Perceived Structure of Advanced Cognitive Skills for Adolescents with Learning Disabilities
| Jay W. Rojewski
The University of Georgia
| John W. Schell
The University of Georgia
| Earle Reybold
The University of Georgia
| Cheryl E. P. Evanciew
The University of Georgia
Over the past decade, the preparation of adolescents with learning disabilities for the transition from high school to postsecondary education and employment has emerged as a national priority. Gradually, exemplary transition program components and appropriate postsecondary alternatives for youths with learning disabilities have evolved (Adelman & Wren, 1990;Dalke & Schmitt, 1987; Rojewski, 1992; Rosenthal, 1989). More recently, the importance of providing opportunities for adolescents with special learning needs to develop problem-solving, reasoning, and thinking skills in order to maximize their chances for a successful transition from adolescence to adult life has been acknowledged (Leshowitz, Jenkens, Heaton, & Bough, 1993; Means, Chelemer, & Knapp, 1991; Rojewski & Schell, 1994). The need to integrate advanced cognitive skills development with traditional occupational and academic (basic) skills reflects a growing maturity within the profession and recognizes that successful workers must solve problems and make decisions in highly complex, ill-structured environments (D'Ignazio, 1990).
The Role of Learning Disabilities in Advanced Cognition
Learning disabilities are the most frequent types of disability encountered by secondary educators. Learning disability is a generic term that refers to a number of different behavioral and educational performance deficits that range from mild to severe. Students with learning disabilities typically possess average or above-average intelligence; however, they all experience difficulty in some facet of learning (Hardman, Drew, Egan, & Wolf, 1993; Smith & Luckasson, 1995). While limited, literature that focuses on advanced cognitive skills development in adolescents with learning disabilities shows that these individuals lag behind nondisabled peers (Borkowski, Estrada, Milstead, & Hale, 1989; Swanson, Christie, & Rubadeau, 1993; Vogel & Walsh, 1987). A number of explanations have been advanced for this phenomenon, including poor learning strategies, problems in generalizing information from one environment to another, a tendency to be passive in the learning process, poor organizational skills, and a host of academic-related difficulties such as low/inconsistent academic performance and limited attention span (Lessen, Dudzinski, Karsh, & Van Acker, 1989; Rosenthal, 1989; Sarkees & Scott, 1986).
While adolescents with learning disabilities may exhibit various learning or thinking deficits, they are also less likely to receive advanced cognitive skills instruction and more likely to receive basic skills remediation than more advantaged peers (Allington & McGill-Franzen, 1989; Leshowitz et al.,1993). "Teachers are more directive with educationally disadvantaged students, breaking each task down into smaller pieces, walking students through step-by-step, and leaving them with less opportunity to exercise higher-order thinking skills" (Means & Knapp, 1991, p. 3). The reliance on this curricular emphasis has only recently begun to be seriously questioned. Thus, research that focuses on the success of educational interventions designed to promote advanced cognitive thinking in adolescents with learning disabilities has been relatively recent. Our review of the literature did not locate research that focused on the development of advanced cognitive skills for individuals with learning disabilities in secondary or postsecondary vocational preparation contexts.
It is important that efforts to incorporate advanced cognitive skill development in vocational-technical education for youth with learning disabilities are intensified. Research in a number of academic disciplines has demonstrated the benefits of targeted strategies designed to enhance advanced thinking skills in adolescents with learning disabilities. Using principles of the scientific method and direct instruction (Leshowitz et al., 1993), research has demonstrated that the advanced cognition of adolescents with learning disabilities can be enhanced in a number of ways--such as promoting academic problem-solving skills and strategies (Ellis & Lenz, 1987), problem-solving in mathematics (Mayer, 1993; Montague, Applegate, & Marquard, 1993), development of metacognitive skills through reading (Cornoldi, 1990; Winn, 1994), and interpersonal skill development and problem-solving (Shondrick, Serafica, Clark, & Miller, 1992; Stone & Reid, 1994).
