On September 8, 2009, President Barack Obama gave a speech to returning K–12 students around the country. Although many school districts aired this speech at general assemblies or taped it for later use, many chose not to make the speech available, as they said it promoted an agenda. In this speech, Obama spoke of the responsibility of schools to provide the means for education and the responsibility of instructors to provide the guidance for education. He also stated that students were responsible for their education. It is interesting that Obama did not speak about standards, testing, and grades; instead, he spoke to students about knowledge, the need to be involved in school, and the importance of attendance. 

What Obama did not speak to was how schools should support students’ goals. He also did not speak about students having the freedom to decide what they learn and how and where they learn it. Although these concepts are not important in the current educational climate, which promotes a race to the top, they are extremely important to the principles of democratic education.

In this chapter, I refer to literature in the fields that relate to vocational education and democratic, or noncoercive, education. The areas that I focus on are as follows: general adult education, vocational education, K–12 education, special education, and teacher preparation. I analyze the ideas, theories, and research conclusions and suggest how they might support my thesis and why my study contributes significantly to the PSVE literature.

Miller (2008) described his vision of a 21st century education to include respect for every person involved, a balance or openness of ideas, decentralization of decision making, a policy of noninterference, and a greater holistic (whole being) approach (p. 48).  Miller wrote that only by combining these five key elements are we truly educating for the future. Additionally, “education for a democracy should, and can, provide young people a learning environment that cultivates democratic habits of mind and action. In such an environment, students take an active part in their learning” (p. 74). Democratic education is just one of the alternatives that are available with the hope of encompassing these five principles.

Democratic Education

Dewey (1997) stated the problems with traditional education are based on a gap between the learners and teachers. He wrote that this gap is so immense that it inhibits the learner. Students do not have the skills to understand what teachers are talking about, and thus, teachers must impose knowledge on students. The gulf between teacher and student prevents students from actively participating in the learning process. 

Dewey (1997) explained that in the traditional Western form of education, learning means memorizing material in textbooks, taking tests, writing papers, and then closing the subject. Dewey pointed out that this form of education is not like real life, where all learning and experience are built upon other experiences. Dewey also wrote that traditional education does not allow the development of democratic principles.  Examples of this problem are seen in scheduling, rules of order, and examination and promotion of students at the end of each school year.

Another problem is that the subject matter taught each year is considered a finished product; there is little done to connect the new knowledge to the prior knowledge and no logical flow of information and growth. Dewey (1997) stated that teaching is a theory of experience, rather than a theory of education. He wrote that the principles of his theory were based on the fact that a teacher will never have two students who are identical, and each student will learn in a slightly different way because each brings different experiences as a foundation for knowledge.

 The PSVE principle of hands-on teaching of a trade or employable skill parallels Dewey’s thoughts on experience and education. Instructors can teach a skill in the classroom, but until they teach it in the shop or lab, students do not understand it.

 Morrison (2007) wrote about a school that was unlike any other. The Albany Free School in Albany, New York, was created in 1969 in one of the city’s worst neighborhoods. The school struggled financially over the last 40 years but is still in existence today. It uses democratic education.

Before I explain the environment at the Albany Free School, to underscore the difference between democratic and mainstream education, I offer an example most readers recognize as a day in the public school system. In most public high schools, the school day begins at 7:30 a.m. Students must be at their first class on time or risk disciplinary action. The day is split into 50-minute periods with 10 minutes to get from class to class. A bell system, similar to the factory whistles of the past, ensures that all students migrate from one room to another at the same time.

During each class period, the routine is almost the same, regardless of the subject. The teacher stands at the front of the room and introduces the work that will be done that day. The teacher then talks about the subject or the portion included in his or her lesson plan. The students take notes, follow along in books, and then take a quiz or work quietly on worksheets at their seats. The students finish the period when the bell rings, and the teacher assigns them homework for that night.

The routine continues for four periods. Then, students have a lunch period, which must be taken in the school’s cafeteria. Students are not permitted to leave campus during the day. Any infraction of this rule, or one of the many other rules, can result in a trip to the assistant principal’s office for disciplinary action, which ranges from detention to in-school suspension to out-of-school suspension to expulsion.

After lunch, students go to another three or four class periods, and then, school is dismissed. Students are encouraged to participate in after-school sports and other clubs and activities for a few hours. Afterward, students go home to eat, socialize with family and friends, and complete an average of 3 hours of homework each evening. Around 9:00 p.m., the students can finally relax.

Morrison (2007) described an entirely different world at the Albany Free School in Albany. Imagine coming to school between 8:00 a.m. and 8:30 a.m. and finding a hot breakfast waiting for you and your teachers, cooked by the school cook. You and your classmates eat breakfast and then participate in a morning activities meeting, which is led by a student. On a whiteboard, there is a schedule grid broken into hours of the day. Anyone—student, volunteer, or teacher—may suggest an activity in which they would like to participate. The activity is voted on and then scheduled.

Many of the activities require teacher intervention, however students may accomplish some of the activities alone. Within 2 miles of the Albany Free School, there are two public libraries, the state library, a media center with a darkroom and photographic equipment, a public swimming pool, two public parks with sports activities, and all of the cultural and social activities found in the state capital.

After the 9:00 a.m. meeting, the students move to their first hour-long activity with the faculty member assigned to their age group. As the day moves on, the schedule slips a little here and there, some activities are canceled, and some run longer. However, no one minds as long as the students are involved and intent on what they are doing.

Students are allowed and encouraged to leave the school during the day to find their education in the community using community resources. The one rule about leaving school is that students must put their name on the whiteboard and the location of where they are going. Students and teachers voted on this rule as they do all of the other school rules, at an all-school meeting where anyone (student or teacher) may call at any time.

Rules are added, amended, removed, and enforced by students and teachers at these meetings and the other, more serious council meetings that may be called at any time during the day. Punishments may be handed out at meetings, and the rules are explained and understood. A majority is required for action, and meetings do not end until all of the problems presented have been solved. Morrison (2007) wrote that she witnessed one such meeting that lasted 6 hours over 2 days.

Over time, Morrison (2007) observed some traditional subject matter being taught at the Albany Free School. Students requested to learn algebra and geometry; some requested to learn a second language, and others wanted to have a spelling bee. Once a request is made, the teachers make an effort to find a staff member or a volunteer to work with the students on that request. The classes and objectives for these activities are decided by consensus among the students and teachers.

Currently, the Albany Free School is a K–8 environment. As students approach the end of their time at the Albany Free School, they begin to ready themselves to move to the democratic high school, the Harriet Tubman Free School, to a traditional high school, or as homeschoolers working with the local community college taking freshman-level courses. They begin to ask teachers for more traditional activities to ensure that they have the skills to succeed within the system. Throughout this process each student is treated as an individual and is included in the democratic decision making of the school. The student is not a victim, and his or her voice is heard and acted upon. The teachers are heard as well. They are mentors and role models for the students.

