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:
Learning 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?
Extension professor and program leader, educational design & development