eventually worked out their differences the conflict had an impact on the class and the instructor. More importantly conflicts can occur when there are differences in backgrounds between instructors and students. One such example showed in my journal entry on July 12, 2007. In this entry a student told me that I was not able to understand his problems as I was not from his background and was not living his life. I wanted to help the student but he would not open up to me. Shortly after this incident I made a change in the department and hired an African American instructor, Tim, who had lived the life of many of my minority students, had attended our program as a student, and had succeeded.

The journal entries after hiring Tim show a common thread. The students were able to communicate with Tim and Tim was able to reach many of the students who otherwise would probably have dropped out of the program. Tim was an example of embracing diversity in the classroom; he was able to work with many of the minority students, as they trusted him. He was a member of their community.

Bennis and Graves (2008) explained that democratic education is based upon respect for human rights. Respecting the human rights of other students could probably mitigate the conflict and the differences based upon the wide diversity that I have seen in vocational education. Goodman (1999) wrote about the emotional tone affecting the schools, and the students; success; when you remove the conflict, the emotional tone of the school changes for the better. Goodman explained that the student should not look at the relationship between the instructor and the student as an adversarial relationship; it must be a mentoring relationship for success. But in order for that relationship to happen the student must be able to find an instructor that he or she can trust and relate to. Libert (2010) identified the importance of the mentoring and trust relationship in his grounded theory study when he discovered that in high school students’ success begins with the student identifying an adult that they trust. In many of my journal entries Tim was such a person and because he was able to relate to the students they trusted him and went to him for help.

Goodman (1999) described teaching in an alternative school as being full of unknowns, but being rewarding because the teachers were more of guides than traditional teachers at the front of a classroom. Goodman described it as a relationship that parallels that of a mentor. The mentoring and guidance by teachers and the respect for human rights are two qualities of democratic education that would be advantageous to postsecondary vocational education.

Postsecondary Vocational Education Must Allow Participation with Varying Time Commitment

One of the biggest issues that I hear students complain about on a daily basis is not having time to study, not having time to do outside of class reading, not having time to do homework, and many times being unable to attend class due to conflicts between work, family, and home lives.  This conflict is reflected in my journal entries, my classroom observations, student interviews, and student surveys.

The journal entry of March 1, 2010 described a meeting with a student who was worried that his struggles to support his family, make time for school, and study on his own was affecting his grades and his possibility for completing the program. A journal entry on April 22, 2010 described another student who needed to choose between spending money and time to attend school or be able to buy food and find a place to live. In the journal entry of July 8, 2006 I wrote about the frustration that both my students and I felt about the time commitment that students were able to make toward their education. One student told me that between work and school he just did not have time to study. By asking questions I found out that many of the students do not study and do homework because of outside influences on their time.

Time commitments affect student retention as well. For example the journal entry of April 21, 2007 explained that students not having time to make a living and attend school at the same time affects attendance percentages and graduation rates as well. Students such as Darryl in my February 15, 2010 journal entry sometimes are forced to drop out of school because of not being able to find the time to sleep, work, and attend school in order to survive. Also in the February 15, 2010 journal entry I wrote about Steve who misses class regularly because he is unable to schedule school around his three jobs and his recovery from cancer.

The results of the student survey showed great variations of the time that students are able to allot to their schooling. One of the survey questions asked the students how much time they dedicate each week to studying. Out of all of the respondents 58.7% reported studying between 0 and 5 hours a week, 32.7% reported studying between 6 to 10 hours a week, and only 7.2% reported studying more than 10 hours a week. Llewellyn (1998) wrote about school not needing to be an interruption to life. Morrison (2007) described the teachers in the democratic school guiding students through programs and allowing them to learn at their own pace rather than pushing them and setting unrealistic standards. Mercogliano (2003) wrote about school not setting time-tables for students to learn the material but rather making it available.

I asked the students about time in the student interviews as well. Several students were concerned about the time required of them for reading, homework, and written assignments. One student told me that when he enrolled in a trade school he did not expect homework, outside reading, and assignments, but that he understood the necessity. Another student told me that he felt misled by the admissions representative that told him that there was never going to be assigned homework. This student also told me that it was hard to find time to do this and keep up with the other struggles in his life.