A day at the Albany Free School includes a cooked lunch and dismissal at 3:00 p.m. Many students choose to remain and work on projects, and sometimes the building is open until 6:00 p.m. Many of the teachers live nearby, and sometimes a group of students continues their work in the teacher’s living room. The mandatory homework that is assigned to students in traditional public schools is not the core of Albany Free School students’ lives. If the students feel like doing it, they do; if not, they are encouraged to do something that they want to do and will grow from.

The students who go to and graduate from the Albany Free School are different from those attending the public school system. Morrison (2007) described public school students as being expected to “be passive recipients of information and experiences, to compete with one another for scarce resources, to submit to evaluation by others and largely abdicate their responsibility to evaluate and work on themselves, and to obey authority on issues of school governance and operations” (p. 111). In contrast, the students in the Albany Free School are expected to be “active shapers of experiences and curriculum, to cooperate, not compete, with one another, to critically evaluate themselves … and work on their problems and challenges, and to aid in the school’s governance and operations” (Morrison, 2007, p. 111).

Meyer (2005) provided a contrasting view to Dewey’s (1973) and Morrison’s (2007). Meyer (2005) expanded on the traditional, structured concept of education in describing the four steps of instruction in adult vocational education. The four steps include introducing a topic, presenting the topic, applying the topic through hands-on skills, and then testing on the topic. Meyer wrote, “The four steps of instruction have been around for a long time—at least fifty years. The four steps are a standard formula for teaching any subject. The steps work—and work well—for both new and experienced teachers” (p. 17).

 In a book specifically designed to train teachers of adult vocational education, Meyer (2005) described the importance of class rules and classroom management as conditions set by the instructor for the class. Regarding knowledge transfer, Meyer wrote,

A student is more like a computer: you feed in the knowledge and the computer digests it, applies it to problems, and turns it into solutions, which it spits out. Your role is to feed in the information and punch the proper buttons to start the problem-solving process. You guide the process, but you don’t do it all yourself. (p. 28)

Meyer (2005) described the traditional method of education for both classroom management and knowledge transfer: Students gain all of their knowledge from the instructor. The instructor sets the rules, passes on the knowledge, and controls the application. It is interesting that Meyer’s Teach! The Art of Teaching Adults is a standard instructor training guide at many for-profit vocational schools around the country. A large portion of the guide is dedicated to planning testing, organizing the class, and planning outlines, but very little of the guide and, thus, the instruction it provides is dedicated to asking students what they need or allowing students to contribute to planning their education. Listening to students and allowing them to control their education are part of the democratic model that I explore in this study.

Saeverot (2008) presented an alternative view to Meyer’s. Saeverot wrote that the authoritative teacher thinks he or she has knowledge on his or her side and can hold the students hostage in return for this knowledge. By contrast, the democratic teacher becomes part of the students’ learning process. Saeverot used the term hospitable teacher to describe this process. The hospitable (inclusive) teacher uses praise and inclusion not only when students meet their goals, but also when students as individuals exceed expectations.

Saeverot (2008) also described the curriculum the democratic teacher uses: “The teacher arranges matters in such a way that the individual can come into a world that is populated by other unique and different individuals” (p. 58). Saeverot explained that instead of the teacher taking the students hostage, the teacher should offer himself or herself as the hostage. In this way, the teacher becomes part of the solution and the learning experience. This is the type of environment at the Albany Free School.

 Dewey (1997) also wrote about progressive schools and described involvement, free activity, students learning through experience, and teaching students to make the most out of their present life situation. He also described an atmosphere where students are encouraged to become acquainted with globalization and the changing world. He wrote that this develops intrinsic motivation, whereas using extrinsic motivation limits the moral, intellectual, and cognitive development of students.

Bennis and Graves (2008) defined democratic education as education based upon respect for human rights and an open interpretation of what learning is. Democratic education gives students the freedom to organize their daily school, work, and life activities. Democratic education provides an environment in which there is equality and democratic decision-making among young people and adults.

The Albany Free School embraces democratic principles, whereas the public school in the same city does not. Albany Free School students are part of the learning environment design process; the public school designs the environment for its students. The Albany Free School includes students in the scheduling process; the public school does not. The Albany Free School attends to the academic and emotional needs of students as individuals; the public school does not.

The difference between the traditional and democratic models of education lies in the outcome of the educational experience: Often, students from the public school system do not think for themselves; they are moved through the system and are almost robotic in their decisions and lives. The students from the Albany Free School are self-thinkers and are more likely to be activists and to challenge the norm. They think for themselves and are willing to challenge others in their beliefs. They tend not to be afraid to challenge authority or the adults surrounding that authority (Morrison, 2007). They will listen to reason and will understand rules and roles in society.

While describing the effect of schools on disaffected youth, Goodman (1999) wrote, “The emotional tone of the school is critical to the school’s success” (p. 40). This emotional tone must establish a feeling of trust among the school, the student, and the community. “Whereas these students once looked at education as an adversarial process because they only experienced the negative consequences of their inappropriate behavior, they now need to be convinced of the sincere desire of the school staff to be allies in their success” (Goodman, 1999, p. 39). Most alternative schools work with children and young adults who have been labeled as failures by the traditional education system, and according to Goodman, the successful school can help these young adults become successful members of their communities.

Greenberg and Sadofsky (1992) compiled the results of surveys of former students of the Sudbury Valley School located in Massachusetts. Greenberg and Sadofsky wrote, “From the beginning it was the school’s intention to follow as closely as possible the lives of its students after they left the school, especially since such studies have been rare for non-traditional schools” (p. 1). This research included current occupations, highest level of education, geographical location of the past student, companies they have worked for, and relationship of formal education to occupation. The surveys also asked the students to reflect on their time at Sudbury Valley School and the time since they stopped attending. The results were split into groups based on length of time at Sudbury Valley School, and also if the students had completed their primary and secondary education at Sudbury Valley School rather than integrate back into the public school system at some point in their primary or secondary school careers.

The research compiled by Greenberg and Sodofsky (1992) shows that the majority of the students having finished school at Sudbury Valley School had moved on to further education. Out of the 21 students responding in this group 90% of them have attended classes to further their education. Thirty-three percent of them had “completed the requirements for one or more degrees” (p. 76). The students in this group also appeared to have a clear understanding of their goals when attending postsecondary education as 92% of those attending postsecondary education are in careers related to this training.

Greenberg and Sodofsky (1992) explained that in addition to education and careers the survey also asked about travel. Eighty-one percent of the students graduating from Sudbury Valley School enjoyed traveling and exploring new areas; this included self-guided travel such as hiking, climbing, and backpacking trips in the United States, Europe, and other continents. The occupations that this group of former students held were varied as well. At the time of the survey (1992) 28% were in business management, 4% were in office management, 14% were in high tech fields, 9% were in professional fields, 4% were in research and development, 9% were in education, 14% were in marketing, 23% were in the trades, 9% were in design-related fields, 4% were in the creative arts, 19% were in the performing arts, 9% were in unskilled jobs, and 28% were students.

