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Monday, December 5, 2011

Digital media: New literacy finds a place in out-of-school time

small-jwalker.jpgI met Nichole Pinkard in October and she inspired me! She genuinely got me excited about podcasts, video production, computer graphic design and digital sound production. And hey, I'm a former high school English teacher. How did she do it? She grabbed my attention when she shifted the emphasis off learning technical skills and put the emphasis on mastering creative and innovative digital literacies for the 21st century. How does it relate to our work with youth?

It was the attention to literacy -- the ability to understand and communicate effectively in multiple ways -- that made me say "Yes, I get it!" It's about being able to take in, produce and transmit written, verbal, visual, auditory and digital knowledge. Today literacy requires more than a pen, paper and print text. Truly an educated person today must be able to critically embrace both the traditional and the explosion of new digital forms of literacy.

Nichole works with Digital Youth Network, a program that engages older young people in digital media learning in community youth programs with the support of families, schools and libraries. Nicole's model begins with young people as passionate learners and parents as active supporters. Youth programs provide the opportunities for exploration, learning and practice while schools make space for digital media literacy in the classroom.

Nichole's model is based on playing to system strengths. She assigns the right role to the right systems for the right reasons. It's not about youth programs providing homework help or math worksheets so young people can pass school tests. Community youth programs are the sites for learning digital media because youth can engage voluntarily, in their own time and in their own way.
In a youth program, youth have space to observe, to try it out, to become capable and then to "level up" and get really good at critiquing, creating and producing digital products. Young people can work in mixed age groups and learn from each other. Youth workers can encourage experimentation without the threat of failing or not making the grade. Young people can assess and compare their products and projects to those of other adults and young people with a simple scan of YouTube or other web sites where blogs, podcasts, music and artistic projects can readily be found.

PinkardSymposium2.jpgSchools are excellent sites for putting the new literacies to use in demonstrations of learning. School provides both an incentive and a real world challenge. When they are ready, young people can submit assignments in written, visual, graphic, spoken word, musical and other creative applications in a variety of courses. I love the DYN example where young people read Toni Morrison's book Mercy and then used graphic design software to create book covers that powerfully conveyed the key messages in Morrison's book.

Take some time to view the presentation that inspired me. Or watch the New Learning Institute videos on Digital Media and Learning to hear experts discuss the growing importance of digital media literacy in the world today. You'll be impressed to see how young people really lead in this learning approach. It's not about producing for the teacher. They teach and learn across age groups and establish partnerships the feed their potential. They inspire and motivate each other and the adults in their lives. Creativity and innovation are front and center. The possibilities are endless.

Embracing digital media literacy requires a willingness on the part of teachers to accept demonstrations of learning in different, often unfamiliar formats. It requires youth workers to take a leap and work co-creatively to explore new applications and try new things. It requires all of us to expand our understanding of digital media literacy and its evolving place in education.

Where do you find your energy around this digital media literacy? Do you find it to be rich ground for community-based youth programs? Are you already into creative digital media applications? Please jump into this conversation and make it richer for your ideas.

Joyce Walker, professor and youth development educator

Co-director, Next Generation Youth Work Coalition

Monday, November 28, 2011

Create learning environments that bring out the "angel in the marble"

Jessica-Russo.jpgOne of the most difficult aspects of working with groups of young people is managing behavior. As adults, when unruliness or its potential ensues, it can be hard not to revert to "adult default," ignoring our desire to incorporate youth voice in order to re-establish a more comfortable level of control.

So how much should effective "behavior management" be about managing behavior, and how much should it be about managing (or really, creating) the environment? To me, the goal of behavior management is not for the adult to control the child -- the goal is for the child to learn a sense of independence and inter-dependence that brings about self-control.

Making a case for the child-centered classroom, Pereira and Smith-Adcock say that "as an individual, the child thrives when encouraged to freely explore and construct personal meaning through making choices for self and experiencing the results of those choices." And in fact, we know from other research that when this need to discover independence is not met, the result is more negative behavior and less motivation.

three-youth-camera.jpgInterestingly, our English word "educate," from its Latin roots, literally means to draw out of, or lead out of. This implies that education is more about bringing out what is already there than filling in what's missing. I like this -- it removes the emphasis on control of the learner and places it on control of the learning environment. Like Michelangelo, who said, "I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free," our job in educating young people can be simply to carve away the conditions that prevent young people from making use of and refining the capabilities that they already have. Perhaps this view could help make the "dream" of the ideal learning environment a reality.

Here are some steps I have developed for creating an environment that helps youth learn self-discipline:

Create your vision for a healthy learning environment. Based on a report by Milbrey McLaughlin, the most effective learning environments are youth-centered, knowledge-centered assessment-centered, and community-centered. See a previous blog entry on the ideal learning environment for a summary of these points.

Develop a healthy environment to prevent negative behavior. Create a plan for how you will arrange an inviting physical atmosphere. Discuss with youth the collective needs and expectations of the group. Develop predictable but flexible structures, along with a meaningful, logical sequence of lessons. And above all, plan plenty of opportunities for everyone to get to know each other.

Maintain the healthy environment. Maintaining health is about following through on your commitment to it. How you might consistently acknowledge each young person for who they are and encourage and respond to the good that they show? Involve youth in both maintaining expectations and rules, and assessing how plans and structures meet their needs.

Redirect negative actions to help youth see their "inner angels." Sometimes only a strong intervention can turn harmful actions into a teaching moment. And in fact, not doing so can have worse consequences than the action itself. Consider how you will proactively address negative behavior with individual youth, to help them separate their actions from who they are as a person. Also consider how you might proactively address actions that harm the entire program (such as a crisis, or any way in which the group may have exacerbated a situation).

Do you work to create learning environments that bring out the best in youth? What strategies do you find effective?

-- Jessica Russo, assistant Extension professor and director, Urban Youth Development Office

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Occupy youth programs

Deborah-Moore.jpgFrom Occupy Wall Street to government and campus protests, to overthrowing leaders -- there is definitely something happening with youth today. I remember sitting in a class last winter watching a live link to the protests in Egypt and feeling like the world had shifted. So much has happened in such a short time, and youth are playing an important role in it. What does that have to do with youth programs? Perhaps everything.

This statement by Shannon Service in YES! magazine sums it up for me "After three decades of dormancy, youth activism is again flowering. But today's flower children are a hardy new variety. They're economically, ecologically, and electronically sophisticated. They're also globally organized, dead serious about democracy, and determined to have more fun than their opponents."

So my question to all of us is this: What are youth programs going to do to respond?
I think the answer may lie in engaging youth in ways we have yet to imagine. I like to call it Youth Engagement 2.0 and it was the theme of our annual youth program quality conference last week.
The idea is simple: Let's innovate how we engage youth on their issues using social media. We know engaging youth is important inside our programs and in our communities, so why haven't we tapped social media?