As a part of the survey I asked the respondents to assess their study skills on a scale of 1 to 5 with 5 being the greatest. Almost 64% of the students responding rated their skills between 3 and 4 in the medium range. The students with the highest overall ranking of their study skills were in the allied health fields and the lowest in the technology fields. There were two students that put a note next to this question saying they did not have the time to study and this was the problem.

As a part of the interview process I asked the students what we could do to improve their vocational program. Two of the students addressed the time issue directly. One student told me that the admissions people should be telling students of the time commitment required. The second student suggested that students be allowed to move through the material at their own pace. He suggested that perhaps if the program would be a few months longer it would not be so stressful for students to complete.

There are some challenges to allowing students to progress at their same pace as well. First, it becomes impossible to have students in assigned “classrooms” participating in the same lesson because they are at different places in the course. Additionally in a shop, or hands-on based program such as found in postsecondary vocational education it may be difficult to manage students in the shop environment as many times the requirements of different classes will conflict. In a conversation with another instructor we were discussing a self-paced program and he expressed concern as well about students doing different projects on different equipment in the shop. He was not sure if he would be able to safely manage that type of environment without more help from a shop assistant or another instructor.

The principles of self-paced, student-centered, and student-guided instruction that are a part of the democratic education principles may alleviate some of the time constraints facing the postsecondary vocational student. In order to make such a program work the school would need to address the space, equipment, and faculty needs as well. This time conflict also affects those students with learning disabilities because as adults they are managing even a greater number of distractions on a daily basis.

Postsecondary Vocational Education Must Include Students with Learning Disabilities

The results of the student surveys showed 12.8% of respondents have been professionally diagnosed with learning disabilities. I also asked the students to identify themselves if they had not been professionally diagnosed, but if they felt they had a learning disability and an additional 26.6% fit into this category for a total of 39.4% of the respondents who felt they had a learning disability.

From my classroom experiences students that have been diagnosed, or possibly have a learning disability are affected in postsecondary vocational education. My journal entry of June 15, 2009 describes one result of the disruption a student with ADHD can have in the shop or the classroom. Fred, a student in a day class with ADHD refused to follow safety procedures in the shop, he also would not follow most of the other rules that had been put in place for his own and others’ safety. Fred’s instructors had to take a large amount of time away from the other students to deal with Fred. While Fred did eventually graduate it was the opinion of his instructors that he did not get everything out of the program that he could have if we had provided more individualized and a slower pace of instruction for him. Hallahan and Kauffman (2000) explained that students with disabilities just learn differently than students without. Dodson (2008) demonstrated the need for vocational education and training for those students with disabilities, and Costa (1992) wrote that students with disabilities must be in an environment designed for thinking and personal growth.

A second student with ADHD, Chris, I described in a different way. Chris made us aware of his disability and asked us to work with him. He had a lot of problems understanding the book material, but did not have any problems with the shop. He made it through the first 12 weeks of the program, but he eventually stopped coming to school and dropped out. This may be part of the reason there is only a 66% graduation rate from postsecondary vocational programs (Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools, 2009).

The student interviews also revealed issues surrounding students with ADD and ADHD. Twenty-two percent of the students participating in the interviews knew that they had been diagnosed with a learning disability. Two of the remaining students had never been tested, and 30% of the remaining students felt they had a learning disability but had not been diagnosed. It is interesting that almost 52% of the interviewed group identified with a learning disability, compared with 39.4% of all those surveyed. One of the questions I asked all of the students identifying a learning disability was if they had received a transition plan upon graduation from high school.

Sixty-six percent of those diagnosed said that they had not been given a transition plan from prior education to work or higher education. One student had tried to share the plan with his instructor and he would not take it or read it. Another student did not want to share it for fear his instructor would embarrass him in front of his class. Another student felt that his instructor had treated him in a negative way once he gave his instructor the information.

Rojewski, Pollard, and Meers (1992) addressed the issue of grading of students with learning disabilities and suggested that effort should be the sole basis for grading those students. Mercogliano (2003) wrote about his experiences teaching at the Albany Free School and found that the democratic environment was very effective with the young people with learning disabilities enrolled in that school. The difference he explained was the small class size, the community in the school, and that everyone was involved with the students. He wrote that this is an environment unlikely to be found outside of the democratic schools because of the large class sizes and the larger number of students each instructor is responsible for. Additionally found in his writings, as well as those by Morrison (2007) describe the free school environment as one in which grades are not important. Evaluation is done based upon skills and effort with a cooperative effort between the student and the mentor.