Not everyone embraces the idea that students with special learning needs should be involved in programs that provide advanced cognitive skills training. However, a growing body of research appears to suggest that given appropriate educational supports like training in problem-solving strategies, provision of individualized instruction and tutoring (i.e., resource room), and use of compensatory teaching and learning strategies, these individuals can develop advanced thinking skills and should not be excluded from instructional opportunities designed to develop them (Berryman, 1991; Brown, Collins, & Duguid, 1989; Leshowitz et al., 1993; McGill-Franzen & Allington, 1991; Means, Chelemer, & Knapp, 1991; Palincsar, 1990; Reid & Stone, 1991).
Involvement of Adolescents with Learning Disabilities in Vocational Programming
Secondary vocational education has a recognized role in preparing youth with special needs for transition to postsecondary education and employment (Meers, 1987; Retish, Hitchings, Horvath, & Schmalle, 1991). Unfortunately, secondary vocational curricula has been criticized for not remaining current with changing demands encountered in the workplace and for an absence of elements that foster higher order thinking skills (Resnick, 1987). Over the past several years, however, vocational researchers and theorists have initiated dialogue regarding the inclusion of advanced cognitive skills in vocational programs (Berryman, 1991; Raizen, 1989; Schell & Rojewski, 1993; Thomas & Englund, 1990; Way, 1989). This dialogue has, in part, led to a number of reform efforts in secondary vocational programs that either directly or indirectly provide opportunities for advanced cognitive skill development, including the integration of academic and vocational curricula, the Tech Prep initiative, and applied academic-vocational programming. Even so, attention to this issue is still in the initial stages and has not been readily discussed or adopted by many practitioners. Consideration of how special populations (including adolescents with learning disabilities) should be involved in programs that develop advanced thinking and reasoning skills has received only scant attention in the vocational-technical literature (Rojewski & Gohdes, 1995; Schell & Babich, 1993).
Given the increasing demands for a citizenry that can solve complex problems, think critically, and make decisions in ill-structured situations, it seems imperative that vocational special educators emphasize advanced cognitive skill development in the courses they teach. Vocational special education programs are in an excellent position to promote advanced thinking skills because of a reliance on instructional elements known to enhance the development of thinking and reasoning skills, including community-based training, social skills development, vocational preparation, use of concrete versus abstract instructional approaches, and the development of situation-specific competencies (Berryman, 1991; Brown et al., 1989; Collins, Hawkins, & Carver, 1991; Resnick, 1987; Rojewski & Schell, 1994).
Need for Study
A number of factors may influence the degree to which vocational special educators develop curricula designed to stimulate higher order thinking skills and actively involve students with learning disabilities in these programs. One critical factor involves educators' perceptions about the nature and feasibility of developing the advanced cognitive skills of youth with learning disabilities. An examination of vocational special educators' perceptions about advanced cognition is important and may offer several potential benefits. For example, this type of investigation supports the formation of solid theoretical underpinnings as programs that develop the advanced thinking of students with learning disabilities are designed and implemented. Reid (1991) argued that, as a field, education for special populations professionals has historically lacked serious interest in the theoretical underpinnings of practice. This lack of interest hinders the development of insights that could enhance programming efforts at a time when the field is being challenged to validate educational practices (Vogel, 1990).
Another equally important issue is that the perceptions of educators charged with developing and delivering cognitive-based vocational programs will ultimately determine student involvement and success. Research has pointed to the critical relationship that exists between teacher perceptions and the degree of effectiveness in teaching students with special needs (Larrivee & Cook, 1979; Okolo & Sitlington, 1989). Shada (1985) declared that the perceptions of vocational educators were a determining factor in the success or failure experienced by students with special needs in secondary vocational programs.
Unfortunately, many teachers have lower expectations of students with learning disabilities (Hardman et al., 1993). Carnine and Kameenui (1992) observed that "high expectations cannot be overemphasized. As long as educators believe that a learning disability makes a student incapable of higher order thinking, they will not search out and implement effective interventions" (p. 2). Means, Chelemer, and Knapp (1991) countered by calling for a new attitude toward the capabilities of student with learning difficulties. This sentiment has been echoed by a number of others (Kavale & Reese, 1991; Means & Knapp, 1991; Reid & Stone, 1991; Rojewski & Schell, 1994). Means, Chelemer, and Knapp further asserted that successful acquisition of advanced thinking and reasoning skills will only result from teachers being able to adapt and, in some cases, make wholesale changes to their beliefs about teaching and learning and the capabilities of learners with special needs to meet these changes.
