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Extension > Youth Development Insight > 2012

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Finding ways to engage youth in program evaluation

Nicole-Pokorney.jpgAre you engaging youth in program evaluation? You may be wanting to do so, but having trouble finding a way to do it.

In October, educators from our center and youth workers from several area youth programs embarked on a journey to explore innovative ways to engage youth in program evaluation. The Innovators on Youth Roles in Evaluation Cohort emerged as the laboratory for this exploration. The Innovators began to gather the information about Youth Participatory Evaluation (YPE) from our early meetings and Kim Sabo Flores' presentation that month, Transforming Youth/Adult Relationships through Research and Evaluation.


YPE is a practice that benefits youth, adults, and program. In her blog post, Youth as partners in evaluation - an idea that is catching on, Kate Walker began the discussion on how programs benefit from involving youth in evaluation and research.

In her presentation and book, Youth Participatory Evaluation, Strategies for Engaging Youth People, Kim Sabo Flores further describes the benefits:
  • Youth learn research skills youth-participatory-evaluation.jpg
  • It is a fundamental right
  • Gather better data
  • Improve programming
  • Model of community action
  • Resourceful data collection
  • Ability to ignite human development
  • Strengthen youth-adult partnerships
You can read more from Kim Sabo Flores on the American Evaluation Association blog.
The question emerging for me through this journey is: "How do we create the room to allow evaluation to occur?" As with all good youth engagement practices, we know what is good for the youth, adults, and program, but how do we design our programs to allow the space to actually do it?
By using a service-learning methodology, we can create the space for progress monitoring, or evaluation, and we also can align the components of YPE and service-learning to strengthen community action and advocacy.

How have you seen YPE and service learning playing out in youth programming? How are you carving out the space in your program to do it?

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

You are welcome to comment on this blog post. We encourage civil discourse, including spirited disagreement. We will delete comments that contain profanity, pornography or hate speech--any remarks that attack or demean people because of their sex, race, ethnic group, etc.--as well as spam.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Collaborations with schools benefit youth

Samantha-Grant.jpgRecently I was part of a school-community partnership group. We were brought together to create a measurement plan for learning objectives set forth by a local school district. The objectives all focused on building 21st Century skills in youth.

There was a heavy emphasis on developing global citizens and cultivating youth interests and talents. Too often these traits are thought of as "soft skills"; however research suggests that soft skills are sometimes the most demanded in the workforce. In fact, National Public Radio ran an article that stated that preschool is one of the best training programs because of the emphasis on soft skills in early childhood. Like preschool teachers, youth workers strive to help youth develop skills that will make them more productive citizens.

girls-at-computer.jpgOther members of the school-community group were surprised when I said that youth workers think about 21st Century skills all the time. In fact, these are often the goals that drive our program. Their surprise led me to wonder why K-12 teachers don't know this very important part of nonformal learning. Clearly there is a need for more sharing of knowledge. So how can we as nonformal educators collaborate more effectively with schools?

I am not the first person to be concerned about this. AnnMarie Schamper, an educator in Philadelphia, wrote an article in the Spring 2012 edition of Afterschool Matters called Collaboration Between Afterschool Practitioners and In-School Teachers. With a realistic perspective she expressed the need for in-school and out-of-school educators to collaborate and communicate. She offered concrete examples from her practice to serve as a learning tool for others. Collaboration isn't easy, but she put the need for it into perspective, saying, "Collaboration between in-school teachers and after-school practitioners helps both sets of professionals, but the ultimate beneficiaries are the students."

As youth workers, we care deeply about the development of the young people that we work with. Even though it is challenging to find ways to connect with schools, I would argue that it's increasingly important. If we are to build 21st Century learners, we need the help of whole communities, and schools are an important player.

How have you effectively partnered with schools? How have you overcome barriers? What benefits have you seen?

-- Samantha Grant, assistant Extension professor, program evaluation

You are welcome to comment on this blog post. We encourage civil discourse, including spirited disagreement. We will delete comments that contain profanity, pornography or hate speech--any remarks that attack or demean people because of their sex, race, ethnic group, etc.--as well as spam.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Click activism: Are social media changing civic engagement?

Trudy-Dunham.jpgHave social media changed how the youth you know engage in civic activities? Are charities and civic organizations too out-of-touch with today's youth to engage them in their communities?

Recent research suggests that digital citizenship (regular and effective use of the Internet) is associated with civic engagement and participation in democracy. Further, innovative use of social media has become a key factor in engaging youth (as well as adults) in working and supporting the causes they believe in. We've recently seen evidence of this in news accounts about its use in super storm Sandy and political campaigns. The Internet and its social media tools have already, or soon will change the traditional civic and social organizations in our society.

youth-with-laptop.jpgSocial media have been shown to powerfully grab our attention. They can dramatically expose us to problems and issues, encourage us to care about them, to want to fix the problem and better our world. For many it can be a life-changing experience. Social media support our ability to organize, to shape our message and to share it widely. But do they promote real civic engagement? Or do they provide just an easy, relatively meaningless, form of social activism?

What is at work here is more than just the Internet and its social media tools. It is how these tools are being used that can promote civic engagement. They can provide a mechanism for youth to form and join in a "participatory culture", defined by Henry Jenkins as one with a strong sense of community, low barriers to participation, informal mentorship, and opportunities for creative work. These are cultures where youth have voice and power, where they act and can influence, where they can make a difference, cause change, have autonomy.

But informing others requires that one first inform one's self. This is fostered through youth learning by doing and sharing, and by within-community mentoring and networking. The mentoring provides scaffolds for further learning, building skills and knowledge that enable us to grow and take action effectively on the issues we care about.

Another attribute of a participatory culture is youth-developed materials or products: telling the story, retelling, and remixing. These can be tweets or blogs and videos, building on a shared experience to give voice to their ideas and take action.

Think of the Eight Essential Elements for positive youth development. It is easy to see that most are present in a participatory culture. The caring adult may or may not be there, but it does include friends and mentors of various ages. And when the culture is organized around a social issue that youth care about, it provides an opportunity for generosity, to value and practice service to others.

Adding Internet and social media to our youth development programs has great potential for enhancing youth voice and youth leadership in today's society, providing an opportunity for them to be more actively engaged in their community and their world. Online participatory cultures researchers are finding examples of the attributes and strategies these organizations use to enhance youth voice and engagement. And, as these organizations are demonstrating through their community chapters and clubs that meet face-to-face, they do not have to replace more traditional youth programs. But we can enhance these traditional programs by adding the social media tools and participatory culture attributes.