There are a few of us locally who are paving the way. MGIZI and Intermedia Arts are ahead of the pack with youth-led media projects on Facebook and Youtube and more to catalyze youth action on issues. But they are hardly enough. I know it may feel like letting some kind of genie out of the bottle, but if youth workers can't find ways to support youth engagement using the power of technology, what will we lose? Perhaps everything.

UR_PL_3189.jpgYouth and social media is a trend that is not going away. I think Thomas Friedman is right -- the world has become flat. His book of that name is a powerful accounting of all the ways the world has already become flat, thanks to the powerful force of technology. Think democracy and capitalism on steroids. Through the Internet, all kinds of people in the smallest corners of the world now have access to business opportunities, making social change and innovation, being a part of global conversations and a part of local solutions. And the flat world includes a whole bunch of young people. Shouldn't programs be a place for leadership as youth explore their roles in a flat world? Aren't programs places where youth navigate their roles in the community and the world? If we want to prepare youth for tomorrow, let's engage them in the work of today.

It is scary for the adults, I know. We have so many things to do each day, to make happen inside our programs. But our roots should hold us true -- roots in experiential education, in social change through settlement houses, in advocating for human rights -- to name a few. So find some inspiration. This is not a time for a slow, tepid testing of new ways to engage youth using social media. They are doing it already and we are far behind.

Look to some of the brightest researchers and thoughts leaders on the subject. A recent symposium held here at the Extension Center for Youth Development on the Digital Youth Network in Chicago is a good place to start.

Look to others who are further ahead:

But don't just look ... Do. Then join me in answering the question: How will you support youth engagement 2.0? Will you find space for youth to occupy your program, their community and their world?
-- Deborah Moore, state faculty and interim director, Youth Work Institute

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Where are all the youth work studies?

Joyce Walker, Youth Development Insight blogIt's old news that youth workers have trouble finding accessible, relevant journal articles that speak to their practice issues. It's no surprise that youth workers pursuing scholarship on youth development practice have trouble identifying outlets for their publications. Now, somebody has quantified the dearth.

A new integrative review of literature on youth development research in the Journal of Youth Development (see page 20) found that between 2001 and 2010, only 13% of the articles in five top-tier journals on youth and adolescence could be categorized as positive youth development research. If we include the online Journal of Youth Development itself, which focuses on bridging research and practice, the figure jumps (not too high) to 19%.
The analysis included these six journals: lady-and-typewriter.jpg

Robert Barcelona and William Quinn from Clemson University's Youth Development Leadership Program learned a lot from their analysis of the 285 relevant articles (out of a possible 2236). Consider these findings:
  • The vast majority of research published in the major, top-tier journals did not utilize a strengths-based approach or provide an examination of the processes that foster positive youth well-being.
  • Less than 10% of manuscripts included the perspectives of parents and the key adults who have an influence on youth.
  • A majority of the studies used a quantitative approach in answering the research questions posed.

In addition to the Journal of Youth Development, Afterschool Matters and New Directions in Youth Development incorporate an applied practice focus. All three include qualitative and mixed-method studies based on approaches like interviews, observations, focus groups and case studies.

Of course, there are other professional journals that speak to defined constituencies such as the Journal of School Health and the Journal of Adolescent Health, as well as journals aimed at youth workers specifically interested in recreation, camping, sports, experiential education and such. But these more focused journals are less apt to address an aggregated body of knowledge that speaks consistently to the research and practice needs of youth workers in out-of-school time, community-based programs.

So, now you know that you're not alone in wondering what to read and where to publish. Can you share a story here about challenges, frustrations and occasional rewards you have found when seeking an article that speaks to your interests and issues? Where do you go to find the good stuff about youth work? Do you think we need more new and varied avenues to share studies of youth development practice?

-- Joyce Walker, professor and youth development educator

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Reflecting on a century of youth development research and practice

Kate-Walker.jpgYouth development is regularly described as an "emerging field." Yet youth development has been at the core of many youth-serving organizations founded in the early years of the 20th century such as 4-H, Scouts, and Camp Fire. In the past 100 years, youth development practice has evolved and advancements in youth development research have been made. What have been key trends, major contributions and core issues during the field of youth development's "coming of age"?

The current issue of the Journal of Youth Development: Bridging Research and Practice commemorates the 100th anniversary of many national youth-serving organizations. For this special issue, authors were invited to reflect on research trends and contributions that have influenced the field over time as well as to consider issues of practice that continue to evolve and challenge the field.

Collectively, the articles provide an account of youth development over the years, covering such issues as how youth development has been studied, understood and measured to how youth development practice has evolved to support, engage and address the needs of young people. The volume concludes with two commentaries about future directions for research and challenges shaping the field's future.

YWI-hist-hat-craft.jpgClearly, today's world is increasingly complex and diverse. The role youth workers and organizations play in helping prepare young people for that world has evolved.

Our understanding of the skills required has grown and we've made advancement in how to measure them.

The special issue authors cite seminal scholarship, policy reports and paradigm shifts that have influenced our field over time.

Where would we be without, for example:
  • Urie Bronfenbrenner's ecological model that emphasizes studying young people in the context of the system of relationships that form their environment.
  • The Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development's report, A Matter of Time, which raised awareness of the importance of out-of-school time.
  • A shift to a strength-based approach (especially the Search Institute's developmental assets) that moved beyond prevention to promotion.

Certainly, not all ideas and issues are covered in the special issue. I wonder, as you reflect on our growing field over time, what are some of the influential research contributions? What are some enduring issues of practice that continue to impact the field?
-- Kate Walker, research associate

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

How do young people learn? We don't exactly know

Jennifer-Skuza.jpgA number of researchers have argued that youth are a distinct group of learners compared with children and adults, yet surprisingly little research has been put forth on the experience of youth learning. Most research on learning has focused on either children or adults; and adult learning principles misguidedly remain the core philosophy for most educators and youth workers who work with youth audiences.

As stated by Knud Illeris, youth learning is "...a gradual transition from the uncensored, trusting learning of childhood to the selective and self-controlled learning of adulthood". Research on the experience of youth learning is important because it could provide a foundation for understanding how young people learn.

learning.jpgOf the studies that do exist, Choy and Delahaye indicate that when they study for exams, youth commonly use a surface approach to learning, a form of scanning that is usually absent of reflection, because formal education conditions them to do so. However, given a choice, youth prefer nonformal, less structured learning. This reveals a contradiction between how youth are usually taught to learn and how they prefer to learn.