Greenburg and Sodofsky (1992) concluded documenting their study by writing,

We have already noted that there is no way for this or any similar study to provide a definitive answer to the question of how a Sudbury Valley education influences the future course of a student’s life. But it is possible to answer the more limited question we set at the beginning: does a person’s attendance at Sudbury Valley, whether for a short or long time, have an adverse affect on the options available to that person? The data presented in the study leaves no doubt that the answer is “No”: former students at Sudbury Valley enjoy, at the very least, the full range of life choices available to every other group of young people going out into the world. And they enjoy a childhood of freedom, respect, and trust. (p. 250)

Posner (2009) also described the outcome and satisfaction of alumni from the Jefferson County Open School in Denver, Colorado. While this school is part of the public education system it adheres to the free school values. Posner wrote that 91% of the alumni went on to college and that 85% of these had completed at least one degree program. Many have continued on to graduate education as well with 25% of the alumni having graduate degrees. Posner also questioned the graduates about their career success and their feelings on the quality of education they received while at the Open School. Eighty-nine percent of the alumni reported that the school had a positive outcome on their lives, and 89% said that they were happy with their jobs.

After reading Dewey’s (1997) writings on experiential education, understanding Freire’s (2000a, 2000b) explanations of democratic education and pedagogy, listening to Miller (2006) talk about the free school movement, and reading Morrison’s (2007) description of her experiences as an intern at the Albany Free School and hearing Bennis and Graves’s (2008) explanation of the principles of democratic education, I have little doubt that this educational model has value to primary and secondary students.

Teaching in a Democratic School

Santora (2005) explained that not every educator is able to teach in a democratic school, and it is important for teachers who do to understand the democratic role that students have in the community. Santora wrote,

Teaching democratically implies that educators have a democratic world view. Documenting how someone learns to become a democratic teacher cannot be adequately accomplished through reviews of academic knowledge, lessons or unit plans, or student work; it is a way of life that develops inside a classroom—one that promotes student and teacher co-agency. It is the sum of all exchanges and interactions in the classroom. (p. 7)

Santora explained that the democratic teacher must continue to understand that democratic education is comprised of classroom interactions and different ways of learning.

Freire (2000b) explained that the biggest challenge for a democratic-minded educator is to transmit a sense of limitation that can be ethically linked to freedom. For example, how far off topic does the teacher allow the students to go? How far from the societal norm can the rules go? Freire wrote, “Freedom without limit is as impossible as freedom that is suffocated or contradicted” (p. 96). Democratic education must include a level of respect from and toward all parties participating; it must include respect between administrators and teachers, students and teachers, and students and administrators. The freedoms of the classroom cannot overshadow this respect.

Dewey (1997) added that no two students are the same nor behave in the same way, and it is up to the educator to make certain that unruly and nonparticipating students do not permanently stand in the way of others who want to learn. He suggested that in a well run school the educator can maintain this control through the organization of activities. Dewey wrote that when an educator does need to “speak and act firmly it is done in behalf of the interest of the group, not as an exhibition of personal power. This makes the difference between action which is arbitrary and that which is just and fair” (pp. 54-55).

Goodman (1999) wrote about teaching in an alternative school in a way that revealed important connections between democratic education in high school and its application in vocational schools. Goodman described that teaching in an alternative high school is more challenging than other schools because of the unknowns of a diverse and energetic group of students. Goodman described the role of the staff as “paralleling a mentorship relationship” (p. 67). Goodman also wrote that the alternative school must forge ties with the community, as many of the students in alternative education have been alienated from the community and its schools.

According to Goodman, the teacher in the democratic school must remember not to interfere with the students’ learning; they must remember to “guide on the side” (p. 51) rather than being the “sage on the stage” (p. 51). Goodman wrote that one of the most effective ways to turn dropouts into star learners is to allow them to teach others: “This peer instruction method has proven to be very effective for both teachers and learners” (p. 51).

Vocational Education

The literature shows that the face of vocational education is changing, and this change presents challenges for the current traditional model. Levesque, Laven, Teitelbaum, Alt, and Librera (2000) wrote that, historically, vocational education has had the role of preparing young adults for direct entry into the job market or labor pool with fewer credentials than college students. During the last century however, the U.S. economy has shifted from manufacturing and industry to service and information. In other parts of the world, such as China, the economy has been changing as well, requiring more skilled laborers and technicians. During this time, the purpose and role of vocational education has changed.

In many countries, vocational education and vocational education systems are becoming a center of research. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES, 2001) wrote, “Vocational programs … prepare students for manufacturing jobs including trade and industry programs, such as construction, mechanics and repair, precision production, and transportation and material moving” (p. iv).  Additionally, there are vocational programs that prepare students for work in the service industry. These programs include healthcare, technology, communications, and others (NCES, 2001, p. iv). The literature demonstrates that as the role of vocational education changes, the methods used to teach it must change as well.

Vocational education has seen many changes over the last 15 years. During this time, the number of high school students enrolled in vocational education dropped. Levesque et al. (2000) showed that in 1982, 15% of high school graduates concentrated in the trade, industry, and business areas of vocational education; in 1994, the number was down to 8%. In recent years, the number has risen, according to NCES (2005), and almost 21.3% of all high school students have taken 3 or more credits of vocational courses. When the researchers in the NCES study looked at the racial makeup of the students and the percentage of graduating students, they found that the percentage of Black, non-Hispanic, and Asian/Pacific Islander students concentrating in vocational education stayed the same. The biggest exception to this decrease was students with disabilities; their numbers increased. The NCES authors cited the Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Technical Education Act of 1998 as the cause of this phenomenon.

Marklein (2010) explained that for many teenagers, apprenticeships and vocational education offer a second chance. Marklein wrote, “Only after he put his hands to metal on the factory floor did Jordan Vail begin to grasp the point of math, communications and other skills he was supposed to be learning in high school but wasn’t” (¶1). This is the story of many students in high school, college, or some other form of secondary education. They are missing the experiences that relate theory to the final product. Marklein explained that vocational education allows students to experience this connection.

Marklein (2010) described the shift in students’ mentality about learning and apprenticeships. Marklein wrote about a student enrolled in the Wisconsin school-to-work vocational program who explained, “In high school quality was the last thing on my mind… Grades were nothing more than a joke for me” (¶14). Wisconsin officials reported that the program described by Marklein changed students’ lives: Nearly 9 out of 10 apprenticeship graduates were offered jobs. Morrison showed the value of experiential learning for students who need a second chance and that the traditional method of education does not work.

The reform of vocational education is not just a national problem; it is a global one. Ren (2009) wrote that the problems and successes related to vocational education and training are not present solely in the United States. Ren described vocational education in China as being left behind with an urgent need for change. Ren wrote,

In order to promote the urbanization and industrialization as well as to construct modern manufacturing bases, an array of technicians and laborers with practical knowledge and professional morality are needed. With the in-depth development of China’s reform and opening, it seems increasingly difficult to get adequate employees for industrial parks all around China. (p. 154)

Additionally, Ren (2009) tied the deficiencies of and need to overhaul the vocational education system in China to the nation’s food supply when she wrote that the solution was to develop modern and effective practices and vocational education in which agriculture is tied to science and technology. With this change, Ren noted, “Gradually, farmers’ cultural level as well as ability to earn a living will be improved” (p. 154).