Have social media changed how the youth you know engage in civic activities? Have they changed how youth programs engage youth in civic activities?
-- Trudy Dunham, research fellow

You are welcome to comment on this blog post. We encourage civil discourse, including spirited disagreement. We will delete comments that contain profanity, pornography or hate speech--any remarks that attack or demean people because of their sex, race, ethnic group, etc.--as well as spam.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Mobile learning apps connect with youth

Carrie-Ann-Olson.jpgSometimes it seems as though everywhere you look, people are using their phones. But what are they using them for? The Pew Internet Research Project reports that teen texting volume is up in 2012 while the frequency of voice calling is down. About three-quarters (77%) of teens have a cell phone; one in four say they own smartphones.

American teens on average are sending or receiving 3,339 texts a month, or more than six for every hour they're awake, according to a Nielsen Company report: Calling Yesterday, Texting Today, Using Apps Tomorrow. Although texting is at an all-time high, the largest area of growth was in teen data usage, from 14 MB to 62 MB per month. Almost half of teens surveyed reported using an app 10 times per day -- more frequently than general grooming and eating.

kids-with-smartphones.jpgSo how are you connecting with this mobile youth society? Do you text? Do you push meeting reminders? Do you have mobile apps that support the topic you are teaching while encouraging youth to build mastery in areas of interest? A recent presentation by Barbara Chamberlin, Extension instructional design and educational media specialist , New Mexico State University states that technology is changing the way our clientele work, think and play. We need to remember our basic learning objectives and then take those objectives into a mobile learning environment.

Healthy living, the programming area that interests me the most, seems to be a popular supported learning objective with mobile learning apps. However, where some apps get complicated, the Eat & Move-O-Matic will help you learn about the foods you eat and how they help fuel your body for your favorite activities. The Eat & Move-O-Matic was developed to support the National 4-H "Youth Voice: Youth Choice" program, and offers a simple and fun way to engage kids and adults alike in learning about the relationship between nutrition and exercise. The Presidential Active Lifestyle Award + Challenge encourages physical activity and building healthy eating habits with a online tracking of activity.

Games can make you happier. In a previous blog entry, Trudy Dunham challenged us to take advantage of games to promote youth learning and development. I believe that mobile learning apps can go a step further and encourage "anytime, anywhere" learning, as well as reach underserved children, because they are relatively low-cost.

Do you see the benefits of mobile learning apps? Do you have a favorite health app? How have you used any mobile learning apps to support your youth development learning environments?

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

You are welcome to comment on this blog post. We encourage civil discourse, including spirited disagreement. We will delete comments that contain profanity, pornography or hate speech--any remarks that attack or demean people because of their sex, race, ethnic group, etc.--as well as spam.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Tips for building right-brain skills for 21st century thinking

Jennifer-Skuza.jpgAs we explore what it takes to thrive in the 21st century, it is hard to ignore the growing amount of literature that suggests the right side of the brain is needed more than ever. Right-brain abilities - artistry, empathy, design, big-picture thinking, creating something that the world didn't know was missing -- are hard to outsource or automate and in high demand in workplace and community settings. Left-brain abilities -- the logical, linear, analytical, spreadsheet kind of skills -- are important but not sufficient for success.

So what does this have to do with the field of youth development? The answer is that it is directly related.

Our field plays an important role in helping young people to gain 21st-century learning skills and abilities to thrive in a global world. Here are some tips for building right-brain abilities through the learning environments found in youth programs.

Critique the learning environment
With youth take time to critically reflect on the types of activities in the program. Ask age-appropriate questions that informally assess the learning environment, such as "How are we learning?" "Does this program promote right and left-directed thinking" and, if so, "How?" "What do we need more of, less of, or the same?" Make time to pause, reflect and adjust.

girl-with-hand-paint.jpgCultivate creativity in design

Do youth have a role in the design of their learning experience? Promoting this role can tap the natural curiosity, creativity and imagination that youth possess by fueling their motivation for learning.

Create stories

Listen to youth as they tell their stories. Then, work together to create a collective story about the program that allows youth to see them themselves as part of that narrative and an important force in moving that narrative forward. This provides an opportunity for youth to develop big-picture thinking skills and to see how their contributions matter.

Do not interrupt

Youth have the ability to concentrate; they simply need space and time to do it. So, avoid interrupting their concentration with misplaced questions such as "What are you learning", "What are you doing?" and "Why are you staring off to space?" Wait for them to come to you. I know this is a hard one, but giving youth space to concentrate will reinforce their natural tendency to learn, while building autonomy.

Play more

Play allows children to use their creativity while developing their imagination, dexterity, and physical, cognitive, and emotional strength. In youth-driven play, young people practice decision-making skills, move at their own pace, discover their own areas of interest, and ultimately engage fully in the passions they wish to pursue.

Dig deeper

An important thing for one to learn is the capacity to recognize embedded assumptions and challenge them. So encourage youth to discover their assumptions in life, challenge premises, and bring false premises to the surface. Use reflective methods such as reading, writing, dialogue, discussion, role play and simulations. This can be a liberating experience of discovery that not only builds critical thinking skills but also artfully creates new meanings in life.

Build empathy

Empathy is commonly defined as identifying with and understanding another's situation, feelings, and motives. Build empathy into everyday programming by modeling it, reinforcing it among relationships, and encouraging this avenue over snap judgments or apathy.
The environments in high-quality youth programs are ideal for fully engaging youth in whole-mind thinking by learning through what interests them. Think about your own practice. What right- and left-brain directed skills do you use in your everyday practice and how do they influence the work you do?

Jennifer A. Skuza, PhD, assistant dean

You are welcome to comment on this blog post. We encourage civil discourse, including spirited disagreement. We will delete comments that contain profanity, pornography or hate speech--any remarks that attack or demean people because of their sex, race, ethnic group, etc.--as well as spam.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

"R-E-S-P-E-C-T: Find out what it means to me" and to you

Beki-Saito.jpgBack in 1966, Aretha Franklin had a big hit song, R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Even if you weren't born back then, you probably know it, and maybe, like me, when you hear it, walk around for the rest of the day singing the chorus, "R-E-S-P-E-C-T: find out what it means to me..." The song became a hallmark for the feminist movement in the 1970's and remains relevant today, especially in youth work.

Young people say that respect is vitally important and is something they don't get much of from adults generally, and specifically from teachers, parents, police, and policy-makers.

I would say that a lack of respect seems to be the underlying cause for virtually every societal problem -- youth violence, teen pregnancy, school dropout, discrimination and prejudice against people of various ethnicities, religions and sexual orientation, gangs, bullying, social and civic disengagement and disconnected, and so on.

