My mother only had a grade 4 education and my dad grade 8, but they understood the value of education. My parents put me through high school but could not afford to send me to university. However, in high school, I was encouraged by my parents to take all the hard subjects such as Algebra, Geometry, English, French, Social Studies, Chemistry, and Physics. All seven of these subjects had the requirement of writing a departmental exam to pass. As a result, I took my grade 12 in two years - the first in Hanna High School - and the second in Red Deer Composite High School where they also offered a first-year automotive course, which I took along with French and Chemistry.
I liked the automotive course very much and thought I might like to be a mechanic. However, I was expected to become a mixed farmer like my dad, but he said he only had a half section of land, and it could support both of us. Therefore, with $100 in my pocket, that I had saved up over the years and a suitcase full of clothes, I left the farm to meet the world.
My first job was milking cows on a small dairy farm north of Edmonton. I very quickly realized that I had better get more education and follow my dream to be a mechanic. As a result, I enrolled in a two-year automotive service engineering course at S.A.I.T in Calgary and ran a pool hall 3 nights a week to pay for my room and board. Upon completion of the course, I began my dream job as a third-year apprentice mechanic, specializing in tune-up and automotive electrical wiring in a Chevrolet Oldsmobile dealership. After a year of work experience, I was allowed to write my fourth-year apprenticeship exam and my interprovincial motor vehicle license exam.
Although I was making good money, I noticed that most of the other mechanics that were far more knowledgeable than I, were not making as much or only slightly more than I. This made no sense to me until I noticed that they were in their late 40s, 50s, and 60s. I was 22, with no health problems. Many had age and work-related health problems. Therefore, I felt that being a mechanic was a young man's trade, and I wanted out of the trade by age 40.
As destiny would have it, at age 39 I was paid to attend a university for a year through a bursary program toward a four-year Bachelor of Education Degree in Vocational Education. This gave me the opportunity to teach automotive. I obtained the remaining years of university training through night school and summer school classes.
My first teaching assignment was teaching students that the elementary schools in Calgary, had failed miserably for the first 6 years. I found it to be the most challenging, but also the most rewarding experience I have had. This was at Shaughnessy Secondary Vocational School in Calgary, as a Service Station Operation teacher.
You say: why did the conventional system fail the students? The answer, I believe, is very simple. The school curriculum was set up wrong then and is still not meeting the needs of all students today. Teachers are faced with 4 types of students. In a classroom of 30, there may have been about 25 students who learned fairly well with the curriculum. The remaining often failed. They were bused to one of the three schools in Calgary, Alberta, designed to meet their needs, one of them being Shaughnessy Secondary Vocational School.
There are roughly 4 learning styles:
Firstly, there is the student who learns in spite of the teacher. They are the ones who show up for the tests and ace the tests. They are above-average intelligence. When they did show up for class, they became bored, and often became class disturbers. They were quite often diagnosed with classic ADD and prescribed Ritalin. Many I believe may have actually suffered from the fight-or-flight response emotions since childhood.
Secondly, there were the students who could simply read instructions, and understand what they need to do to accomplish a task.
Thirdly, there were the students that can watch the teacher do a task, understand it, and perform the task.
The fourth way of learning is to perform the task, and in doing so, they understood what they were doing. These were the students which the system was failing. Because the troublemakers were simply bored, they paid very little attention in class, and as a result, received failing grades. As a result, they were sent to a secondary vocational school where they often became class leaders, once they got a chip off their shoulders.
You say, "Why did the secondary vocational schools succeed, where the regular system schools did not?" The answer, I believe, is simple.
Even though the students entering the secondary vocational schools were in grade 7, their academic ability was closer to grade 4 or 5. Therefore, the academic curriculum was designed to meet the student's needs academically, and the vocational shops gave the students the hands-on experience that was vital for students who required the hands-on approach to learn. The students that learned in spite of the teacher used their excess energy creativity. As a result, they were no longer bored, and excelled in both academic and shop classes.