Ren (2009) explained that vocational education in China should play as important a role as academic higher education. Whereas the goal of higher education is to cultivate engineering and academic professionals, the goal of vocational education is to create skilled technical graduates. Ren wrote that China must “replace the outdated idea that vocational education is the second-rate education with the new one that anyone with skills needed at the job market is useful” (p. 155). According to Ren, it is important that more attention be given to vocational education because it is what will strengthen China’s “comprehensive competitiveness and sustainable development” (p. 154).

Ren (2009) described some problems in the country’s vocational education program that create a need for change. These problems include the following:

Too much importance attached to general education and academic education instead of vocational education and training throughout the society; the inflexible education mechanism is divorced from the adjustment of economic structure and market demands and education quality and profit need improving; there are still defects in the present vocational education system due to which resources are not optimized and employed reasonably; vocational education is in shortage of funds to improve in poor facilities for teaching and experiments; specialty setting is far from reasonable and lacking in special features, hence failing to form special or leading majors; there is no reasonable staff structure in which there is a severe shortage of professional teachers and double-qualified teachers; due to the great difficulties in enrolling students, a lot of vocational education resources have run off; it’s hard for their graduates to find a job. (p. 155)

Ren (2009) suggested that vocational education must be reformed to satisfy the needs of the growing service and information economy. Vocational education specialists can no longer just teach the skills, but need to teach the specialties that the labor markets demand. Ren also wrote that vocational education is the means by which a country can develop toward the goals of science and technology.

England is another country that is struggling with the place of vocational education in society. Smithers (2002) wrote, “Britain has never fully come to terms with vocational education” (p. 1). Smithers also wrote about the need for three pathways of education for students entering secondary schooling. The first pathway is academic and directs students toward a degree with strong coursework in math, the sciences, and languages. The second pathway is technical and teaches students to design things and to deal with people. The technical pathway develops problem solvers and teaches practical skills. It is based on the idea of general learning and includes many of the same subjects as the academic path.

The third pathway is the vocational pathway. Smithers described it as similar to the technical one but more specialized and based on the work that the learner hopes to do. This pathway combines the educational setting, work setting, and paying employers to participate.

Smithers (2002) wrote that the traditional curriculum is one of uniformity, and through this uniformity, it treats all learners alike. By treating all learners alike, schools lose the ability to tailor the curriculum to the needs of learners and do not take into account their future needs and the needs of the community. Smithers described vocational education in England as lacking clarity and a complete path. Smithers concluded,

The undervaluing of vocational education in British culture and lack of clarity about its purpose has impoverished both the education of the young and the quality of life of the nation. Young people suffer by not being able to develop their talents to the full; the country suffers because it does not have access to their practiced skills. (pp. 9–10)

Smithers (2002) and Ren (2009) suggested that governments pay more attention to vocational education because of the impact it has on society as a whole. Ren spoke about agriculture and skilled laborers being available for a growing economy, and Smithers described how skilled tradespeople are available for upholding the quality of life. Although parts of Smithers’s article relate only to secondary school curriculum, the majority could apply to PSVE. There is agreement in the literature that vocational education must have clear goals, must produce skills needed for both personal and community success, and must have a ladder of opportunity.

Approaches to Teaching

Soden (1994) wrote about the changes in vocational education from a training perspective. Soden explained that the vocational education of today must include problem-solving skills. In the past, the goal of vocational education was to produce laborers with very specific trade skills. There was a time “when the dividing lines were clear between which [jobs] needed thinking workers and ones which were so repetitive that thinking was unnecessary and even unhelpful” (p. 1). Because of this division of skills, one of the main aims of vocational education must be to develop problem-solving and thinking skills because these allow for flexibility and adaptable performance of work tasks. Soden explained that teaching problem-solving skills in vocational education enhances learning because many of the same mental operations that are used in problem solving are also used in learning. Soden explained, “People can become good learners in the same way they become good problem solvers” (p. 31).

Soden (1994) explained that the vocational system produces poor problem solvers because it teaches the minimum information that the learner needs to do a task. According to Soden, this is the reason the expert (the one in the field the longest) is so much better at solving problems than the novice; experts have more information on which to draw. “People do not transfer a procedure to another relevant problem unless it is pointed out explicitly that the problems are very similar” (Soden, 1994, p. 14).

Soden (1994) suggested that it would “pay off in the long run to spend a little time in insuring that the learners understand how each set of information fits into a larger framework of knowledge” (p. 43). The difference between skills and overall knowledge is that knowledge is tied into learners’ overall world knowledge or experience.

Bailey, Koppel, and Waldinger (1995) wrote about education in all aspects of industry. In their article, they said that educational reformers are trying to integrate vocational and academic instruction while trying to develop more interdisciplinary education and forge ties among schools, the community, and businesses. They wrote, “Education for All Aspects of the Industry (AAI) is a strategy that seeks to achieve all of these objectives” (¶1).

According to Baily, Koppel, and Waldinger (1995), there are three bases for the AAI strategy: First, vocational education is most effective when integrated with instruction in the context in which graduates will work. Second, young people need to learn a broad set of skills, as lifelong employment in a single firm is unlikely. Third, the AAI approach emphasizes the interest of employers who are demanding highly skilled workers. Baily, Koppel, and Waldinger described learning that wraps specific skill-based learning into learning about the larger industry. Thus, the graduates of these programs may be more employable than graduates of traditional programs. This literature shows the importance of community involvement in vocational education.

Brown (1987) researched the core reasons why vocational students are successful in completing their programs. Brown stated that postsecondary students come from varied backgrounds and found that, most often, these students do not come directly from high school. Many come from the military, other employment, or unemployment, which leads to great variation in students’ backgrounds. Brown found that the key factors of students successfully completing their course of study were the student satisfaction with the vocational program (students’ opinion about the education received) and students’ level of satisfaction as rated by their principal training instructors. Brown wrote, “If either or both of these factors reaches too low a level, students are likely to perform below their maximum level of capability, drop out, or be forced out of the training program” (p. 41). In conclusion, Brown wrote, “The results of this study clearly indicate a need to emphasize the importance of students’ attitudes towards their training activities and the need to provide instructional services that address the unique education needs of a wide range of learners” (p. 46).

There is literature that describes successful practices in vocational education as well. Stasz (1994) described a research project that attempted to identify successful classroom practices in vocational education. Stasz observed eight vocational classrooms taught by four different teachers in three vocational high schools. To be able to compare like results from each class, the researchers developed an instructional model made up of four components: instructional goals, classroom design, teaching techniques, and school context. The researchers reported on the successful techniques in each of these four components.

