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Learning environments are key to engaging youth

By Nicole Pokorney

Youth engagement is the essence of deep, enriching learning in any experience. The physical environment in which that engagement happens does not necessarily matter; but the atmosphere matters very much. In fact, it is a key factor.

How do we, as educators, create environments where informal learning is supported, encouraged and fostered? What are the characteristics of educators who cultivate fertile learning environments?

As Stephan Carlson and Sue Maxa wrote a few years ago, "The role of teachers and volunteer leaders in non-formal education is to help youth process information on a deeper level and develop strategies for lifelong learning."

Carlson and Maxa offer these guidelines:

  • Individuals are encouraged to ask questions and reflect in a safe environment.
  • There is active cooperation of the learning and guidance from the leader.
  • Relationships and connections are built in order to have understanding.
  • The leader creates an environment where exploration and discovery can
    take place and youth are safe to construct new meaning and knowledge.

In addition, I believe that educators must be willing to:

  • See injustices,
  • Act noble,
  • Question behavior, thoughts, and words,
  • Create learning environments that instill fairness, trust, mercy, humility, honor, inspiration, openness and respect between teacher and learner, and
  • Be knowledgeable in quality youth and adult partnerships to open the exchange of learning and teaching.

Informal educators go about this differently than classroom teachers do. Mark K. Smith of YMCA wrote on Infed that informal educators tend to emphasize certain values of respecting value and dignity of human beings, work for the well-being of all, fostering dialogue, equality, justice and citizenship. "In conversation we have to catch the moment where we can say or do something to deepen people's thinking or to put themselves in touch with their feelings. Through this action, learning becomes real."

Youth educators should be committed and willing to see the soul of every individual youth and inspire them to become fully engaged participants of their lives through knowing how to capture on-the-spot learning opportunities and guiding youth through everyday events.

How do you create a fertile, engaging learning environment in your youth program? In your opinion, what does a high quality learning environment look like?

-- Nicole Pokorney, Extension educator

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  1. Nicole thanks for reflecting on engagement and the role of youth workers in nurturing it.
    I have been struck in the last few years about the value of engagement as a word that says so much about whether learning is happening and owned by youth. Many years ago I was talking at a conference about the value of engagement. At one point I reflected that if every youth wore a badge that measured their engagement, and turned red when they were disengaged (much like radioactive exposure badges do), how it might change what we do as adults. While there are ways to see disengagement, too often it is easy to overlook in the midst of what is happening -- or worse yet, to come to expect it as normal.
    As discussions move forward about how to build system for non-formal learning and the role of intermediaries, a great deal of the discussion goes to 2 issues:
    1) Engaghing youth authentically in our efforts (on boards, in philanthropy, in assessing quality) AND
    2) Measuring youth engagement in populations so we can know if we are increasing it by what w as youth and adults are doing.
    The later is a particularly important area because if we can establish useful and periodic measures of the extent to whch youth are engaged in their own learning, and its relationship to success in many areas, I believe we have the right goal and outcome for our field.
    Our job asnon-formal learning leaders is in many ways simply about findigns ways that enable, stimulate, or simply recognize young people's engagement. Youth centered is the focus of non-formal learning and engagement is one way to assess perhaps whether it is happen.
    Lastly, your article offers wonderful reflections on the role of social justice in what youth work is about. How one balances caring and challenging in realtion to youth is a particularly important part of engaging young people. Without challenge its hard to be engaged -- without caring it is hard to even want to engage with soemone. Social justice demands we offer opportunites for enagagement that challenge young people's beliefs as well as our own.
    How does challenge fit into the role of youth workers?

  2. Holy cow Dale. This is clearly a very good vehicle for you to concisely share your current thinking on a topic. Nicole, we should figure out how to share your entry and Dale's comments with our classmates in Youth Engagement Matters! I look forward to being familiar enough with them to be able to have blogs as standard operating procedure for all our youth worker signature trainings.
    Frankly Dale, in terms of your question, "how does challenge fit into the role of youth workers," I think might be the topic of my blog which is due this week so stay tuned!

  3. Thank you for your comments. I have a longer paper written on this topic that I'd be willing to share when it's finished being edited. My writings here were shortened and did not allow me to dig deeper into the topics of informal learning within nonformal and formal learning. These three terms are worth being further investigated as the formal and nonformal tend to be geographical in description where informal, in its raw form, is where TRUE learning and youth engagement occurs. The challenge you ask about is two-fold. The challenge for educators, no matter where they educate, is to be able to catch those moments of learning and engagement and second, to trust the relationship they have with youth and their skills to facilitate youth to a deeper level of learning and engagement. My experience is that without challenge, learning remains status quo.

  4. I couldn't agree more. I was fortunate enough to attend a boarding school where they used a system called the Harkness Table. Ten or so students sat around a circle table called the Harkness with the teacher acting as a moderator or facilitator of topics. it was an awesome way to learn. The teacher more or less pointed us in directions and the students took off and taught each other with their insights and experience.

  5. Nicole PokorneyMay 3, 2011 at 4:52 AM

    Your example is a familiar one to me! In college, we had an amazing professor that taught the same way. Learn by doing. The class was seperated into 6-person groups and we learned by engaging each other and experiencing the curriculum without formal barriers. The professor was an equal learner and facilitator. We learned more about ourselves and the subject matter without lectures, visual aids or worksheets. In fact, our relationships were so deep, that my future husband was in my group and we've been married for 18 years! Our professor even attended our wedding! These informal moments and nonformal instruction within a formal University setting made the learning real and relationships genuine.


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