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Extension > Youth Development Insight > November 2011

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
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