Stasz (1994) found that each of the teachers in the study had a mix of instructional goals for their classes. Some included a mix of subject-matter knowledge and skills, some used complex reasoning skills, some emphasized problem-solving strategies, some included work-related attitudes, and some mixed in cooperative and group function skills. The complex reasoning skills used in the trade program in the study included designing a house or an electrical system for a house. In the English class in the study, the students were asked to write an essay comparing three novels. Work-related attitudes were taught in each classroom by asking students to take responsibility for their learning and solve their own problems before asking for help. Some instructors refused to answer a question when they knew the students were capable of constructing their own opinions.

In classrooms that worked, Stasz (1994) found that cooperation was an instructional goal. For example, in the electrical class, students were taught to be contributing partners in each other’s projects. In manufacturing, students worked in project teams. In drafting and English students worked as individuals but were taught to use other students as resources while working on their projects. In the five successful classrooms, intrinsic motivation (such as challenges and interest) was emphasized rather than extrinsic motivation based on praise and grades. The interior design teacher pushed students to move away from safe choices and be bold. The English teacher told the students about the challenging novels they needed to read and used this challenge to motivate them. Stasz wrote, “Because student cooperation was an instructional goal, the classes that worked had many group projects” (p. 4).

Stasz (1994) wrote about the teaching techniques that were used in the classrooms that worked, such as modeling, reflection, and apprenticeship. Teachers in the classrooms that worked developed a master–apprentice relationship with their students. This relationship was not authoritative but more of an “I am here if you need me” relationship (p. 6). Most of the teachers in the classrooms that worked rarely lectured or used any method that “implied that the teachers were the sole source of knowledge” (Stasz, 1994, p. 6).

Stasz (1994) said that in the classes that worked, students gradually accepted the class as a place where they could expect the teacher’s help in return for personal interest and effort. Several college-bound students reported that, at first, they were uncomfortable because they had been trained to perform for grades based on criteria set by the teacher. Stasz summarized the findings by stating that in classrooms that worked, teachers had a deep and personal interest in their subjects. They created a situated learning experience that was motivating and engaging to students. “Teachers should guide and facilitate the process” (Stasz, 1994, p. 8). The principles of democratic education coincide with Stasz’s research, valuing the cooperation of students and teachers, intrinsic motivation, and group activity.

Posner et al. (2010) talked about the Jefferson County Open School in Denver, Colorado which has a different approach to teaching as well. First, the teachers are all mentors to small groups of students with no more than a 16:1 ratio.  The school incorporates formal and informal learning in a public school environment. This learning includes both experiential and self-directed learning and the topics are worked out between the students and their advisors. The school works on several key principles that include:

  • The growth of the whole child is always respected.
  • The curriculum is designed according to student needs.
  • Individuality and diversity are honored and nourished.
  • Creativity is given as much attention as intellectual development.
  • Personal discovery is a key element in a student’s education.
  • The school climate is flexible and informal.
  • Learning from real experience is essential; the world is the classroom.
  • The teacher acts more as a guide, coach, observer, and facilitator than as an instructor.
  • The entire community is involved in the program: “It takes a village to raise a child.”
  • Assessment of student progress is authentic, personal, and self-reflective.
  • The human spirit is constantly celebrated in the joy of lifelong learning.

All the panelists as nonnegotiable in what makes the Open School work considered these principles (Posner et al., 2010).

The curriculum of the Open School is built upon a journey of practical skills, career exploration, creativity, logical inquiry, global awareness, and adventure. While the students are creating their practical skill requirements they are learning how to do something they can use in everyday life. For their career exploration they are exploring a possible career, possibly through internships. For their creativity requirements they are creating something unique, and documenting the process they use to complete the project. For their logical inquiry they perform research using scientific research methodology, a step that in the round table discussion Posner said, “many students from public school do not attempt until they attend graduate schools.” The global awareness passage requires the student to work on a social justice project, and requires volunteer work and getting involved. Finally the adventure “rite of passage” incorporates all the prior passages into a final project before they are allowed to graduate. This adventure requirement gets students to move outside of their comfort zone and they must use their self-reliance and courage to complete (Posner et al., 2010).

Because the Jefferson County Open School is a public school they have had to work from within the conventional school system. They consider one of the biggest challenges to the future of the school the implementation of the laws and the standards from the federal and state education departments. The school is built upon their core values and the relationships by the advising system. Scott Brye, the Principal of the Open School, describes his job as being one of interpretation: He must interpret the way the school does things, the methods of learning while translating it to the standards-based education required by law. The difference between the conventional and the Open School’s approach to education is summed up as being: Proactive vs. Reactive, Sustainable vs. Disposable, Dynamic vs. Static, and Organic vs. Artificial (Posner et al., 2010).

Kohl (2010) explained that as educators we have a balancing act with the students. We cannot let them run free, but we cannot control them either. In his keynote address Kohl said, “my capacity to move my students went along with my capacity to acknowledge their pain and their joy.”  Kohl went on to explain the importance of a mentoring and involved relationship between the student and the teacher.

In his talk Kohl (2010) also addressed alternative education. He said, “any education that is good is not an alternative. If it is a good, decent, creative education it is not an alternative.” Kohl believes that it is not possible to throw out the existing system and that change must come from within. One of his main concerns is that everyone does not have the same access to technology. He said, “depending on where we are we don’t all have the same access to resources, and some are left wanting.” This appeared to be one of his arguments that the public schools must change, but cannot be disbanded. Kohl said that he believes that this education must be tied into life.

Soden (1994) and Illich (1971) also wrote about why education must be tied into life and not kept separate. To tie education, specifically vocational training, into life, it must be made accessible and include problem-solving skills and life skills as well as trade skills. It must tie into the needs of the community and the people being trained and provide the skills and knowledge to allow people to get jobs. It also must be a priority, at the same level as academic knowledge, and vocational training must receive the same resources.

Effects of Traditional Education on Vocational Education

The students that attend postsecondary vocational education most often are products of traditional primary and secondary education. One problem that is frequently discussed by education researchers, such as Machan (2000), is the effectiveness of teaching all students the same universal goals.

Machan (2000) questioned what the public school system is trying to teach and concluded that the system may be doing more harm than good. One of the many concerns that Machan discussed was the schooling of children using universal goals. Machan questioned if all students should be required to learn piano, calculus, ancient history, or any of the other subjects imposed on the students of today. Machan explained that a universal education causes reluctance on the student’s part to continue with education. Machan wrote,

By the time many students leave public school—and often private ones, as well, which must conform to state standards—they see education not as enlightenment but as imprisonment. As a college professor I often see students enrolling with great reluctance, mainly only to satisfy their parents or in the belief that without college they will not be able to get a job. Few look toward the college experience with enthusiasm, mainly because of what their elementary and secondary schooling taught them: It is all a chore. (pp. xiv–xv)

Machan (2000) wrote that this reluctance is not caused by the teachers in the classroom, or by the administrators of the schools, but because the entire system “rests on false premises about human nature” (p. xv).

