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Extension > Youth Development Insight > January 2014

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

5 brilliant things I learned from kids this year

anne-stevenson.jpg I'd be much less wise, and far less effective as an educator, if I didn't hang out with kids. Those of us who work with, or on behalf of young people, must be intentional about doing so. And then we have to listen and pay attention.

Young people of all ages have taught me many things in the past year. Here are five things I've learned (and re-learned!), and why they matter for all of us:


1. Wonder


Kids are curious about everything and their willingness to ask questionsyouth-and-adult-science.JPG makes them effective learners. Our job is to nurture and validate that sense of wonder and curiosity, and to actively cultivate our own sense of wonder. Abraham Heschel would remind us that "Wonder... is the root of all knowledge." In his book "Developing More Curious Minds," John Barell offers a wealth of strategies for nurturing curiosity and why it is essential to do so.

You might enjoy award-winning cinematographer and director Louie Schwartzberg's incredible video piece called "Gratitude." Schwartzberg uses time-lapse photography and the deep wisdom of a young girl to remind adults of the importance of wonder.

2. Kids care enormously about making the world better


Young people also understand that leadership means service. One of our student council members at Stevenson Elementary School in Fridley, Minn., told me what she had learned in her role: "I learned leadership doesn't mean you're always the one up in front. Mostly you're the one working alongside everyone else, encouraging them on."

In 2013, Minnesota was chosen as the first US site to host WE Day, a movement of young people leading local and global change. WE Day and its lead organization, Free the Children (an organization started in 1995 by 12-year-old Craig Kielburger to fight child labor) have inspired 5.1 million hours of youth volunteer service since 2009. Youth in 4-H are four times more likely to make contributions to their communities than youth not involved in 4-H. The work of psychologist and author Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi supports what young people say, "One cannot lead a life that is truly excellent without feeling that one belongs to something greater and more permanent than oneself." As adults, we need to support young people in their passionate desire to step up, lead and serve.

3. Kids crave feedback they can learn from.


Kids relish encouragement of their effort, their thinking process and their problem solving strategies. They want more than praise -- they want feedback that they can learn from. Dr. Carol Dweck calls this having a "growth mindset." Dweck is one of the world's leading researchers in the field of motivation and has devoted more than 20 years to researching growth mindset. She tells us that the view you adopt for yourself profoundly affects the way you lead your life. A fixed mindset holds the view that your intelligence and aptitude is set in stone-it is a fixed quantity. A growth mindset is based on the belief that your intelligence and basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts, and that effort leads to growth and mastery.

One way we adults encourage a growth mindset is by supporting and praising effort (rather than praising fixed intelligence or ability), and helping young people see effort as a path to mastery. Indeed, the skills of perseverance, critical thinking and good decision-making are identified as key aspects of social and emotional learning. In fact, the National Afterschool Association has named SEL as one of "10 Trends in Afterschool in 2014."

For some strategies on praising effort and developing the growth mindset in young people, try this tool.

4. Kids will tell you what an effective adult does to help them grow. Just ask.


Here's what several teenagers told me about how the adults in their lives help them learn/help them grow/help them develop as leaders:
  • "They go out of their way to know who I am as a person; they pay attention to things I do. They ask questions and they pay attention."
  • "They're passionate about what they're doing or teaching. They're kind; they care about your life. They 'be real' with you."
  • "To help me learn leadership? They shut their mouth and try to lead me to the answers by asking questions, not telling me what to do."
  • "They have to have expertise. They get you engaged by making it interesting. They are knowledgeable so they CAN be interesting."
  • "They give me opportunities to lead."

5. Pay attention.


Young philosopher Ferris Bueller had it right: "Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it."

Csikszentmihalyi's research on 'flow' supports this importance we must place on being attentive in all of our interactions, our work and our play. It is what leads us to mastery. Daniel Pink, author of A Whole New Mind and Drive, speaks of the "eloquent example of children." As an educator, youth worker, coach or parent, how do you pay attention to this eloquent example?

What have kids taught you recently? How will that make you better in your role in 2014?

Anne Stevenson, Extension educator and Extension professor

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, January 22, 2014

Reflections on my first year in out-of-school time

As a classroom history teacher, it was my perception that what happened out of school was not my problem. After one year as an Extension educator, I see that, and a few other things, differently.

Anniversaries are always moments of reflection and I am hoping to share some of the key "ah ha's" that I have experienced, learned, and rediscovered as I embarked in the out-of-school youth development realm. In the past year, I have experienced, learned or rediscovered many things. I want to share a few of them with you and get your reaction -- either as a veteran or a fellow newcomer.

Out-of-school time is vital

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Our work is important. The perception that out-of-school time is "not my problem" is wrong and counter-productive. Youth spend more time out of school than they do in school and those critical after-school times and activities have a deep impact on how our young people develop. Young people who have positive out-of-school-time experiences develop healthier relationships and are more involved in their communities than those who do not. In addition, these experiences support formal learning. It is now my goal to make out-of-school time have equal parity in all educators' voices and actions.

Make our experiences relevant


As a classroom history teacher, I taught dates, places, and all the things that make people successful on "Jeopardy." However, the most important thing I tried to do was instill historical thinking skills such as:
  • Dealing with conflicting evidence
  • Subtext
  • Analyzing primary sources
  • Making an effective argument

Can you think of ways that out-of-school time supports these types of skills that transcend the historical realm and are infused into everyday life? One basic example is when a young person receives conflicting messages on Facebook. Or how they argue their case with their friends or family.
How to identify and elevate our work and move from a content piece to a real-life situation? Out-of-school-time programs like 4-H do this in countless ways! In fact, this applicability is what hooks young people and generates that curiosity that we consistently see in our STEM projects and clubs, our service-learning projects, and in the learning that occurs at our showcase events, to name a few.

