I planned originally to make this post the final in a two-part sequence on preparing college learners with transferable-skills to succeed in their next fifty years of an uncertain employment future. But I delayed my writing to attend the well-done WCET 2017 Conference and had the benefit of thinking more about the questions. In this post, I examine the controversy about the primary purpose of college, look at the alternative position of personal growth and societal benefit, and argue that any solution will require transferable-skills in three areas, employability, personal growth, and societal benefit.
After arguing in this post for all three areas, I’ll propose a practical synthesis of transferable-skills in the final post of the series.
Clarifying the Purposes of College
In a two-way question, 58% of Republicans said the main purpose of college should be to teach specific skills and knowledge for the workplace; 28% said it should be personal growth. Democrats were divided: 43% said the main purpose of college should be to learn specific skills while 42% said personal growth. — Hannah Fingerhut, Pew Center for Research, 2017.
Employability and Transferable-skills for the Uncertain Future
I don’t agree with either the Republicans nor Democrats mentioned in Fingerhut’s survey who prioritize learning specific employment knowledge and skills, since the word “specific” implies a narrow and not transferable focus. I’m not knocking specific skills, but valuing them above all else. In part 1 of this series, How to Help Learners Succeed in an Uncertain Future, I examined the top skills employers seek from college graduates and proposed we recognize transferable skills as a way to prepare for an uncertain and ever-changing employment landscape. The competency model clearinghouse generic building blocks comprises a set of skills employers want, as does its cousin, the Common Employability Skills standard. I described the Common Employability Skills in an earlier post, Do you have the skills you need to succeed in any Job?
To summarize the argument for employability skills, a college education takes too much personal time, personal wealth, and state support to not be about employment preparation, unless you, a student, have a large enough trust fund and can afford to learn whatever you want without worrying about the future. Further, a college degree that only focuses on specific employability skills and knowledge is not preparing you for the future, nor to be adaptable. For that, you need transferable skills and knowledge.
But let’s not stop there. Let’s balance the discussion by giving fair hearing to the Republicans and Democrats who said personal growth is the primary purpose of college, but let’s also ask whether personal growth is incompatible with employability when taken as transferable skills and also whether there are yet other important purposes of college.
A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimensions. — Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.
The principle goal of education in the schools should be creating men and women who are capable of doing new things, not simply repeating what other generations have done. — Jean Piaget
These quotes by Holmes and Piaget sum up the why of personal growth, to stretch minds and transcend the known. If we are only teaching specific skills and knowledge then we are not teaching stretching learners. We are not showing them the true power of their minds. Encouraging them to think completely new thoughts, solve problems never solved before, or imagine new opportunities and challenges that enrich themselves and those around them. The why is clear. The what and how of personal growth is more difficult.
To help define personal growth, the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AACU) supported the Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP) initiative to develop the Essential Learning Outcomes.
In brief, the Essential Learning Outcomes describe the high-level what and how of education common to many degree programs and colleges. They are the transferable intellectual skills.
Knowledge of human cultures and the physical & natural world.
Intellectual and practical skills that are “practiced extensively, across the curriculum, in the context of progressively more challenging problems, projects, and standards for performance.”
These skills include:
- critical thinking,
- quantitative and information literacy,
- teamwork, and
- problem solving.
The set of skills overlaps the employability skills discussed earlier. These skills support personal growth because they are the foundational skills for the next two learning outcomes. They’re transferable, because they are common to learning any subject more deeply than memorizing.
Integrative & applied learning that is represented by “Synthesis and advanced accomplishment across general and specialized studies” and “demonstrated through the application of knowledge, skills, and responsibilities to new settings and complex problems.”
This learning outcome is generalized application of learning as well as the creation of new knowledge through synthesis and integration. Generalized application of knowledge and synthesis & integration are higher-order transferable-skills.
I support these outcomes. Still, I find them incomplete as big actions often require big organizations to do them and functioning within an organization is not reflected. I’ll discuss that in the final post of this series.
Societally Beneficial Outcomes
You are not here merely to make a living. You are here in order to enable the world to live more amply, with greater vision, with a finer spirit of hope and achievement. You are here to enrich the world, and you impoverish yourself if you forget the errand. — Woodrow T. Wilson (1856-1924)
Consciously or unconsciously, every one of us does render some service or other. If we cultivate the habit of doing this service deliberately, our desire for service will steadily grow stronger, and will make, not only our own happiness, but that of the world at large. — Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948)
As an educator, I chose a life of service to others. I was not alone. I regularly observed faculty contribute greatly to their students. At Colorado Technical University, faculty met in the kitchen after evening classes to discuss why they taught odd and long hours. At Western Governors University I saw daily acts of service by mentors to students who needed their help. Faculty consistently expressed their commitment and purpose to their learners, and not coincidentally, to their learners’ personal growth.
Societal benefit, in addition to addressing the needs of society, may be financially justified as an outcome. The public subsidizes higher education through state taxes that support state public institutions. Federal tax revenue supports students at all institutions through Pell grants and student loans.
The last area of the Essential Learning Outcomes describes the societally beneficial learning outcomes.
Personal and Social Responsibility. Students learn the outcomes by having them “anchored through active involvement with diverse communities and real-world challenges.”
The learning outcomes in the area include:
- civic knowledge and engagement,
- intercultural competence,
- ethical reasoning and action.
Lifelong learning is included, though it applies in other categories, as well.
Discussion and Next Steps
There are several reasons for both personal growth and societally beneficial learning outcomes to partner with transferable-skills for employment. When combined, they form the set of transferable-skill outcomes within the purposes of a college education. Using the frameworks discussed in this series of posts, we have a broad and well-researched set of outcomes. No framework of the three stands completely on its own, however.
The two employability frameworks stop short of the higher-order skills. They miss certain personal growth skills and outside of making a stronger economy, do not include the societally beneficial outcomes.
The Essential Learning Outcomes recommendation stops short of including important transferable-skills. These skills are useful to employers, volunteer organizations, and other social organizations and empower the learner to accomplish bigger things. Missing skills include organizing and managing work, understanding organization structures and purposes, and stakeholder focus.
In the next post, I resolve these differences. I do warn that I’ll take a few liberties in elevating the transferable-skills. The work culminates in a more complete framework to use when designing general education or other curriculum.
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The LEAP Challenge may be downloaded as a pdf and is provided by aacu.org.
The Competency Model Clearinghouse provides many models for different occupations in addition to the generic building blocks model.
The Common Employability Skills are available as a 4-page PDF from the National Business Roundtable.
Photo by Kelley Bozarth on Unsplash.