We want so many things for our young people—confidence, a sense of hope, a successful future. But perhaps the greatest gift we can give them is a love for learning. A love for learning drives us to continually strive for understanding and can nurture a sense of hope and confidence as we arm ourselves with new knowledge that in turn can ensure a more successful future.
A love of learning probably won’t solve all problems. But it can have a deep impact on youth. What is that impact? And how do we instill such a sense of satisfaction in learning that young people crave more?
Over the past six years, the urban youth development office has administered an evaluation developed by me and Jennifer Skuza that focused specifically on the learning that occurs in its 4-H youth development programs. Part of this evaluation included essays written by youth that describe what learning was like for them in their 4-H club. From these essays, we drew themes using a phenomenological method (used in qualitative research to study lived experiences).
Youth were asked to describe what learning was like—what it felt like, what they were thinking, feeling, and how it impacted them. These themes give us insight into how to set up a learning environment that has lasting impact on youth beyond their participation in the program. Here is a summary of the 20 themes we found in those 788 essays.
- Youth developed love, a feeling of satisfaction, and a sense of ownership over their learning when the learning included challenge, provided a safe place to take risks, helped them make connections, and provided the freedom to think creatively and play with ideas. An important aspect of this sense of satisfaction and love for learning was the degree to which youth were exposed to new experiences that helped them think in new ways.
- Youth feel most satisfied with their learning experiences when those experiences help them develop a stronger sense of self. This sense of self was developed most easily when youth could freely be and express themselves, explore their values, and discover their potential to make an impact on others through meaningful opportunity for leadership and responsibility.
“I learned to be responsible by helping out one another. I also learned helping others makes you feel proud of yourself and know who you are.”
“It feels good because in this environment there’s no pressure to be a certain kind of person so it’s easy for you to come out of your shell.”
- Youth also expressed satisfaction with their learning when it helped them expand their sense of the world. This expansion happened when new experiences brought about a better understanding of differing perspectives, an understanding of and respect for others, and discovery of their role in the world and what they can accomplish.
“I’ve not frequently been exposed to people of different backgrounds and it was really cool to see many different people interact, get along, but most importantly have a good time. When it comes down to it, more of us are that different and this has helped me realize how unimportant people background is in comparison to their character.”
“What I was doing is fishing and I feel really excited and scared because we are using worms to fish…. It was a great experience because you got to learn how to fish and face your fear (like me). Also you got to see the fishes and have fun in what you are doing. How I feel about the learning is that I got a little smarter but also in a fun way!”
- A satisfying learning experience gives youth a sense of hope and expectation for their futures and a realization of personal power to positively influence themselves and the world. The more youth can see what they are gaining from a learning experience, the more anticipation and excitement they feel to learn more. Learning feels productive for youth when they gain and develop skills they can use now and in their future. And, when youth are fully involved in their learning they begin to take ownership of their educational experiences.
“I liked it because we get to cook and learn and meet new people. I want to be in it again because it inspires me to cook more and get a career as a chef.”
“This experience has honestly changed my life. I will go out and change my community, country, and world…. We shared personal stories that some have never told before. That helped us know that we all have a history that can affect others. These stories showed me how strong I already am and how I can become stronger. And with this new found strength, I will impact the world with understanding, life, and love.”
“I liked singing and recording. I felt silly but if I really listened to it I was proud. I was thinking that I can do better because I made up a song in just 5 minutes and made it go smoothly with the beat. It felt kind of challenging to come up with a song and I still feel like I can do better.”
“I like the collage because we try our skills and try our best and [the club leader] is the best 4-H teacher and she makes us work hard…”
-- Jessica Pierson Russo, Extension educator
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