Youth want a relational level of understanding -- to relate their learning to their everyday lives, rather than abstract thinking, according to Choy and Delahaye. Relational learning is often facilitated with an approach that begins with a concrete experience, followed by reflection, abstraction, and application as found in Kolb's learning theory.

Choy and Delahaye's findings suggest some interesting implications for us to explore. For instance, thinking about the role that youth work can play in shaping youth learning and recognizing that the less structured learning environments found in many youth programs are exactly the environments in which youth WANT to learn. We have a unique advantage because the environments found in many youth programs are unbound by the rules and expectations faced by schools and have the freedom to bring about nonformal and relational learning with the flexibility to consider all influences on a young person's learning.

Similar to Dana Fusco's point in a previous blog post, youth work is a developmentally responsive practice that has the ability to respond to youth needs in real time. We are uniquely positioned to understand the inner workings of youth learning and to help identify learning principles to guide practice.

Along with some colleagues, I am working on a study that is focused on describing the experience of learning of youth, with hopes of spurring future research geared toward identifying youth learning principles. What have you observed? Do you see value in identifying youth learning principles to help guide our youth work? Are you interested knowing more about how youth experience learning?

Jennifer A. Skuza, PhD
Extension professor and program leader, educational design & development

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Wake up to the expertise of older youth

Beki-Saito.jpgIn preparation for a workshop I did recently on mentoring teenagers, I googled "mentoring older youth" to learn about current research and practice. Virtually all of the links that came up made the assumption that older youth were troubled youth, or high-risk youth, e.g., "juvenile delinquents," pregnant and parenting teens, youth in foster care or with parents in prison. What is that about?!

It's ageism, plain and simple. There is such a pervasive belief that teenagers are not to be trusted, are "screwed up," are something to be avoided or "dealt with" rather than that they are creative, ever-changing, exciting, cool people with strengths and expertise. You see this not only in the research that is conducted but also in the news, movies and TV, conversations with friends, family and neighbors, as well as where we spend our public dollars (youth intervention versus youth development).

Gisela Konopka and other youth development proponents enable us to see experimentation, creative license, struggles with varying values, ideas, and perspectives as necessary for healthy development.

youth-interviewing-youth-in-Minneapolis.jpgSo next time you see a young person doing something that makes you uncomfortable, remember that trying on new identities, unusual hair styles or clothes, bumping up against current values and cultural norms is expected, normal and healthy for young people. It's how we figure out who we are, what we stand for, what matters to us, what we're good at and what we need to get better at. Ask yourself whether the behavior is merely troubling to you, or indicative of a troubled person. If the former, dig deeper into your own value assumptions; if the latter, and you are fortunate enough to have a relationship with this person, state what you see and feel and ask how you might help.

Come on people, fellow researchers, practitioners and policy-makers: Let's invest in the healthy development of young people and let's make room at the decision-making table for people of all ages. Young people have such great insights, connections, knowledge, and expertise. Teenagers can be great researchers, media experts, youth development and engagement experts, marketers of youth programs and opportunities, friends and mentors. For those who work in youth development, there should be no end to the ways in which young people's expertise can be utilized in doing our work. How can you create opportunities for youth leadership?

-- Rebecca Saito, Senior research associate

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Great expectations are good predictors of science careers

Pamela-Nippolt.jpgWhen young people are asked, "What kind of work do you expect to be doing when you are 30 years old?", it turns out that their responses are quite accurate predictions of their college majors.

A 2006 study of young adolescents' career expectations, led by researchers at the University of Virginia, investigated whether 13-year-olds with an expectation for a science-related career obtained science degrees at higher rates than 13-year-olds without this expectation. They do - or at least they did - in a national sample of youth studied during the years 1988 through 2000, and published in 2006.

The study factored in differences in academic achievement, academic characteristics, and demographics, and followed young people living in the U.S. over time. Young people were asked to select one employment option from a list (only one!) and their career expectations were sorted into two groups -- science-related and non-science.

The science-related careers were further separated into "life" sciences and "physical/engineering" sciences. The young people who expected careers at age 30 in the sciences were nearly twice as likely to graduate with a life science college degree, and more than three times as likely to earn a physical/engineering science degree as young people who did not see themselves in science careers. While academic achievement in eighth grade math had a role in predicting later careers in physical/engineering science degrees, math scores were not a predictor for careers in the life sciences!
But expectation dominated, even in the physical sciences. "An average mathematics stem.jpgachiever with a science-related career expectation had a higher probability of earning a baccalaureate degree in the physical sciences or engineering than a high mathematics achiever with a non-science career expectation." In other words, academics matter but they were not the strongest predictor for future engineers.

While initiatives to encourage youth pursuit of science careers may focus attention on eighth grade algebra, these data support that there is more to a future than a good grade. We knew this, of course, but it sure helps make the case for a theory of change when data support what we know.

How can we use this knowledge as we partner with formal educators? This is an important question for our work. 4-H is asking the "expectation question" of youth in a national study in order to compare 4-H youth to youth who are not participating in 4-H. Clearly, how we plan and design nonformal science programs matters, and the stakes are very high.

-- Pamela Larson Nippolt, state faculty and program leader, program evaluation

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Access and the opportunity gap

Josey-Landrieu.jpgIn his inaugural address a few weeks ago, the new University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler called upon us to move the university forward in terms of research, access, and excellence, using the word "access" 13 times.

Issues of access apply to out-of-school-time learning, as well as higher ed. Listening to the latest reports and events in our field have sparked important questions for me about access to positive educational opportunities for all young people.

How can we ensure that all youth (especially those who need it the most) have access to well structured and well implemented programs? How can out-of-school time (OST) programs connect youth with positive learning opportunities? How can we as youth development scholars and practitioners level the playing field for all youth?

For OST opportunities to be effective they must be well structured, staffed by caring adults, and provide youth with a real opportunity to contribute and be engaged in their communities. Research shows that certain conditions are necessary in order for OST programs to have positive results on the lives and opportunities of young people. However, access to well structured and well implemented programs is not equal for all youth. Scholars have talked about this issue in terms of an opportunity gap; it's not always about the difference in achievement scores but it's often about the access to resources, caring adults, and positive educational experiences where the gap is widest.

youth-pic.jpgIn a recent commentary in Education Week, H. Richard Milner of Vanderbilt University discussed the role of OST programs in helping close this opportunity gap. The following quote caught my attention, especially the words "developing evidence": "I would urge [OST] programs to continue developing evidence of their usefulness, not only related to academics but other important skills necessary for students to succeed in society such as social skills, study skills, communication skills, conflict resolution skills, and perhaps most importantly social justice orientations and skills. It is critical that students feel empowered to change and challenge negative and inequitable situations that show up in their communities."

