Systemic learning

New perspectives

In many developing and emerging economies, labour markets are changing fast, so vocational education and training (VET) needs to be fine-tuned on a regular basis. But how can learning content be constantly renewed? The answer, says Rolf Arnold of Kaiserslautern University, lies in capacity development rather than knowledge transfer. In cooperation with InWEnt and the systhemia network (, he is helping vocational-school teachers in Colombia re-define their role as trainers.

[ Interview with Rolf Arnold ]

How did the cooperation with vocational schools in Colombia start?
The Mannheim office of InWEnt has been working with Colombia's central vocatio­nal education and training agency, the Servicio Nacional de Aprendizaje (SENA), for a long time. The proposal for the new cooperation came from SENA. The Colombian economy is currently growing fast, so SENA wanted to network its institutions more effectively and prevent teaching from becoming a boring routine. Teaching staff should rise flexibly to new labour-market challenges. InWEnt supports SENA with an integrated capacity-building concept. We work at three vocational schools, in Barranquilla, Bogotá and Medellín.

How do you prepare trainers for constant change?
Our work is very much based on the findings of change management research. A core tenet is that managers should re­peatedly review and revise their standpoints. Change starts with personal change. We try to help trainers to redefine their role and adjust to changes. If they simply keep presenting the same learning content, they quickly loose touch with the realities of working life as experienced by young people. Trainers should therefore constantly keep learning themselves – in the light of their students’ experiences. The classroom should not be a place of one-way transfer of knowledge, but of cooperatively developing new skills. That is capacity development with a systemic approach.

What does “systemic approach” mean in this context?
Systemic didactics assumes that people cannot be instructed. All one can do is create an environment in which people’s own interests and abilities help them develop the skills they need.

You do not work with trainees but with trainers. How do you teach them the method?
In our courses, we treat them in exactly the same way as they should treat the youngsters they work with according to the systemic approach. The teachers are not simply taught the new method; they actually experience it themselves. The feedback we receive is very positive.

What does your training look like in practice?
We address the participants directly, in their own work setting. The courses take place in their countries, and we supervise them in a continuous learning process for nearly two years. During that time, we do six workshops in the field. Over the entire period, we also offer e-learning. We only do a minimum of teaching and hardly lecture at all. Participants define the relevant content during the e-learning phases, so we can deal with their questions directly in the classroom. Questions are discussed in groups, so the participants contribute their experience. The result is collegial learning. Our role is basically one of giving advice and organising the wealth of knowledge.

Can you give an example of how new knowledge is generated?
During one methodology workshop, participants had so many different ideas that the mere networking of their experiences resulted in a massive amount of know­ledge. All we did was to help organise that knowledge, and on that base we compiled a manual on training methods which is now freely accessible online.

Collegial learning is to be used in vocational education and training.
Do youngsters have enough personal experience for that?

It is an important aspect of the systemic concept that we need to change our perceptions of young people. Instead of, for instance, seeing a trainee as someone who is lacking something that we need to provide, we should regard him as someone who already has a lot of skills – acquired as an apprentice in a company, for example, or accumulated in family life. Even young people possess expertise.

How can trainers change their perception of young people?
We can draw on constructivist approaches in family therapy as well as education. In our courses, for example, we simulate conversations between a youngster and a tutor and ask the group to study the conversation from different viewpoints. What the exercise shows is that every indivi­dual interaction lends itself to a whole range of different interpretations. Young people’s behaviour can be interpreted in different ways too. We often forget that and overlook relevant skills. A youngster who fails to do his homework in the afternoons and is thus considered “lazy”, for instance, may well be developing other skills at that time by helping out in the family business. During our courses, trainers recognised that teachers often jump to wrong conclusions about a young person’s behaviour.

What difference does such awareness make?
Well, a trainer’s attitude towards a youngster may become a self-fulfilling prophecy: the young person who is considered unreliable because he skips homework, for example, may over time really become lazy. But where teachers approach students with a different attitude and do not lose sight of their potentials, the different attitude in itself is often enough to bring about a change in the youngster's beha­viour. Change-management researchers have come to similar conclusions: a ma­nager's perception of the future can influence actual developments. So it is possible to manage from the future.

This insight goes far beyond education.
Yes, it does, and it is of particular relevance in development cooperation. I see millions of youngsters in the world who want to – but cannot – show their potential. We should question our perspectives.

You say that a new approach to vocational training is also a contribution to democratisation. Why is that so?
This idea dates back a long way. The US educationist John Dewey wrote a book entitled “Education and democracy” in which he argued that, if we strengthen youngsters’ confidence in their own abilities and do not treat them with condescension, we contribute to democracy because demo­cracy thrives on different perspectives. In the systemic concept we assume that various perspectives exist and that all of them can be true, but that not all of them are successful. What we are talking about is only a small contribution to the democra­tic process, of course, not a solution to each and every transformation problem.

Questions by Eva-Maria Verfürth.

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