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Extension > Youth Development Insight > June 2011

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

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

What's the definition of youth work insanity?

Thumbnail image for Samantha-Grant.jpgHow often in programs do we continue to do something because "It's that time of year again"? A quote from Albert Einstein reads, "Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." I don't think Einstein was thinking about evaluation when he coined this phrase, but it nicely articulates our tendency to continue to offer youth programs without "checking under the hood" periodically.

As an educator for program evaluation, I believe strongly in using evaluation to guide and improve youth programs and to prove their worth to others. I know that others will agree with me on this. But I think we often fail to intentionally build evaluation into our program design and as a result our programs suffer. Jane Powers' research on youth participatory evaluation demonstrates that the act of intentionally engaging youth in the evaluation experience helps to not only build stronger programs but also youth development skills in participating youth.

Youth workers are natural evaluators -- we intuitively modify environments to fit participants' needs. Being intentional about evaluation could include strategies such as:
  • Checking the "pulse" of a group as they conduct an activity.youth-worker-youth.jpg
  • Forming an advisory group from a mix of youth workers and youth to plan and critique program offerings.
  • Embedding reflection into daily practice. The Youth Work Institute has an excellent toolkit on reflection.
  • Administering a pre-tests and post-tests to youth in a program. The Harvard Family Research Project has some excellent resources on methods and design.
  • Analyzing evaluation data with the help of youth. Youth will be able to add their own perspectives on understanding data and in making changes to a program.

Evaluation is one natural way to determine if your program is going in the right direction or just going insane. How are you finding ways to embed evaluation in your daily practice? Do you have any tips to make it easier or more natural?
-- Samantha Grant, assistant Extension professor, program evaluation

Monday, June 6, 2011

Inspiring the next generation of youth workers

nextgen-main-logo.jpgHow can we spark the interest of young youth workers to become engaged as leaders in our field? What avenues will the next generation of leadership use to create networking opportunities to meet and learn from each other? In the new world of social networking, will technology become a vehicle for hosting forums and addressing the crucial issues in the field through blogs, Facebook, Twitter? What conversations will be relevant and helpful to connect youth work peers?

As I celebrate my 37th year in the field of youth work - seven years working directly with young people and 30 years at the National Institute on Out-of-School Time, I am impressed with the tremendous amount of growth and change the field has endured. For the most part, these changes have been a positive evolution for a field that strives to be inclusive of sub-sectors including school age care, afterschool, youth development, and summer programming.


But change creates pressures as well. We now face some of the greatest challenges to our field and its survival, including declining resources and an ever increasing need to prepare the next generation of youth workers for success. As financial markets wobble, local and state government continue to experience increased deficits, the impending retirement of a generation of baby boomers looms. The impact of these trends on the social sector, and in particular, services for children and youth, is clear.

Normally I am a very optimistic person, confident that we will figure it out and the next generation will step up to the responsibility of leading the way. Yet after attending this year's National After School Association (NAA) Annual Convention, I am not so sure. I looked for younger youth workers in my sessions but didn't find many. Instead, I was surrounded by veterans, many of whom are baby boomers just like me. Are national conferences obsolete? And if they aren't, what keynotes speakers will resonate with them? Concerned, I sought the advice of my "younger colleague" Jackie Jainga Hyllseth, professional development director at School's Out Washington, who helped me articulate the problem. She shared a report by the Annie E Casey Foundation (2005) called: "Up Next - Generation Change and the Leadership of Nonprofit Organizations." I appreciated the No. 1 recommendation in this report: "Invest in Younger Leaders."

How can the Next Generation Youth Work Coalition invest in the development of the future leaders in the field? What do the baby boomers need to do differently as we prepare to pass the torch to our younger colleagues? Let's hear your ideas! Link this blog to other online networks and start a national conversation!

Ellen Gannett, co-chair
Next Generation Youth Work Coalition

Director, National Institute on Out-of-School Time

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Service learning belongs at the core of youth programs

Nicole-Pokorney.jpg"Service learning" is a term that is overused, misunderstood and under-implemented. Too often, secondary and higher education compartmentalize service learning into standalone courses, reducing the benefits to the learner and the effectiveness of service learning pedagogy.

The National Service Learning Clearinghouse describes this mode of learning: "Service-Learning is a teaching and learning strategy that integrates meaningful community service with instruction and reflection to enrich the learning experience, teach civic responsibility, and strengthen communities."

In my research of engaging youth in service-learning, the benefits to youth are well known, as are the benefits for educators and community partners. The University of Minnesota Community Service-Learning Center enumerates the benefits to learners as these:
  • Increasing knowledge on class topic
  • Exploring values and beliefs
  • Having opportunities to act on values and beliefs
  • Developing critical thinking and problem-solving skills
  • Growing an understanding of diverse cultures and communities
  • Learning more about social issues and their root causes

In both formal and nonformal teaching environments, service learning needs to be integrated into the curriculum and philosophy of education. Susan Siegel, in her chapter of an important book on this subject, Community Service Learning, wrote that "teachers who function as change agents are central to the process of school reform...[and] have a significant impact on the quality of student learning ... Unless a teacher deliberately includes specific purpose or learning outcome, student learning is limited to a 'hit or miss' basis".

Service learning needs to be that 'specific purpose or learning outcome' in all educational environments. The youth development field needs to come to a consensus on the view of service-learning as a form of pedagogy and not a stand-alone, mandated entity. We can lead the formation of pedagogy surrounding service learning. Instead of individualized teaching departments that segregate service-learning opportunities, we should create deeper, enriching environments within the contextual walls of a classroom or after-school program through curriculum integration and a renewed philosophy of education, while serving the community partners.

So how can we put the "service" into learning? Another organizational service-learning leader, the National Youth Leadership Council lists intentional components of service-learning that form the richness of the experience:
  • Meaningful service
  • Duration and intensity
  • Youth voice
  • Diversity
  • Link to curriculum
  • Reflection
  • Progress monitoring
  • Partnerships
  • Celebration
How do you view service-learning within your philosophy of education and teaching? In what ways have you incorporated service-learning into your curriculum? What benefits have youth experienced when you do?

Nicole Pokorney, Extension educator, educational design and development
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