I have learned a few other things in my first year, but these lessons stand out. Whether you are a veteran or a newbie like me, what reflective advice would you like to share about your first-year on the job?

-- Joshua Kukowski, Extension educator

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, January 15, 2014

Do we need to sugarcoat engineering?

hui-hui-wang.jpgTwo years ago, I taught a science and engineering after-school program to a group of fifth and sixth grade girls. I asked them what engineering is. No surprise, their answers were all associated with fixing things and building a building. This echoes some research findings that these are common misconceptions about engineering. After completing the program, the girls could identify what engineering is. But they still did not want to pursue engineering as a career choice. What went wrong?

I think it is the way that we present engineering to them. Next Generation Science Standards 2013 defines engineering in a very broad sense to mean "any engagement in a systematic practice of design to achieve solutions to a particular human problem." In short, the essence of engineering is a goal-directed problem-solving activity to find the best solution for a human-made problem. This is really important work that will benefit large numbers of people. Now, how can we convey that to the youth?

National Academic Engineering did an experiment to find out. They sent out some text messages to test people's reactions to statements about engineering.
The messages that got the most positive reactions from the public were: STEM-youth-at-state-fair.jpg
  • engineering makes a world of difference
  • engineers are creative problem-solvers
  • engineering helps shape the future
  • engineering is essential to our health, happiness and safety
The messages that really turned people off included:
  • engineering use math and science to solve problems
  • engineering is the hardest major and job
So the statements about changing the world made engineering attractive to people, and the ones about the learning challenges involved in becoming one turned people off. I guess that makes sense, but I started to wonder if these sugarcoated messages downplay the importance of science and mathematics?
We do not want to scare our audiences off by saying "you have to be good at science and mathematics in order to be an engineering major." But the truth is, you do. If a student doesn't know that, and doesn't prepare to college by studying math and science, then in reality, she will very likely end up changing her major and career choice from engineering to something else. What do you think? Do we need to sugarcoat engineering to get kids interested?

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

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, January 8, 2014

Learning to manage emotions as they learn about their projects

Kate-Walker.jpgEmotions often arise in youth programs as young people work towards goals. Encountering obstacles can trigger negative emotions, such as frustration and anger; achieving success can trigger positive emotions, such as pride and excitement. This makes youth programs a rich context for emotional learning and development.

A recent article from a research study I am part of suggests that young people learn strategies for handling emotions that arise in their work on projects. The article examines how adult program leaders facilitate learning. This builds on previous research indicating that after-school programs are valuable contexts for youth to develop social-emotional skills.

How do young people learn to manage emotions in youth programs and projects?

group-of-five-kids.jpgYouth learn about emotions through active, conscious processes of observing and analyzing their experiences; and they learn not only to regulate frustration, anger, and worry, but also to use the functional aspects of these emotions in constructive ways.
  • Learning to regulate emotions - Youth reported learning to regulate emotions through repeated experiences of trial, error, and reflection. They are active in deliberately experimenting with different strategies. One young person said, '"I was about to yell some things, so I had to keep in mind where I was, who I was around, and who my peers were. So then I'm like, 'Okay, what if we do this?' So I bring up ideas and try to get everybody back on task."

  • Learning to use emotions - Youth reported learning to harness emotions in constructive ways. Emotions have functional value and, if managed effectively, can inform and motivate progress towards goals. In the words of another youth,"Sometimes when you're heated, at your hottest moment or your most mad moments you come up with some stuff you wouldn't have thought of if you were just calm and mellow. Because when you get mad you see things that you didn't see, certain different things come to your mind and you look at things differently."

What role can adults play in supporting learning from emotional experiences?

Program leaders have the unique opportunity to be present as youth encounter the frustration, excitement, and boredom that arise in their projects. They can facilitate learning through emotion coaching -- helping youth reflect on unfolding emotional episodes, consider alternative strategies, and persist in problem solving.
  • Fostering awareness and reflection - Leaders monitor young people's emotions and call attention to them before problems erupt. They help youth use their developing capacity for reflection to notice how emotions influence their thoughts and behavior. According to one leader, "I ask them 'Well, what happened? You're usually this way in this situation, and [today] you was down low. Talk to me. What's going on? Because I've seen that you just wasn't in it today."

  • Suggesting strategies - Leaders encourage youth to consider alternative strategies. Another program leader explained how she attends to youth's level of frustration and then provides various alternative strategies: "Any time they are feeling frustrated I try to keep tabs on that and keep track of what level of frustration they are at. I mean, if they are hugely frustrated, I will tell them to go take a break or start doing something else for a little while. Or I'll sit with them and try to work through it, or pair them up with a mentor, someone who is more experienced who can help them work through it."

  • Encouraging problem solving - Leaders encourage youth to problem solve difficult situations, and to view emotions in relation to the future horizon of their work. One youth described her leader's help this way: When [the leader] told us that we're gonna do a magazine - I hate writing, I hate it, I hate it, I hate it - and I'm like, "Oh I don't think I'm gonna be able to do the program. Because you know I've just never been good at writing and I don't think I'll make a good enough article for this." And she's like, "No, you could try, you could try."... She told me, "You just need to get away from your fear. Maybe you're not afraid of writing, but you're just stuck on the fact, 'Oh no, I suck at writing, I suck at writing,' so that's why you're scared of doing the project." That's what kind of got me excited. And then once I started working on it and looking into the topic and interviewing people, that's when I got more excited and I want to finish and everything.
Have you seen this? In your experience, how do young people learn to manage emotion in youth programs and projects? What do adult program leaders need to know to effectively coach youth through emotionally challenging situations?

-- Kate Walker, assistant Extension professor and Extension specialist, youth work practice

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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