So why aren't we talking more about the importance of respect in society?
  dimension-of-respect-diagram.jpg
Going as far back as Thomas Jefferson and the constitution, the respect of individual rights is described as a fundamental virtue of the constitution and a moral imperative for democracy. Yet there is relatively little research about how children and youth become respectful. How does it play out between people of different ages, ethnicities, and roles? When and under what circumstances is reciprocal respect expected or required? How can we increase respect among our fellow human beings? Many seem to agree that it is a learned attitude and behavior shaped initially in the home and reinforced by society and media.

So what can one do to instill or increase intentional respectfulness?

Programs and interventions designed to teach respect all seem to believe that respecting others begins with respecting one's self. While one could imagine a young person with low self-worth speaking and behaving respectfully, it seems a good place to start. The ability to view things from another person's perspective -- often called role-taking ability -- seems a prerequisite. It provides a foundation for recognizing that even though others may not have identical perspectives, experiences and beliefs, they have value. Respectful relationships are built upon courteous communication and teamwork skills, patience and trust, and the humility and understanding that comes from admitting mistakes, apologizing, learning from experience and moving forward.

Ultimately, respect or the lack thereof underlies not only negative youth outcomes, but is at the core of all relationships. This is true not only between people who are thought to be somehow different from another (age, race, socio-economic status, rural/urban, sexual orientation, religion) but also among people who don't have any obvious categorical differences, whether in the work place among co-workers, between family members, neighbors, etc.

How does respect play out in your program, in your organization, in how you vote? How is it that such an important human characteristic garners so little research? What have you found useful in teaching and learning about respect?

-- Rebecca Saito, senior research associate

You are welcome to comment on this blog post. We encourage civil discourse, including spirited disagreement. We will delete comments that contain profanity, pornography or hate speech--any remarks that attack or demean people because of their sex, race, ethnic group, etc.--as well as spam.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Youth as partners in evaluation -- an idea that is catching on

Kate-Walker.jpgThe American Evaluation Association (AEA) is holding its annual meeting in Minneapolis this week. AEA's new Youth Focused Evaluation Topical Interest Group (YFE TIG) launches with an impressive series of sessions devoted to evaluation about youth, for youth and with youth. It is exciting to see all the evaluation and research that is being done in partnership with young people. For me, these sessions underscore the potential benefits and barriers to engaging youth in evaluation.

As with other forms of participatory and action research, including youth in the process can:
    youth-workers-male-and-female.jpg
  1. Enhance the inquiry. Young people provide an important and legitimizing perspective on the programs that serve them, and their involvement can contribute to more valid and reliable findings.
  2. Empower participants. When youth are involved as collective decision makers and change agents in the inquiry process, they can gain important skills and competencies.
  3. Contribute to society. By recognizing youth expertise and equalizing power relationships, young people can help democratize knowledge and transform institutions to be more accountable to their communities.

When done poorly, however, youth-involved research and evaluation can be counterproductive. Potential barriers include:
  1. Tokenism or exclusivity can result when youth participation is limited to a select few.
  2. Organizational and community readiness are often the biggest obstacles.
  3. Adequate training and support is critical for both youth and adults.
On Mon., Oct. 29, Dr. Kim Sabo Flores will present "Transforming Youth - Adult Relationships through Research and Evaluation". While this event is full, a recording of it will be posted on our website.

In your experience, what have been the key benefits and barriers to partnering with young people in evaluation and research efforts?

-- Kate Walker, research associate

You are welcome to comment on this blog post. We encourage civil discourse, including spirited disagreement. We will delete comments that contain profanity, pornography or hate speech--any remarks that attack or demean people because of their sex, race, ethnic group, etc.--as well as spam.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Top 10 ways to engage diverse communities

Josey-Landrieu.jpgWhat does it take to build relationships with diverse audiences? I have thought a lot about this question in my work with University of Minnesota Extension.

One of the things I enjoy the most about my work is the chance to act as bridge between my university and communities across our state. Often, immigrants and minorities haven't had the opportunity to engage and participate in what Extension has to offer. Engaging them is different than what happens when working with communities who have had long-lasting, positive relationships with us.

Extension work extends beyond our program participants; it permeates  individuals' lives, families, organizations, and entire communities. In the social environments in which we do our work, including demographic changes and economic turmoil, it is crucial that we establish, maintain and nurture positive relationships with diverse communities. Along with some of my colleagues across Extension, we put together a "Top 10 List" for engaging diverse audiences.

  1. It takes time. You will need time before, during, and after your "project" to build the relationship and maintain it. Organizations and people in these communities need to be at the table from the beginning to foster positive, long-lasting working relationships.
  2. You are never done! At the end of a workshop, participants may connect with you about community resources or a personal matter. Be ready with culturally appropriate materials, translated into appropriate languages if needed.
  3. Understand that in certain cultures is an offense to disagree with you.
  4. Don't take things personally. It is not about you! Others may have urgent issues than than you realize. Community members will let you know what issues should be addressed and how you can work with them to address them in a positive and constructive way. They are tired of being seen from a deficit model approach; they know they have assets, they bring skills and knowledge to the table and our work should include them.
    hands.jpg
  5. Have a spirit of exploration! Approach diverse audiences with a willingness to learn. It's OK to ask questions, and it is OK to listen. The more you work across difference, the more comfortable you will become, and you will get a better sense of the community's "Way of Knowing.">
  6. Relationship ethic is more important than work ethic! Don't come to meetings with an agenda--you'll be disappointed. You might have to collect data at a fiesta!
  7. Never take words, concepts, or objectives at face value ... these things are loaded with multiple meanings. Words such as success, resource or poverty (and many others) have multiple meanings. Make a genuine effort to know and appreciate different ways of understanding the world.
  8. Be where it happens. Engaging with communities requires flexibility. A comfortable place for them to meet might not be the same as yours.
  9. Develop a cross-cultural capacity. You will need intercultural skills -- communication, maybe a language, experience working cross-culturally, key contacts in the community. Get some training, experience differences to get out of your comfort zone. Use resources (trainings, co-workers, events, literature, art, etc.) to build these skills that you will have to put into practice.
  10. Ask yourself "what is my commitment level?" If you intend to be in and out of a community quickly, it might be best to ask someone who has an existing relationship with the community if they would be willing to partner with you on the project.

I am not the first in the country to consider the question of how university-community collaborations work best. Nor am I the first in Minnesota Extension to think about it. But this is our latest take.

What would you add to our list? Can we make it a "Top 15?" What has worked when you engage diverse communities in your work? What are some lessons learned you would like to share with others? Chime in!

-- Josey Landrieu, assistant Extension professor, program evaluation

You are welcome to comment on this blog post. We encourage civil discourse, including spirited disagreement. We will delete comments that contain profanity, pornography or hate speech - any remarks that attack or demean people because of their sex, race, ethnic group, etc. -- as well as spam.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Youth programs designed for those who need them most

Joanna-Tzenis.jpgDid you know that time spent in youth programs is the most consistent predictor of youth thriving? Participation in them can enhance young people's self-esteem, school performance and civic responsibility. But which youth benefit the most?