If the principles of inclusion, involvement, community, and human rights can help the student with learning disabilities learn in the primary and secondary schools, it may be possible that these same principles can help the student learn in the postsecondary school as well. Perhaps by using evaluation methods such as those found in democratic education some of the pressure could be taken off struggling students, such as Chris (described in my classroom observations). These students may not test well because of their disabilities but may be very capable with the skills.

Postsecondary Vocational Education Must Motivate Students

The average postsecondary vocational student that I have observed in my classes, that responded to the survey, and participated in the interview has much more going on in his/her life than just school. Because of this it is sometimes up to the school to help maintain the student’s motivation, or drive to graduate with new skills. The importance of motivation begins from the moment the student decides to enroll in the postsecondary vocational school.

In my surveys I asked the students to identify one out of the five most common reasons students have told me that they are attending school. Seventy-one percent of all the respondents reported that they are attending to learn a new skill because of career stability and opportunity. Six percent reported that they felt they could not succeed in college, 1% reported that they had nothing better to do, and 1% reported that they were attending because their parents made them. Twenty percent responded that it was because of some other reason. Because the survey was anonymous I could not go back and ask for clarification on the additional 20%.

Tim, the graduate I later brought back as an instructor, was an example of a highly motivated student. Tim told me it was important for him to get this education so that he could support his son, and set an example for his son and his peers in his community. Right before Tim graduated his motivation almost disintegrated when Tim was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. After missing a few weeks of school, many phone calls, and an entire community believing in Tim, he came back to school and graduated. A year later we brought him back to help us teach the HVAC/R program and he has turned out to be a highly successful instructor. Tim told me his motivation was based on his personal needs, his family’s needs, and his belief in himself. He told me that the school helped him as well, we fostered a little competition between him and fellow students, and he enjoyed the hands-on work that he did in shop. He did not like the lecture (classroom material) at all and almost left a few times because of that.

My journal entries included several issues related to motivation. The journal dated January 3, 2007 shows a class of students concerned about a new instructor that is going to be assigned to them. They did not believe this new instructor knew his material and this became a motivational issue for them over time. A second journal entry dated August 12, 2006 relates to motivation as well. In this journal entry an instructor was being abusive to his students and no one listened to their complaints and the instructor eventually threatened to throw a student off of a roof. The instructor was immediately terminated but the instructors’ actions had affected the motivation of his students to attend school. The absenteeism rate in that section was almost double the rate in the other classes.

I questioned the students that I interviewed about motivation. The interviews showed similar reasons for attending that the surveys did. Most of the students interviewed told me that they were attending school in order to learn a new trade to care for themselves and/or their families. The interviews also revealed a few students finding it hard to get motivated because of their instructors’ lack of knowledge. One student told me that he knows more about the topic than his instructor and he felt this was a waste of time. The same student blamed his attendance issues on this feeling.

As I was doing the interviews I asked the students about what we, as instructors, could do to help increase the motivation of the students. Sixty-three percent of the students interviewed suggested that perhaps if there were less classroom time, more shop time, more of the instructor working with the students in shop, and the instructors becoming more knowledgeable the motivation would increase.

Wlodkowski (1999) explained that motivation is key to adult student success in any postsecondary education, and that while the motivation must be present for the student to begin the learning process it is up to the school, the instructors, and the student to foster this motivation so that it continues. In another interview question I asked the students what the instructors could do to make their learning a little easier for them. Several students suggested that the instructor could listen to the students and try and understand how the students learned the best. One student, Mike, said that he thought his instructor did not even know his name. He said that his instructor was reteaching the same basics that he had already had in another school. He told me that this waste of time was discouraging for him and was going to affect his progress through the program. He had already missed several tests and quizzes because of this lack of motivation.

All of the students I talked with told me that they liked certain parts of the program that they were enrolled in over others, and this was a motivating force. This for many was the shop and hands-on portion of the program. Most of these students appeared to be visual and auditory learners rather than book learners, and they all wanted their instructors to understand these needs. Wlodkowski suggests that adult students must have multiple ways to learn, as every adult student is different.

