Background/Context: The main goal for vocational education at the secondary level has historically been the preparation of youth for the world of work. As a result, research, policy, and practice in this area have mostly focused on how to smooth this transition, address high costs, and ensure that there are positive economic returns to the individual and society. The focus on these goals, although important, has meant that other vital areas have not been addressed: namely, how to ensure that vocational education promotes a sense of empowerment, fosters a stronger sense of community, and seeks to protect the natural environment.
Purpose and Focus of the Study: This article stresses the importance of imbuing the theory and practice of vocational education with social justice and concern for environmental degradation at the local level. The approach to vocational education presented here proposes the use of productive learning as a foundation for a well-rounded education that breaks down the nefarious dualisms of contemporary education (i.e., the separation of mind from body, theory from practice, individuals from collectivity, and school from community) while exposing students to a critical pedagogy of work and to its potential for social and environmental renewal.
Setting: To illustrate the theoretical insights provided in the first two sections of this article, the author explores a public secondary school in northern Colombia that, under difficult social and material conditions, has developed a noteworthy vocational program.
Research Design: This analytic essay illustrates its main points with examples derived from a case study in which field observations, extensive in-person interviews, document analysis, and telephone conversations were conducted between 1997 and 2000.
Findings and Conclusions: The school helps to illustrate what a long series of writers from the late 18th century onward have stated: that productive work ought to be an intrinsic component of any responsible form of education. Moreover, it makes clear the importance of contextualizing learning in authentic settings. Although some important inroads have been made in connecting vocational education to critical pedagogy, the connections with environmental sustainability are still in their infancy. Despite calls from international organizations such as the International Centre for Technical and Vocational Education and Training, a branch of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO-UNEVOC) to link vocational education and training to sustainable development, much work still needs to be done in the areas of theory, policy, and practice.