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Extension > Youth Development Insight > August 2011

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
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