Throughout the commentary, Milner provides further considerations for our practice in youth development. He urges us:
  • To look at the opportunities and resources that youth have or not in order to address their needs.
  • To ensure that youth workers are trained to ensure that active, collaborative, meaningful, support mastery, and expands horizons are actualized in afterschool programs.
  • To have critical conversations about disparities based on race, ethnicity, or socio-economic status. Otherwise we will continue to see huge disparities among the youth we serve.

Here is my call to action: How do we ensure equitable access to high-quality programs? How do we make sure that all youth can enjoy the benefits of these programs? Could we suggest additional considerations to Milner's list? In what other ways can practitioners, scholars and funders level the playing field?

-- Josey Landrieu, assistant Extension professor, program evaluation

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Is all this online socialization a good thing?

Trudy-Dunham.jpgTeens are texters. They almost all have cell phones, which they are more likely to use to text than call their friends, on average about 50 times a day. They are heavy users of the Internet, and of social networking sites (SNS). Is all this online socialization a good thing?

We've heard about the downside. The driving while texting or talking on a cell phone. The cyberbullying. Sexting. The idealized presentations of self in online profiles. The continuous partial attention that keeps us attentive to messages from our online friends while giving less to the teacher, hurting school performance.

The best answer to my question might be 'it's complicated'. Because there really are some great benefits that offset the risks to all this online socialization.

In a recent research study by the Girl Scouts, more than half of the girls surveyed indicated that their online social networking helped them feel closer to their friends. About half indicated that social networking had gotten them more involved with causes that they cared about. A study at Michigan State University found that college students with low self-esteem who were active SNS users felt more engaged with their university community than those who used SNS less often, and student SNS use strengthened their existing offline relationships. Research by Larry Rosen found that youth who spent more time on SNS were more empathetic toward their friends, in both online and offline interactions.

These are just a few of the recent studies that demonstrate that stronger, positive relationships and community engagement accrue to those who use SNS.
Do the benefits of social media and online socialization outweigh the risks? I think so. Our cell phones and the Internet are not going away. But our close friends are. Research by Robert Wilson noted that in 2004, American adults reported that their confidants (those people with whom we feel comfortable discussing matters of importance) had dropped from about 3 people to 2 over a 15 year period, a decline of nearly one-third. And about 25% of those surveyed reported they had no confidants.

A Pew Internet study, based on data collected in 2010, found similar numbers but a different trend when compared with their 2008 data: American adults were reporting slightly more confidants, and fewer reported that they had no confidants. The Internet users had more confidants than non-Internet users, and SNS users had more confidants than those who used Internet but not SNS.

This research is based on American adults, not youth, but adolescence is when many of us learn how to be in a friend relationship and how to be part of a community. Today's community, and society at large, could benefit from a greater abundance of empathy and engagement in its citizens. And I've never met anyone who couldn't use a true close friend and confidant. Have you?

Is all this online socialization a good thing? What do you think? What are you noticing in your work with youth?

-- Trudy Dunham, research fellow

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Let's measure everything that matters

Dale-Blyth.jpgWhat outcomes do we want for our children and youth? What outcomes can we expect from expanded learning opportunities during the non-school hours?

What we measure and hold up now is pretty limited -- test scores, drug use, cheating on tests. Sometimes we get stuck in the mode of just using the data we have, even when they are not the measures we need. How many times are we forced to consider how well our youth are doing by just looking at deficits or test scores rather than strengths?

I believe we do need to be accountable for our collective impact, not just our program and organizational impact. I also believe that we need a set of valued and visible measures for youth -- measures that:
  • are valued for what they do capture about youths' experiences while they are in those expanded learning opportunities
  • are visible to the public and remind people of how important and needed community learning opportunities are for our youth
  • include academic measures, but go beyond them
  • don't just talk about the size of the problems that youth have but the levels of engagement in their own learning and in our communities as well as the size of their contributions

One barrier is that these positives are considered hard to measure. measuring-height.jpgFor example, a colleague identified to me recently the importance that African American males place on feeling respected and that someone in their schools actually cares about their learning. This value is so great to them that when it is achieved, it is still hard to see or expect achievement as it is traditionally measured. The problem is that the gains these youth have toward feeling engaged and respected are regarded as "qualitative" and "anecdotal" - not measurable. But they are not anecdotal. They are measurable and meaningful in young people's lives. They are the types of measures we need to put into policy and change efforts.

Too often we are our own enemies in this regard. By talking about what we do as deeper and richer than something measures can capture we too often devalue the very things that do matter. Many of these elements are measurable. Many of them, if measured and held up as valuable for policy makers and citizens alike, could be changed if we work together.

I long for the day when we measure the success of our youth along their journey with measures that are rich and wonderful at capturing engagement in learning, contributions by youth, the level of socio-emotional growth as well as reading and math competency. I hope for the day that we find energy for action from knowing our young people miss the very strengths we want them to have, not just from fear of the drugs they use or their sexual activity or the lack of progress in test scores. I am all for accountability but let's at least be accountable for all of the things that really matter.

As a field we need to support measurement that matters, and not let our youth or schools or communities be defined as failing because of their math and reading numbers alone. If we do not want youth to become numbers only, perhaps ironically we need to know more about them as a whole. Are they engaged in their learning in life, not just in school? Do they know the sparks that drive them? Do the people in their life support and respect them?

What do you think are the measures that should get the same attention as reading and math scores or GDP in our state and national debates?

-- Dale Blyth, associate dean and director

The importance of measuring non-academic outcomes is the subject of a public symposium we will present on October 6.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Observation should inform program evaluation

Thumbnail image for Samantha-Grant.jpgHave you ever watched a youth program where everything seemed to be working? As a youth worker, your gut reaction can be a good gauge of when things are "clicking" inside youth programs and when things need improvement. Sometimes with the current pressure to show the outcome and impact of our programs, we lose sight of the skills we develop through experience in youth work - our ability to observe and assess.

Observational methods in evaluation or research are gaining popularity in school and youth settings. In Minnesota 4-H, we have been investing in the Youth Program Quality Assessment. This standardized observational tool allows youth workers to assess safe environments, supportive environments, interaction, and engagement. There are many other tools for assessing youth program quality. Check out The Forum for Youth Investment for a review of tools.

An article in the spring 2011 Afterschool Matters publication takes a look at the Self Assessment of High-Quality Academic Enrichment Practices. Holstead and King detail the growing emphasis of self-assessments inside 21st Century Community Learning Centers. Their article gives a glimpse into aligning self-assessment with standards of program practice and highlights the pros and cons of self-assessment. They note the power of self-assessment for providing information that can build "programs that provide the best possible services to participants."

