In this chapter, I use the survey results and an ethnographic evaluation of my journal entries to reveal the validity of my premise that democratic education can transform PSVE. I combine a traditional report of my findings with a discussion and conclusions to provide a clear, coherent picture. As I report the results of my surveys, I reflect on my journal entries and analyze my past didactic teaching methods to help demonstrate the need to change to democratic approaches for vocational schooling.

In this chapter, I focus on the most promising aspects of democratic education to have a positive effect on PSVE:

  • Honoring diversities in the student population (Bennis, 2009; Gutmann, 1987).
  • Honoring different learning styles (Bennis, 2009).
  • Accepting a variety of time and learning commitments (Gutmann, 1987; Hartjen, 2001).
  • Enhancing learning for students with learning disabilities (Gallagher, Heshusius, Iano, & Skrtic, 2004; Knight & Pearly, 2000).
  • Including students’ voices (Bennis, 2009; Hartjen, 2001).
  • Enhancing student motivation through involvement.
  • Encouraging greater community involvement (Goodman, 1999; Illich, 1971; Menashy, 2007).

PSVE should strive for all of these inclusive concepts, which are not always achieved in a traditional environment.

To discuss the results of the student surveys, I selected entries from my journals that I felt were most likely to offer substantial ideas about the need for democratic approaches to vocational education. After presenting the ethnographic, qualitative, and quantitative data, I explain the problems the data expose and reflect on ways a more democratic method might provide a solution. At the end of the chapter, I offer a summary of the most salient conclusions.

Diversity in the Student Population

One of the first questions that I wanted to answer was, “who makes up the student body?” After I answered the question, “who attends postsecondary vocational/technical school?” I asked, “would they be better served by democratic education?” The first three survey questions addressed these questions.  Table 1 shows the age breakdown by department. To create departments, I separately grouped the trades, the allied health fields, and computer- or office-related careers. Each of the department categories include a different student outcome: The trades work with their hands in physical jobs, the health fields work with people in a medical context, and the computer and drafting students work with people and technology. Overall, 52% of the student population was between 18 and 25 years old, with the percentage diminishing through the older age groups.

Table 1 

Student Age Demographics by Department

 Trades: Electrical / HVAC/ Auto/ Low-Voltage (n=89)Healthcare: Medical/ Dental/ LPN (n=69)Technology: Computers/ Drafting (n=35)Other (n=11)Total (n=204)
18-25 years old60.2%46.4%45.7%45.5%52.2%
26-35 years old20.5%26.1%31.4%45.5%25.6%
36-45 years old11.4%18.8%5.7%9.1%12.8%
Over 45 years old8.0%8.7%17.1%0.0%9.4%

From the survey results I classified the students into racial and/or cultural groups. The majority of those enrolled classified themselves as White/Caucasian, with the next highest group being Hispanic. Though the campus is located in an area with a large Asian population, the student body does not represent this. The “Other” column may represent a growing Middle Eastern population (Table 2). Note, there is some variation in the percent of individuals in each age category depending on the trade; however, the general decrease in percentage with increasing age holds true across the groups except for Technology which has a relatively large percentage of students over 45 years old. The racial and cultural demographics were almost identical across all departments with the exception of the Technology group in which White/Caucasian students were represented with an overwhelming majority at 71.4%.

Table 2

Racial/Cultural Demographics by Department

 Trades: Electrical/ HVAC/ Auto/ Low-Voltage (n=89)Healthcare: Medical/ Dental/ LPN (n=69)Technology: Computers/ Drafting (n=35)Other (n=11)Total (n=204)
White / Caucasian50.0%48.5%71.4%54.5%53.5%
African American19.3%16.2%11.4%9.1%16.3%

The highest level of education the students achieved is shown in Table 3 by department. The results demonstrated in Table 3 show that students in the health fields were most likely to have college experience before arriving at the trade school and the students enrolled in the “trades” were more likely to have a high school diploma.

Table 3

Students’ Prior Education by Department

 Trades: Electrical/ HVAC/ Auto/ Low-Voltage (n=89)Healthcare: Medical/ Dental/ LPN (n=69)Technology: Computers/ Drafting (n=35)Other (n=11)Total (n=204)
High School58.4%31.9%37.1%63.6%46.1%
Some College25.8%49.3%34.3%27.3%35.3%
College Grad.3.4%8.7%14.3%0.0%6.9%

The students in the technology programs were evenly split between “High School Diploma” and “Some College.” Overall the largest grouping of students identified as high school graduates with the exception of the healthcare fields in which the majority of the students had attended some college.       

 The data show that the students come from a variety of age, ethnic, and educational groups. In the traditional vocational classroom, these students are all taught in the same manner, using the same tools, same books, and same schedule. The trend of greater multiculturalism, varying backgrounds, and experiences that Goodman (1999) described mirrors the trends I found in the postsecondary vocational program in my research. The following journal entry provides an example of the problems that this can cause:

November 17, 2007. Today I had some issues with the day class, and they almost resulted in a fight between two of the students. The problem started when Jamaul would not be quiet during lecture, and I had to stop explaining something at least four times to get him to stop talking. Then I had to ask him to put his cell phone away a few times. After break, the students came back in, and I needed to spend a few more minutes explaining. So, I tried to get their attention, and Jamaul started talking again. After a few minutes of this, David, one of my older students who is here on a Navy scholarship, got up and got right into his face and told him to sit down and shut up or he would “kick the shit out of him.” Jamaul threatened that “me and my boys will find you and make sure you never get in my face again.” I had to intervene and send them both to the front office for counseling. Jamaul left the building, and David came back to class. We went on with the rest of the morning. After class was over for the day, David stayed because he wanted to talk to me. He wanted to know what could be done to get “these young dudes who don’t really want to learn” out of the program. I really had nothing to tell him, as this is a problem for me as well. I think the issue is that Jamaul really did not want to be here today, but he is on attendance probation and could not take the day off or he could be dismissed from the program.

David and Jamaul were from two different backgrounds and age groups and had different motivations for attending. David was a White male, about 34 years old, with two kids and a wife, and he worked a full-time third shift to support his family while attending school. Jamaul was an African American male, 18 years old, who was single and did not work. His sole responsibility was to attend school and graduate. He had an extensive arrest record for drug possession and sales and was under a court order to attend career school. Was keeping them both in the same classroom a disservice to them and could democratic PSVE have solved this problem?

Another example of the racial and cultural issues that arose in my classroom was that the students did not appear to have a role model with whom they could identify, and who could mentor them on a personal level. This is shown in the following journal entry:

July 12, 2007. I need to do something about some of the minority students in the program. I am finding that I cannot communicate with them. I know I am not prejudiced. I know that I treat everyone equally; I know that I make it a point to be available, and all of this does not seem to be enough. Today we had another discipline problem in the classroom; I caught one of the students cheating on a practical exam in the shop. I asked him to come into the office, and I asked him what was up. He told me that he was just talking to the student next to him and was not even discussing the test. I asked him what the topic of conversation was, and he told me, “You wouldn’t understand. You don’t live my life.” I know he has issues at home: He lives in a really bad area of town, and he is right, I wouldn’t understand. I wanted to send him to somebody to talk to. I wish we had some counselors, but I didn’t have anyone that would understand, as we do not have any minority instructors on the faculty right now. I allowed him to finish his exam and took off 10 points for the conversation, warning him that it couldn’t happen again. I felt bad doing that, but the rules say no talking during exams, and I have to treat everyone fairly. The problem was he really needs those 10 points to pass the course. I will make it work out for him. I have to find someone that these students can talk with.