Purpose of Study
It is becoming increasingly important that adolescents with special learning needs are provided opportunities to acquire advanced cognitive skills in preparation for the transition from school to adult life. The purpose of this study was to identify and examine the perceptions of vocational special educators about salient issues emerging from the professional literature regarding advanced cognitive skill development as they apply to adolescents with learning disabilities. To accomplish this goal, two research objectives were established. First, an attempt was made to determine whether vocational special educators identify and attribute select dimensions of advanced cognitive skills development originally identified for nondisabled populations to adolescents with learning disabilities. Secondly, the influence of select work-related variables (i.e., employment position, highest degree earned, and years of experience) on identified dimensions were examined. These results may be useful for teacher training and inservice efforts, as well as in the design of instructional programs featuring advanced cognitive skill development.
The professional literature highlights three important issues that appear to play key roles in the development of advanced cognitive skills, including a revision of faulty assumptions about the learning process, the role of context in learning (situated learning), and generalization or transfer of information from one context to another (Bransford & Vye, 1989; Caine & Caine, 1991; Spiro, Coulson, Feltovich, & Anderson, 1988). While not exhaustive, these three issues do provide a conceptual base for understanding how and why learners develop and apply more thoughtful responses to problems. They can also be used to structure investigations into the nature of advanced cognitive skill development in vocational special education and transition programs.
Faulty Assumptions About Pedagogy
Several cognitive theorists believe that our education system is based on incorrect assumptions about learning (Berryman, 1991; McGill-Franzen & Allington, 1991). They argue that current methods of teaching and learning are not consistent with the way people actually think and react in real-life situations. Resnick (1987) observed that school-based learning often encourages individual performance, fosters unaided thought, cultivates symbolic thinking, and teaches only general skills and knowledge. In direct contrast, success in modern society requires mental activity that is socially shared, requires an ability to solve complex problems, engages directly with objects and situations, and requires situation-specific knowledge (D'Ignazio, 1990).
The assumption that learners must be taught basic fundamental skills in order to obtain the prerequisites necessary to tackle advanced cognitive skills has also been challenged in recent years (Berryman, 1991; Brown et al., 1989; Means, Chelemer, & Knapp, 1991; Reid & Stone, 1991; Stone & Reid, 1994). Critics charge that a reliance on a hierarchical approach to learning most often results in a repetitious cycle of basic skills remediation. Under these conditions many learners with special needs never progress to problems that develop advanced cognitive skills (Means & Knapp, 1991). A linear approach to learning also fragments and isolates knowledge from the contexts in which it is applied.
Berryman and Bailey (1992) identified five mistaken assumptions about learners that inhibit the development of advanced cognitive skills in school-based programs. These faulty assumptions included (a) learners predictably transfer learning to new situations, (b) learners are passive vessels into which knowledge is poured, (c) learning is really the development of a bond between stimulus and response, (d) the most important part of learning is getting the right answer, and (e) to ensure transfer, skills and knowledge should be acquired independently of the context where it is used. Berryman and Bailey also argued that traditional schooling practices place responsibility for learning squarely on the student. Thus, if learning fails to take place, learners are to blame.
Taken as a whole, faulty assumptions about school-based learning restrict the potential for acquiring advanced cognitive skills. This impact is especially true for learners with special needs who often take longer, require repeated exposure (rehearsal), benefit most from concrete experience during the learning process (Hardman et al., 1993; Means Chelemer, & Knapp, 1991), and "do not fare well academically in general education classrooms . . . where undifferentiated large-group instruction is the norm" (Vaughn & Schumm, 1995, p. 264).