While all youth can and do benefit from youth programs, they are disproportionately valuable to the welfare of low-income or marginalized youth. Those who have fewer resources -- financial, cultural, and social -- benefit disproportionately more from programs than youth who have plenty. Ironically, there is a severe shortage of youth programs designed for at-risk youth.

This is an urgent issue that the Minnesota Children, Youth and Families at Risk (CYFAR) team has gone a along way to addressing. The Minnesota CYFAR Sustainable Communities Project is entering its fifth year of operation. Since its launch, we have used the organic middle school model designed specifically for youth and their families at risk. It is not a highly structured program model in the sense that we have a prescribed curriculum, content or activities. Rather, the content emerges from the interests and talents of the youth, family and their community -- keeping program staff on their toes as they continually design a learning environment that sparks those interests and draws out those talents.

Our evaluation findings confirm that the organic nature of the model is essential to successful programming. Each site keeps youth's interests at the center of learning, and so each has a different focus. At the Willmar site, youth love the opportunity "express their nerdiness" in science. In Winona, they escape "living in a text book" and "actually touch stuff." In St. Paul, young people relish the rare urban opportunity to connect with nature in the context of their Ojibwe and Lakota cultures. Because their interests are at the core of programming, across all sites, young people are having fun while learning and motivated to explore their educational interests. This is particularly important for young people whose knowledge or ways of knowing are often marginalized in other settings.

In your experience, what are indispensable elements of youth programs for young people who are at risk for not meeting their basic needs? What can we do as professionals in the field of youth development to advance the development for this type of programming?

-- Joanna Tzenis, assistant Extension professor, Children, Youth and Families at Risk (CYFAR)


You are welcome to comment on this blog post. We encourage civil discourse, including spirited disagreement. We will delete comments that contain profanity, pornography or hate speech--any remarks that attack or demean people because of their sex, race, ethnic group, etc.--as well as spam.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Build your evaluation muscle to use it effectively in the program

Pamela-Nippolt.jpgJust when you thought that your youth program was doing well to DO evaluation at all, we evaluators want you to USE it, too! What does it take to make the report, and the entire evaluation process, an integral part of a youth organizations' everyday work?

I've learned that building capacity to use evaluation does not depend on having a lot of fancy bells and whistles. My experiences in the reporting stage of evaluation work with youth-serving organizations have taught me that successful use of evaluation has little to do with slick reports and branded slide presentations. It is more about the right people coming together to roll up their sleeves around the findings and lessons.

Rosie-the-Riveter.jpgOthers in the evaluation field have done some thinking about this and are sharing their experiences on evaluation use. Boris Volkov and Jean King provide a capacity-building checklist for those planning evaluations. Their checklist suggests that one of the first places to start to ensure that evaluations get used is at the top of the list -- It is critical that organizational leaders share responsibility for building the organizational "muscle" to use evaluation effectively.

Mary Arnold, an evaluator for Extension and 4-H in Oregon, recommends a four-part framework for building the capacity of Extension educators who work in youth development to use and lead evaluation in youth programs. By starting small with teaching the use of logic models and growing toward large-scale, multi-site evaluation projects, Arnold reports evidence of success in her unit's increased capacity to use, and learn from, evaluation.

Few things worth having come without some elbow grease. We can do it! What does it take for you to be engaged in an evaluation project or process? What do we need to do so that evaluation gets USED in youth organizations?

-- Pamela Larson Nippolt, associate Extension professor and program leader, program evaluation

You are welcome to comment on this blog post. We encourage civil discourse, including spirited disagreement. We will delete comments that contain profanity, pornography or hate speech--any remarks that attack or demean people because of their sex, race, ethnic group, etc.--as well as spam.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Opening doors with a global mind-set

Jessica-Russo.jpgFor young people entering a 21st century workforce, a global mind-set is not only important. It is vital to their healthy, happy development.

What is a global mind-set, and how do we cultivate this in young people who, like adults, gravitate towards the familiar?

Gupta and Govindarajan describe a global mind-set as an awareness and openness to diversity combined with a tendency and ability to integrate new knowledge and experiences across cultures. I like to think of a global mind-set in terms of the doors it opens. A global mind-set allows for healthy encounters with others representing diverse cultures, races, ages, gender, religions, lifestyles, and viewpoints. And a global mind-set allows these encounters to penetrate our experience in a way that encourages us to expand the way we think and act, combining old and new ways of going about the world.

global.jpgFor young people (or anyone, for that matter) to develop a global mind-set, they need the opportunity to wrestle with and challenge their own cultural understanding. Along the path to that understanding, they acquire or hone the ability to empathize, suspend judgment, and either accept or adapt to cultural difference. Empathy, suspension of judgment, and acceptance/adaptability are keys to developing a global mind-set. But developing these abilities in a homogeneous environment is challenging.

In the business world, an international assignment is argued to be best way for people to develop the skills to be an effective global leader. For young people, a culturally immersive experience may be the best way to develop a global mind-set. Providing them the experience of working with others of varying backgrounds is essential to digging deep enough into their own cultural understanding to be able to develop the empathy, suspension of judgment, and acceptance/adaptability requisite to a global mind-set.

In the Urban Youth Development Office (Urban 4-H), we developed a program model and curriculum called WeConnect: An Opening to the World (Skuza, Russo,& Hurtado, 2009) designed to help show youth that they are participants of a global society, inspiring a sense of understanding and confidence in relating and connecting to other people. And using this philosophical base, we provide cross-cultural integration points for the youth in our programs, through experiences such as a leadership retreat, campus visit, showcase event, and service learning groups involving youth from multiple types of clubs across rural, suburban, and urban areas. These inter-cultural experiences are most successful when we:
  • Employ a process that emphasizes habitual reflection and active listening
  • Engage youth in authentic conversations about issues they care about
  • Tackle any emerging conflicts head-on
  • Focus learning on helping young people understand their thinking about cultural difference
  • Insist on a youth-centered, community-centered learning environment
  • Surround the youth with caring, trained adults who can engage them in conversations about their viewpoints
  • Provide experiences that appropriately challenge youth to practice what they are learning about accepting and adapting to cultural difference with grace

We find that with this deliberate approach, we are helping our young people develop a global mind-set. One barrier that we encounter is resistance from families based on prejudicial outlooks that have been cultivated in the young person's home. We use a group mentoring model in some of our programs in order to provide a variety of adult viewpoints, and Extension's research on the role of race and ethnicity in mentor relationships is a helpful resource.