In October 2007, I attempted to resolve the problem with not having an instructor that the students could relate to. I hired Tim, one of my African American graduates from the July term. Tim was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis near the end of his program and just barely graduated. I did not think he would ever find a job in the field, and I was able to convince the school to hire him and the state to put him into the apprenticeship program. From his first day in the program, the majority of the students really liked him, and I could see both the students and Tim learning.

The problem of identifying with and being able to talk to students repeated itself 2 years later with a slightly different resolution. Tim was on the faculty as an instructor at the time.

July 28, 2009. We just began our new summer term, and the student issues are already starting. It appears several of the day students in the program know each other from the streets on the north end of Hartford. This is not a good neighborhood, and I am concerned about the possibility of the street culture (not my term, but I can’t find a better one) coming into the classroom. There is one student in particular who is fast becoming the leader of the class, and this is not a good thing as he is one of the most bigoted people I know. I am unable to work with him; he walks away from me, ignores me, and will not communicate. I have watched his interactions with the other students and instructors. It is not just me; he will not give the time of day to any of the White students in the class either. He is African American. I have finally decided to get Tim involved in this because it is a real detriment to everyone else in the department, as well as his own education. If he can’t learn from any White instructor and can’t take direction, he will never make it through the program. Tim sat down with him in the office and spent about an hour talking to him, probably one of the best things that happened. Tim asked me to come in and join them in the office and told the student to tell me what they had just talked about. The student told me it was “nothing personal,” but is there any way he could transfer to Tim’s class? I asked if it was anything I had done wrong, and the student told me no. I turned to Tim and asked him if it was what we were talking about earlier. He said yes. I told the student that I would make the section change and that it would be effective in the morning. It was still early enough in the course to make it happen. I hope we do not have any problems with this student moving forward. Time will tell.

The student spent the July term in Tim’s class and I watched his progress carefully. We did not have any further issues with the student, and his working relationships did not come to my attention again until I spent time with the day class in the beginning of the October term. The following journal entry shows the change:

October 20, 2009. This will be my last new start in this campus. I have accepted a transfer to the Enfield campus. It may not be a promotion, but it is a good change. I will be working on the distance-learning program and will not have the responsibility of running a department. I spent some time with the new starts in the day class today, and we had a couple of returning students helping out. One of these was James, the student I had to transfer from one class to Tim’s class at the start of last term. He has come a long way, both from a technical aspect and a personal aspect. James was working with all the new starts today, regardless of race, and was helping and talking with everyone. It was interesting. I was standing there observing, and he looked at me a few times, and then looked away spent some more time with the new students. After a while, he walked over to the table I was leaning against and told me that he noticed I was watching him and he wanted to say thanks before I left. I told him not to thank me; he had done it all for himself. He said, “No, thank you. You didn’t have to do what you did.” I just nodded and he walked back to the group he was working with. He will be OK.

This observation suggests that students should be able to choose the instructors and people they learn from. This appears to be more critical in PSVE, as most students do not have the time or the inclination to learn from and talk to those they do not trust or have not associated with in the past. The students in a postsecondary vocational program have a very short time to learn a large amount of material, and they must learn it in the most effective way possible. They must trust their instructors.

The principles of democratic education suggests that students design their own program and learning and have the ability to choose from whom they will learn it. Based on my classroom observations over the years, as well as informal conversations with students, it is my belief that the democratic postsecondary vocational program would be more inclusive of minority students than the traditional education model. The democratic classroom would possibly allow the students to choose an instructor to mentor them and to decide on their level of interaction with the instructor in order to learn most effectively.

Based on my observations of the diverse needs of postsecondary vocational students and the principles of democratic education, I believe that democratic education may increase student learning in postsecondary programs. However, students’ culture, and age are not all that affects student outcomes; learning styles play a role as well.

Need for Different Learning Styles

Several of my journal entries point to various learning styles among students and show that the traditional method of universal education no longer fits the postsecondary vocational classroom. For example, I wrote the following entry after administering a final exam:

March 4, 2010. I corrected finals and practical exams last night and finished my grading for the term. Although most of the students ended up exactly where I expected them to, there was one surprise: Steve. Steve did very well on his written final, did a painstaking job, and was quality oriented on his practical. He did not pass the term because of the amount of work that had not been turned in, but he came very close. It seems that Steve has a much easier time with book learning than hands-on shop-based learning. I think he can understand the ideas by reading and studying more than he can with hands-on practice.

Steve’s learning style is different from other students’ who appear in my journals. Another example related to learning styles is found in a journal entry from 2007, when the students were spending a lot of time in shop.

February 10, 2007. We are well into the term. I have the students working on a project in shop that seems to be going very well. They are using whatever parts they can scrounge to build keg coolers, beer coolers, or anything else. I am allowing more and more shop time, as I am too tired to do much of anything else. I need to make sure I have another instructor for April. This is way too much. I wish I were more with-it, as attendance has gone up recently and I would like to get the students back into the classroom for more lecture.

I did not realize until much later that a return to the classroom for additional lecture would have disrupted the students’ learning because their learning styles are oriented toward the hands-on, practical side of learning.

Incorporated into the survey was the “Pharmacist’s Inventory of Learning Styles” (see Austin, 2004). This learning style evaluation tool identifies students as assimilators, accommodators, divergers, or convergers based upon their answers to 17 questions. Table 4 shows the results of this survey.

After tallying the results, I found that the largest percentage (39%) of all the respondents were convergers. These students were focused, practical, and to the point and had little patience for spending too much time on theoretical matters or anything they considered impractical. They were good at coming to quick and decisive decisions, and at times, these quick decisions resulted in less-than-perfect results, as the following journal entry shows:

March 18, 2010. Today I decided to give the students a full shop day. We have lost four days this term to snow days, and I am a little behind where I should be with shop time and work. I still wish that I could get everyone to concentrate on their shop work rather than just getting it done and moving on. Today Adam brought yet another lab to me with a question about work he had just done in a prior lab. He did not understand why he had to take some similar measurements again. He did not feel he would get anything out of it. I had to explain that some of the labs are designed to practice the more important concepts of the term, like taking oil pressures. He is the complete opposite of Andre. Andre rushes through the labs, and although his results are acceptable, they are less than perfect and he doesn’t like to follow directions.

In this journal entry, Andre and Adam both fit the learning style of convergers. They would rather do a good job delivered on time than a perfect job delivered late. They enjoy being in a high-performance, high-energy, fast-paced environment. Adam also fits another learning style: assimilator. Of the students who responded to the survey, 18% were assimilators.

Table 4

Inventory of Learning Styles

 Trades: Electrical/ HVAC/ Auto/Low- Voltage (n=89)Healthcare: Medical/Dental/LPN (n=69)Technology: Computers/Drafting (n=35)Other (n=11)Total (n=204)
Converger and accommodator6.7%1.4%8.6%0.0%4.9%
Diverger and accommodator1.1%0.0%0.0%0.0%0.5%
Assimilator and diverger1.1%0.0%0.0%0.0%0.5%
Accommodator and assimilator3.4%1.4%2.9%0.0%2.5%
Converger and diverger5.6%4.3%2.9%0.0%4.4%
Assimilator and converger1.1%2.9%2.9%0.0%2.0%
Converger, diverger, and accommodator0.0%2.9%2.9%0.0%1.5%
Assimilator, accommodator, and converger1.1%1.4%0.0%0.0%1.0%
Assimilator, accommodator, and diverger3.4%1.4%5.7%0.0%2.9%
No selections1.1%0.0%0.0%0.0%0.5%

February 15, 2010. This week we began to work on the furnaces in shop. I have given all of the labs out for the first part of the term and have told the students that they may work through them at their own pace but must meet the milestones that I have set in place. I explained that if they want to work ahead, they may, and if they fall a little behind the rest of the class, this is all right as well. But because I have to grade them, I have to put some deadlines in place. Adam and Ryan are falling far behind the rest of the class. Both of them are perfectionists and want to get it right all the time. Both of them seem to get upset with themselves when they get something wrong or a project does not work properly. I am trying to get them to understand that they are just learning and the “always right” will come with time, but it is like talking to the wall of the classroom. I am trying to adjust the schedule so they don’t have problems with missed projects, and I have delayed some due dates for the entire class. I will have to cut out some of the extra material I had wanted to cover this term.

