April 1997 // Volume 35 // Number 2 // Feature Articles // 2FEA1

Previous Article Issue Contents Previous Article

Skills and Competencies in 4-H Curriculum Materials

A stratified national sample of 4-H curriculum materials was analyzed to determine the extent to which workforce related skills and competencies were present in the objectives and activities. The materials examined showed fewer instances than expected of the life skills 4-H promotes (that is, decision making, problem solving, leadership), little evidence of interpersonal skills and competencies (that is, teamwork, works with diversity, negotiates), and a great emphasis on knowledge acquisition skills. The study raises questions about program plausibility and suggests a need to check curriculum integrity in all parts of the curriculum from goal setting to program development to implementation.

Gwen El Sawi
Consultant on youth development, workforce preparation, international development, and former Director of Experiential Education
National 4-H Council
Chevy Chase, Maryland
Internet Address: elsawi@wam.umd.edu

M. F. Smith
Professor, College of Agriculture and Natural Resources Coordinator of Extension Program Planning and Evaluation
University of Maryland
College Park, Maryland
Internet Address: MS74@umail.umd.edu


This research examined the extent to which workforce-related skills and competencies are present in the objectives and activities of the curricula of the 4-H youth program. Over the years, 4-H has focused on career development as a content area and emphasized the development of a set of "life skills" not unlike those that would enable a youth to be a valued employee -- as a youth and later as an adult.

Life skills, such as leadership, teamwork, decision making, problem solving, reasoning, and communication and personal qualities such as responsibility, self-esteem, and integrity can be found in almost any description of an Extension youth program. These are also among the skills and competencies identified in the America 2000 report published in 1991 by the Secretary of Labor's Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills (SCANS, 1991).

Critics of this study might argue that an examination of planned objectives and activities is not an examination of what actually occurs. They might say the interaction among participants, volunteers, and professionals during learning activities is a major part of the learning process. We agree. However, experience in working in the 4-H program and interviews with volunteers, staff, and participants (Smith, 1986) suggest that having an activity planned contributes significantly to its happening. If a skill is not present in the activities planned for youth, or if it occurs infrequently, then a greater probability exists that it will be overlooked when volunteers and youth decide how to spend their time.

A number of studies have been conducted with the intent of measuring differences in life skills between present or former 4- H participants and non-program participants (e.g., Ladewig & Thomas, 1987; Miller, J., 1991; Schlutt, E. F., Jr., 1987; and Waguespack, 1988). These studies used self reports and in some cases asked 4-H alumni to recall experiences from previous years. In spite of the fact that the research strategies used might tend to bias results in favor of the 4-H participant (Babbie, 1992), none of the studies confirmed that 4-H participants have more or different skills than those who did not participate in the program.

The present research effort did not measure if 4-H youth acquire workforce related skills and competencies; a long term comparison group design would be required for such a study. It did measure the extent that there are planned opportunities for youth to acquire such skills within a random sample of the most frequently used project materials. These results may help explain the findings in previous studies such as those mentioned above.


4-H curriculum materials were analyzed to identify which workforce-related skills and competencies were present, their frequency, where they occurred (in intended outcomes or activities), and their level of cognitive complexity. Data were then sorted to determine if trends emerged by curriculum category (U.S. Department of Agriculture/Extension Service, 1993).

A review of the 1993 USDA ES-237 report showed youth participation in 13 curriculum categories with 90 specific subject matter projects and activities. Participation in the five subject matter areas with the highest number of participants in each state accounted for 34% of all 4-H enrollment and was selected as the population of materials to be examined (5 materials X 50 states = 250 total materials).

A regionally stratified random sample of 100 of these materials (5 from each of 20 states) was selected to draw inferences about the population. For a homogeneous population and dichotomous variables, that is, a specific skill was either present or not, a sample of 100 should yield results with a precision of + 10% at a 95% level of confidence (Smith, 1985).

