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College Quarterly
Winter 1995 - Volume 3 Number 2
Testing the Links
by Sylvia Szabo

The process of visioning and restructuring Ontario's educational system resulted in the production of two documents: the Vision 2000 report in 1990, from the Ontario Council of Regents for Colleges of Applied Arts and Technology and the Common Curriculum, Policies and Outcomes Grades 1-9 in 1995, produced by the Ministry of Education and Training. Implicit in each is the recognition that there need to be “complementary curricula and clear and consistent program links between schools and colleges and better information links between the two systems”. As end-products of these endeavours, we now have specific learning outcomes in the areas of generic skills and objectives for general education at the college level, and explicit learning outcomes covering grades 1-9. In keeping with the theme of linkages between the two systems, we need to ascertain how these learning outcomes compare in terms of: (i) integration and continuity, (ii) evidence of appropriate and ever-increasing levels of cognitive complexity, (iii) overlap or omissions, and (iv) how the community college system should be structured to support learning outcome achievement in the areas of generic skills and general education.

When comparing the two sets of outcomes, it is evident that there is commonality in several areas such as communications, mathematics/problem-solving, group skills and thinking skills. This is even more pronounced when comparing the objectives for general education at the college level with those articulated in the common curriculum for the program areas of arts and personal and social studies. In some cases, the wording of the outcomes is almost identical, which is not in itself problematic, as long as the achievement reflects, in the case of college outcomes, performance of these skills at a post-secondary level. These areas are reflective of core skills and they should, in fact, flow through the outcomes in both as evidence of continuity and interdependence.

Having determined what areas are in common, we now need to consider how the two differ in terms of actual outcome content. Most of the differences in content found in the college outcomes can be attributed to the greater focus on technology and meeting the needs of the employer, however, there are a few other subtle differences as well. For example, in the areas of reframing, collecting and analyzing information, college students are expected to appropriately cite sources when doing research. This does not appear to have been explicitly spelled out in the common curriculum. As well, with regard to teamwork, while both stress the need for learners to be able to work in groups, the difference is that the colleges' outcomes are more focused on the actual roles of the members within a group and the functions of the group, whereas the common curriculum stance is more one of using the team approach as a vehicle for program delivery. This is interesting in light of the focus of employers on collaboration and interpersonal skills and it certainly indicates the need to formalize an understanding of group dynamics as part of the curriculum.

The next major difference is evident when analyzing the approach taken to technology. It may well be that, in the common curriculum, it has been assumed computer literacy will eventually be assimilated as a basic skill in the way that reading and math have been, hence the focus is more on the computer as a tool as opposed to a skill. In contrast, the generic skills outcomes are fairly precise in spelling out skills needed for using operating systems, equipment selection, trouble-shooting and so on. The underlying assumption seems to be that most college graduates will be more than just passive users of computer systems; they will have some control over them as well.

Another key area where there appear to be some differences has to do with accountability of the learner, both in terms of self and in the use of resources, again, no doubt reflecting the expectations of employers. In the case of college students, the generic skills outcomes specify that they are expected to be able to provide a defence for their decisions and actions in addition to efficiently using resources (with the examples given as money, space and time) and planning tools (with the examples of budgets and schedules) to keep their projects on track. While the common curriculum addresses self-accountability to a certain degree in the personal and social studies program area, (for example, to take responsibility for organizing all their activities), there is not as obvious a connection to an external agent for accountability, nor is there the introduction of resource limitations as a concept except in the more broad, ecological sense.

The next issue which must now be addressed is: what evidence is there of distinct, hierarchical levels of cognitive complexity when comparing the two sets of outcomes? Should this necessarily be inherent and therefore reflected in the outcomes themselves or is it more appropriate to differentiate them only at the point of program delivery? To answer these questions, we must first examine the structure of the college outcomes as well as incorporate and apply cognitive theory in order to justify the assessment.

There are certain key characteristics associated with higher level cognitive skills: grounding in authentic context, situated learning and depth of knowledge within a given domain. Higher level cognitive skills are manifested by learners when they are able to see and assimilate the relevance of their learning, link knowledge structures or concepts across different domains, and also carry out far transfer of a schema to a seemingly unrelated area of investigation. Related to this is another important element known as metacognition, which hinges on utilizing reflection, self-evaluation and generalized schemata in the learning process. Given these concepts and their associated characteristics, how much evidence can be found in the colleges' learning outcomes to substantiate that this theory has been incorporated?

Certainly, on examination of the generic skills documentation, there is ample evidence that some of these concepts have been integrated throughout the text of the outcomes. Self-evaluation - an element of metacognition - has been delineated in almost every outcome, when the learner is expected to 'evaluate one's own use', or 'evaluate and adjust' as a terminal step in cyclical sequences. The expectation for knowledge transfer across domains can be found in generic skills outcome three as well as outcome four, which deal with mathematical techniques/problem-solving in the case of the former, and computer/technology applications in the case of the latter.

Elements of higher level cognitive skills can also be found in the common curriculum objectives. Under essential outcome ten, “use the skills of learning to learn more effectively”, two sub-points involve reflection on their own thinking as well as establishing connections between different concepts. The concepts of integration and interconnectedness are emphasized throughout the learning outcomes for the common curriculum which allows the learner to perceive relevance in the learnings as well as connections across knowledge domains which in turn establishes the necessary ground work for far transfer of these schemata at the post-secondary level.