What are other ways that you find effective in developing a global mind-set? What are some challenges?

-- Jessica Russo, assistant Extension professor and director, Urban 4-H Youth Development Office

You are welcome to comment on this blog post. We encourage civil discourse, including spirited disagreement. We will delete comments that contain profanity, pornography or hate speech--any remarks that attack or demean people because of their sex, race, ethnic group, etc.--as well as spam.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Finding the balance in program design

Rebecca-Meyer.jpgHave you ever seen a youth program that tried to do too much in the time allotted? Or one that was all about engagement but lacked learning outcomes? Finding the balance between these is key to good program design.

Here are two relevant examples from my own family: My twin 3-year-old boys participated in a day camp experience focused on camping. Each session was 90 minutes in length. During the first session, the instructor involved the children in learning about: each other, the instructors, basic components of a camp pack, how to put up a tent, how to prepare camp snacks, and hiking in the woods. For the age of participants and the amount of time available, the program tried to cover too much ground. In contrast, my six-year-old son had ecstatic reviews about a class field trip to a new museum, could not describe a single thing he had learned, even though we probed.

In their book Understanding by design, Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe refer to these phenomena as the twin sins of program design. The first twin is "coverage;" an attempt to cover everything possible even though there is not enough time to effectively do so. The other is "activity-oriented;" a focus on building engaging experiences without enough emphasis on learning.

Finding balance between these two approaches is incredibly important in the development and design of non-formal programs. As Hui-Hui Wang mentioned in a recent blog post, it is paramount that we do all we can to provide engaging activities that lead to meaningful learning without trying to do too much and that is realistic with the amount of time available. The critical piece is to identify the top-priority "learning" - what ultimately do you hope youth will know and do once the experience is over? By starting with the end in mind, using a backwards planning process, we can focus on creating an effective program.

young-gymnast.jpg
Here are some questions to help guide thinking as you plan:
  • What are participants doing?
  • Why are they doing it?
  • What will it help them know or do?
  • How does it fit with prior experiences?
  • How do you identify the learning of participants? How will participants demonstrate learning?
  • How much time is available?
In non-formal programs, we have great flexibility for what we are capable of offering but we also have an enormous challenge with the limited time often imposed on our programs. Identifying how we avoid the twin sins is crucial. What strategies do you utilize to keep the end in mind, and find the right balance?

-- Rebecca Meyer, Extension educator, educational design & development

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Monday, August 27, 2012

The power of reflection on learning

Nicole-Pokorney.jpgHave you seen the power of reflection in youth development? You can witness the power of reflection during the Minnesota State Fair. In the 4-H Building this week, more than 3,000 4-H'ers with general exhibits are going through conference judging, where they sit down with a judge and a group of peers to explain their project and be interviewed about it. Each exhibitor is asked to reflect on how they developed the project, along with technical details of the project area.

Reflection is an essential part of learning. In fact, reflection actually influences brain development.

One of the experts on this is Abigail Baird, a professor of psychology at Vassar College. Earlier this year, she delivered a presentation at the University of Minnesota's Howland Symposium on Trends in Adolescent Brain Development: Implications for Youth Practice and Policy. In it, she stressed the importance of encouraging youth to think of experiences and consequences of actions as a bodily response. What does your gut tell you?

"Teenagers are a work in progress - it is a learning process. As an adolescent, it's hard4-H-art-and-gardening-for-web.jpg to interpret what is happening in your body," explains Baird. The brain begins to recognize discomfort and tries to put the feelings into context. This discomfort is what drives you to resolve the feelings and travel through the experience. There is a part of the brain called the insula, which regulates and listens to the abdominal area, and develops as youth work through the decision-making process. Dr. Baird emphasizes the importance of asking youth what they are feeling during these experiences -- encouraging them to reflect upon them.

Many times, we as youth workers design activities with reflection at the end, as a final check on learning and assessment of engagement. Reflection is also compartmentalized in many program planning models. If we instead incorporate reflection throughout an activity or planning process, we enhance the effectiveness of reflection and true youth engagement.

Shelley H. Billig writes in her article, Unpacking What Works in Service-Learning - Promising Research-Based Practices to Improve Student Outcomes, "The power of reflection can be strengthened considerably if reflection both becomes ongoing and involves more cognitive challenge. Ongoing reflection occurs before, during, and after service and features multiple forms of reflection: written, oral, and nonlinguistic". Although Billig's work is focused on service learning, youth engagement through reflection is vital in creating positive learning environments throughout formal and nonformal educational settings.

The power of reflection is strong. Not only is reflection a tool used for engagement of youth or an evaluation of an activity, but it is necessary for healthy brain development. Have you seen the power of reflection in youth development?

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

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Wednesday, August 15, 2012

What makes an evaluation report compelling? (or not)

Samantha-Grant.jpgOkay, time for true confessions here. How many research or evaluation reports do you have sitting on your desk? You know there was blood, sweat, and tears put into the creation of those documents, but somehow you don't feel compelled to read them. Why not?

I'm willing to guess that the answer is either: A. you don't have time or B. the reports are way too boring. (By the way, reason A is just a disguise for reason B.)

The truth is that many evaluation reports are dull, but there are also great ways to spice them up by focusing the message and using pictures and stories to illustrate points. I have set a goal of unlearning some report-writing habits to make mine more interesting, and thus more likely to spur action.

pencil-chart.jpgA new learning experience that I'm taking part in is the American Evaluation Association's eStudy series: An Executive Summary is Not Enough: Effective Reporting Techniques for Evaluators. In it, Kylie Hutchinson sets out to teach practitioners to create meaningful reports.
One of the reasons for ineffective reports may be bad writing habits. In an editorial, Jane Davidson argues that our social science training has taught evaluators some behaviors that need to be unlearned. She notes four ways:
  1. Including models or theories without connection
  2. Leaping to measurement too quickly
  3. Reporting results separately by data source or type
  4. Organizing reports like a master's thesis

In my experience, I've noticed that we train evaluators and researchers to design reports without thinking about our audiences. But if the end user isn't involved in the creation, evaluation data will never be used for change. Davidson states, "Evaluations cannot produce useful answers unless they actually ask useful questions in the first place!" I wanted to stand up and cheer for that line. Asking useful questions requires that an evaluator is in tune with stakeholder needs.
In thinking about this, I realized that as educators, our formal training may have created some behaviors that need to be unlearned. Take for example the youth worker who has training in formal education. What works inside a classroom may not translate to an after-school program or a summer camp. Academic training is important, but we need experience to be good at our jobs.
How about you? Have you read an evaluation report that really drew you in? What was it about that report that made it compelling? Can you see the need for unlearning bad habits?