Pros of self-assessment include: it encourages staff to be reflective, it promotes continual reflection, and it can generate important feedback that staff can use. One of the biggest cons of self-assessment is the risk that in tailoring tools to fit your program, you can lose the reliability and validity of the instrument.

I am a huge proponent of assessing the quality of our learning kids-peer-into-jar.jpgenvironments and I strongly believe in observation. Sometimes that means using a standardized tool, like the YPQA, but sometimes it means creating a tool that hones in on what is important in your organization. It can also mean just stopping to watch what is happening inside your program.

So what can observation add to your program?
  • Observation prompts program staff to slow down and be reflective
  • Observation takes you to the heart of youth programs - the point of service - where adults and youth come together
  • Making observation part of your practice helps to build skills in youth workers and encourages a climate of dialogue and improvement

Are you a proponent or practitioner of observation as part of program self-assessment? Why or why not?

-- Samantha Grant, assistant Extension professor, program evaluation

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Decision-making -- a risky business for teens

Carrie-Ann-Olson.jpgResearch has shown the more we practice making decisions the better we become at it. Learning how to make decisions and to be able to defend them helps one to be independent and responsible -- a part of growing up.

As we look at teen decision making, one has to consider the development of the brain during adolescence. Teens' brains are going through a period of intense development, and they naturally seek out risky, novel experiences and peer approval. As a result, decision making can be less than rational.

It's during this period of development that brain wave activity is busiest in the prefrontal cortex. This area is responsible for advanced reasoning: cause and effect, planning, managing impulses, etc. Teens strengthen their thinking about thinking at this time. Along with this development comes actions like teens being quick to point out inconsistencies between adults' words and actions, and viewing conflicts from different perspectives. For example, is a clean room a personal choice or a reflection of morals? It's also during this time that social and emotional influences become stronger and develop earlier than the cognitive abilities such as logical reasoning.

shopping-carts.jpgA new book called The Teen Years Explained: A Guide to Healthy Adolescent Development by Clea McNeely and Jayne Blanchard explains that teens get personal higher rewards, or an "increased rush" when they follow those social and emotional influences for risk-taking versus "thinking" through a situation logically.

So what does this mean for programming for teens? We know that making good decisions is related to cognitive development so we need to help teens develop reasoning and thinking skills. And we know that learning to make good decisions is necessary for transition to adulthood, so we need to focus on creating safe places for risk-taking and practicing making decisions.

Youth development programs such as 4-H, in which participants are engaged in the leadership of the program, help youth to practice safe decision making. The 4-H consumer decision making judging program is a specific decision-making program that teaches youth to make decisions around topics that regularly make up our daily decisions; food and nutrition, clothing & textiles, personal care, entertainment and recreation and personal finance.

In what other ways can we as youth workers capitalize on teens' prime motivators of peer influence and novelty-seeking to encourage teens to be better decision makers?

-- Carrie Ann Olson
Extension educator & associate Extension professor, educational design & development

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

What is the best way to foster self-directed learning?

Nicole-Pokorney.jpgThe Great Minnesota Get-Together is in full swing! As I walk through the 4-H Building, exhibits display the intense work of youth from across the state. These youth have researched, created and implemented more than 3,000 projects covering a range of topics that amazes me. The reason for this impressive variety is the imagination and self-direction of the youth themselves - the glory of 4-H projects is the self-directed learning that takes place.

What is self-directed learning? Maurice Gibbons, one of the leading thinkers of SDL, defines it as when "the individual takes the initiative and the responsibility for what occurs. Individuals select, manage, and assess their own learning activities, which can be pursued at any time, in any place, through any means, at any age."

Malcolm Knowles, the pioneer of SDL, described it as a process in which individuals take the initiative, with or without the help of others, in diagnosing their learning needs, formulating learning goals, identifying human and material resources for learning, choosing and implementing appropriate learning strategies, and evaluating learning outcomes.
The process sounds rather simple:
  1. Through exploration of subjects, youth discover a passion for a topic.
  2. Through healthy youth/adult partnerships, youth expand their knowledge on that topic.
  3. Through inner drive, youth want to learn more and apply the newly gained knowledge to their lives.

The benefits of self-directed learning are: girl-with-shoes.jpg
  • Curiosity
  • Willingness to try new things
  • Viewing problems as challenges
  • Desiring change
  • Enjoying learning
  • Motivated, independent, persistent and effective learners
  • Self-discipline
  • Self-confidence
  • Goal-orientation
  • Ability to represent ideas in different forms

I believe it's vital that we have educators who are trained to recognize and nurture this kind of learning and to create learning environments to foster it. But although the learning process may begin in the hands of the adult educator, at some point, the control of the learning environment moves from the educator to the youth. This transition happens when the learner's motivation shifts from extrinsic to intrinsic and she begins to apply it. The educator who allows the freedom of learning and is open to it can accelerate the transition.
My middle son is a self-directed learner. His wildlife biology project, a bee nesting box, is one of the 4-H projects at the state fair this year. I marvel at the way he takes his passion for wildlife and spends enormous amounts of time researching the topic, gathering supplies and resources, engaging adults to partner with him and then publicly displaying his knowledge in some venue. His passion for animals and research has him seriously considering becoming a veterinarian. His internal motivation has led him to job shadow our local veterinarians this summer and explore different colleges. He has always learned best this way. Luckily, teachers throughout his formal education have also identified this and allowed him to direct his own learning in a variety of ways.
As I continue to research SDL,I wonder if all youth have the potential to be self-directed learners or is it an innate learning style? If it is a natural way to learn, as Knowles says, then what techniques can out-of-school-time educators use to draw out self-directed learning? What institutional changes need to be made?

-- Nicole Pokorney, Extension educator, educational design and development

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Let's build upon the positive outcomes of camping

Rebecca-Meyer.jpgHappy birthday to camping! Over the past 150 years of organized camping in the United States, we as a field have done a good job of transforming camping into an educational experience in outdoor group living with measurable positive outcomes. Research shows that a well planned youth camp improves self-esteem, environmental awareness, peer relationships, and has other measurable positive outcomes. However, we often leave these outcomes at camp, and fail to build upon it. By thinking of camp as a stand-alone, situational learning experience, we miss an opportunity to capitalize on the gain. How can we make the most of what we work so hard to achieve at camp?