One possible solution to concerns about the development of advanced cognition is to allow learning to occur in authentic contexts where students are required to solve real-life problems (Brown et al., 1989; Collins et al., 1991). Over the years, research studies have illustrated the benefits of providing authentic contexts to support development of advanced thinking skills (Lave, 1988; Raizen, 1989; Rogoff, 1984; Rogoff & Lave, 1984; Scribner & Fahrmeier, 1982). In general, these studies show that the teaching and learning of advanced cognitive skills becomes highly dependent on context. The more authentic a learning environment becomes, the more likely advanced learning will occur. Likewise, people use the same skills in different ways depending on the environment. Theorists contend that the abstract conditions typically found in classrooms may actually inhibit the development of advanced cognitive skills and the use of school-based knowledge and skills at a later time (Berryman, 1991; Palincsar, 1990; Resnick, 1987; Spiro et al., 1988). Concerns over programs specifically designed to promote advanced cognitive skill development in adolescents with learning disabilities have also been targeted. Lucangeli, Galderisi, and Cornoldi (1995) observed that these programs "sometimes run the risk of being overly structured, rigid, and demanding, thus blocking the flexible use of sufficient cognitive resources" (p. 17).
Transfer of Learning
Public education is founded on a belief that knowledge acquired in school will transfer to other settings. Unfortunately, transfer of knowledge seldom occurs spontaneously. Research shows that students do not routinely transfer school knowledge to everyday practice; they do not employ knowledge learned outside of school when acquiring school-based disciplines; and learning is not applied predictably from one school subject to another (Berryman, 1991; Brooks & Dansereau, 1987; Resnick, 1987).
Concerns about limited learning transfer has also been recognized and discussed extensively in the literature pertaining to adolescents with learning disabilities (Borkowski et al., 1989; Lucangeli et al., 1995; Wong, 1994). The difficulties in transfer of knowledge experienced by this population may be a direct result of deficits in problem-solving ability (Brownell, Mellard, & Deshler, 1993). Wong (1994) suggested that difficulties in transfer may be attributable to insufficient mindfulness (i.e., guided, purposeful metacognition) often observed in this population during learning tasks.
Transfer can either be context-independent where knowledge and skills can be applied in numerous settings or context-dependent where specific knowledge within particular subject matter is affected (Cormier & Hagman, 1987). While a general capacity to transfer information may not exist, context-dependent knowledge transfer is an important goal for educators that must be intentionally cued, primed, and guided (Brown et al., 1989; Palincsar, 1990; Perkins & Salomon, 1989). Caine and Caine (1991) believe that the transfer of skills and concepts from one situation to another is enhanced when instructional activities are organized to appeal to learners' emotional needs for relevance and meaning. If knowledge has no apparent application, it may not be perceived as meaningful, and therefore, not readily transferred to other learning situations (Bransford, Sherwood, Hasselbring, Kinzer, & Williams, 1990; Palincsar, 1990).
In summary, issues that emerge from our faulty assumptions of learning, situated learning, and knowledge transfer may hold several keys to the development of advanced cognitive skills in students with special learning needs. Advanced cognitive skill development is encouraged when faulty assumptions of learning are replaced with more contemporary beliefs, learning is situated in real world activities, and teaching activates knowledge for use in multiple contexts (Rojewski & Schell, 1994).
Members of the National Association of Vocational Education Special Needs Personnel (NAVESNP) formed the accessible population for this study. NAVESNP is a professional organization comprised of paraprofessionals, teachers, counselors, and administrators of vocational programs for adolescents and young adults with special needs. A systematic random sampling procedure was used to select a total of 490 individuals from NAVESNP rosters. The required sample size for this study was calculated from a total population of 1,788 individuals at a 90 percent confidence level using accepted formulas (Krejcie & Morgan, 1970; Nunnery & Kimbrough, 1971).
A total of 245 individuals returned usable questionnaires that were included in the final research sample. A majority of those responding were female (n = 172), with approximately half of the sample (47.1%) between 38 and 47 years of age (M = 44.4 years, SD = 9.3). Participants reported working in rural school districts most frequently (48.1%), followed by suburban (30.5%), and urban (21.4%) school settings. Respondents held a number of different job responsibilities including direct student instruction (n = 120), supportive or consultative roles (n = 45), and administrative level positions (n = 77). The sample reflected a high level of education; all but one individual had earned a baccalaureate degree, while over three-fourths of those surveyed had earned a master's degree or higher (82.9%). Reported years of experience in vocational special education ranged from 1 to 41 years, averaging 16.88 years (SD = 7.75).
