National Center for Research in Vocational Education
University of California, Berkeley


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Linking School- and Work-Based Learning:
La Guardia's Co-op Seminars

One of the key challenges in vocational education is how to effectively connect school-based and work-based learning. Although there are relatively few examples of efforts in the U.S. that accomplish this goal, the model of the co-op seminar used at La Guardia Community College in New York City is one that provides some guidance for emerging school-to-work programs.

When La Guardia Community College was founded in 1971, its first president established a culture of innovation and experimentation that, faculty say, has persisted to this day. Since its inception, La Guardia has required all full-time students to enroll in a series of co-operative education internships and seminars. The rationale for the co-op program states: "La Guardia's educational philosophy is that learning takes place in many different settings both in and outside the classroom."

It is clear that La Guardia has thought hard, over a long period of time, about the multiple elements of a successful program. The seminars are offered as evening or weekend courses, and are taken in conjunction with each of the co-op placements. Students examine a variety of issues related to work in general, the organization in which they are placed, and the ways in which their academic preparation is applied at the worksite. From this perspective, the seminars represent a well-considered effort to link school- and work-based learning that is equally applicable at the high school level.

Researchers W. Norton Grubb and Norena Badway examine the La Guardia co-op seminars in their report, Linking School-Based and Work-Based Learning: The Implications of La Guardia's Co-op Seminars for School-to-Work Programs. Their findings suggest that while the structure and role of the co-op seminar is sound, its effectiveness also depends on other factors. These include the background and training of the instructor, his or her understanding of the seminar's purposes, the instructional methods used, and the integration of the program into the larger college curriculum.

The Co-op Program at La Guardia

La Guardia's co-op program has three main purposes: 1) to explore various career interests or confirm career plans; 2) to apply classroom learning to real situations; and 3) to practice and strengthen interpersonal and work-related skills. Every full-time student at La Guardia is required to enroll in three 12-week internships or co-op placements that vary from 15 to 40 hours per week. The main elements of the program include a course that prepares students for their first co-op placement; planning sessions with a faculty advisor; the three internships; and the co-op seminar, a six-week evening or weekend course taken in conjunction with the internship.

All co-op instructors have faculty status, participate in governance and staff development activities of the college, and sometimes collaborate with faculty in other departments. However, there are no ongoing or systematic efforts to coordinate the content of regular classes with the co-op placements. Most other faculty have little awareness of what takes place in the program, and few faculty make use of co-op experiences in their classes. Because of the program's peripheral status in the college, it is particularly vulnerable to experiencing a disproportionate share of any budget cuts.

A Well-Conceived Seminar

The co-op seminar has been part of La Guardia's program from the start. There are three levels of seminars, and each is taken during one of the three co-op placements. The first and third seminars may be generic, focusing on common workplace issues regardless of discipline, or major-specific, focusing on applications particular to a student's chosen area of study. All students take the second seminar, "Fundamentals of Career Advancement," which focuses on using the workplace to gain information about skills and personal requirements for upward mobility. An important element in the seminar is a "map" for getting the most out of any work experience by replicating strategies used by successful executives.

In practice, the seminars serve one of three purposes. The first is allowing students to explore the career options they face. By combining a work placement with activities for reflection, students receive a much more active form of career exploration than is usually available in either high schools or community colleges. This results in a high rate of change in occupational goals, as students match their newly acquired knowledge about their interests and aptitudes to career selection. A second purpose is to present certain skills and competencies required on the job. The third purpose--a more humanistic one--affords students the opportunity to use their own specific internships to explore larger social, ethical, political, and moral themes associated with working.

In recent years, fiscal constraints have motivated the college to replace seminars specific to occupational majors with ones that are more generic. In doing so, La Guardia has taken a constructivist approach to experiential learning, helping students "learn how to learn" a variety of interpersonal and occupational skills from the workplace. Today the co-op seminars are viewed as a place where students can examine their own work experiences from multiple perspectives and disciplines.

Teachers and Teaching

Instructors for the co-op seminars are local employers, co-op faculty, and occasionally instructors or administrators from other divisions of La Guardia. One of the special advantages of instructors from the business world is that they can provide "true stories" from the workplace that students find engaging. Beyond an annual co-op orientation, however, seminar instructors from outside the college receive no additional training. To address this problem, program staff developed texts that, at least to an extent, help standardize the seminars' content. In the past, the program has also tried to promote a teaching approach called TAR--Teach, Apply, Reinforce--that appears in many of the seminar texts. Due to changes in technology and workplace practices, however, program materials have become outdated, and revisions have been slow because there is no funding to update them.

Even in a format conducive to student-centered learning, opportunities for reflection and critical thinking are sometimes lost. Some outstanding instructors use techniques that encourage students to reflect upon employment practices and their own work experiences, and to compare them with the skills and competencies learned in the classroom. However, it was often the case that the seminars were dominated by lecture and "teacher talk." The consistent use of writing assignments to provide opportunities for reflection and analysis helped to mitigate the teacher-dominated instruction within these classrooms.

Implications

The authors believe an approach such as the co-op seminars can be successful in linking school- and work-based learning. The La Guardia experience provides a number of lessons for others considering setting up similar connecting activities.
  1. Even when budgets are tight, the presence of large numbers of students in co-op creates the economies of scale necessary to support programs such as co-op seminars.
  2. Students should be required to complete at least one or more courses in their major (and any necessary remedial work) before beginning work placements and seminars. This gives students a foundation of relevant knowledge.
  3. The training of all faculty teaching such seminars must be a priority to avoid their relying upon conventional didactic, teacher-dominated approaches.
  4. The work-based component of school-to-work programs must become so central to the educational purposes of their institutions that, even in times of scarcity, it becomes unthinkable to give them up.

This product brief summarizes Linking School-Based and Work-Based Learning: The Implications of La Guardia's Co-op Seminars for School-to-Work Programs, by W. Norton Grubb and Norena Badway, December 1995, MDS-1046, $3.25. To order the complete report, call NCRVE's Materials Distribution Service at (800) 637-7652. Abstracts of all NCRVE publications may be viewed online at http://ncrve.berkeley.edu/ProdCat.html

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NCRVE is a consortium of eight institutions headquartered at the University of California, Berkeley, and supported by the Office of Vocational and Adult Education, U.S. Department of Education. Through research, development, and direct assistance to schools, we promote education that prepares all students for college, careers, and lifelong learning.