Adam and Ryan are assimilators. I was fortunate to get them to work together. As most assimilators, they like to work by themselves, at their own pace, on their own time or, sometimes, with a small group of like-minded people. They have the ability to learn from their own and others’ mistakes. They do not want to be the center of attention in the classroom, and they want to get things done properly and according to the rules. They can be their own worst critics. In this journal entry from 2006, Dave is also an assimilator:

October 20, 2006. One of my day students, Dave, is going to drive himself, and me, insane. Dave is one of the older students in the class and is retired from the Navy. Dave has one way of doing things and that is by the book. If it is in writing, he accepts it and moves on because he can follow it. If it is told to him, or if there is any conflict between the written [material] and the explanation, he does not know what to do. The problem comes from him not wanting to ask questions in the classroom and then becoming confused when it comes time for shop and on his tests. When he gets confused, he gets angry with himself and either gets really quiet or leaves for the day. All his shop projects are perfect. I wish I could use them as an example for the rest of the class, but that would embarrass him and I know that he wouldn’t react well.

Dave is an assimilator, and like most assimilators, he values organization and attention to detail. The assimilator’s attention to detail is the opposite of the converger’s.

The next group is the accommodators; 14% of those surveyed qualified as accommodators. Austin (2004) described accommodators as having very little time for indirect or soft-sell jobs. They enjoy looking for and taking opportunities as they arrive, almost as an entrepreneurial spirit, and learn best in a hands-on, nontraditional format. Austin explained that accommodators do not like leading others and may only do so because they are the ones best suited to the job. They are confident, have strong opinions, and value efficiency. They want to see the job get done on time and sometimes the quality of work will suffer because of this.  In the following journal entry from late 2009, Brian is an accommodator:

December 18, 2009. This week we have been working heavily on the shop refrigeration projects, trying to get them done. I have been seeing a difference in Brian’s work; it has gotten much better. He does not like working through shop projects. He has told me that he believes they are a waste of time. He would much prefer to take something apart and put it back together and then move on. Earlier this month he told me that he hates the lecture portion of the program because he doesn’t get anything out of it. He also does not really like working as a part of a team in shop. I have asked him to work with a few other students because he seems to really understand the hands-on work, but he doesn’t want to lead them. He seems to end up following them, and what they are doing is not always right. I wish I could figure out how to make everyone happy.

In early 2010, the school decided to split the HVAC department into two evening classes. I would teach one, and another instructor would teach the other. The other instructor had been teaching for almost 20 years and before that, worked as both a technician and an engineer. Mr. W., as the students call him, taught a class that included a lot of math and formulas and very little formal shop work. One problem he faced was that his students had changed from those he taught 15 years ago in high school. Today’s students want hands-on work. I had several complain to me that he taught too many formulas and equations. Although the majority of the student population is made up of convergers, accommodators, and assimilators, Mr. W. was teaching to the diverger.  If the students had the choice of instructors, they would probably choose to learn from someone who teaches to their learning style.

Divergers accounted for 8% of the surveyed student body. These students enjoy out-of-the-box environments where time and resources are unlimited. They are concerned about how others perceive them, and they place a high importance on harmony. They have no problem dealing with complex, theoretical, or ambiguous situations, but sometimes have a hard time dealing with practical, day-to-day issues. In two journal entries from 2007, I identified the learning strengths and weaknesses of a diverger:

April 27, 2007. Mohamed missed another day of school today. He seems to miss every day that he thinks we are going to spend a lot of time in shop. I have watched this trend for the last few months and have figured out that he just does not like shop work. He prefers to work with books. I need to talk with him about this tomorrow.

April 28, 2007. I asked Mohamed to stay after school today and talked with him about the shop work he has been missing. I made it a point to let him know he was not in trouble, but I was concerned he might be in the wrong program. I asked him if he had ever thought about mechanical engineering. He told me that he needed this program so that he could learn to fix the furnaces in the apartments he owned, as well as the refrigeration systems in the convenience store that his family owned. I asked him why he did not like working in the shop but preferred the book side, and he told me that he liked reading and working things out on paper. He told me that although he liked doing what he needed to do to learn the material in shop, he had a much easier time seeing things on paper. I made sure to let him know that shop was very important, as things look different on paper than in reality and I wanted him to understand it. I also told him that I had made some contacts in the engineering department at Northeastern that I would be happy to introduce him to if he wanted to look in that direction.

Mohamed is a diverger. He enjoys and understands how to work with theory. I did not have a journal entry for this, but I gave the class a take-home final exam and he did the best out of all of the students. Mohamed handed in a 35-page paper that outlined and analyzed everything he had done during the term. He also spent some time drawing diagrams and had taken pictures of equipment and parts to illustrate his paper.

 Four percent of those surveyed did not respond to the set of questions related to learning style, and 18% of those surveyed had a mix of learning styles. Looking over the course of my time as an instructor, I noticed that the number of different learning styles identified in these survey results might explain several problems I had in my classroom using traditional methods of PSVE. Traditional education does not appear to work for all learning styles at the same time. Is it possible that PSVE would be better served by using a democratic model that would allow students the freedom to create their own learning program?

It was interesting to note that the learning styles were almost equally represented in all of the departments with a few exceptions. The trades had a higher percentage of assimilators than the other groups but also had a high percentage of convergers as well. The healthcare disciplines had an overwhelming percentage of convergers with respect to the other learning styles, and those identifying themselves as “other” had the highest percentage of convergers.

For example, in a democratic environment, Adam would have been able to take his time and work through his projects and problems at his own pace and, if he chose to, by himself. The schedule that is forced upon students to complete their work in the allotted time does not allow students such as Adam to learn according to their own style. In a democratic environment, Dave would have been able to learn according to the books and written guidelines that he preferred. His program and his mentors would have had a clear understanding of his needs. He would have been encouraged, and expected to, make his needs known. In a democratic environment, students like Ryan and Andre would be encouraged to make their needs known, and I as an instructor would not have needed to push them back onto the same path as their classmates. Not everyone is going to be an engineer; many of the students are in the program because they want to learn how to be an HVAC mechanic.

Bennis (2009) explained that democratic education is based on the principle that all students learn as individuals. Gutmann (1987) wrote that teachers in the democratic classroom value individuality rather than a traditional mold. Based on the student surveys, my interviews, and evaluation of the journal entries, I find that a democratic postsecondary vocational program would enhance student learning.

In the first part of this chapter, I reported that the postsecondary vocational classroom is diverse and concluded that using the democratic ideals of diversity and individuality, student outcomes would be enhanced. In the second part of this chapter, I reported that the learning styles of the students are extremely varied, with many students not fitting a single learning style. I questioned how a traditional classroom could fit all students’ individual needs. I also concluded that the ideals of individuality and diversity found in the democratic schools might help students succeed in their chosen programs and careers. Next, I examine the time commitment with which many students struggle.

