Friday, 30 November 2012

Is a liberal technical education something more or something else?

It seems as if employers want graduates who possess job related skills and have the ability to engage in broader creative and integrative activities. Based on descriptions of these desired abilities, a liberal education will complement one that is technical. There may be a group of arts and habits that can be taught and refined that provide graduates with the qualities to meet employer and societal expectations.
By far, aside from particular technical skills, what employers want most are people who can think clearly and critically, who know themselves, who have the ability to listen to others and interact respectfully.
- Learn to think if you want to get hired

So what should others expect of our learners and what should students expect of us as we prepare them to be educated people? It is clear that preparing graduates for employment is an important function of colleges and universities, but what does that preparation include? I contend that if it is only a matter of providing technical competence, then there are much less expensive, quicker, and more reliable ways of providing high quality training and skill development services. For example, why not just provide excellent career-oriented 2-year preparation programs at professional “technical schools” with an extended apprenticeship program that is augmented by focused continuing education programs? Students will leave school with superb technical skills, and employers can socialize the apprentice into the profession and company, while also helping the apprentice (learner) craft a personalized continuous development plan in partnership with a range of education providers. After all, we already have model polytechnics, internships, apprenticeships, and continuing education that prepare woman and men for jobs in specific professions, trades, and crafts.

The type of argument described above requires a training organization and a service organization, but there is really little need for a traditional college or university education. It is clear to the student what is to be gained, and we have shifted the focus of the “training organization” to things that are clearly quantifiable and measurable - the teaching of technical skills and competencies. These organizations no longer have to deal with the broader personal and intellectual growth parts of a traditional college or university education. Please note that I am not making a proposal, but am simply suggesting that there are some pretty appealing options available for technical training that do not leave our future in the hands of the “Hollywood Upstairs Medical College.” Dr. Nick serves as a reminder of the connections we make between ethical and competent practice with the institutions that prepare professionals for practice.

So, we have an idea of what we want in terms of technical competencies and job-related skills, but will these alone do the trick? I am guessing not. Evidence and common sense suggests that there is a mix of job-skill education and broad intellectual development that is desirable, which pretty much runs across the board. Although one expects the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AACU) to advocate for a liberal education, even the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools, who are generally recognized as for-profit career college advocates, while encouraging colleges to focus on job training and placement has provided at least a “tip-of-the-hat” to there being something more than work skills that are important to employers. Their sponsored research by F.T.I. Consulting reported that of the employers sampled, there is a rough.. “split as to whether students would be better served by a more career- focused education or a broad-based education.” This finding is consistent with findings in other studies across a number of populations. In addition, while recognizing the need for employees to have “21st Century Skills” in their white paper Closing the Gap between Career Education & Employer Expectations, it was acknowledged that employees need 
The skills sets (that) range from sense‐making and novel and adaptive thinking to cross‐cultural competency and computational thinking.

which frankly sounds more like what one would reasonably expect from broad-based education than from career schooling.

On the other side of the aisle, in a 2010 American Association of Colleges and Universities research report, Raising The Bar: Employers’ Views On College Learning In The Wake Of The Economic Downturn, (link to PDF download) Hart Research Associates provided findings that
Employers believe that college graduates need to develop both a broad range of skills and knowledge and in-depth knowledge and skills that apply to a specific field or position.

reflecting the need for universities to prepare graduates to function in an increasingly complex world. Hart Research Associates reported that, “Employers endorse learning outcomes for college graduates that are developed through a blend of liberal and applied learning,” identifying the following liberal education outcomes
Knowledge of human cultures and the physical and natural world
  • Concepts and new developments in science and technology
  • The ability to understand the global context of situations and decisions
  • Global issues and developments and their implications for the future
  • The role of the United States in the world
  • Cultural diversity in America and other countries
Intellectual and practical skills
  • The ability to communicate effectively, orally and in writing
  • Critical thinking and analytical reasoning skills
  • The ability to analyze and solve complex problems
  • Teamwork skills and the ability to collaborate with others in diverse group settings
  • The ability to innovate and be creative
  • The ability to locate, organize, and evaluate information from multiple sources
  • The ability to work with numbers and understand statistics
Personal and social responsibility
  • The ability to connect choices and actions to ethical decisions
  • Civic knowledge, civic participation, and community engagement
Integrative learning
  • The ability to apply knowledge and skills to real-world settings through internships or other hands-on experiences