Davis (2010) addressed the needs of the school rejecters as well from a personal perspective. Davis told his story as a student in the public schools in an urban neighborhood. In his tenth grade year he became so disappointed in the education he received that he began to “perform poetry and rap” to try and “stir up the population” to do something about it. Davis explained that he became one of the many students just blindly attending classes, doing the bare minimum, not engaging with teachers, and creating discipline problems from frustration and boredom. Davis’s poetry addresses the scheduling, the bells, the public address system announcements, and the assignment of student ID numbers to the prison system. He identified himself as an inmate in the system of education run by the guards as instructors. While Davis is a graduate of the public school system he describes the environment that Dewey was trying to prevent.

Dewey (1997) explained that a democratic society must include the freedom to think, free communication, personal interest in their society, and control. Dewey also wrote that the schools must do more than teach the idea and mechanics of democracy; they must allow and show students how to become involved and be a part of the democratic process. Menashy (2007) wrote, “In my view, democratic schools are meant to allow student participation in what and how they are taught, to be arenas of social change, and therefore transformative toward a more democratic society. … Efficiency movements in education counter these democratic principles and aims” (p. 171).

Murray (2008) wrote about four truths in the educational system that everyone should understand. First, Murray pointed out, the ability of each student varies, and, thus, teaching everyone the same curriculum may be a disservice. Second, Murray explained, because of individuals’ special abilities, such as being good with numbers and understanding the sciences, half of all school children are below average. Murray gave an example: If all of his readers were placed in a shop class, many would not be able to make the saw cut wood. Additionally, if the readers were put into a high school math class, many would not be able to correctly answer a problem on the board. Everyone’s ability differs, and, thus, people excel at one thing or another.

The third truth that Murray (2008) wrote about was that too many people are going to college. Murray explained that out of the 1.5 million students that enrolled in America’s 4-year colleges and universities in 2005, only between 10% and 20% had the academic skills to cope with the rigors of higher education. Murray suggested that much of what 4-year schools teach could be taught in middle and high schools. Murray also explained that the notion that everyone must go to college is no longer valid. Murray shared his beliefs about the need for everyone to go to college:

First, we will set up a common goal for every young person that represents educational success. We will call it a BA. We will then make it difficult or impossible for most people to achieve this goal. For those who can, achieving the goal will take four years, no matter what is being taught. We will attach an economic reward for reaching the goal that often has little to do with the content of what has been learned. We will lure large numbers of people who do not possess adequate ability or motivation to try to achieve the goal and then fail. We will then stigmatize everyone who fails to achieve it. (p. 106)

Murray’s (2008) fourth truth regarding education is that “America’s future depends on how we educate the gifted” (p.13). Murray explained that regardless of what we as a society would like to believe, America’s future does depend on the elite. Murray pointed out that the elite are increasingly drawn from the academically gifted, and society must do the best possible job of educating them. Murray wrote that this education couldn’t just include facts and theories; it must also include logic and leadership skills. These leadership skills include a rigor of verbal expression, the ability to form judgments, the ability to think about virtue and good, and the skill of humility.

Murray (2008) made it clear that education should not be about providing more advantages for gifted students, but holding them to greater standards. Murray identified problems with the current traditional system of education but did not provide a path or  model for change in vocational training, as the changes he notes are also needed in postsecondary vocational education.

Murray (2008) described changes that include teaching the core curriculum to each student. The progressive education of today teaches “new math,” social skills, and other such curriculum, but the core subjects of reading, writing, and arithmetic are getting lost, as are languages, music, and the arts. Murray suggested rather than teaching these skills in college, schools should teach them in the K-12 system. Next, Murray advised letting the gifted students advance as fast as they can, regardless of where their peers are, as it is senseless and ethically warped to withhold training from those that could use it.

Finally, Murray (2008) explained that schools must teach the “forgotten half” how to make a living. By using career and technical schools, industry certifications, community work organizations, and employer training, students who are not classified as gifted or who choose not to go to college must have options for how to make a living. Murray’s writing is mainly about academically inclined students, those who are gifted, and those who go to colleges and universities. In this dissertation, I provide an alternative to Murray’s writing by presenting research on those students who choose to attend vocational schools as adults. Murray’s approach provides a basis to present an alternative way of learning that is based on the democratic education model.

Lee (2000) wrote about the limits to universal education most often found in public and private schools. One of these limits is the discipline associated with education. Lee explained that education is all about discipline, and in traditional schools, the teachers discipline students, thus, preventing freedom of expression and choice.  Lee wrote that the “purpose of education is to train the developing student to be able to exercise her freedom with practical wisdom” (p. 19), and because of the discipline of children that prevents the level of thought students will need to attain as adults, there is a “theoretical tension here that must be addressed” (p. 19).

Lee wrote that tension occurs when schools try to train students to think and act in a free manner and in so doing, actually restrict students’ freedom. Traditionally, PSVE is about training students to do rote tasks in a disciplined manner that is acceptable in industry.

Murray (2008) explained that students should be encouraged to follow a self-paced curriculum (a challenge for the postsecondary vocational educator). Dewey (1997) wrote, the lack of choice and lack of democracy in the classroom create a gulf between the student and teacher. Davis (2010) further described this rift between student and teacher from the view of a student. While Davis did not offer solutions he identified the problem. Posner et al (2010) did offer solutions through their descriptions of the Jefferson County Open School in Denver, Colorado. The 40-year history of the Jefferson County Open School proves that change can be accomplished within the K-12 public school system.

Llewellyn (1998) and Menashy (2007) described some of the history behind compulsory schooling and explained how the current school system developed (i.e., the curriculum, the bells, the discipline).  Dewey (1997) and Murray (2008) wrote about what it really takes to educate students (i.e., treating them as individuals, giving them a say in their own educational process, and allowing them to work to their full potential). This literature helps build the case for a change to a more democratic and free school process for all students.  

Adult Education

In this literature review, I explored literature about democratic education, traditional education, and vocational education. The majority of the literature and research was based on primary and secondary education. Research has shown that adult education is different from primary and secondary education. As Knowles (1973) wrote, “The fact is that all of the scientific theories of learning have been derived from the study of learning by animals and children” (p. 12). The problem is that the conditions in which children learn are much more controllable than the conditions in which adults learn. Adults have already developed a personality; they have developed habits and are a mix of many generations, each of which learns differently.

Knowles (1973) described how before the 20th century, the lifespan of learning was shorter than that of the cultural changes in the world surrounding them. Thus, it became necessary that the role of the teacher was to transmit the information that learners needed in order to survive. Knowles wrote that the lifespan of the learner has grown longer than the culture surrounding them, and the role of the teacher must shift also. The teacher’s role must “shift from that of a transmitter of information to a facilitator and a resource to self directed inquiry, and to regard education as a lifelong process” (p. 161). Knowles wrote that teachers must understand that knowledge is changing faster than learners are, and learners need to learn more than one occupational skill over the course of their lives.