Need for Varying Time Commitments

Gutmann (1987) wrote that adult literacy programs are plagued with attendance problems and students dropping out. Over the years, as an instructor, I have seen the same problem in PSVE, as my journal entries show. As a part of my research, I sought to find out the effect of the time commitment of attending a traditional program on students. Over the last 3 years, I have had a number of students drop out of or do poorly in classes because they were unable to make the time commitment to attend class and study on their own. This phenomenon appeared in my journals on several occasions, such as during my first 3 months teaching:

July 8, 2006. The quality of the homework turned in is going downhill. I have 18 students in my class, and some students turn in homework that is very neat and professional. These students make it a point to please me and get good grades. Some of the students do not ever turn in an assignment and get a zero for each missed chapter. I hope they see this on their grades and start turning in assignments. I have another set of students who turn in homework with all the same answers. I know they are cheating, and if I can ever catch them, I’ll kick ’em out for a few days. Some of the students offer me excuses for why they do not complete homework, and I do not buy them. I hear things like, “I forgot,” “The dog ate the assignment sheet,” “Mr. M., I don’t have time to do it. I work,” and “I pay to learn things in school. I do not think I should have to learn on my own.” I do not understand any of these excuses. When I was in school learning HVAC/R, I had to read, do my homework, and work full time as well, and I managed to get this done. I am still in school finishing my technical communications degree and have more coursework to do than I would ever assign. If I can handle it, so can they. I told them this one day this last week and suggested that they realize this is just for a year; once they graduate they will never have to do any more homework if they don’t want to. I think they understood; they stopped complaining and just turned in the work.

Another journal entry mentioned the conflict that students experience between time spent working to support themselves and time spent attending school to better themselves:

April 21, 2007. I have hired a new day instructor. Adam has started work, and he has been able to take over the day class. He gets along very well with the students, is younger, and seems to get it. He lectures well and keeps the class organized and in their seats. Attendance also becomes an issue, and he has had a number of drops. I have been called into the office because of the retention rates, and I responded that there is nothing I can do about them. The drops are mainly because of financial and job responsibilities.

A more recent journal entry also addressed the problem of balancing time for study, family, and work:

February 15, 2010. Steve’s wife came in and met with my education director and me today. I found out that Steve is recovering from cancer and is really afraid that it is going to come back. He is depressed, and this is why he misses school so often. He is also trying to work three jobs and seems to only have four or five hours a night of sleep. He is worried that he is going to be dropped from the program. I let Steve’s wife know that as long as he begins to show up, I will make every effort to help him out, but I will not allow him to graduate without the skills he needs. I am teaching the same courses again next term, so if he needs additional time to graduate and he is making it a point to be here, I will work with him. I could not promise we would not charge additional tuition, as that is not my call. About an hour later, when class started, Steve was present and worked really well that evening in shop. However, Darryl, one of my new students, is now having attendance problems. I don’t understand: We have so much shop [time] and they get such a chance to work with their hands and learn by doing. I will talk to his enrollment representative in the morning and find out what is going on. She may be aware of something I don’t know.

In surveying the students, I asked a few questions to better understand why students are not studying on their own or completing assigned homework. First, I asked the students how many hours a week they studied. Table 5 shows the results. The survey showed that out of all respondents, 50% studied between 0 and 5 hours per week, and 33% studied between 6 and 10 hours a week. The lowest study times reported were in the trades, and students in the allied health (medical/dental/LPN) field spent more time studying on their own.

Table 5

Weekly Study Time by Department

 Trades: Electrical/ HVAC/ Auto/ Low-Voltage (n=89)Healthcare: Medical/ Dental/ LPN (n=69)Technology: Computers/ Drafting (n=35)Other (n=11)Total (n=204)
Do not study6.7%12.3%5.7%0%8.2%
0 to 5 hours a week64.0%32.9%60.0%27.3%50.5%
6 to 10 hours a week21.3%49.3%25.7%36.4%32.7%
More than 10 hours a week5.6%5.5%5.7%36.4%7.2%
Did not answer2.2%0.0%2.9%0.0%1.4%

I also asked the respondents to rate their study skills on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being the highest. The results showed that 31% of the students from all programs placed themselves with medium study skills (3) and 32% placed themselves slightly above, at a 4. Table 6 shows the full results. The combination of these two survey questions showed that the lack of studying for many students was not due to a lack of skills; it is likely that other reasons are causing the phenomenon, such as lack of interest, boredom, or time. The students from the healthcare related fields put the most time into their studies and also had the highest rating of personal study skills while the students in the trades rated themselves with the lowest skills and the students in technology put in the least amount of study time.

Table 6

Student Ratings of Personal Study Skills

RatingTrades: Electrical/ HVAC/ Auto/ Low-Voltage (n=89)Healthcare: Medical/ Dental/ LPN (n=69)Technology: Computers/ Drafting (n=35)Other (n=11)Total (n=204)
Low – 111.5%1.4%17.6%0.0%8.5%
High – 511.5%24.6%5.9%27.3%15.9%

In one of my student interviews, the student was concerned about the amount of time required of him for reading assignments, homework, and independent work outside of school. He felt that homework, outside reading, and assignments were not what he expected when he enrolled into trade school, but he understood why it was necessary. The student told me that it was extremely difficult to make time for his reading assignments with work, school, and taking care of his family, and that he did the best that he could with the limited time available. During the course of the conversation, I asked him if he understood why the material was assigned. He said that it was his understanding that time was limited in class and that in order to learn everything required in a short time, they have to read and do assignments outside of school. He said that although he had no problem with the concept, it was hard to find the time.

As part of the interviews, I asked the students if they had any suggestions for improving the program. This student suggested that students be allowed to move at their own pace, and if they needed extra time to complete material, it just meant that they did not graduate at the same time as their peers. He said that it would be worth an extra few months in the program to better learn the materials. This idea was supported by two recent journal entries:

March 1, 2010. Brian came to me this evening and was very concerned about his grades and how he was doing in the class. I turned it around and asked him to tell me how he felt he was doing. He said that since he lost his job, he was spending all his time looking, had been asked to leave his house and family, and was having problems finding time to study. He is feeling very left behind. He said the program is moving very quickly, and he is feeling overwhelmed. I let him know he was doing OK and asked if there was anything I could do to help him. I did not get an answer to that. I hope he does OK on his finals. He is a smart guy, and I think he will be OK. He asked me if, for some reason, he fails his final, would there be an opportunity to do makeup work? I let him know that I think he will be OK, but if that should happen, we would talk about it. My grading system does not give much opportunity for makeup.

April 22, 2010. I was visited today by one of the enrollment representatives. She told me that Darryl is a drop. He had a conflict between work and school and in order to pay rent and eat he had to choose work. I just wish he would have stayed for two more days and taken his final exams. I have to give him an F for the course as the withdrawal period is over.

Many of the students in PSVE have other commitments than school. Many of these students have multiple jobs, a spouse, and children and school is yet another time commitment. Based on the literature and my research, I believe that a model that allows more time flexibility would help solve these time conflicts. Llewellyn (1998) wrote in support of democratic education that school should not be an interruption to life and that learning is a part of life. The journal entries I analyzed show the need for open access and more inclusive attendance policies in PSVE.

Need for Motivation Through Involvement

As mentioned in the literature review, student motivation plays an important role in how, what, and when students learn. As Bennis (2009) explained, student involvement is inherent to the democratic process, and one of the core principles of democratic education. One of the questions I asked in the survey directly interrogated students’ motivation for attending trade school. When asked why they decided to attend trade school, 71% of the respondents reported that they wanted to learn a trade because of career stability and opportunity; 6% reported that it was because they did not feel they could succeed in college. Only 1% said that it was because they didn’t have anything else to do with their time, and 1% said that it was because their parents wanted them to. The remaining 20% said that it was for some other reason. The full results are in Table 7.