Workforce related skills and competencies were defined as the 36 identified by the Secretary of Labor's Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills (SCANS, 1991). These are grouped into three categories of foundation skills and five categories of competencies (see Exhibit I).

The level of cognitive complexity at which youth were expected to practice skills was defined by Bloom's Taxonomy of Educational Objectives (1956), a hierarchy of six progressively complex cognitive processes learners use to attain objectives or perform activities. From least to most complex these are: knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. After experience showed discrimination among some of the categories was not reliable (e.g., different coders labeled the same passage as analysis--category four--and evaluation-- category six), the six were collapsed into three levels from least to most complex:

Level I = Knowledge and Comprehension;
Level II = Application; and
Level III = Analysis, Synthesis, and Evaluation.

Data collection was a two-step process, coding (identifying a specific skill or competency and its location in objectives or activities), and recording and storing for analysis. Coding reliability checks were made by comparing the same material coded by the researcher at two points in time, and comparing the researcher's codes with those made by three other individuals. Scores from these procedures suggested the results are reliable within limits proposed by standards available for comparison (e.g., Miles and Huberman, 1984).

General Findings

  1. Interpersonal competencies (teamwork, teaches others, serves clients, exercises leadership, negotiates, and works with diversity) were rarely found in planned activities. Only one of these (teaches others) accounted for as much as 1% of the skills and competencies in all activities.

  2. While decision making and problem solving skills were present in some way in virtually all the materials, they were infrequent in activities where youth would have opportunity to put them into practice (i.e., each accounted for about 5% of all skills and competencies in activities).

  3. An inverse relationship was found between the skills and competencies occurring most frequently in intended outcomes where activities were not planned and in activities where objectives were not planned. For example, among the ten most prevalent skills and competencies in intended outcomes only, eight were least prevalent in activities only. These eight represent the types of skills--interpersonal and personal management--most frequently referenced in 4-H goal statements.

  4. Skills and competencies at the upper levels of Bloom's Taxonomy--analysis, synthesis, and evaluation--were least prevalent (12% in intended outcomes and 18% in activities) and those at the application level occurred the most (61% in intended outcomes and 49% in activities). The higher emphasis on application was expected, but it was not anticipated that less application would be presented in activities than in intended outcomes (objectives).

  5. Several curriculum categories showed very low frequencies for some skills and competencies that logic suggests would be extremely high. For example, the Exercises Leadership competency was virtually non-existent overall, accounting for less than half of 1% of all skills and competencies, and was present in only three of the 11 materials analyzed in the Personal Development and Leadership curriculum categories. Similarly, the Uses Computers to Process Information competency was absent in the Science and Technology category. The three technology-related competencies--Selects Technology, Applies Technology, and Maintains & Troubleshoots Equipment--were absent in more than 50% of the Science and Technology materials and each accounted for 1.5% or less of all skills and competencies in the activities in this category.

  6. All 36 of the workforce-related skills and competencies were present at least once in one or more of the materials analyzed, but were not equally prevalent. Knowledge acquisition skills and competencies were most prevalent and interpersonal competencies were among the least prevalent. For example, the Learning skill was found in 99% of the materials and accounted for the highest percentage of occurrence in intended outcomes and activities (21%); whereas the Works with Diversity competency was found in 7% of the materials and accounted for less than 1% of all skills and competencies found.


The curriculum materials examined showed fewer instances than expected of the skills and competencies that 4-H promotes most in terms of life skills development (e.g., teamwork, leadership, decision making, problem solving). They also showed far more emphasis on knowledge acquisition than on interpersonal skills development. These findings are consistent with those from an earlier study (Smith, 1986, p. 23) where only one of six 4-H leader materials examined identified life skills and suggested ways leaders might assist youth with life skills development; other materials focused on knowledge acquisition--the same predominant focus in materials studied for the present research.