This is a wonderful list of abilities that includes items that I believe most employers would consider beneficial and many would consider essential for some roles. In addition to the obvious need for technical competencies and skills necessary to perform a job, there are these other abilities that speak to rather sophisticated behaviour, still leaving us with the question of, what are the characteristics, traits, and behaviours we want colleges and universities to engender in an educated student? This is where I think there is the need to distinguish between a liberal education and a program in the liberal arts. It is my feeling that an engineering program can provide its graduates with the technical competence assumed in a professional engineer and the arts and habits necessary to perform as described above. I think that this is the “something more” that extends beyond work-skills and it is the something more that traditional colleges and universities have need to retain embedded in their curricula.

A while ago I read a document that described the arts and habits that a properly educated youth should possess upon completing high school. I was taken by them in part because their value seemed undeniable, because they seem so lacking even in many university educated graduates, and that they were found in a publication from the mid-1800s. Thinking back, having acquired any of the arts and habits listed below would have been much more valuable than the COBOL programming skills I spent 2 years developing. In addition, I found it entertaining that the reason Cory wrote a response was because the relevance of an Eton education was being called into question.
The main charge against it (Eton) is, not that its discipline is bad, nor that its expenses are high, but that its lessons are useless. The complaint is, that what you learn at Eton is of no use to you when you are grown up.

Which apparently is a time honored accusation - voiced in 1861 as well at 2012. There are many sources that outline the characteristics of an educated person and a lot of outstanding writing on the benefits of a good liberal education.  I have selected the thoughts of William Johnson Cory as he defended the Etonian curriculum in the Eton Review.
... you are not engaged so much in acquiring knowledge as in making mental efforts under criticism. A certain amount of knowledge you can indeed with average faculties acquire so as to retain; nor need you regret the hours that you have spent on much that you have forgotten, for the shadow of lost knowledge at least protects you from many illusions.
But you go to a great school, not for knowledge so much as for arts and habits; for the habit of attention, for the art of expression, for the art of assuming at a moment's notice a new intellectual posture, for the art of entering quickly into another person's thoughts, for the habit of submitting to censure and refutation, for the art of indicating assent or dissent in graduated terms, for the habit of regarding minute points of accuracy, for the habit of working out what is possible in a given time, for taste, for discrimination, for mental courage and mental soberness. Above all, you go to a great school for self-knowledge.

Cory's framing of the arts and habits of an educated person, provides a standard of capacity in which the student can build technical and liberal competencies. They are a foundation. Pulling from the paragraphs above and reformatting them as a list, the arts and habits Cory described in 1861 read as follows.

habits of an educated person
  • the habit of attention
  • the habit of submitting to censure and refutation
  • the habit of regarding minute points of accuracy
  • the habit of working out what is possible in a given time
  • the habit of taste
  • the habit of discrimination
  • the habit of mental courage
  • the habit of mental soberness.
the art of expression
  • the art of assuming at a moment's notice a new intellectual posture
  • the art of entering quickly into another person's thoughts
  • the art of indicating assent or dissent in graduated terms

Sure this list might need a bit of interpretation, but it is my feeling that if a graduate were able to exhibit these arts and habits, they would be prepared to address the desired qualities outlined in the report issued by the AACU, and along with being well versed in the skills of their profession our graduates would make ideal employees, civil servants, and community members. That is, they would strike the necessary balance needed to contribute in the workplace and beyond. These arts and habits, when internalized and practiced, point to what I have been referring to as latent pattern transmission of a particular type. Now, if we are not producing enough of these types of graduates, what types of institutions are most likely to do so and how might they accomplish it? What type of curriculum would made sense? Would it be possible to do so at scale and at a distance through online learning? At what cost? Who is trying to do it and under what conditions?

Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools
Panel Discussion: Workforce Skills Reality Check

Raising The Bar: Employers’ Views On College Learning In The Wake Of The Economic Downturn

Eton Reform, Defense of the Etonian system in reply to the criticisms of Matthew James Higgins ("Paterfamilias") and Sir J.T. Coleridge (1861)
William Johnson Cory

Learn to think if you want to get hired


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