Table 7

Motivation for Attending by Department

 Trades: Electrical/ HVAC/ Auto/ Low-Voltage (n=89)Healthcare: Medical/ Dental/ LPN (n=69)Technology: Computers/ Drafting (n=35)Other (n=11)Total (n=204)
Career stability and Opportunity71.9%73.9%60.0%90.9%71.6%
Could not succeed in college7.9%4.3%5.7%0.0%5.9%
Nothing else to do with time1.1%1.4%0.0%9.1%1.5%
Parents wanted me to2.2%0.0%0.0%0.0%1.0%

During my student interviews I also asked, why did you attend trade school? Most of the students responded by telling me about the importance of knowing a trade for their future careers. One student told me that he knew he needed to do something and he had failed out of college because he “just couldn’t get into the book stuff.” Another student told me that he was afraid that if he didn’t do something with his life, he would end up dead or in jail like many of his friends. One of the younger students told me that his parents asked him what he wanted to do with his life and then signed him up for the trade of his choice. He continued to say that this was the best thing that ever happened because he would have stayed home and played video games if it wasn’t for his parents telling him he had to go to school.

Tim, one of my day students from 2006 to 2007, was an example of the importance of motivation. When I took over the evening class, Tim was frustrated; he was a single father and was getting deep into debt going to school in order to get a better job and, perhaps, go into business with his uncle, who had been a student in the same program. When we started working in the shop, Tim developed a rather strong competitive relationship with one of the other students in his class. Angel and Tim spent about six months trying to be the best and succeeding. Tim began to get sick more often and finally ended up in the hospital, where he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Tim did not return to school for almost a month, and I was worried about him. His uncle told me that he had given up and wasn’t sure he wanted to finish school.

Eventually, Tim did return, graduated, and is the instructor that I wrote about in the first section of this chapter. I discussed this research with Tim and asked him what he felt about his time in the program and how he dealt with the changes in his life. Tim told me that it was about motivation, the motivation to take care of his son and to make a difference in his community.

In February 2010, I asked Tim about his experiences moving from a student to a teacher in the classroom. Additionally, I asked him about how becoming a teacher has affected his relationships with his peers and how he handled the positives and negatives of his relationships. In order to start our conversation, I asked him, what was your biggest challenge (other than health) in coming back to school and learning HVAC? Do you think you did better or worse in vocational school because of you had a GED instead of a high school diploma?  Tim responded, “My biggest challenge at the time was my uncle. It was more of a competition than a challenge. It was better for me to have a GED. I earned my GED in Job Corp. I learned a lot of hands-on material such as electrical, plumbing, and even landscaping. If my high school was more of a technical school, I’m quite sure it would have been somewhat of a parallel experience.”

As the conversation continued, I asked Tim what his biggest challenge was in returning as an instructor. Tim explained, “The biggest challenge returning as an instructor was just that … In other words, you don’t really know something until you can teach it. Also, me being my own worst critic, I would have to say the biggest challenge was there were moments I felt that I didn’t know the material and I did. It was a different experience for me, yet … I’m proud to be an instructor, as it seems I was meant for this job.” I then asked Tim to tell me about his experience in moving out of the classroom-based model into the shop-based model when I made this change late in 2008 while he was a new instructor in my department. Tim stated it was “an easy transition for me. Due to the fact that I really explain things better when the equipment is actually being worked on. My favorite quote is, ‘seeing is believing.’”

I then asked him how his education separated him positively and negatively from his peers. Tim described it as both positive and negative: “The education that I’ve received as an instructor has definitely separated me from my peers in a positive and negative way. Positively, I have a sense of a high school basketball player going straight to the pros. A teacher has more responsibilities than I thought. It has been a life-changing experience, and I appreciate it. [As to] the negative aspect, I dislike the fact that I never got a chance in the field. As a student, my uncle and I had major plans. My disease changed everything, and everything happens for a reason. I have been teaching for the past two years and still enjoying my trade and continuing to learn.”

Tim continues to teach in the department that I used to supervise and continues to be an important resource for the students in the department and in other departments. I recently asked his supervisor how his technical skills were coming along, and he told me that Tim continues to excel.

Students’ motivation combined with their learning styles require teachers to be flexible in how they expect students to learn. If students are not interested or if their motivation is overcome by instruction that does not fit their needs, then it is possible that they will lose the motivation to learn. An example of this is found in a journal entry dated September 21, 2006:

September 21, 2006. My supervisor, Sam, just gave notice. He said that the quality of the students coming into the program has changed so much, and he can no longer deal with the “thugs” coming into the program. He said that he has too many students in the day program that cannot sit still, are always talking, and are products of the prison system. The other problem is that the administrators are refusing to do anything about the major discipline problems in his class. Whereas I am able to kick them out for a few days in the evening class, he is not allowed to in the day class. He also has a much younger and much more diverse crowd, and he has a number of people who are in class because the courts made them attend or their parents made them attend or … they just want the paper but do not want to learn anything. His class size has also gone up. It’s too bad; he is a great teacher and a good person. I am going to miss him.

Although the survey results only showed that 1% of the students were told to attend postsecondary vocational education, it has been my experience that a larger number of students are in the program because they have to be. These students may have selected “Other” as the answer for the survey question asking them why they were attending school.  In Connecticut, it is quite common for the courts to look favorably on students who are enrolled in school, and defense attorneys know this. Once the students are enrolled, however, if they are provided with the attention they need and given individualized instruction, they might be more able to succeed in the vocational program. Is it possible that a more flexible education can provide the individualized mentoring that these students need?

In a recent Program Advisory Committee (PAC) meeting, I asked four contractors who are members of the committee what they looked for in graduates of technical schools when hiring new employees. The answers were unanimous: The contractors wanted a good attitude, a love of learning, and the ability to think a problem through. I asked them if they expected all of the technical school graduates to have all of these skills, and they said no. They know that some students will learn more of the details, some students will graduate with more skills, and some students will just make it through. One contractor pointed out that this has to do with motivation, age, and experience because the more motivated the students are, the more effort they will put into their studies and the more they will learn. Colin and Zach are examples of this motivation:

February 22, 2010. I did not make any journal entries after Monday of last week because nothing exciting and new is going on. The students are working well in the shop; I still have to bring them into the classroom for about an hour or so each day. Because it is Monday, we had another quiz, and I mixed essays, a diagram, and multiple-choice questions into the quiz. The wiring diagram ended up being worth the most. The results were interesting; many students had problems with the wiring diagram, and we had gone over the same diagram in the classroom as a group. The problem was that the students had not had a chance to wire the exact diagram in the shop on equipment and, thus, were unable to visualize it. I will have to pick some diagrams for their final exam next week that they have all had a chance to wire. Zach and Colin are moving forward faster than anyone else. I think I may have to allow those two to move on to some additional equipment.

February 23, 2010. I had to allow Colin and Zach to move ahead to the Reillo burners, as they had done a number of other burners and were getting bored. I just hope they are mastering the skills on the simple ones. I think I will let them continue to work as fast as they want as long as I see them completing the work and learning. This is different from what I did in prior terms when I held students back, waiting for the others to catch up.

Both Colin and Zach are students with a lot of motivation. Zach’s goal that term was to learn as much as possible so that he could succeed in the field, as an oil contractor already employs him. Colin is a very motivated student; he was about to graduate and wanted to finish the term strong in order to get a job more easily in a tough environment. Other students in the course might not have had the same motivation and might have needed to move at a different rate so they did not get discouraged.

Can democratic PSVE provide proper training for those of varying motivation? Llewellyn (1998) wrote about motivation and what motivates teenagers to go to school. Llewellyn described lack of involvement as one of the biggest barriers to success in school. Illich (1971) wrote indirectly about motivation as well and described the traditional coercive method of education as not creating life-long learning but imposing an artificial environment onto the students. In contrast, students in a democratic environment are taught using praise and encouragement as part of their involvement in the process (Saeverot, 2008). Although these sources were not specific to democratic PSVE, they are nevertheless applicable, and the use of democratic education in postsecondary vocational schools might enhance student motivation and, in turn, student learning outcomes.