-- Samantha Grant, assistant Extension professor, program evaluation

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Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Olympic spirit: Motivation for inclusive learning environments

Jennifer-Skuza.jpgAll eyes are on London this summer for the 2012 Olympics and Paralympics Games. Like many people across the globe, I find the Games to be so inspiring. I am particularly drawn to the Olympic spirit of diversity and inclusion and that same spirit motivates me in my youth development profession.

In fact, each time I build a youth program, I ask myself this question: How can I build an inclusive learning environment? We know from research that programs serve youth best when the learning environments in which they function are intentionally inclusive. But the word inclusive can be rather hollow if you are not sure how to apply it. Here are some tips to consider when building inclusive learning environments.

  • Mind your own language
Olympic-rings.jpg
The way we speak about young people reflects our attitudes and influences what youth programs can achieve. Use language that honors youth. Phrasings such as doing things with youth, rather than for or to youth show that you value young people and that you do not view them merely as recipients of programs or problems to be fixed. According to Nicholson, Collins and Holmer, collaborative language can lead to stronger youth-adult relationships.

  • Talk about culture and race
Developing a positive identity is especially challenging for youth who are marginalized in society, but marginalization affects all youth -- and all people for that matter. So, in everyday programming, go ahead and discuss culture and race, and invite youth to critique and reject negative stereotypes. Also, help youth to find adults who acknowledge, rather than dismiss, the emotional impact of "isms" or other destructive encounters. To learn more about these types of conversations, watch this video of Beverly Tatum, a psychologist and the president of Spelman College, about her book Why are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations about Race.

  • Create a sanctuary
At a minimum, a learning environment in a youth program can be a refuge from slurs and oppressive actions about race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, ability, body size and shape, and other common forms of discrimination against young people. At best, the environment provides a safe and supportive space within which to positively develop one's identity as a person separate from those negative influences according to
Chang et al. So, co-create a safe environment with youth that affirms the identity of each young person, is a sanctuary from discrimination, and is a place where youth can thrive in developing a strong sense of self.
  • Create a youth-centered atmosphere that is embraced by the community
A youth-centered environment where young people feel embraced by the community distinguishes successful programs from others that do not view young people as the most important stakeholder. Young people thrive when we listen to them, respect them as contributors and leaders, and engage with them in meaningful investment in the community. So work with youth to build authentic community-based programs and the learning environments in each will naturally reflect the diversity of the community.

There are many more practices to consider. The art of building inclusive learning environments is a perpetual process of improvement. Here are few resources you may be interested in exploring: Teaching Tolerance, Reclaiming Youth International, Intercultural Communication Institute.

What do you do to build inclusive learning environments? What resources have you used?

While you are thinking about that here is an Olympics trivia question: What does YOG stand for?

Answer: YOG is an acronym for Youth Olympics Games. The games are for young people ages 14-18. They are held every four years in staggered summer and winter events. The first such event was held in Singapore in August 2010 and the next will be held in Nanjing, China in 2014.

Jennifer A. Skuza, PhD, assistant dean

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Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The question of youth program accreditation

Kate-Walker.jpgA youth program funder posed this question: Should Minnesota funders require accreditation of out-of-school programs to ensure implementation of high quality learning opportunities? While accreditation systems to endorse after-school programs exist at the state and national levels, there is no widespread consensus for support in Minnesota.

To explore the implications of youth program accreditation, Greater Twin Cities United Way, the Minnesota Department of Education, and the Extension Center for Youth Development sponsored three invitational forums with a cross-section of field leaders that resulted in an issue brief on the topic.

So why this conversation, and why now?
  • First, accreditation systems exist in early childhood education, school-aged care programs and formal education to guide investments and provide a common framework for improvement. As these systems are being widely implemented in Minnesota, it would seem reasonable that funders, policy-makers and even the public might expect a similar process in the out-of-school time field.
  • Second, youth program accreditation efforts and conversations are underway nationally and a proactive Minnesota-based conversation could inform how that plays out and ensure that any movement toward accreditation in Minnesota strengthens the field.
  • Finally, given the public funds that support many youth programs, could accreditation help funders and policy makers better define high-quality out-of-school-time opportunities and provide additional justification for increased investments
Both the literature review and the forums brought to the surface a range of potential benefits and limitations associated with youth program accreditation as well as different stakeholder perspectives. Often these values and risks represent two sides of the same coin:


value-and-risks-of-program-.jpg
I invite you to read the issue brief and weigh in here with your comments. What do you see as potential benefits or arguments against pursuing youth program accreditation in Minnesota?
-- Kate Walker, research associate

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Wednesday, July 18, 2012

STEM learning = inquiry + content

Hui-Hui-Wang.jpgSTEM education programs need both inquiry/process and content. Most programs that I am familiar with do inquiry well. They do content less well. In fact, some programs are all inquiry and no content. This is a critical flaw. However, it is relatively easy to fix, because even small elements of content can make a complete STEM learning experience.

Recently a colleague and I had an enlightening discussion with some nonformal STEM educators at the Colloquium on p-12 STEM Education Research. We asked them "What do you want youth to learn in your program?"

The key words for their answers were: inquiry-based learning, learner-directed learning, less content, fun, hands-on activities, lifelong learning, real-world context, collaborative, and technology literacy.

These are great responses and fit very well with two important framing documents for STEM learning today: Framework for K-12 Science Education (2011) and the soon-to-be-published Next Generation Science Standard (2013), both from the National Research Council of the National Academy of Science.

However, we need to make sure that skills and practices (the inquiry, or process) are balanced by content knowledge. Engaging in science requires both of these.

For example, a youth could succeed at building a robot by following instructions (thereby learning a skill). But without an understanding of how robots are used in the real world (content), she might never apply that skill, or know what it is for.

A science program needs to have a broad vision to help youth practice both skills and content knowledge to do empirical investigation and inquiry. In other words, focusing on inquiry only addresses one part of the national science education guideline. We need to add more content into non-formal STEM program design.

boy-science.jpgWhen designing a STEM program, you can start with a small content goal. For example, if you only have 45 minutes to deliver a robotics program, the content knowledge that we want youth to take home after the program can be as small as understanding what a robot is. The program can aim to help youth to see that real-world robots are not characters in science-fiction movies like R2D2, but in the automatic door at Walmart and in the thermostat in their house that senses temperature in the room to adjust heating and cooling automatically.

Don't be afraid to add content to program design. Only small steps are needed. Helping youth to practice their skills and content knowledge in a STEM program should be the new goal for us when we design non-formal STEM program.

Can you see the need for more content in STEM learning? Do you see obstacles to doing so? How have you incorporated content into science learning?

