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Extension > Youth Development Insight > February 2013

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Soft skills can be hard to measure

Pamela-Nippolt.jpgIf you, like me, evaluate and study youth programs, you should know about a new resource for measuring soft skills outcomes. Soft skills -- communication, relationships and collaboration, critical thinking and decision making, and initiative and self-direction -- can be hard to measure. Youth programs can help young people to acquire these skills, which are important for working and participating in civic life.

The Forum for Youth Investment has published a reviewed report of eight tools to do this. "From soft skills to hard data" reviews eight tools that are both practical and rigorous - offering something for evaluators and program practitioners alike.

The report cites the 2010 Preparing Students for College and Careers policy report that "according to teachers, parents, students and Fortune 1000 executives, the critical components of being college- and career-ready focus more on higher-order thinking and performance skills than knowledge of challenging content."

In my opinion, the concise review of eight measurement tools does four things very well; toolbox.jpg
  1. it names outcomes that frame the niche of programs designed to build youth learning in community,
  2. it calls on those programs to align their activities with outcomes - an underdeveloped "muscle" of the youth development field,
  3. it lays out the measures in an easy-to-understand guide with details about reliability, validity, and costs associated with the use of the eight measures,
  4. it issues a call to action to advance the field by designing practical studies that are also technically sound, and by improving and advancing the measurement of soft skills.
Have you read the report? Have you used any of these tools? What is your opinion?

-- Pamela Larson Nippolt, evaluation and research specialist

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Wednesday, February 20, 2013

How do we talk about education without imposing our values?

Joanna-Tzenis.jpgHow do you talk about education with immigrant families? Even those of us most experienced in intercultural communications can stumble when discussing such a value-laden subject.

In my work with the Pathways Project and the Minnesota CYFAR project, both of which have a focus on academic and personal success for youth from nontraditional Extension audiences, parents of the youth involved are committed to their children's academic success. But visions of success can vary.


For example, I recently had a conversation with a Mexican-born mother about her child's education plans. The mother explained to me that she is supportive of her daughter going to college someday, but reacted adversely when I connected it to a career: "Quiero que piense en la felicidad, no de una carrera." (I want her to think about happiness, not about a career.) In that moment, I realized I needed to center the conversation about education around her daughter's overall personal happiness and not around her professional advancement, which might represent separation from the family.

curves-video.pngBecause I was raised by a Greek immigrant father and a Minnesotan mother, I am attuned to how differing worldviews shape expectations for youth development and a young person's educational experience -- and the potential for conflict. Throughout my childhood, both of my parents emphasized the importance of education. But when it came time to apply to colleges, my mother encouraged me to apply to the ones that best suited my interests, regardless of location. At the same time, my father (quietly) preferred I stayed near our family home so as not to disrupt family unity. (Video from the 2002 film "Real women have curves" (Youtube)

Depending on your worldview, you could judge my mother for breaking up the family. Or you could judge my father for limiting my individual potential. Scholarship in intercultural communication tells us we should never denigrate any other world view, but rather help people to understand the relationship between their own culture and the dominant culture. My mother's own astute intercultural communication skills resulted in my father supporting my decision to pursue higher education out of state. (I have since returned to Minnesota.)

In my experience in working with immigrant families around the topic of their child's education, I try to bear in mind the following:

  • Always assume parents are supportive of their child's education, then through conversations, seek to understand the ways in which they show their support.
  • Ask families about their own formal and informal education, and also about their hopes and plans for the education of their children. Then connect their hopes and plans to the the educational experience happening in the youth program.
  • Accept that definitions of "educational success" in parenting may vary and do not impose your own.
  • You don't have to agree with families' world views; the goal is understanding so you can learn how to communicate in ways that are appropriate in certain cultural contexts.
How do you discuss education with families who hold a different world view than you? What wisdom would you add to this list?

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

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Tuesday, February 12, 2013

What is the common core of youth programs?

Deborah-Moore.jpgShould youth programs focus on academics? If so, how much? This ongoing debate has a new twist, with the emerging Common Core State Standards, now adopted by 46 states.