Students With Learning Disabilities need Individualized Instruction

To evaluate the use of democratic PSVE to meet the needs of a diverse population, I needed to ask the students about prior physical, mental, or learning disabilities. Table 8 summarizes the results of this question. Note, the students identifying as being from “other” departments had a high percentage of “Mental Disabilities.” Because of the anonymous nature of this survey it was impossible to return and follow-up on this anomaly.

Table 8

Student Disabilities by Department

 Trades: Electrical/ HVAC/ Auto/ Low-Voltage (n=89)Healthcare: Medical/ Dental/ LPN (n=69)Technology: Computers/ Drafting (n=35)Other (n=11)Total (n=204)
Physical disability10.2%2.9%11.4%0.0%7.4%
Mental disability1.1%1.4%5.7%18.2%3.0%
Learning disability17.0%8.7%14.3%0.0%12.8%
Never diagnosed71.6%87.0%68.6%81.8%76.8%

The results showed that although the majority of the students in each department had not been diagnosed with any disability, students with learning disabilities were present in each area. To better qualify these learning disabilities, I asked the students to identify the types of learning disabilities that a trained professional had diagnosed them as having. The results of this question are in Table 9. The trades and the technology departments had the largest incidence of ADD/ADHD, otherwise the resulting percentages were distributed evenly across all departments. The students identifying as being from “other” departments had a high percentage of “Mental Disabilities.” Because of the anonymous nature of this survey it was impossible to return and follow-up on this anomaly.

Table 9

Professional Diagnosis of Student Learning Disabilities by Department

 Trades: Electrical/ HVAC/ Auto/ Low-Voltage (n=89)Healthcare: Medical/ Dental/ LPN (n=69)Technology: Computers/ Drafting (n=35)Other (n=11)Total (n=204)

Over the years, I have had a number of conversations with students who had not been professionally diagnosed with learning disabilities yet believed that they had them. In the surveys, I asked the students to identify disabilities they may have that had not been diagnosed by a professional. The results of this question are shown in Table 10. The majority of the students who reported learning disabilities classified themselves as having ADD or ADHD. There is some deviation in the percentages represented for ADD and ADHD in the different program areas though students having self-diagnosed are present in all programs in the school.

If we add the percentages in Table 10 (self-diagnosis) to the percentages in Table 9 (professional diagnosis), it is possible that the number of students with ADD, ADHD, dyslexia, and other learning disabilities may have doubled from those having been professionally diagnosed with a learning disability.

Table 10

Self-Diagnosis of Learning Disabilities by Department

 Trades: Electrical/ HVAC/ Auto/ Low-Voltage (n=89)Healthcare: Medical/ Dental/ LPN (n=69)Technology: Computers/ Drafting (n=35)Other (n=11)Total (n=204)

My journal entries support the need for alternatives for students with ADD/ADHD:

June 15, 2009. This week has started off wonderfully, and I use that word with sarcasm. Today I had a problem with a student that escalated out of the department and ended up in the campus director’s office, along with the student’s mother. Yup, that’s right, the student’s mother. Fred is a 19-year-old student who has just been released from jail, and he is a troublemaker. He has complained endlessly about anything in the program that involves rules, regulations, and deadlines. He constantly uses his ADHD as the reason he cannot follow rules. He refuses to follow safety procedures in the shop, he refuses to follow lab procedures, and he refuses to stay off his cell phone in the classroom. Today his instructor asked him to draw a schematic diagram before he wired a shop project, and next thing the instructor saw, Fred was on one of the trainer boards with smoke coming out of a component, as he did not draw a schematic and shorted something out. That’s where I needed to get involved. I asked Fred, why no schematic? He told me, because he gets too bored drawing schematics. We went back and forth, and I asked him to leave for the day as he did not follow the instructor’s directions and caused equipment damage. After a lot of shouting, he decided to leave, went to the parking lot, and called his mother. [Remainder cut out for privacy reasons.]

Did Fred have ADHD? Yes. His mother brought paperwork from her attorney, which included notes from doctors, demanding special treatment for her son. Did ADHD prevent Fred from following proper safety and shop procedures? The individuality found in a more flexible education may allow students such as Fred to choose what they wanted to learn. It is possible that Fred’s ADHD would not have been an issue if he was not forced to participate in shop, not forced to work with specific instructors, and not forced to comply with rules that he did not participate in creating.

Another student, Chris, also demonstrated the need for alternative ways of teaching students with ADHD. Chris was an 18-year-old evening student in my class in late 2008 and 2009. He came to me his first day in class and told me that he needed to sit by the door because he had ADHD. He asked me to please not yell at him when he got up and left the classroom because he started getting bored and losing focus. I told him that I understood, but he had to let me know if he was having problems understanding the material. Chris made it through the first 12-week term but then stopped coming to school. When he did, all of the instructors he interacted with believed he was in trouble.

Chris dropped out of the program after failing his second term. He was unable to concentrate in class, though the classroom provided an important foundation for the hands-on work the students did in shop. The program was not equipped to teach students like Chris because he required individual attention and individual planning, which I could not give him. As with Fred, the noncoercive nature of democratic education might have allowed his instructors to help him manage his ADD more effectively. Chris would have been able to choose when and how he wanted to learn, as well as the best method for learning the material.

When I asked about learning disabilities in my student interviews, I was surprised to find that 44% of those who volunteered to be interviewed had either been diagnosed with ADHD or strongly believed that they had it. I also found that 2 of the 27 students I spoke with had been diagnosed with other disabilities as well. In conversations with these students, I found out that a number of them had not told their instructors about their ADHD as they had heard of other students being ridiculed after having made this information available.

Sam, a student in my department, told his instructor that he had been diagnosed with ADHD in high school. During the first week of class, nothing happened, but after the first week, he felt that his instructor was looking for ways to embarrass him. Because of his link to my department, I asked why he did not approach me and talk with me. Sam responded that his instructor had warned the entire class that they should not come to me for any reason, as he would “make their lives miserable if he got into trouble.”

What this research demonstrates is that in order to educate students with disabilities, the instructor must respect and understand why students are struggling. The surveys, classroom observations, and interviews showed that the students who identified themselves as having learning disabilities needed to learn in their own ways. Some require more time, some require more hands-on work, and some require more communication with their instructors; all of this is difficult to do in the standard classroom. Instructors using the democratic classroom are able to involve and listen to those with learning disabilities in an environment where they often feel left out (Gallagher et al., 2004). Knight and Pearly (2000) described the experiences of two students who had learning disabilities and graduated with advanced degrees from the Upward Bound program at Oregon State University. The authors attributed some of this success to democratic education and inclusiveness in the classroom. In the next section, I evaluate the use of democratic education to be inclusive of the voices of postsecondary vocational students.

Including Students’ Voices

During the review of my journals, the student surveys, and my interviews with students, it became clear that although most instructors have students’ best interests and futures in mind, they do not always stop and listen to the students. An example of this failure to listen was in a journal entry from 2007:

January 3, 2007. I had told George (a new instructor) that he was going to have to start teaching the day class today. He did his first lecture and was very nervous. The students started asking him many questions and asked him to repeat much of what he said. He got a little upset over that, and I had to calm him down. I asked the students to give him a chance, as he is a good service technician and we are training him to teach. The problem is that I am not sure what I am saying is true. I am afraid he has no clue what he is teaching.