A two-part questionnaire was used to collect data. The first part requested demographic information including gender, age, current position, highest degree earned, years of teaching experience, and location of school. The second portion of the questionnaire consisted of 22 separate statements designed to ascertain perceptions of special populations personnel about teaching advanced cognitive skills to adolescents with learning disabilities. Items were developed to reflect major issues and theoretical constructs represented in the professional literature on advanced cognitive skill development, including assumptions about learning, the importance of context (i.e., authentic activities), and knowledge transfer. Additional items were designed to assess respondents' orientation toward advanced cognitive skills development for adolescents with learning disabilities (e.g., importance of advanced cognitive development and potential of this population to acquire advanced cognitive skills). Participants were specifically directed in a cover letter and on the questionnaire to respond to each statement on the basis of how items applied to students with learning disabilities. Questionnaire directions also included a brief definition of learning disability to ensure that respondents had a similar interpretation of the items. A 4-point Likert-type scale was used (1 = Strongly disagree, 2 = Disagree, 3 = Agree, 4 = Strongly agree).
Once items had been developed to reflect major theoretical issues associated with advanced cognition, the scale was pilot tested with a group of teachers practicing in Georgia (n = 22). The pilot group was asked to respond to the scale and provide feedback on the clarity and interpretation of each item. Slight modifications, primarily in wording, were made based on the recommendations of this group. A retest with this same group was conducted after a two week interval resulting in a high test-retest reliability coefficient of (r = .95).
An initial questionnaire, cover letter, and pre-addressed, stamped envelope were mailed to 490 potential respondents during the Fall of 1993. Following a three-week waiting period, a second complete survey packet was mailed to nonrespondents. Returned surveys were accepted for an additional 3-week period at which time data collection ceased. This two-stage process resulted in a total of 245 usable questionnaires being returned, for a response rate of 50%. A series of t-test procedures was used to examine the possibility of response bias between early and late respondents. However, no significant differences were detected on the 22 perception items.
A combination of descriptive and inferential statistics was used to address each research question. An exploratory principal components factor analysis with varimax rotation was performed to determine if a smaller number of underlying issues or dimensions could be identified from the set of perception items. Initially, the appropriateness of using factor analytic techniques with the present data set needed to be determined. The resulting Kaiser-Meyer-Oklin (KMO) statistic was somewhat mediocre (KMO = .63) but did support the use of factor analysis (Norusis, 1988). Bartlett's test of sphericity also supported the decision to use a factor analytic approach (Bartlett's statistic = 717.09, p <. 00001). Multivariate analysis of variance (MANOVA) was used to determine the impact of select demographic variables on identified perception factors. Descriptive discriminant analysis was planned as the post hoc procedure for pinpointing differences in significant omnibus tests.
Descriptive statistics were generated in order to examine participant response patterns for each of the 22 perception scale items. Group responses ranged from a low mean score of 1.32 (SD = .55) to a high mean score of 3.61 (SD = .55). The item with the lowest value revealed a belief that authentic learning situations do have an effect on learning outcomes. Similarly, the highest rated item supported the idea that It is necessary to connect classroom activities with students' life experiences. Table 1 displays responses to individual perception items along with the content of each item.
|Perceptions of Advanced Cognitive Skills for Adolescents with Learning Disabilities.*|
|1 Students should take responsibility for their own they are directly exposed.||3.12||.70|
|2 Students can only be expected to solve problems to which learning.||2.49||.75|
|3 Students learn best when basic concepts are mastered before moving to more difficult applications.||3.35||.68|
|4 Special needs teachers should take primary
responsibility for students' learning.
|5 It is necessary to connect classroom activities with
students' life experiences.
|6 Placing students in authentic situations has little
effect on learning outcomes.
|7 Higher order thinking is more likely to occur when
students are placed in a realistic situation rather than
in a classroom.