As anyone who has been to summer camp knows, the camp experience can be a rich and memorable one. These can be profound experiences for youth, producing lasting memories. Research shows numerous positive outcomes for youth who participate in organized camping opportunities. Among them are:
  • Self-esteem
  • Peer relationshipsboy-in-canoe.jpg
  • Independence
  • Adventure and exploration
  • Leadership
  • Environmental awareness
  • Friendship skills
  • Values and decisions
  • Social comfort
  • Spirituality

Positive youth outcomes at camp and how to achieve them are well researched and well documented. For example, in the current issue of New Directions in Youth Development Garst, Brown and Bieleschki write, "Positive outcomes do not just occur because children attend camp; these desired outcomes must be planned, measured, and then incorporated into future program planning efforts."
I think we have not paid enough attention to this last part - incorporating the positive outcomes into future program planning efforts. I believe that we can. In 4-H, we use the experiential learning model to guide our facilitation of learning. However, we often think of the process - experience, share, process, generalize, apply - only in the context of the immediate experience.

Using the experiential learning model, we should intentionally be building in strategies to extend the learning and benefits of these developmental outcomes beyond camp. Are there ways to encourage youth beyond camp to continue reflection, generalizing, and applying? The memories of camp are long-lasting, powerful, and episodic and if we can re-activate and reflect over and over to deepen and enhance the learning years later imagine the influence and strength of these developmental outcomes.
One strategy for intentionally pulling outcomes beyond camp is to involve parents and caring adults in re-learning from the camp experience in the years afterward. To do this, we need to prepare caring adults to know when it is appropriate and beneficial to tap these memories of youth.

-- We must provide these adults with knowledge about the camp experience, especially memorable events, milestones for their youth, important values, traditions, etc.

-- Second, parents and other caring adults need to know how to intentionally facilitate movement through the experiential learning cycle. These may be questions found in "Questions for Guiding Experiential Learning", an Extension field guide.

Do you have other strategies for bringing reflections of camp experience into the future? How do you extend the wonderful benefits of camp?

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The dangers of praise -- how not to do a "good job!"

Deborah-Moore.jpgWhat's wrong with praising youth? Actually, there's quite a bit wrong with it.

Countless research in the past 30 years shows overwhelming evidence that praising youth can harm their development. For example, in 1998, Mueller & Dweck wrote that praising intelligence can undermine their motivation and performance. While it may seem counter-intuitive and even downright unfriendly, the research is clear. Praise leads to unhealthy attitudes and behaviors in youth.

When we praise young people, it gives them the message that we -- adults -- are the judge of what comprises a good job. It does not allow youth to explore whether they think what they did was good and why. Praise takes the center of focus and control from youth and puts it back in the hands of adults.

The effects are surprisingly negative for youth: shorter task persistence, more eye checking with the teacher, a focus on maintaining their own image, a shut down in challenges, less self-motivation, and highly competitive behavior.

To combat our tendency to praise we need to discover the power of encouragement -- something distinctly different. Encouragement is more specific than praise. It focuses on the youth's efforts, plans and feelings. It gives youth the power to judge, to reflect, to value - not the adult. Again research tells us that youth who hear encouragement are more interested in learning than getting a good score or grade, can see challenges as opportunities to learn, and have better achievement in school. Say what? How have we ignored three decades of research on something so youth development-like? Good question.

In my teaching at the University of Minnesota, two ideas have raised the most Picture1.jpgreaction and controversy. One is the reality that poor-quality youth programs can do harm to young people, the other is the idea that praising youth can also cause harm. I think when we react strongly to things it is always time to reflect. Trust me -- this topic has provoked such strong reactions in my workshops that people have been ready to throw me down on the mat.

I encourage youth workers, parents, teachers and mentors, to explore our own reactions to the dangers of praise. If you want to look into it more, order Po Bronson's book Nurture Shock, read Alfie Kohn's article "Five Reasons to Stop Saying "Good Job" or join a training session on praise vs. encouragement at the Youth Work Institute Annual Quality Conference. But be prepared to give up some commonly held wisdom and be prepared to duke it out.

Have you noticed the negative effects of praise? Do you have ideas for changing the way you verbally support youth learning? If you do, please share your ideas with all of us praise junkies who need the help.

-- Deborah Moore, state faculty and interim director, Youth Work Institute

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Career-focused mentoring benefits youth while they're still in school

Kimberly-Asche.jpgDo you as a youth professional mentor youth? Mentors can be critical to the success of careers and reduce high turnover in early career stages. Mentoring youth at a young age to find their passion can make a critical difference for them even before they enter the world of work.

Mentoring can be particularly valuable for youth who do not have a caring adult in their life besides their parents. An ongoing relationship with a caring adult is a positive indicator for youth development.).

Mentoring relationships provide valuable support to young people; help guide youth through the sometimes awkward developmental stages that accompany the transition into adulthood. Great mentors listen carefully without taking on the other person's problem or giving advice, enabling the protégé to articulate the problem and sort our solutions. They also provide feedback and confirmation.

Mentors can offer academic and career guidance, and be role models for leadership, interpersonal and problem-solving skills. Adult-youth mentor relationships aid in the youth's relationships with other non-parent adults, which can powerfully influence the course and quality of adolescents' lives. A mentor's most important function is to help the protégé grow and think.

mentoring.jpgRecent research shows that youth who had mentors in their lives were less likely to skip school, more confident in their school performance and more engaged in school, although most studies have not found a significant improvement in grades from mentoring. The study also showed a slight improvement in the relationship of youth with their parents, and a decreased likelihood to use drugs and alcohol - both of which can affect academic performance. Research has shown that mentoring programs are much more effective when properly implemented using established best practices and when particular attention is paid to relationship development.

As a career-focused mentor, you can provide a glimpse of the world of work that may not otherwise be available to them. The US Department of Labor offers a guide to career-focused mentoring.

Do you act as a mentor to youth in your programs? If so do you have a frank discussion with your proteges about career choices? Do you lead them to professionals in that career or resources in their area of interest?

-- Kimberly Asche, Extension educator

Monday, August 1, 2011

What are the implications of professionalizing youth work?

Thumbnail image for nextgen-main-logo.jpgThe newest resource postings on the Next Gen home page indicate that there is momentum toward professionalizing the field of youth work with core competencies, ethics, and certifications. I am hearing a variety of reactions to this trend. Some believe it holds great promise for advancing our field because it validates our knowledge base, values our impact, and provides a measure of quality assurance. Others are hesitant or alarmed by the potential for reduced flexibility as a more formal structure develops rules and regulations that may inadvertently pose a barrier to high quality youth work.

Thumbnail image for blog-mherman-20110801.jpgIn the fall of 2010 the University of Minnesota Extension Youth Work Institute piloted a new 15-hour workshop called Leadership Matters. Twenty-two youth work supervisors and managers delved into the complexities of youth work supervision and leadership. One segment of the workshop examined core competencies, certifications and core knowledge. One particular activity that generated a great deal of energy asked the participants to debate the question: Should the youth work field professionalize?