The Common Core sets standards for what students in K-12 should master in math and English language arts to be college- and career-ready, and are expected to be implemented in 2014-15 in each state.

In a recent Forum for Youth Investment article, Devaney and Yohalem explain that the standards "emphasize higher-order thinking skills, that is, they focus more on demonstrating understanding of content and analyzing written materials rather than memorizing specific content." They also question what they may mean for youth programs.

Undoubtedly, practitioners and leaders in youth work should explore and consider the Common Core standards as a policy force that will affect the youth we work with every day. And as Devaney and Yohalem note, there are a number of networks and coalitions in out of school time already exploring how youth programs could respond and connect to the new standards. Their article is a great place to start exploring the ideas and implications on an old debate.

apple-core-picture.jpgBut I caution us to reflect and consult with each other before we act too quickly. For me, the most critical paragraph in the article is the brief review of possible challenges. These challenges are framed as the risk of OST overpromising the support we can guarantee for achieving academic outcomes.

I am less worried about over promising than I am about shifting to purposes that may be out of proportion to what we do best. For me, youth programs create the kinds of spaces where young people can determine what they want, need and are interested in learning and doing. It is about also creating a space where they can navigate, reflect about and even relax from the complex realities they live in. That is closer to what I would describe as a common core of youth programs.

I wonder if we should step back and do what is briefly noted in the article and take stock of youth work's own core before we take a "big bite" of the academic one.

Back in 2005, Robert Halpern called the over-emphasis on academic outcomes "The Big Lie." I plan to dust off his article and then have some conversations about what I believe is core to youth work.
What is core to youth programs? How does that core relate to the academics debate?

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

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Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Yes, you can pull scholarship from your community engagement work

Cathy-Jordan.jpgDo you work in higher ed or in collaboration with communities? In doing so, do you develop curricula, training manuals, videos, briefs or toolkits? Did you know that you can simultaneously increase the impact of these products on communities and make them count as legitimate scholarship?

We tend not to think of the youth programs, professional trainings and educational materials we develop as "scholarship". When we want to let others know about how we developed the product, its qualities and its impact, we write a journal article. We think about this as a separate process called scholarship. But there need not be a dichotomy.

Here are four keys to enhancing the impact of your work, both for communities and to advance your career in higher education:
  1. Tap community knowledge - when youth or youth development professionals who would benefit from your work are involved in conceptualizing and creating it, the result is a product that effectively meets their needs and that they can get excited about.
  2. Make your work scholarly and "pull" scholarship from it - ground it in the literature, evaluate it to inform continuous improvement, and document its impact on participants. This makes for a more effective program for youth and will form the basis of a scholarly product.
  3. Publish that journal article! Write about a unique aspect of the collaboration, community-youth-engagement.jpgan innovative programmatic feature, program outcomes, long-term impacts on youth, etc. This will improve the work of others in the field and will contribute to your career advancement.
  4. Publish the product itself. Journal articles are not the only form of scholarship. Peer review and broad dissemination are the cornerstone of scholarship and can be applied to your programs, educational materials, trainings and resources as well as journal manuscripts. Peer review can improve your product, and broad dissemination will expand its impact on stakeholders.
For the last several years I have been working on the issues of community impact and scholarship, and have participated in developing a forum to make it possible, CES4Health. Launched in 2009, it is offers a way to publish your curriculum, training, manual, toolkit or other resource. It offers peer review and broad dissemination of products of community-engaged scholarship (CES) that are in forms other than journal articles.
On CES4Health, academic and community peer reviewers critique submitted products and accompanying applications that document the scholarly approach, rigor, significance and quality of community engagement. Products accepted for publication can be accessed for free or minimal charge. Authors receive evaluation data, including web hits to the product description, number of product downloads and user feedback on product quality and impact. Youth related products span a range, including refugee youths' stories and stress reduction in schools for youth.
How do you broaden your impact on communities? Do you already "pull" scholarship from your community engagement? Would CES4Health be useful to you?

-- Cathy Jordan, director and associate professor
University of Minnesota Extension's Children, Youth, and Family Consortium

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.
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