|8 Students can apply information learned in the
classroom to tasks outside of school.
|9 Students can predictably use information learned in
my class to solve problems in other classes.
|10 Students predictably use information learned at work
to solve classroom problems.
|11 Students are passive learners (e.g., they often rely on
you for explicit directions).
|12 Students are more likely to solve a difficult problem
when using information that is important to them.
|13 Students have difficulty solving complex problems
with multiple correct answers.
|14 Occupational education students do not use problem
solving strategies similar to those used by competent
workers in a given occupation.
|15 Occupational students should model problem solving
strategies used by workers in a given occupation.
|16 Students solve complex problems best when provided
with a checklist.
|17 Advanced workers in a given occupational field use
the same cognitive skills as do occupational students
when solving difficult work-place problems.
|18 Higher order thinking is an important part of a
|19 Any student can learn higher order thinking skills.||2.74||.89|
|20 Students learn best when challenging work is delayed
until basic skills are mastered.
|21 Special needs teachers too often underestimate
student cognitive capability.
|22 Students usually begin a new learning experience
with some foundational knowledge.
| Note: *Participants were specifically directed to respond to scale items on the basis of how each item applied to individuals with learning disabilities. Questionnaire directions also included a brief definition of learning disability to ensure that respondents made similar interpretations of items. Items were phrased in a more generic fashion (students rather than students with learning disabilities) primarily for spacing and format reasons.
A 4-point Likert-type scale was used for measuring response (1 = Strongly disagree, 2 = Disagree, 3 = Agree, 4 = Strongly agree).
One purpose of this study was to empirically identify underlying dimensions inherent in the perceptions of vocational special educators. Since a pre-existing data structure was not assumed, an exploratory principal components factor analysis with varimax rotation was selected to identify the latent dimensions represented by the 22 perception scale items (Dixon, Brown, Engelman, Hill, & Jennrich, 1988).
A four-factor solution was adopted for rotation based on established selection criteria (Tinsley & Tinsley, 1987). Only factors with eigenvalues of 1.50 or greater were retained. This process was visually corroborated by a scree plot. As a result of these criteria, three additional factors were not selected for rotation because they accounted for extremely small percentages of total variance and were considered residual or error factors. This procedure led to adoption of a four-factor solution that accounted for 40.37% of the total variance.
A conservative criterion loading of .40 was used to determine whether individual scale items were considered for a given factor. This cut-off loading was more stringent than the typical value of .30 and was arbitrarily selected to ensure a greater degree of confidence in the factor loadings. A criterion loading of .40 indicated that approximately 16% of the variance in a given scale item was explained by that factor (Tinsley & Tinsley, 1987). As a result, several items did not meet the criterion cut-off and were not considered when identifying and naming each factor including Item 1 on Factor 3 and Item 2 on Factor 4 (see Table 2).
Factor 1, or Transfer, items dealt with various aspects of knowledge transfer including the predictability of transfer from school to work, work to school, and transfer between different classes in school. Higher scores on this factor characterized persons who believed that knowledge transfer readily occurred and that classroom knowledge was roughly equivalent to that found in the workplace. Factor 1, Transfer, accounted for 10.59% of the total variance.
The six discrete items that comprised the second factor reflected faulty assumptions of learning that inhibit advanced cognitive skill development. Factor 2, labeled Assumptions about Pedagogy, accounted for 10.14% of the total variance of the data. High scores on this factor indicated a belief in the traditional assumptions of learning discussed earlier--including a hierarchical approach to learning (basics before advanced learning), passive and dependent nature of learners with special needs, the difficulty encountered when solving ill-structured problems, and a need for checklists to solve complex problems.
Factor 3, which accounted for 10.05% of the total variance, was titled Context because items on this dimension dealt with the need to connect classroom learning with authentic problems and situations encountered in real life, the use of context to bring relevance and meaning to the learning process, and the benefits of using authentic contexts (e.g., modeling appropriate work behavior).