One group argued FOR professionalizing with these key points:
  • Provides a common language and value base
  • Legitimizes the work
  • Improves understanding by the community about the field
  • Enhances quality, brings it back to the youth and what is best for them
  • Advances the field with potential for increasing pay
  • Provides a framework for programs, job descriptions, all systems to build upon
  • Supports the experience that youth workers bring to their work

The other group argued AGAINST professionalizing with these key points:
  • Creates bureaucracy with rules and regulations that may impede high quality youth work practice
  • Overemphasizes the tangible parts of the system rather than grappling with the complexities of the organic whole
  • Oversimplifies complex practice
  • Does not account for unpredictability of everyday youth work
  • Overemphasizes academics (earning an academic degree)
  • Undervalues practice and expertise which is harder to measure
  • May undervalue diversity or lower income youth workers as they are less likely to have a degree or specific credential

What is your reaction to these two sides of the argument? What side of the debate do you favor? What are some of the subtleties that our field should examine from this debate? Post a reply and also link this blog to other online networks to encourage a broader conversation!

Margo Herman, assistant Extension professor
University of Minnesota Extension Center for Youth Development
Next Generation Youth Work Coalition member

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Social media skills are essential in a participatory online world

Trudy-Dunham.jpgSocial media have profoundly changed how we experience our connections with each other. But the connections are more than just social -- they help us to create and contribute to our world. They enable us to participate as citizens in today's participatory culture.

In a webinar this week put on by our center and PEAR , Karen Brennan drew on her research with Scratch, a computer programming language developed at MIT for use in education, to talk about the socialization-creation continuum. At the midpoint of this continuum is that space where we are most engaged and productive, doing more together than we could have achieved alone.

Several years ago Henry Jenkins and his team at the Comparative Media Studies Program at MIT described that midpoint as a participatory culture, as one with "relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement, strong support for creating and sharing one's creations, and some type of informal mentorship whereby what is known by the most experienced is passed along to the novices. ... one in which members believe their contributions matter, and feel some degree of social connection with one another."

Social media contribute to the vibrancy of such a culture today. They have become an essential tool: increasingly how we participate as citizens, how we interact with each other, and how we experience our world. As programs and professionals dedicated to positive youth development, we must ensure that youth are skilled in their effective use.

girl-phones.jpgJenkins listed 11 skills that youth need to flourish in this world, including among them environmental scanning, collective intelligence and playing (experimenting with one's surroundings as a problem-solving strategy). Jenkins' skill set draws us further into the application and integration of social media, providing a deeper understanding of how our ability to work with social media, technology and information can impact our shared social experience of living in today's world. Are we building these skills into our youth development programs?

An area I've been thinking about is the need for a new paradigm to present information and discuss issues leading to new answers. The interactions of our leaders, from neighborhoods to multinational organizations, showcase the difficulty of agreeing on facts and solutions. Our classical debate format and scientific argumentation methods are not particularly effective in educating or persuading in today's world.

Instead of pointing out the flaws or misstatements in another's argument, perhaps today's citizen needs to actively contribute to the knowledge base. Posting their experiences and ideas on an issue, reframing it from their perspective, using the iterative process of multiple posts from multiple people, connecting with each other and contributing to crowdsource our way to new insights, truths, and solutions.

As today's youth engage in civic activities that improve their communities and our world, we want youth to feel the sense of empowerment that comes from using social media to work collaboratively to solve problems and create in today's participatory culture. What are we doing, or could we be doing, to make this happen?

Trudy Dunham, research fellow

Monday, July 11, 2011

Are We Staying Responsive?

Thumbnail image for nextgen-main-logo.jpgYouth work is, and always has been, about human potential and human transformation. It is a practice that emerged 'on the streets' in response to the sometimes severe and dire needs of young people who were struggling to find their way. In New York City, as in other places in the country, smaller community-based agencies are striving to hold on to their capacity to meet young people 'where they are at.' There is concern that youth work as a humanistic, transformative and responsive practice is quietly disappearing, being replaced by more narrowly defined opportunities to learn during nonschool hours.

In my research into the developmental opportunities provided by after-school programs, the literature consistently suggests that neither younger nor older children fare well in rigidly structured programs but benefit from attending flexible programs with varied activities, supportive staff, and a recognizable product resulting from activities. When youth work becomes a pre-designed, overly structured space for reaching predetermined outcomes rather than allowing youth to voice their needs, kids can tell the difference. Youth workers who are youth centered, strive to tailor to individual youth, and use a participatory, holistic approach to meet the developmental needs of youth are considered responsive youth workers.

A group of community based youth workers in New York City recently reminded me: "We are not an extension of school." They believe, as do I, that youth work was not designed to do what school was designed to do, nor are they eager to take on that agenda. Rather, youth work is a developmentally responsive practice, one that responds to the needs of youth and families on the ground, in real time. This means that when young people voice the need for 'school' after school, youth workers provide 'school', and when young people voice the need for something else like life skills, they respond to that, too.

The value of this responsiveness was expressed recently to me by an after-school program director. A 12-year old girl in his program explained to him that state exams were scheduled immediately upon return from spring break. She was concerned that the students were given a study guide the day before break, with no further instruction or support, and she suspected no one would be studying during recess. The director responded by providing support, responding to the request by the youth in his community. In this situation and in relation to a need expressed on the ground and in real time, academic support was provided. However, to my way of thinking, regulating that this type of support becomes the norm removes community leaders' capacity to remain flexible and responsive; it also undermines their judgment calls and leaves the decision making about programming to those most removed from practice.

What do you think? Are we staying responsive as youth workers? Are we limiting youth workers' capacity to engage in developmentally responsive practice by regulating what they do, and when they do it?
Dana Fusco

York College, City University of New York
Next Generation Youth Work Coalition Leadership Council

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

What does it mean to be driven by data?

Dale-Blyth.jpg From evidence-based practice to data-driven decision making, the role of data in driving everything forward is becoming omnipresent. As a recovering quantitative sociologist this excites me. As a person devoted to building the field and making a difference in the lives of youth it raises both opportunities and concerns.

Like driving a car, youth work is a navigational sport filled with hundreds of decisions on a moment-by-moment basis. Whether it is the development of the field of youth work or the development of a young person, we process thousands of bits of data to make decisions.

But the data driving these decisions, like many others, are a real mix -- some conscious and quantitative and some unconscious; some rational and some emotional. We drive differently when we are angry than when we are happy.

If youth work is to become a data-driven field, we had better make sure we know what that means and take a strong role in shaping the data available and how they are used.