In response to this concern, Knowles (1973) suggested a model for the development of competencies that humans must have for life. This model included aspects of learning, self-identification, being a friend, being a citizen, being part of a family, being a worker, and using leisure time. In this model, he suggested that critical thinking, thought, planning, technical skills, managing, collaborating, and reflection are large parts of a person’s life. Knowles described his idea of schooling: “The individual engages effectively in collaborative self-directed inquiry in self-actualizing directions” (p. 163).

Knowles (1973) based his theory of successful adult learning on six principles:

1.    Learners need to know the reason for learning something.

2.    Experience provides the basis for learning activities.

3.    Learners need to be responsible for their decisions about education. They need to be involved in the planning and evaluation of their instruction.

4.    Learners are most interested in subjects with immediate relevance to their work and/or personal lives.

5.     Learning is problem centered, rather than concept orientated. Learners learn to solve a problem.

6.    Learners learn better when they have an internal motivation to learn.

Knowles (1973) believed that learning is a combination of motivation, orientation, readiness, and self-concept. Fallon and Brown (2010) expand on Knowles by including the diversity of the students found in today’s college classrooms in their writing.

Fallon and Brown (2010) wrote that “today’s college classrooms are inherently different places than they were in the past” (p.4) and that the backgrounds and the needs of the students have changed. Fallon and Brown described many of the students in higher education as students “having spent previous academic years learning how to succeed individually, how to stand out, and how to be a star. They have also learned that conforming and not challenging authority are ways to get ahead. Yet students in the 21st century must be global thinkers who readily work in teams and use creativity in their problem solving” (p. 4).

Fallon and Brown (2010) explained that the students coming to higher education are a much more diverse group of students than in the past. They wrote that many students are attending higher education that would have never attended in the past. This includes older students (in their 30s, 40s, and 50s), more students with different cultural backgrounds, many with English as their second language, and many with technological skills that are greater than their instructors. Students also have much wider religious backgrounds, may include many of different sexual orientations (and are more likely to be “out” than in prior times), and these students come from a wider geographical area than ever before, sometimes coming to school from all over the world. Fallon and Brown wrote that while this all adds a great diversity to the classroom it presents many challenges as well because the old ways of teaching do not apply to this new and diverse population. “Today’s students also know their rights and demand that instructors pay attention to their specific needs … They see themselves as consumers and demand services and products for their money, although they are not always wisely or well informed” (p. 6).

In order to reach and teach these students Fallon and Brown (2010) suggest that teaching methods must change. The authors described some of these changes as increasing individualized approaches to learning, increasing the use of technology in the classroom and beyond, and changing the instructors from being the “traditional sage on the stage to the more challenging but more effective one of a guide on the side” (p. 5). This type of teaching is called “inclusive teaching” (p. 8) and involves understanding the learning styles of the students, and understanding the theory and the use of multiple intelligence theory developed by Gardner (1983) to plan for optimal student involvement and learning.

Fallon and Brown (2010) describe the inclusive college instructor as creating a student-friendly classroom. The inclusive college instructor has to work with the diverse population to create an atmosphere for learning, without any cultural and/or institutional discrimination. According to Fallon and Brown the inclusive instructor must “constantly explore ways to build professional and personal connections with their students, seeing these as whole people with lives beyond the classroom” (p. 15).

Parkison (2010) wrote about the new role of an instructor in the college classroom as being both a leader and a learner. The objective of this approach is designed to change the traditional compliant learner (one that just conforms to succeed) to that of an engaged learner (one that is interested and curious about the course content). Parkison explained that this change would require a move from the traditional curriculum, one full of objectives, toward a learning path curriculum.

This learning path curriculum allows the instructor to “select, and design strategies that promote real learning for all students” (Parkison, 2010, p. 92). In this learning path curriculum “assessment becomes more about decision-making – what is the next relevant and valuable experience that the students need and deserve to have – and less about grading” (p. 92). Parkison (2010) wrote that assessment within a learning path curriculum focuses less on what the student doesn’t know and more on what the student can accomplish. Additionally Parkison explained that knowing the content becomes less important than being able to understand how to think through a problem in a disciplined manner.

Teacher Preparation for Vocational Education

 One of the keys to student success is the availability of trained and quality instructors. Vocational education in the United States and around the world is a very large and diverse educational enterprise. In the United States, vocational education is taught to secondary and postsecondary students in both public and private institutions. Because of this diversity, there is great diversity among the teachers in vocational education programs. Vocational education does not play a large part in colleges and universities in the United States (Lynch, 2003); there is very little current research on the topic. Overseas, for example, in the European Union, countries such as Great Britain and Germany, as well as Australia, place more emphasis on evaluating and researching vocational education training and teachers than the United States. 

Lynch (2003) wrote that most states allow institutions to hire vocational instructors without a professional education. The requirements for a vocational instructor may range from a high school diploma (or GED) and some occupational experience to completion of pre-service and professional development in-service workshops. Some states require a master’s degree for certification in the public school system. Lynch wrote that the impact of these state requirements on vocational teacher education has little to do with the design and delivery of education.

Harrison (1987) explained that in the future, vocational instructors will need to manage their students’ experiential learning along with local contractors and businesses. Sometimes, this experiential learning is internal to the school, requiring the vocational instructor to be a well-informed businessperson. Harrison added that along with the responsibilities of teaching a trade, teaching the cognitive skills, and running a business, vocational instructors also have the responsibility of keeping up-to-date with the latest advancements in their trade. 

Special Education and Vocational Education

Vocational education is often the next step of learning following high school graduation for students with learning disabilities. Over the past 4 years, many of my students have identified themselves as having Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) or other learning disabilities. All of these students have one thing in common, some trait, handicap, or disability that interferes with their ability to learn in an average classroom. Each of these students needs some special material, extra help, or accommodation to pave the way for their success. All are what Hallahan and Kauffman (2000) referred to as “exceptional learners” (p. 4).

Hallahan and Kauffman (2000) went on to describe the study of exceptional learners as one of differences. Exceptional learners have special needs for the curriculum, instruction, and tools that are used in the classroom. Additionally, Hallahan and Kauffman wrote that although the study of exceptional learners is about differences, it is also about similarities, because these needs and differences do not set exceptional learners apart from average students in every way.

Pogrow (1992) wrote that there is interest among policymakers to develop programs that teach thinking skills to at-risk students, such as those suffering from learning disabilities. Tried methods of the past, such as “drill and kill” or memorization in order to pass tests, have not worked. Additionally, Pogrow explained, “Even if this approach were able to raise basic test scores, that outcome, by itself, is insufficient to prepare students for a more sophisticated world of work” (p. 87). This is relevant to the discussion of using democratic education in PSVE because, as Pogrow explained, the only hope of raising achievement for at-risk students is through transfer-based learning, which occurs when a student learns a non-classroom-based skill and is able to use that skill to learn something related to the classroom.

In vocational education, students have the ability to learn a non-classroom-based skill. With democratic vocational education, students have the ability to set their own learning goals and create their own programs of study, which, in the end, may have nothing to do with the vocational program they are studying.