Over time, I have learned that, many times, students feel that the teacher is not going to give them what they need. In this case, I should have heard the students’ concerns about George and either provided more training or made the decision that it wasn’t going to work. Another journal entry also showed the problem with not hearing students:

August 12, 2006. The other night instructor was finally fired. We had gotten many student complaints about his mouth and violent tendencies. Until tonight, we were not sure if he was the problem or if it was the students. His class has burnt out four other instructors in the last year. He was number five. He went down to our new building with students this evening to check on the rooftop units, and one of the students came back and pulled me out of class visibly upset. I guess that student and instructor had a verbal disagreement on the roof, and the instructor ripped his shirt off and threatened to throw “his ass off the roof.” I really disagree with this; an instructor should never threaten a student. If the student is that big of a problem in class, send him home. This one sort of crossed the line with me. Rather than give the class another instructor (they have had five already), I asked Sam to hire a shop assistant and said that I would just take both classes. It’s a good thing they are in the same term.

In these examples, we as instructors in a traditional environment did not listen; but in a democratic school, the students could have called an all-school meeting, and some action would have been taken. In a democratic environment, students are involved with school operations like creating rules, hiring and firing instructors, and creating a program of study. The democratic school is set up to listen to students and to hear their voices.

As a part of my student interviews, I asked, what could your instructor do to make things easier for you? Although several of the students said that they could not think of anything that they haven’t tried, a number of them suggested that the instructor listen to them and try to understand how they best learn. For example, Chris, who was a 19-year-old student in the electrical program, told me that he had told his instructor a number of times he was not learning by reading the book in class. He had asked his instructor to show him examples of what he was talking about instead of just reading notes to the class. He felt that if he were able to see what he was being asked to learn, it would make sense to him.

Another student, Mike, who was a graduate from the HVAC program and now enrolled in the electrical program, told me that he did not think his instructor knew his name. He was being asked to do basic wiring, and he had already graduated from another program in the same school in which he had proven these skills. He said he was spending a lot of money to learn something new that would provide more opportunities and felt that he was being held back because that was where his class was. Mike told me he was missing classes because he was bored.

George, another student in the HVAC department, told me that he felt that his instructors, the administration, and the financial aid department did not listen to him when he signed up for school. He felt that although he wanted to learn HVAC, he would not be able to complete the program on the current schedule. He asked to be allowed to enroll for two terms, take a leave for two terms, and then come back and finish the courses. He said this was necessary because of his work and the overtime that was available. He told me that once he signed the paperwork, nobody listened to him anymore.

Terrance, a 42-year-old student in the low-voltage and electronics program, told me that he feels that his instructor did not understand why he was in the program. He said that he wanted to learn how to fix alarm systems, and he did not care about wiring computers or understanding the formulas and theory behind circuits. He said that he looked at his schedule to choose the nights to come in when the class would be doing what he wanted, which was hands-on shop work. On the other nights, he stayed home. Terrance frequently came up in our weekly faculty meetings as his instructor was trying to figure out how to get him out of the program because of his bad attendance.

As another student interview question, I asked, which part of the program do you like the best, lecture or shop? and why? Universally, the students I interviewed told me that they liked shop the best, and all of them told me that they learn the best when they are doing. Each one gave me examples of things that they had been taught in the classroom but didn’t understand until they got into the shop (or lab, for the allied health student who I interviewed). Twenty-two percent of the students I interviewed told me that they would prefer to pick their own shop partners rather than have their instructor assign them. I asked them for clarification and in their own ways, they all told me that they work better when they can find someone with whom they are comfortable working.

Several students not involved in the formal interviews came to me and complained that their instructors did not understand where they were coming from and what their backgrounds were. I had a few tell me that I did not understand that they were bored and that they did not want to repeat material they already learned before and it was a waste of time and money.

The interviews were not all negative. Several students told me about instructors who did listen to them and cared. Mike, the student who was on his second program at the school, told me that the instructors in the HVAC department would sit down and talk with him when they thought he was having problems, and this consideration kept him in school. Tara, the only student from the medical assisting program who spoke with me, told me that she could not have completed her program without her instructor. I asked her why, and she responded, “Mrs. J. cares. No matter what I need to talk with her about, she is always there. I can call her at 5:00 in the afternoon, and she will be late going home to talk me through a problem.”

Over the course of the interviews, the students told me what they believed would make their course of study better. None of them requested more homework or more lecture hours, and none wanted more tests. What they did tell me was they wanted as much hands-on learning as possible, and they wanted exposure to all of the things they would see in the workplace. They wanted the most up-to-date equipment and to use technology, and they wanted to learn what they believed was important at their own pace. I asked about their instructor’s involvement in their preferred method of learning, and all of them said that they believed their instructor needed to guide them and show them the skills that they needed to learn but then let them learn.

According to Illich (1971) and Bennis (2009), schools should be a community and part of a community. In the next section, I evaluate if using a model of democratic education in a postsecondary vocational school would encourage greater community involvement.

Encouraging Greater Community Involvement

Illich (1971)  wrote about the “skill model” (p. 62) in his de-schooled society, which described a person with a skill that another needed to learn. The skill model was part of a much wider network of learning that included reference materials from libraries, museums, and businesses; skill exchanges, where the skill model and the tools of the trade could be found; peer-matching-networks, where those who wanted to be part of a learning group could find like-minded peers to learn with; and educators-at-large who would be available for consulting and individual instruction on topics that could not be learned without this expertise. All parts of the network described by Illich are community resources and require community involvement.

Before 2008, all the students spent one week out of every term working in an externship with a contractor in the community. They rode with a service technician for a week and, hopefully, connected what they learned during the term in the classroom with what they saw in the field. After 2008, this program was canceled due to issues with state licensing and insurance liabilities. The only students doing internships or externships at this time are medical assisting and dental students. During the course of my student interviews, several students made reference to this gap.

George told me, “It is a shame that we no longer do the externships. I was really looking forward to actually seeing what it is like in the field.” Terrance, a student in low-voltage, had only recently heard about the externship program. He wanted to know when it would be brought back. To him it seemed an obvious way to learn hands on. He asked, “Why couldn’t we contract with contractors in the community to take our students one or two days a week?” Mike, a student in the electrical department, who was also a graduate of the HVAC program, told me that he was going to miss the externship, as he had gotten so much out of the 2 weeks he had participated in it before it was canceled.

The externships are a form of community involvement in the education of the next generation of tradespeople to enter the workforce. The contractors in the field also would like to be involved in the educational process. Each year, the school’s accreditation requires it to have two Program Advisory Committee (PAC) meetings. In these PAC meetings, contractors and other people who hire students review the curriculum and make suggestions of what to add, delete, or change. Overwhelmingly, the members want the students to get real-life experience while they are in school.

Democratic education is interlaced with the community. Llewellyn (1998) wrote that the resources available to students outside of the traditional education system are more real than those found within. Students have the use of the community because they are given the freedom to learn how they want to learn and they can choose what resources they want to use. Llewellyn and Illich (1971) both wrote that the community is where learning actually happens. Bennis (2009) wrote that students in democratic schools are not “products of an educational system, but rather valued participants in a vibrant learning community” (¶2).

Sadofsky and Greenberg (1992), Goodman (1999), and Morrison (2007) wrote that the school is part of the community around it. Many times, the teachers and the students are representative of the community in which the school exists. Applying the sense of community found in democratic education to postsecondary vocational students, it would stand to reason that the outcomes for postsecondary vocational students would be enhanced.

Student Interviews

One of my research steps was interviewing 27 volunteer students and talking with them about their prior learning experiences, their feelings about their current education, and their suggestions for improvement. When I began to plan this research I believed that the surveys, my journals, the classroom observations, and the institutional surveys would only paint a portion of the picture. I felt that these other tools needed the support of the students’ voices, and listening to the students is also a principle of democratic education. While I have discussed these interviews in my above analysis of my journals, classroom observations, and data there are some additional aspects to these interviews worthwhile of inclusion in this dissertation. In this section I will discuss each of the interview questions (Appendix c).