The final factor included items that dealt primarily with the types and degree of opportunities that should be afforded to students with learning disabilities to develop advanced cognitive skills. This dimension reflected a belief that advanced thinking skills are an important outcome of education and students with learning disabilities acquire these skills. An additional item addressed the issue of foundational knowledge that educators could use to anchor advanced instruction. This factor, labeled Opportunity for Advanced Cognitive Development to reflect the predominant theme of items, accounted for 9.59% of the total variance.
|Varimax-Rotated Factor Loading Matrix for Principal Components Analysis of Perceptions Toward Advanced Cognitive Skills in Adolescents with Learning Disabilities.|
|Attitude Scale Items||Factors|
|% total variance||10.59||10.14||10.05||9.59||40.37|
| Note. Numbers in parentheses are the squares of each factor loading.
* Factor loadings of .40 or higher were considered when naming each factor.
A second purpose of this study was to examine the influence of select work-related variables (i.e., employment position, highest degree earned, and years of experience) on identified perception factors (dependent variables). A multivariate analysis of variance (MANOVA) was chosen for this purpose. MANOVA is a statistical test that is used to determine the effects of one or more independent variables on two or more dependent variables while controlling for Type I error (Haase & Ellis, 1987). Results revealed no significant differences in perceptions among direct service providers (i.e., teachers), indirect providers (e.g., counselors, evaluators), and administrative personnel, F (8, 350) = 1.24; respondents with either baccalaureate, masters, or advanced graduate degrees, F (8, 348) = 1.37; or on the basis of years of experience, F (12,463) = 1.07.
This study found that vocational special educators identified and applied the same theoretical explanations of advanced cognitive skills development used for nondisabled persons to adolescents with learning disabilities. Respondents also viewed higher order thinking skills as an important and viable component of preparing students with learning disabilities for the transition from school to adult life, recognized the importance of ensuring relevance and meaning when solving difficult problems, and acknowledged the role of context and authentic activity in advanced cognitive skill development. These individuals also recognized a need to connect classroom learning with real-life problems and situations in order to enhance the development of advanced thinking and declared that higher order thinking is most likely to occur when students are placed in realistic environments rather than artificial situations (like classrooms).
These thoughts reflect the general views of theorists such as Berryman (1991), Brown et al. (1989), Caine and Caine (1991), Resnick (1987), and others who advocate the benefits of using real-world environments for the development of basic and advanced thinking skills. While positive recognition of the role that context and authentic activity play in the development of advanced cognition is encouraging, additional study is needed to determine exactly how vocational special educators interpret and apply context. For example, do job training programs that utilize community placements (i.e., authentic activities) incorporate elements considered critical to the development of higher order thinking skills? Do vocational special educators recognize that merely placing students in authentic activities will not automatically enhance advanced cognitive skill development?
On a separate issue, educators generally indicated a considerable reliance on the hierarchical approach to instructing youths with learning disabilities (basic skills mastery before advanced skill training). In addition, respondents expressed their belief that complex problems could be solved through a checklist approach. Both of these beliefs contradict recent literature that indicates advanced thinking occurs best simultaneously with basic skill development through exposure to solving ill-structured, complex problems encountered in authentic situations (Berryman, 1991; Brown et al., 1989; Collins et al., 1991; Means, Chelemer, & Knapp, 1991; Resnick, 1987). In contrast, these beliefs support long-held instructional traditions such as direct instruction, task analysis, and a linear, behavioral approach that have been successfully used for adolescents with special needs (Vaughn & Schumm, 1995). Whether these two approaches are compatible or oppositional in the development of advanced cognition for adolescents with learning disabilities remains to be seen (Borkowski et al., 1989).
An exploratory factor analysis identified four dimensions of educators' perceptions including transfer, assumptions about pedagogy, context, and opportunities for advanced cognitive development. Identification of these factors reflects previously identified foundations of higher order thinking skills (Brown et al., 1989; Lave, 1988; Palincsar, 1990; Resnick, 1987; Spiro et al., 1988). Interestingly, work-related variables such as employment position, highest degree earned, and years of experience had no significant impact on determining respondents' perceptions among advanced cognitive skills development. These three variables were initially selected to examine the influence that (a) type and amount of direct contact with adolescents, (b) length of service, and (c) education had on perceptions. Each of these variables reflected some aspect of educators' experience with school systems and students, and held the potential to explain obtained results. Further, we envisioned that results (if significant) would help to establish a better understanding of the development of teacher perceptions in relation to job tenure and awareness.