George said that he needed a more flexible schedule as he was being forced to miss school to get additional overtime at his job. He was not going to be able to complete the program without taking some time off. And his instructor was not listening to his needs. George told me that this was a very discouraging thing for him.

 Knowles (1973) discussed the adult learner and wrote the six principles needed for successful adult learning. These six principles include students knowing the reason for learning something; experiencing the new skills; making their own decisions about education; the new knowledge must be relevant to their lives; learning has to be problem centered; and students must have a motivation to learn.

One of the principles of democratic education is learner autonomy, or the ability for students to learn what is important for them. A second principle of democratic education is a respect for the student, the student is a part of the learning process, and the student makes decisions about his or her own education. The third relevant principle of democratic education is that of human rights; students should have the right to freely schedule their own lives and education. Looking at the literature from both democratic education and adult education it appears that there are common threads. I believe that it may be possible to increase motivation in postsecondary vocational education by using principles of democratic education in the postsecondary environment.

Postsecondary Vocational Education Must Involve the Community

Though I did not ask any questions about community involvement in my surveys, community involvement has been raised a number of times in my classroom observations, student interviews, informal student discussions, and discussions with local contractors.

All the individuals I have talked with felt that community involvement was important to the success of the postsecondary vocational student. The medical and dental students that took part in the interviews told me that their internships with the local medical/dental offices put a “real life” perspective on the classroom and lab work in the school.

One electrical student had taken part of the trade externship program before it had been canceled when he was a HVAC/R student. Mike told me that he missed the externships because it gave him a chance to work with people in the field on actual equipment. He felt that he got much more out of the program with the externships. Illich (1971) wrote about the use of community resources to learn the “tools of the trade” in the learning communities he envisioned.

Every 6 months I meet with local contractors to evaluate our vocational programs with respect to what the local employers are looking for in our graduates. One of the things that these contractors told me was that they would like to have our students as interns prior to graduation. They want the opportunity to work with the students and train them, but they also want the students to have the opportunity to work with their technicians and perform a preliminary interview by observing their attitudes, their feelings about learning, and their abilities to think through problems. Every contractor I spoke with would welcome the students during externships. Dewey (1997) wrote about learning through experiences, and that students are encouraged to become familiar with globalization and the changing world while out in the world.

            Morrison (2007) described the use of community resources such as libraries, museums, and other facilities as a part of the education at the Albany Free School. Saeverot (2008) also explained that democratic education gives the democratic teacher the freedom to learn by using community resources with fieldtrips out of the school to these resources.

While postsecondary vocational education attempts to recreate actual shop/lab settings inside the school it is almost impossible to accurately replicate the interaction between patients and medical providers, technicians and homeowners, or mechanical equipment and the buildings they are in. This can only be done through community involvement in the training. The schools need to have places that they can send their students to gain actual field experience. I know from my own vocational training that my weeks in the field with contractors first told me that I could do it and I was not too old to make a career change, and then my field weeks helped me obtain employment and complete my apprenticeship. I believe that it is an important part of training. Democratic education includes community involvement as one of its principles. If this principle were to be used as a part of postsecondary vocational training it would improve the options available to the students, and make them stronger candidates for employment after their graduation.

Potential Challenges of Democratic Education

While the use of democratic principles in vocational education may have some positive impact for postsecondary vocational education there may be some negative impact as well. Those are mostly financial for the school or time and financial for the student.

One possible argument may be that it will require additional instructors to manage the shop. In the traditional environment all students in the shop are working on similar equipment, and completing a set of shop projects all at the same time it is possible for an instructor to monitor and work with 20 students. Some may argue that in the democratic environment with students working on many different types of equipment at a single time safety may be compromised and the students may not receive all the attention that is required of the instructor. However, there are possible solutions to this argument including the possibility of scheduling different groups of students, based on what they are working on, into the shop at different times of the day. Another solution is the use of learning groups to make sure that newer students are working in conjunction with more experienced students while doing their shop projects.

A second argument against the true democratic environment might be that the democratic teacher cannot be authoritative with the students and this could compromise safety. The response to this argument would be that when the students enrolled in the democratic postsecondary vocational program they would be made aware that when it comes to safety their instructors have the final authority. The instructors would be required to explain their decisions but directions with regard to safety would have to be followed without advance questioning.

Planning and discussion can mitigate these possible negative impacts, as well as others, with the students. In any democratic environment the student has the choice on whether or not he or she wants to attend.


