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Extension > Youth Development Insight > August 2012

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.

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
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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