Rojewski, Pollard, and Meers (1992) described one of the issues with grading vocational students with disabilities as the value judgments instructors make based on their experience, years as an instructor, and education. According to Rojewski et al., many instructors employed a double grading standard for students with disabilities and students without disabilities. An overwhelming number of the instructors (75.9%) surveyed believed that student effort should be used to calculate more than half of the student’s grade. Additionally, 19.5% of those surveyed believed that for learners with disabilities student effort should be the sole basis of grades.

Rojewski, Pollard, and Meers’s (1992) research was conducted in a secondary school program and did not involve adult learners, nor did it track the outcome of the students following their graduation from the secondary school program. The researchers explained that the involvement of a vocational education teacher and an individualized educational plan (IEP) could make an important difference in the successful school-to-work transition for students with disabilities. 

Although the Rojewski, Pollard, and Meers (1992) study was based on secondary school students, it is applicable to this research because it demonstrates a need for increased teacher training for students with disabilities in vocational education. Additionally, it shows that vocational education teachers need to be involved in the career planning and evaluation of students with special needs. Only by opening vocational education at a postsecondary level and providing best practices and greater opportunity for involvement will schools be able to attract students who missed their chance for vocational education in the secondary school program. In my proposed model, I demonstrate how this can be accomplished.

Postsecondary education must also accommodate adults with learning disabilities like ADHD and students who suffer from these conditions. Dodson (2008) described the symptoms of adult ADHD as being similar to yet different from the behavior of a child. Adults with ADHD exhibit signs of inattention, such as being unable to finish work because of a lack of focus and organization. They believe they must work twice as hard as their coworkers to keep up. Adults with ADHD often are frustrated with delays in projects and talk when others are talking. They do not want to wait their turn. Often these symptoms are present in childhood but are overlooked until adulthood, when the consequences of ADHD get worse. To illustrate this comparison, Dodson used the example of an 8-year-old who fails a class and a 28-year-old who is fired from a job. Shafa (2008) described one adult with ADHD as always being in a good mood and always busy. She was often involved in other tasks while others were talking, which gave her the appearance of being rude and inconsiderate. Others often believed she was not paying attention to the conversation.

Dodson (2008) listed the consequences of undiagnosed ADHD:

▪      Three times more likely to be unemployed

▪      Significantly more likely to lose work days

▪      Three times more likely to have a drug abuse problem

▪      Twice as likely to have been arrested

▪      Four times more likely to be convicted or incarcerated

▪      Four times more likely to have trouble managing money

▪      Three times more likely to have a serious accident requiring hospitalization

▪      Twice as likely to have been involved in three or four car crashes

▪      Nearly twice as likely to have a divorce

▪      10 times more likely to have been involved in an unplanned pregnancy

▪      Four times more likely to have contracted a sexually transmitted disease. (p. 75)

Dodson (2008) concluded his description of the consequences by writing, “Overall, ADHD is a lifelong disorder that significantly impacts the individual patient as well as their families” (p. 75). Based on Dodson’s list of symptoms, it is very likely that the student will struggle in a streamlined postsecondary vocational program.

Mercogliano (2003) described his experiences at the Albany Free School with nine students that the public school system had labeled as learning disabled with ADD or ADHD. In this journal he documented the enrollment, the changes, the challenges, and the success of working with these children without the use of any drugs. Additionally to support his conclusions that it is the society, the teachers, and the parents that matter the most he followed the experiences of some of the students as they returned to public school. 

Mercogliano (2003) wrote that students with ADHD do not need medication because they do not have a disorder, and they are not sick. Mercogliano explained that what these students need “is a society that is less toxic to their development, that supports their families, that honors their individuality and uniqueness” (p. 238). He went on to write that these children “need schools that educate according to how the brain actually learns” (p. 238), and that “they need teachers who are loving guides and role models, not rigid taskmasters” (p. 238).

In order to overcome the odds, students with disabilities must have an environment for thinking. Costa (1992) described effective organizations as having “a deep sense of purposefulness and a vision of the future” (p. 171). Costa explained that the most effective schools are thinking environments and encourage thinking through a sense of community.  Costa wrote,

When teachers are in school climate conditions which signal, promote, and facilitate their intellectual growth, they will gradually align their classrooms and instruction to promote students’ intellectual growth as well. As teachers teach students to think, become more aware of conditions that promote student thinking, and become more powerful thinkers themselves, they will demand and create school climate conditions that are intellectually growth producing as well. Thus, respect for intelligent behavior grows to pervade all levels of the institution. (pp. 170–171)

The environment that Costa (1992) described would likely be found in a democratic school, as everyone involved in a democratic school has a sense of community, purpose, and respect for education (Bennis, 2009; Gutmann, 1987; Hecht, 2009; Morrison, 2007). Once this purpose is formed, the students begin to receive the attention they require to succeed.

Dropout Prevention

Harvey (2001) described vocational education as a “logical approach to dropout prevention for secondary education” (p. 108). Harvey explained that many times, secondary school dropouts do not have the skills for the high-skill and high-wage job market, nor do they have the skills for the low-tech, low-wage service market. Additionally, Harvey wrote that students with learning disabilities are apt to have a 20% to 25% higher dropout rate than non-learning-disabled students.

Harvey (2001) made some very specific recommendations concerning vocational education and special education students. First, special educators need to be involved in transitional planning for secondary special education students with career planning in mind. Second, as a part of this transition planning, Harvey recommended that vocational education be considered. Third, the families of special education students need to be involved in this career and transitional planning. Fourth, the transition goals need to be realistic and secondary vocational education needs to be considered. Fifth, vocational educators need to be included in transition planning as members of the transition planning team.

Harvey (2001) and others demonstrated the need for responsible vocational education. What has not been shown is the how, where, and what of inclusive and responsible vocational education.


In this literature review, I explored research that addressed the need for change and the problems with and future of vocational and technical education. Much of the literature available for vocational and career education was written for secondary school programs, special education in secondary programs, and prison reform programs. The literature for those educational areas is applicable to adult PSVE, as the authors describe the need for change, inclusion, and student satisfaction. The literature clearly showed the importance of vocational and technical education for all adults, especially those who struggled through prior schooling with diagnosed or undiagnosed learning disabilities. In this literature review, I reaffirmed that PSVE attempts to gear itself toward many generations, many skill levels, many backgrounds, and many attitudes, but many programs train teachers to teach these skills in a universal way, expecting to create universal students (Meyer, 2005). The problem, as Knowles (1973), Wlodkowski (1999), and Illich (1971) wrote, is there is no universal student, and PSVE must adjust. In this literature review, I also described the democratic free-school environment with examples and descriptions from participants. The literature demonstrates that the key points of democratic education are freedom for learners to learn what they want, and in the best way for them; the encouragement of learners to be involved in planning and managing their own education; the importance of the community in the educational process; and the importance of the teacher being a mentor and partner, not an authoritative figure with respect to the learner.

The remainder of this dissertation uses student surveys, student interviews, and journals kept of my own teaching experiences to evaluate the learning style needs of the postsecondary vocational student. At the conclusion I will evaluate how these learning needs relate to the principles of democratic education.