In driving the field of youth work there are decisions at many levels. Decisions at the policy level about what we fund and support, how and for whom. Decisions on the system level about what quality looks like and who is qualified to practice. Decisions at the program level about what we offer and how it's designed. Decisions at the offering or activity level as a youth worker plans and executes part of a program. And then there are the decisions by each youth, which shapes the experience for themselves and for others.

As several new books point out, from David Brooks' The Social Animal to Incognito: The secrets of the Brain by David Eagleman -- we are learning that more and more of the data driving our decisions are youth-road.jpgcollected and processed unconsciously -- not in some simple rational, conscious and largely cognitive ways.

Over the last few weeks I have had the pleasure of thinking about how we collect and use data on young people's learning, especially but not solely about non-formal learning in out-of-school-time opportunities. Data that can help us to drive decisions on what we do and how we do it with respect to the learning and development of young people.

Learning is about both the journey (the levels of quality in a program, a young person's engagement, and opportunities for youth to contribute) as well as how the journey helps youth get to critical destinations or outcomes.

What mix of data do you think should drive our field and the practice of youth work?

Dale Blyth, associate dean and director

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Top 10 tech tools for our work

Kate-Walker.jpgDo you feel overwhelmed by all the technology options? Do you find it hard to choose from, or even keep up with, the flurry of possibilities?

I'm not an early adopter. I still have a land line telephone, buy CDs from a shop, and don't have cable TV. But professionally, I want to stay up to date on tools for doing my work as a researcher and evaluator. I imagine they could help program staff be more productive and progressive too.

Here are my top 10 tools, based on personal experience, recommended by people I respect or that just look interesting, organized from finding and organizing information at the start of a project, to collecting data and presenting it to others.
  1. Google Scholar. This academic technology.jpgsearch engine is my go-to place to search for scholarly literature across many disciplines and sources; peer-reviewed papers, theses, books, abstracts and articles, from academic publishers, professional societies, preprint repositories, universities and other scholarly organizations.

  2. CiteULike. The web is full of interesting articles, but how on earth do keep track of and cite them?! This citation management tool is a fusion of social bookmarking tools like Delicious and bibliographic management tools like EndNote where you can store, organize, share and discover links to academic papers.

  3. Basecamp. I was recently invited to join Basecamp for an upcoming project to take a class from in-person to online. Basecamp is where we will communicate and collaborate - upload files, send messages, or create events in the calendar. Keep track of to-dos, when they're due and who's doing them!

  4. Doodle. Sometimes, the simpler the better. This tool finds the best time for a group of people to meet. Propose several dates and times and participants indicate their availability.

  5. Evernote.The ultimate virtual Trapper Keeper! You can easily capture information (text, handwritten notes, pictures, webpage excerpts) from your real or digital life and makes it accessible, sortable and searchable at any time, from anywhere.

  6. or Freemind. Mind maps are diagrams of words, ideas, or tasks, arranged around a central idea. They are used to generate and organize ideas, make decisions or solve problems. We use them in Deliberate Practice Matters to map out dilemma scenarios in youth work practice.

  7. Dragon Dictation. Just speak into your smartphone or computer and it types out your words instantly. I dictated my debriefing notes while driving home from a research interview to quickly capture my notes while my memory was still fresh.

  8. One solution to information overload is data visualization -- displaying data to show patterns and connections that matter. On ManyEyes, you can upload and visualize data sets. For more inspiration, see the Periodic Table of Visualization Methods, an interactive collection of possibilities.

  9. Prezi.A web-based presentation application that uses a zooming, non-linear single canvas instead of traditional slides. A great alternative to Powerpoint.

  10. Storyrobe. A digital story-telling app that allows you to piece together photos, videos, and then overlay sound bites to create a narrative. You can then share the final video via YouTube or e-mail. It's a fabulous way for evaluators or program participants to document youth programs or projects.

Have you used any of these in your work? What are your favorite tech tools, apps or resources that make your work life easier, more productive or maybe just a little more fun?

-- Kate Walker, research associate

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Ideal learning environments: An impossible dream?

Thumbnail image for Jennifer-Skuza.jpgIs it possible to build the ideal learning environments described by the thinkers in our field? Or is it better to strive for a "happy medium" between theory and the realities of practice?

Now and then I like to dust off and reread literature that shaped my thinking. Milbrey McLaughlin's report, Community Counts: How Youth Organizations Matter for Youth Development influenced my thinking on how to build intentional learning environments and put into perspective the value of community.

McLaughlin says that the most powerful learning environments are intentionally youth-centered, knowledge-centered, and assessment-centered and reflective of the community they are in.
McLaughlin constructed a theory of ideal learning environments focused on youth, knowledge, program assessment and reflective of the community. It is hard to find fault with these ideals:


youth-learning-environment.jpgLearning environments are effective when young people know that they matter and that they are central to what happens in the program. So it's important for youth workers to build on youth strengths, reach out to young people in the community, involve youth in the selection of materials, and provide personal attention to each young person in the program. It's hard to argue with this. But is it possible to be youth-centered all the time? Is it ever necessary to veer off this center?


Knowledge-centered learning environments motivate youth and contribute to their development by having concentrated programs that aim to deepen skills and competence through intense engagement in a specific subject. They point to learning as the reason why youth should get involved. These environments have a clear focus, high-quality content and instruction/facilitation, and embedded curriculum. If you are like me, you probably took a deep breath after reading that description -- not all youth are drawn to a program to learn. So, how can youth workers build knowledge-centered learning environments that attract young people with a wide range of reasons for participating?


Youth workers need to know the impact of their program on the lives of young people. Last week, Sam Grant discussed evaluation in program design. Equally important, youth need to know the progress they are making in their learning based on their own standards. The experiential learning process can be used to help youth reflect critically and apply new knowledge and skills. Youth workers who use cycles of planning, practice, and performance can help young people find their own rhythm within the program. Feedback and recognition methods can help youth know when they excel. Using a variety of assessment techniques brings new, relevant and challenging learning to the youth. But where is the balance between assessment and other priorities?

Reflecting the community

Community learning environments are usually informal, which helps youth to relax enough to "get into" the learning without the anxiety they sometimes experience in school. Therefore, it is important to conduct programs in community and/or bring community into the program by inviting family, agency partners, and other caring adults into the program planning and implementation processes. For some young people, youth-serving organizations serve as a primary source of relationships and support. An environment rich in community resources can help youth build social capital. Finding natural ways to build community into a learning environment requires resourcefulness on the part of the youth worker. What is sacrificed in a program if the learning environment does not reflect the community?

But reality sometimes gets in the way of reaching our ideals. Do you aspire to McLaughlin's ideals, or different ones? How can we build learning environments that best support the growth and development of young people? How do you balance your ideals with the realities of practice?

Jennifer A. Skuza, PhD
Extension professor and program leader, educational design & development
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