Hui-hui Wang, assistant professor and Extension educator, STEM education

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Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Positive youth development through gaming

Trudy-Dunham.jpgI was in New York City recently for the Games for Change Summit, where keynote presenter Jane McGonigal reminded us how computer games can change our lives through enhancing our personal development, helping us learn and adding years to our lives. Heady claims.

Yes, we know that games are engaging and get us moving at twitch speed. We've heard they can change how our brains are wired and how we learn. But did you know that games make us happier, that they enhance our emotional resiliency? That they can help us build the mental resilience we need to trust, to take risks and to fail? That they can increase our confidence in self, our sense of self-efficacy?

McGonigal backs her claims with evidence from the fields of psychology and neurology. She makes a strong case for the role of gaming in positive youth development. For example:
    kids-computer-gaming.jpg
  • Young cancer patients who play Re-Mission learn why painful treatments make a difference in their health, and become more treatment compliant, even if they only play once. That's because game play where we take actions and overcome challenges follows through to life experience and feelings of self-efficacy.
  • Youth who play DoJo learn strategies and techniques (breathing, self-talk, relaxing muscles, etc.) to control their emotions and calm themselves. Then they advance to stressful game situations where remaining calm is essential to mastering the challenge. Biofeedback tools shown on the computer screen monitor reactions to stress and challenges as you play, and the actions needed to win can only be accomplished if your muscles are relaxed and your breathing slow.
  • Haiti is a role-play computer game developed for the Red Cross for the purpose of getting people to stay at home and send money instead of things to disaster victims. Using real video from the aftermath of the earthquake, players take on the role of survivor or aid worker and mimic the "rationalizing mental chatter" that can lead to poor decision making. The player learns to first do no harm.
Increasingly, games are becoming a platform for learning. If we need the facts and skills to master the game challenge, we learn them because they have utility. But game-based learning is going far beyond what we often think about - the content of science, math and history. Games are also helping us develop as humans. We can become better people, happier and more adept in all areas of our life by playing games.

It's summer, traditionally, a time to play. What games are you playing? For some ideas, check out this list of 100 games that everyone should play.

After you have tried a few, share what you learned from these games. Have they made you happier, improved a relationship with a friend, or made you feel differently about what you can accomplish? How can 4-H, and other out-of-school venues for youth development, take advantage of games to promote youth learning and development?
-- Trudy Dunham, research fellow

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Thursday, June 28, 2012

Youth, for a change!

Beki-Saito.jpgLast week I had the great pleasure to speak at and learn from a group of 200 youth, youth workers, administrators, funders, policy makers, police officers and researchers in Milwaukee, at a conference called "Youth/Adult Partnerships: Engaging Youth in Community Transformation," organized by the Center for Urban Initiatives & Research. The conference focused on, and modeled youth engagement as a philosophy and strategy for community change.

If you know me, you know that youth engagement is a cornerstone of my work here at the Youth Work Institute. The conference organizers did an incredible job of taking a leap of faith and having youth speak on panels, perform and lead poster sessions about various community issues they had researched. And you could feel the change-a-comin'--oh yes, you provide the opportunity and young people will lead the way.

By the end of the day, folks, young and old, were ready to get organized, to commit to work together to enable youth to lead the way for Milwaukee.

youth-interviewing-youth-in.jpg
Conference participants talked about creating a youth-adult partnership project in which teams of youth and adults from the various providers and ethnic communities within Milwaukee come together and do a city-wide community mapping project, both as a vehicle to increase youth engagement opportunities and for the individual people and groups to come together as a force for "Youth, for a change!" A great resource about youth as change agents is "Core Principles for Engaging Young People in Community Change", by Pitmann et al.

Milwaukee has long wanted and have attempted to connect program providers so It was a goose-bumpy kind of experience for me to see this group of fairly disparate individuals coming together spurred on by the notion that perhaps what Milwaukee needed to get organized was to stop waiting for the adults to get it together but rather to flip the paradigm from "youth as participants" to "youth as leaders with resources and skills."

Where have you seen youth break through barriers where adults have failed? What are the supports needed and challenges faced when letting go of some control and partnering fully with younger people? Where in your program, organization, neighborhood, life and community are there opportunities to utilize young people's knowledge, skills and wisdom to ensure a wide range of ladders of engagement?

If you have the opportunity, ask young people with whom you work about their views on what it takes to work well with adults, what challenges they've faced and how they've been addressed.

-- Rebecca Saito, senior research associate

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Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Summer learning loss and the achievement gap

Josey-Landrieu.jpgYou might wonder, 'What does summer have to do with the achievement gap and overall educational disparities?' Well, have you heard of summer learning loss?

Summer learning loss occurs when children and youth are not actively engaged in high-quality learning opportunities between school terms. Poor and minority children experience this disproportionately as they are less likely than their better-resourced peers to have educational opportunities such as summer camp, educational trips or even visits to local museums.

Although summer is a season of relaxation, it is just as important for learning as fall, winter and spring. Even here in Minnesota, where we pride ourselves on our high quality of life, we have one of the largest educational achievement gaps in the country between white and non-white students.

A 2009 research brief by the National Summer Learning Association highlights some of the consequences that summer learning loss has for youth who are often already at a disadvantage:
  • Most students lose about two months of grade level equivalency kids-summer-learning.jpgin mathematical computation skills over the summer months. Low-income students also lose more than two months in reading achievement, despite the fact that their middle-class peers make slight gains.
  • About two-thirds of the ninth-grade achievement gap between lower and higher income youth can be explained by unequal access to summer learning opportunities during the elementary school years. As a result, low-income youth are less likely to graduate from high school or enter college.
  • Not only children's minds are affected disproportionately, but their bodies, as well. Most children--particularly children at high risk of obesity -- gain weight more rapidly when they are out of school during summer break.
  • Parents consistently cite summer as the most difficult time to ensure that their children have productive things to do.

As Jeff Smink of the National Summer Learning Association wrote last year, "We cannot afford to spend nearly 10 months of every year devoting enormous amounts of intellect, energy and money to promoting student learning and achievement, and then walk away from that investment every summer".

This has got me wondering about ways to address this issue. How can we work to diminish the summer learning loss that most students, especially those in poor and disfranchised communities experience during the summer? What are ways we could implement high quality learning opportunities during the summer for these youth? How can we learn about the needs of parents and communities when it comes to summer programming for their youth?

What should the role of community after-school programs be in eliminating educational disparities? How can they address summer learning loss?

-- Josey Landrieu, assistant Extension professor, program evaluation

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Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Who benefits from 4-H volunteering? You might be surprised

Pamela-Nippolt.jpgYou might think that the sole beneficiaries of youth program volunteering would be youth. But you would be mistaken -- the value extends to the community and to the volunteers themselves.