To some extent this study raises the question of program validity, that is, does the 4-H program provide opportunities for participants to achieve intended outcomes? If the answer is "yes," a plausible program exists and one should find congruence (a) between the skills and personal qualities in the stated mission and goals of 4-H and the ones youth have opportunity to acquire through the program and (b) between intended outcomes of curriculum materials and the activities planned to achieve the outcomes (Smith, 1989). This study could not assess all the opportunities youth are exposed to in the program, but it did assess the skills and competencies in the intended outcomes and activities of a sample of the most popular curriculum materials. For these portions of the 4-H curriculum the authors conclude that the plausibility question is not confirmed.

Implications for Extension

Even though the findings of this study pertain specifically to 4-H curriculum materials, the message they hold has implications for other Extension programs. That message is: check for program plausibility. Planners should look for (a) congruence among mission, intended outcomes, and planned curriculum activities. If any process or outcome of importance appears in one of these, it should appear in all three; (b) depth of coverage to make sure the number and type of planned activities are sufficient to accomplish each goal and objective; and (c) check what actually occurs to ensure that what was planned was implemented with integrity.

Extension is important to a lot of people in this country. We owe it to them and to ourselves to plan and implement programs that deliver on expected outcomes.

Exhibit 1
SCANS Skills and Competencies
Foundation Skills:
(1)Basic Skills:
a. reading
b. writing
c. arithmetic/mathematics
d. listening
e. speaking
(2)Thinking Skills:
a. creative thinking
b. decision making
c. problem solving
d. visualizing
e. learning
f. reasoning
(3)Personal Qualities:
a. responsibility
b. self-esteem
c. sociability
d. self-management
e. integrity/honesty
Competencies include:
(4)Resources, managing:
a. time
b. money
c. materials/facilities
d. human resources
a. teamwork
b. teaches others
c. serves clients
d. exercises leadership
e. negotiates
f. works with diversity
a. acquiring & evaluating
b. organizing & maintaining
d. interpreting & communicating
e. using computers to process information
a. how they work
b. monitoring/correcting
c. improving/designing systems
a. selecting
b. applying to tasks
c. maintaining/troubleshooting equipment


Babbie, E. (1992). The Practice of social research. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Company.

Bloom, B.S.(1956). Taxonomy of educational objectives, Handbook I: Cognitive Domain. New York: David McKay Co., Inc.

Ladewig, H. & Thomas, J.K.(1987). The 4-H alumni study: Assessing the impact of 4-H on former members. College Station:Texas A & M University:Cooperative Extension Service.

Miles, M. & Huberman, A. M. (1984). Qualitative data analysis: A source book of new methods. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications.

Miller, J. (1991). Four-H and Nonv4-H participants' development of competency, coping, and contributory life skills. Unpublished doctoral dissertation. State College: Pennsylvania State University.

Secretary's Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills. (1991). What work requires of schools: A SCANS report for America 2000. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Labor: Secretary's Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills.

Schlutt, E. F., Jr. (1987). Impact of youth program membership on youth program life skills development, youth program experiences, adult community participation, and personal characteristics related to 4-H volunteerism. Unpublished doctoral dissertation. College Station: Texas A & M University.

Smith, M. F.(1985). Sampling considerations in evaluating: Cooperative Extension Programs, PE-1. Gainesville,FL: Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, University of Florida.

Smith. M. F. (1986). Evaluability assessment of the Maryland 4-H Youth Program. Complete unpublished report. College Park, MD: Maryland Cooperative Extension Service, University of Maryland.

Smith, M. F.(1989). Evaluability assessment:A practical approach. Boston, MA:Kluwer Academic Publishers.

U.S. Department of Agriculture/Extension Service. (1993). Cooperative Extension Service 1995 annual 4-H youth development enrollment report:ES 237. Washington, D.C.:USDA/ES & Land-Grant University Cooperative Extension Services.

Waguespack, B.G. (1988). Development of life skills of 4-H club members in Louisiana. Unpublished master's thesis. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University.