The lack of influence of the work-related variables on perceptions may be interpreted in several ways. One possible explanation might be tied to the recent emergence of advanced cognition as an educational goal in vocational-technical programs. Limited exposure and experience with developing higher order thinking skills may have resulted in a lack of variability in views. Perhaps professionals' views on this topic will become better defined as knowledge and experience develops. A second explanation might be that there are, indeed, no real differences among professionals on the basis of work-related variables. Either way, additional investigation is needed before a definite answer can be advanced.
Several limitations of this investigation must be acknowledged as the findings of this study are interpreted and discussed. First, generalization of findings beyond the current population is not warranted. Similarly, limitations inherent in the self-report methodology must be kept in mind. Third, the factors identified in this study reflect the nature of the items included in the perception scale. As such, these factors may or may not be the main or sole factors that support advanced cognitive skills development in adolescents with learning disabilities and should not be viewed as such. It is also important to remember that these results did not confirm the existence of factors associated with advanced cognitive skills development. Rather, findings reflected the views of vocational special educators among factors identified in the literature as they apply to adolescents with learning disabilities. On this matter, respondents perceived that the underlying issues involved in advanced cognition for adolescents with learning disabilities were similar to those previously identified for nondisabled populations (Berryman, 1991; Brown et al., 1989; Caine & Caine, 1991; Collins et al., 1991; Lave, 1988; Means, Chelemer, & Knapp., 1991; Resnick, 1987; Rogoff, 1984). This may indicate that educators charged with the task of preparing young people for the transition from school to the world of work believe that these issues are also relevant for adolescents with learning disabilities. Future research should determine the extent to which these perceived factors can be replicated and identify additional factors that may contribute and explain advanced cognition.
Results of this study can contribute to the design and implementation of teacher training and inservice activities that prepare vocational special educators to develop the higher order thinking skills of their students. The knowledge that vocational special educators are receptive and supportive of incorporating advanced cognition into vocational and transition program components is encouraging. This suggests that these educators are willing to try out and adopt new and innovative methods of developing advanced cognitive skills in special populations.
Given the increasing demands for a citizenry that can solve complex problems, think critically, and make decisions in ill-structured situations, it seems imperative that vocational special educators emphasize advanced cognitive skill development in the courses they teach. Vocational special education programs are in an excellent position to promote advanced thinking skills because of their reliance on instructional elements known to enhance the development of thinking and reasoning skills--including community-based training, social skills development, vocational preparation, use of concrete versus abstract instructional approaches, and the development of situation specific competencies (Berryman, 1991; Brown et al., 1989; Collins et al., 1991; Resnick, 1987; Rojewski & Schell, 1994). Educators, administrators, and program developers must actively integrate instruction that supports advanced cognitive skills development in youths with special needs.
From a theoretical perspective, the present study does contribute to our understanding of how educators view advanced cognitive skills development in young people with disabilities. However, questions pertaining to this issue remain unanswered. For example, data that describes the types and extent of advanced cognitive skills training in secondary vocational preparation programs for adolescents with learning disabilities is currently not available. Establishing this baseline information could be helpful in identifying exemplary program components in secondary vocational and transition programs that develop higher order thinking skills. Investigation into effective methods of training and retraining educators to maximize problem-solving, decision-making, and reasoning skills in youth with learning disabilities is also warranted. Professionals must continue to tie successful elements of teaching and program design to sound theoretical principles for advanced cognition. Only through a sound theoretical base can we maximize advanced cognitive skill development in adolescents with learning disabilities who are preparing for the transition from school to adult life.
Rojewski is Associate Professor, Occupational Studies, School of Leadership and Lifelong Learning
Schell is Associate Professor, Occupational Studies, School of Leadership and Lifelong Learning
Reybold is graduate assistant, School of Leadership and Lifelong Learning
Evanciew is graduate assistant, Occupational Studies; University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia.
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