We must next consider whether or not the 20 continuous, hierarchical and progressive objectives meet the needs of the stakeholders.

Several researchers have taken the approach of consulting with recent post-secondary graduates to determine if they felt their education prepared them adequately in terms of what skills they deemed necessary for employment. Evers and Gilbert (1991) found that their sampling of university students did not rank education as the primary source of training in the areas of: risk taking, listening skills, interpersonal skills, management of conflict, leadership/influence, coordinating, creativity/innovation and recognition of personal strengths. The graduates indicated their belief that most of these skills were primarily developed on the job or as a result of their social interactions to a much greater extent than what was taught to them. Research by Redpath (1994) would seem to reinforce the need for generic skills and general education based on the finding that graduates from a cross-section of different program specialties were filling the same or similar positions.

Employers have become much more vocal recently, both in terms of expressing their concerns over shortcomings in education, as well as expressing their expectations of what skills students should be taught. In one study, corporate leaders pointed to what they perceived as deficiencies in the areas of written communication, creativity, visioning and leadership (Evers and Gilbert, 1991). Lewington and Orpwood (1993) posited the following in their critique on Canadian education: “...we know that many of the jobs of the twenty-first century do not yet exist and will literally be invented by young people now in school. Yet schools make little provision for students to acquire the entrepreneurial attitudes and skills required for that kind of world” (p.104). Lanthangue (1992) makes an interesting observation concerning students' inability to present well during interviews for the following reason: they lack a vocabulary of personal experience and skills. What this refers to is that they are unable to reflect on, and then articulate in general terms, the skills and experiences they have acquired both in school and on the job.

Will the new outcomes address these perceived problems? It may be difficult to engage students directly in creativity and visioning, however, there are related activities grounded in content such as innovation and far transfer of schemata which will contribute to it. Leadership and the role of the leader could serve as a focus in both the generic skills and the common curriculum when we are teaching group skills. Entrepreneurial skills are mentioned in the common curriculum under personal and social studies (p.31, grade 9, p.93). The point raised by Lanthangue is a valid one and could be dealt with in generic skills outcome 13. Finally, communications seems to be a chronic concern which employers express and the outcomes seem to be appropriately focused quite intensively on enhancing students' communication skills in a variety of ways.

Finally, in reflecting on this analysis, we must determine what information can be taken and applied to the community college setting to foster the achievement of the learning outcomes and objectives promulgated by the College Standards and Accreditation Council. We need to consider both curriculum content as well as the framework for program delivery during this contemplation process if we wish to ensure successful implementation and achievement of goals over the long term.

We should look first to the Common Curriculum document to provide useful insight into how college programs can be structured to ensure learning outcomes are achieved. The themes of relevance and integration are stressed throughout the common curriculum; yet, the integration of vocational, generic skills and general education outcomes is not as evident. As an example, general education courses have been established as discrete offerings in isolation from the vocational courses. Similarly there is the suggestion that generic skills could be delivered as discrete courses (CSAC, 1995) which would go against the concepts of situated learning, relevance and economic prudence. Thought should be given to the suggestions made by Lynton (1991) and White (1994) to integrate general education into vocational courses as well as taking a thematic approach in offering general education via course clustering. Proponents of general education state that the problem with vocational education is its narrow, short-term focus, however, this ignores the inherent value to be gained in terms of depth of understanding and context anchoring which facilitates the acquisition of higher level cognitive thinking skills.

In considering vocational training, there are several improvements that could be made. First of all, there needs to be a widening of the range of skills that vocational training provides. In addition, the focus in vocational training should be on a conceptual approach which would more readily allow for application of schemata across domains as well as far transfer of these concepts. Generic skills can be delivered in a vocation-bound context, but there must be an emphasis on students being taught the similarities, differences and patterns to allow for transfer of skills to other settings and circumstances.

In summary, then, there seems to be a good level of integration, continuity and hierarchical cognitive skills progression between the common curriculum and college learning outcomes. Areas of improvement and opportunities for collaboration have been delineated in the hope that, as our ultimate achievement, we will ensure graduates have the necessary skills to make them productive and successful members of society.

References

College Standards and Accreditation Council (1994). General education in Ontario's community colleges. Toronto: Ontario Council of Regents for Colleges of Applied Arts and Technology.

Evers, F.T. & Gilbert, S.N. (1991). Outcomes assessment: How much value does university education add? Canadian Journal of Higher Education, 21(2), 53-77.

Lanthangue, R. (1992). Reading, writing and reflectivity: Education reform for the 1990s. Education Canada, 32 (2), 28-32.

Lewington, J. & Orpwood, G. (1993). Overdue assignment: Taking responsibility for Canada's schools. Toronto: John Wiley & Sons.

Lynton, E.A. (1991). New concepts of professional expertise: Liberal learning as part of career-oriented education. The Journal of General Education, 40, 11-23.

Redpath, L. (1994). Education-job mismatch among Canadian university graduates: Implications for employers and educators. The Canadian Journal of Higher Education, 24 (2), 89-114.

White, C. R. (1994). A model for comprehensive reform in general education: Portland State University. The Journal of General Education, 43(3), 169-229.


Sylvia Szabo is Coordinator of the Health Record Programs at Niagara College.