The first two questions were to clarify the informed consent form, as well as obtaining permission to record the sessions. All participants had volunteered to be interviewed during the anonymous survey, and all had completed the informed consent form. Three participants have asked to discuss my final data, and I have kept them aware of my progress.

Prior and Current Education

The third interview question identified the highest grade completed prior to coming to PSVE.  Seventy percent of the students completed high school at grade 12. Eleven percent of those interviewed left school at tenth grade and completed a GED. program. Three percent of those interviewed completed grade 11 and then a GED. program. Seven percent of those interviewed completed one year of college, and 3% of those interviewed completed a prior trade school program prior to enrolling.

The fourth interview question asked about the students’ strengths and weaknesses in their prior education.  Twenty-two percent of the students told me that they did not have any weaknesses or special strengths in their prior education. One was proud of making honor role, and two of the students mentioned that they just made it through, but were unable to identify any reasons. The remaining 78% of the students all mentioned boredom, disliking homework, disliking reading textbooks (though one said that he liked to read), and most (82%) said that they wanted to do something with their hands.

As a follow-up to this question I asked all of the students if they could think of their strengths and weaknesses in the current PSVE program. All of them said that the shop (or lab) work is their favorite part of the program and they considered this a strength. One student also said that she was evenly split as liking the classroom as well. Four students told me that they found they were able to study, unlike in high school because they saw the value in what they were reading. There was an opposite view to this as well; six students told me that they did not study at all in the current program because when they enrolled they were told there would not be any homework, nor notes in class.

Learning Disabilities

Next I asked the students if they had been diagnosed with any learning disabilities, and 22% of them had been diagnosed with ADD/ADHD, or dyslexia. Two of the remaining students did not remember ever being tested or did not know. I then asked a follow-up question to find out if the 78% not diagnosed felt that they had a learning disability. Thirty percent of this group did feel that they suffered from either ADD/ADHD, or dyslexia and it was affecting their work in PSVE.

As a follow-up to those answering positive to being formally diagnosed I asked them if they had ever received a transition plan or transition counseling as a part of their final years in high school. Sixty-six percent of the 22% that had been diagnosed said that they had not received any transition plans or counseling. Two of the students had and elaborated further. One said that he had one but had not shared it with his current instructor even though it included information on postsecondary education, and the other said that he had tried to give a copy to his instructor, but the instructor would not read it and gave it back to him.

Motivation for Attending

As a part of the student interviews I questioned the students on why they had decided to attend trade school. Fifty-six percent of the students identified the need for a better job as the reason for attending. Thirty-seven percent of the students explained that they were switching careers either because of layoffs or injuries. The remaining 7% had varying reasons such as wanting a quick education, nothing better to do with their time and a friend was attending, and they felt the future was going high tech and needed to get that type of education.

Meeting Expectations and Current Education

Next, I asked all the students if the school was what they expected. Fifty-two percent of the students answered positively. One additional student answered yes, but then said that the teachers really don’t work with him closely enough. Eleven percent of the students answered negatively and explained that it was because their enrollment counselor told them they would not have any homework, lectures, and would be in shop the majority of the time. One additional student said that she was worried about placement and that she had been told that the school would find her a job upon completion and she was frustrated with the process. The remaining 29% of the students said it was not what they expected because of their instructors. Two students said their instructors do not care about them, another does not believe his instructor knows the material he is teaching, and another said, “I know more about computers than my instructor – perhaps I should teach the class.”

In order to identify what the students liked best about the PSVE program they were enrolled in I asked them what their favorite part of the program was, shop or lecture and why. Eleven percent of the students said lecture, 27% of the students said that their program did not have a clear definition of shop or lecture, and the remaining 62% of the students said that shop was their favorite and this was because they could work with their hands and work in groups. Some of these students also said that the atmosphere between the instructors and the students is more relaxed in shop.

I then asked the students if they learned better working with others or alone. Sixty-three percent of the students said that they would prefer working with others, they liked teamwork and talking with others while working. Twenty-seven percent said that it depended on what they were doing, sometimes alone and sometimes together. The remaining 10% preferred to work alone. All of the students represented in this 10% were from the medical or the technology-oriented fields.

Improvement and Change

Next I asked the students what their instructor could do to make things easier for them, and if this were done would they learn as much. Thirty-seven percent of the students interviewed said that they did not believe the instructor could do anything additional. The remaining 63% suggested more shop time, more working with the students in shop, and one of these students suggested that the teacher should learn the material before he tries to demonstrate it. All of those suggesting changes said they would learn more if those changes were implemented.

Finally I asked, “What, if anything, could we do to help students coming from different backgrounds, having different skills, and different ways of learning to succeed?” One student suggested allowing students to access the shops on their own schedules; another student suggested that the school needs to spend some money on equipment; three students suggested more education (teacher) training for all instructors so they learn to teach; another student suggested hiring teachers and not contractors; two students suggested that the instructors need to treat students as adults not high school kids. The remainder of the suggestions all revolved around instructor training.

Conclusions Drawn from Interviews

Many of the interview responses and the results parallel the survey questions and responses. The interviews made some of the issues more real. One example of this is found in the motivation for attending PSVE; many of the students are looking for better jobs and have made a conscientious decision to attend.

For the purpose of this dissertation a common theme in the interviews was that every student is different, they all have various experiences, and backgrounds. Some may have been honor role students in high school, some may have left school in the 10th or 11th grade and returned to school for a GED prior to attending PSVE. Also, many have either diagnosed, or undiagnosed learning disabilities and these are not the same ones that left school. I was surprised to learn that only two students out of those interviewed had received transition plans from the public school system. All of these students had graduated from high school within the last 10 years. I was also surprised to find out that a teacher did not know what to do with a transition plan that a student offered him, and gave it back. This brings me to another common theme, instructor training.

Several students mentioned that they were disappointed in their instructors, they either felt the instructor did not understand the material, did not know how to teach it, or did not want to teach it. While this may be an institutional problem, from personal observations it is not. As an instructor in PSVE you need to teach more about parts of the trade than you would ever need to use in the field.

There are also common themes in what the majority of the students are looking for in the PSVE program; they want hands-on training. They do not want to be in the classroom, and a few expressed disappointments that they were told by their enrollment representative this existed when it didn’t. Honesty came up a few times in my journals, informal student discussions, and my interviews.

There were also variations in how the students wanted to learn, for example some students liked to work together in groups and some students did not. Variations were also apparent in the hands-on versus lecture approach to learning; while the majority of the students enjoyed the hands-on work and felt that they learned better this way, some of the students felt that they learned better in lecture. These variations suggest that a successful vocational program must take the individual learning styles and preferences of the adult learner into consideration.


This research has demonstrated the need for change. In conjunction with the literature describing democratic education, this research has also demonstrated that democratic education may be one way to achieve the goal of PSVE: teaching students a trade or vocation that will allow them to support themselves and their families. Students have expressed a desire to develop their own learning paths on their own timelines and in their own ways. They want teachers to work with them in the hands-on environment, and they want teachers to guide them through their learning. Most of the students do not want to spend time in the classroom learning things that do not directly apply to their reasons for attending school. They want to have the opportunity to learn from experts in the field, as well as the opportunity to learn from their learning community. This requires something other than the traditional classroom, which teaches to the traditional compliant student.

Reflecting on the problems affecting students in vocational education as described in chapter 1 (student self-worth, student motivation, learning disabilities, conflicts in scheduling education, and conflicts between apprenticeship and andragogy) along with the need to teach all students in one school with the same instructors and in the same classrooms, this research shows change is needed.