A recent study of 4-H volunteers in the North Central United States documents the types and levels of contributions made by volunteers that benefit youth, their communities, and the volunteers themselves.

More than half a million adults across the US give their time to the 4-H program and Extension. This is a lot of "people power". To put it in context, the YMCA and the American Red Cross -- two of the largest nonprofit organizations in the country -- are each supported by similar-sized corps of volunteers.

Extension 4-H Youth Development, a public organization, is a key actor in the landscape of programs that recruit volunteers to promote the positive development of youth in communities. We can quantify this by turning volunteer hours into dollar signs at the rate of just over $20 per hour. But there is more to it than that.

archery.jpgIn this study, my colleagues and I learned, from the responses of more than 3,000 "mostly women living in rural communities" volunteers, that they:
  • Tend to be college-educated and to stick around for several years of service, particularly when they themselves were 4-H members in their youth.
  • Tend to spend as much time planning for and communicating plans with youth as they spend actually working with them.
  • Give more than time -- they donate money, supplies, and mileage on their cars to the 4-H program.
  • Need training and development as as much as they do a well run volunteer system.

We also learned that volunteers benefit from the relationship, and that their communities do, too. Volunteers told us that they directly benefit from:
  • Opportunities to be involved with youth learning; in other words, the privilege to partner with young people in community settings
  • Opportunities for personal growth, becoming better at public speaking or a specific skill
  • Opportunities for contributing to the 4-H mission and giving back to the organization, being part of something "big"
  • Becoming better connected and valued as member of their communities

The benefit they most often mentioned was that the 4-H volunteer experience contributed to their own pathway toward becoming a better person. This is both humbling and startling in a "we are all connected" sort of way. It is also incredibly difficult to quantify. This finding sheds new light on youth and adults as partners in youth programs, and their interdependence on one another in the community. Extension and 4-H are strong threads in the fabric of communities, and if we listen closely to 3,000-plus volunteers, one of those brightly-colored, extremely resilient threads is woven by volunteers in partnership with youth. Think about this.

How does your experience with volunteerism compare with the results of this study?

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

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Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Keeping program assessment "local" reaps benefits

Deborah-Moore.jpgWant to keep a youth workers in your organization? Try involving them in observational assessment!

The recent release of the national YPQI study on improving youth program quality found one unexpected benefit to the process of observational assessment and planning process -- it increases staff retention. While it may seem hard to connect these dots, the finding does not surprise staff and consultants here at the Youth Work Institute who are working with youth organizations and staff throughout Minnesota to improve program quality.

Key study findings Include:think-global-act-local.jpg
  • Using the YPQI intervention increases quality

  • Staff retention increased at programs using the intervention

  • The intervention works across a variety of youth work settings

  • The intervention is a cost-effective, low-stakes model for improving quality

These findings also connect to recent policy conversations happening in Minnesota and elsewhere that posed the question "Should youth programs be accredited?" The YPQI study adds new scientific knowledge to the conversation and surfaces a critical question about where accountability should reside - in external systems or local youth programs.

Lisbeth B. Schorr, senior fellow at the Harvard Center for the Study of Social Policy and lecturer in social medicine at Harvard University has focused over the last three decades on "what works" in social policies and programs to improve outcomes for disadvantaged children and families. Shorr notes that practitioners and organizations already know what to do - they simply cannot get sustained support to do the work in a way practitioner and models show effect. As Schorr describes, practitioners "are driven by their commitment to making a difference in the lives of the families they serve, although their professional training would dictate a more judgmental, distanced posture. It is striking how often effective practice is characterized precisely by how it departs from traditional norms about what is considered "professional."

As a practitioner, what benefits have you experienced or seen when assessment is kept local? If practitioners and organizations already know what to do at the local level to improve program quality, what is the role of policy to support it?

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


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Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Learning from Caine's Arcade: Programming free play

Rebecca-Meyer.jpgLast month, I presented an online webinar titled, "Natural Spaces: A Place for Positive Youth Development." In it, I talked about four research-based design principles that I believe can improve the ways that our programs connect youth with nature:

1. Situate programs in youths' favorite outdoor spaces
2. Integrate more free play
3. Plan developmentally appropriate environmental learning activities, and
4. Use nature design principles

In this session and others I've presented, the concept of 'free play' in structured programs seems hard for participants to grasp. Free play is not free time. And it is far more than something that only happens in nature-related programming.

Free play is characterized by the following qualities: open-ended, few explicit rules or supervision, and free choice. Questions like these bubble up: "What do you mean?", "What does that look like?" Free play is important, but we seem to lack the concrete, intuitive models to help practitioners visualize integrating it into programming.

Have you seen Caine's Arcade? This video went viral recently getting about 2.7 million YouTube hits in a month. It is a truly inspiring story on multiple levels. It is also a GREAT example of what free play can look like in program settings.



The video tells the story of nine-year-old boy who has a passion for arcade games. He spent his summer at his father's auto parts store designing his own cardboard arcade. Caine started by designing one game with a small basketball hoop and continued to build additional games based on his own experiences at arcades. With one of the games, someone tried it and commented that it was too easy. So Caine re-designed it to be more challenging. He figured out a way to build a claw to grab prizes in another machine. He also developed a "fun pass" that is coded using square roots.
Caine's story is being shared because of a random visit by a struggling film maker, who enjoyed playing the arcade games. He was impressed with Caine's creativity and dedication. Recognizing the need for customers, the filmmaker asked Caine's father if he could document the story, and worked with him to arrange a flash mob to visit the arcade.

This is how free play should look! Our programs should:
  • Provide plenty of flexible raw material. The shop where Caine free-played was stocked with boxes, various plastic and metal parts, tickets ... the stuff to build an arcade (or whatever else Caine may have envisioned).
  • Create static spaces where play can pause and resume later. Caine did not build the arcade in one day, it was over the course of the summer
  • Ensure safety. Caine's dad was in the next room.
  • Focus on subjects with enough design complexity to keep young people innovating. Caine started with building one game, then another, then adding tickets, and fun passes.
  • Be flexible enough for young people to follow their individual passions. Caine decided what to build, and how to build it.
  • Young people need encouragement. Caine appreciated a few visitors. The flash mob was amazing.

From my own practice I know we can fairly easily integrate these kinds of raw materials and thought spaces into our programming. We can also generate the design prompts that initiate and foster free, creative play. Finally, we can also use education technology tools to connect youth passions and creativity with the world around them. Imagine the impact that one casual visitor, who decided to tell Caine's story, has likely had on this child's personal identity.

Do you know other great examples of youth programming that involve free play? What strategies should we follow to more effectively integrate free play into our programming?

-- Rebecca Meyer, Extension educator, educational design & development

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