The learning needs of postsecondary vocational students include the need for community involvement in their studies, the need for an acceptance of time constraints and restriction, an acceptance of those with learning disabilities, a need for motivational instruction, and an acceptance of different cultures and backgrounds. These needs were developed from my journals, the student survey, student interviews, and the literature.

For each of these identified needs I evaluated if the principles of democratic education could be a partial solution to the need. For all of the identified needs there are one or more principles of democratic education that may be applied to meet the need. Based on this evidence by using the principles of democratic education in postsecondary vocational education it may be possible to improve the results. Based on my research I would make the following recommendations to postsecondary instructors and postsecondary vocational institutions.

Recommendations for Instructors

Based on my research I recommend that instructors begin to look at the way they teach. The instructor needs to become a mentor and work with the students and not be an authoritative figure. The instructor needs to include the students in the decision-making process in the classroom, and encourage the students to take on some of the activity planning. The instructor needs to explain rather than dictate when it comes to rules and regulations, but always needs to maintain high standards and keep safety in mind. As a part of being a mentor the instructor needs to look at alternative ways of presenting the knowledge for those who are more comfortable learning with “hands-on” activities.

Postsecondary vocational instructors should make it a point to help their students develop activities for critical thinking. The goal of the vocational program is to provide the students with the skills to go out into the workplace with technical, hands-on training, and the critical thinking skills that go along with it. The instructor needs to find ways to challenge the students rather than “water it down” and make it easier. This does not mean constantly testing them, but rather to help the students build upon their knowledge so that they do not get bored or feel that they are wasting their time.

I would also recommend that all postsecondary vocational instructors receive training on working with adults who have learning disabilities. Even if an instructor has never had a student identify him or herself with a learning disability my research has shown that it is likely that they have one or more in their classes. Instructors also need to pay attention and work with students who identify themselves with learning disabilities, and read and follow-through on any transition plans that these students may present.

Instructors need to become someone that the students in their classes can trust and approach. Instructors need to get to know their students and be willing to give them personal attention when they need or ask for it, but also know when to back off and give the student space to learn on his or her own. Instructors need to understand that their students come from a variety of backgrounds, have different cultural traits, and may need someone else to provide this leadership and mentoring. Instructors need to work within the constraints of their curriculum and their school to provide as much freedom to learn as possible.

Recommendations for Vocational Schools

As described in prior discussion freedom and self-worth are extremely important to the postsecondary vocational student. This need for freedom stems from the varied lives that the students lead, the various responsibilities that they have, the varied schedules that they keep, and the various educational backgrounds that they come from. Additionally a class of postsecondary vocational students may contain a number of different learning styles that may require different methods of instruction that cannot be planned for in advance. These requirements and differences require the school to allow some freedom by both the students and the faculty in the educational process.

My first recommendation is that the postsecondary vocational school provides a way for students to learn at their own pace, and on their own schedules rather than the schools. One way to accomplish this may be through the use of hybrid courses where students can use technology to learn the theory portion of their courses and then access the lab/shop portion of their courses on-campus or at satellite locations according to their own schedules. While this may require the need for additional equipment and the need for additional training it may provide the students with more freedom in their education.

The second recommendation to schools is to provide more education for their faculty. It is important that instructors be exposed to educational theory and methods of teaching. As I wrote about in my journals I was unaware that there was a problem until I began to take courses in education. Most postsecondary vocational educators are hired because of their trade knowledge and backgrounds, not because of their educational achievements. It is important for the instructor to begin to get this formal training early on in his or her careers.

My third recommendation to postsecondary vocational schools is to make sure that the cultural makeup of the faculty includes members from the communities that the students represent. It is important that the students have faculty members, even if they are not their own instructors, which they can communicate with and trust. This trust becomes the mentoring relationship between the student and the instructor that is prevalent in the democratic schools. As I have shown in my research this will increase student motivation, student satisfaction, student retention, and graduation rates.

The fourth recommendation is to allow students to participate in the management of the school through a student senate or student leadership group. It is possible to create an atmosphere of trust and inclusion by administrators involving students by hearing their voices. While many democratic schools go much further with the students actually administering the school this may be impossible in a for-profit postsecondary vocational school because of the short length of time the students are attending. A student leadership group may help foster the sense of involvement that adult students need to maintain motivation.

There are some challenges that go along with these recommendations and most of those are financial in nature. To provide a mentoring atmosphere the school may need to hire more instructors; to provide the students the ability to learn at their own pace and on their own schedules, the school may have to purchase additional equipment. To provide more hands-on, self-paced learning the school may need to spend the time creating alternative material and new ways of looking at presenting programs. But these principles of democratic education can, and should, be included in any postsecondary vocational program.

Actions Being Taken at Research Site

While concluding this dissertation as a student at Fielding Graduate University we have been working at Porter and Chester Institute to bring some change to the existing programs. While these changes will not go as far as to create a democratic school, they will make life more manageable for the students. It goes beyond the purpose of this dissertation to evaluate the outcome of these changes.

Changes to the Medical Assisting and Dental Assisting programs are currently in accreditation to allow a portion of those programs to be taught in a blended approach. This blended instruction will allow the students not to be on campus one day out of each week and may represent tremendous savings in time, help make life easier to manage, and provide some savings in fuel costs too for the students, as well as give them a little flexibility. The institution expects to see some savings as well through the consolidation of classroom space, instructor scheduling, and the instructors being able to work with smaller groups of students in the labs while others are working on distance learning off-campus.

Porter and Chester Institute has also received state approval and is waiting on national accreditation to offer a new Heating, Ventilation, Air Conditioning, and Refrigeration program that will be totally online. The goal of the new Related Instruction program is to offer the classroom, theoretical, training to those working in the field for HVAC/R contractors. These students will be receiving their hands-on training from members of the community while being paid to do so. They will receive their theory by logging into the online classroom as their own schedules and life allow. It is always the goal with new programs to increase enrollment and offer the schools’ services to a wider variety of students.

Study Limitations

This research and dissertation did not open and run a postsecondary democratic vocational program. There are also several unknowns, for example how students that have been taught traditionally from kindergarten through the remainder of their primary and secondary school careers would react to a democratically run school or program. Another unknown is the ability of the students to embrace the freedom to learn at their own pace and be able to manage their time and complete a program of study. Students who have never been involved in planning and participating in their own educational process may have a hard time accepting this new model of freedom and involvement. The reaction to the democratic environment from the instructors is unknown as well. Would the traditional postsecondary vocational instructor, having been raised and trained in the traditional education system be able to teach in a democratic environment? This research did not evaluate any of these questions.

Issues for Further Research

Possible questions that need to be addressed prior to opening democratic postsecondary vocational schools include some of those not addressed in my research. There needs to be some research into vocational education instructors as well. I do not know if instructors who have been part of the traditional method of education would be able to change to a democratic non-authoritative environment. It is unknown if they would continue to want to “teach,” or if they could change their methods toward that of mentoring and co-operation. This includes identifying the training needs for a postsecondary instructor in the democratic environment and the changes in methodology that they would need to take to make the move from the traditional to the democratic environment. In conversations with Rick Posner from the Jefferson County Open School it appears that hiring, recruiting, and training appropriate faculty is a challenge in the K-12 environment they have created, and this may be a larger challenge in the postsecondary vocational program that I have described in this paper. These are all subjects for possible future research.

A topic for further research that also needs to be considered is the ability of postsecondary vocational students to work in a self-paced environment. While my research touched on this topic through my journals and changes that I made in my classroom there were always some guidelines and time constraints given to the students. I believe that prior to beginning a true democratic postsecondary vocational program research must be done with students in a self-paced vocational program to observe motivation, challenges, and outcomes of such a program.

Another topic that should be addressed is the placement and employment success following graduation from a democratic postsecondary vocational program. Perhaps following the graduates for 2, 5, and 10 years into their careers and comparing those results to their peers from a traditional program. The purpose of my proposed changes to the democratic model is to offer greater possibility and greater stability to those struggling with a traditional program. Further research could validate this success. At the 2010 Alternative Education Resource Conference in Albany, New York I asked several alternative school graduates if the lack of a standard high school diploma had held them back at all from fulfilling their dreams and goals. Four of the six graduates I asked had struggled to some extent because of this. One graduate said that he wished there would have been some greater guidelines and guidance in his high school years. This is a phenomenon that I believe should be further explored. These are all subjects for possible future research that may need to be completed before opening and operating a pilot democratic postsecondary vocational school.