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Ideal learning environments: An impossible dream?

Is it possible to build the ideal learning environments described by the thinkers in our field? Or is it better to strive for a "happy medium" between theory and the realities of practice?

Now and then I like to dust off and reread literature that shaped my thinking. Milbrey McLaughlin's report, Community Counts: How Youth Organizations Matter for Youth Development influenced my thinking on how to build intentional learning environments and put into perspective the value of community.

McLaughlin says that the most powerful learning environments are intentionally youth-centered, knowledge-centered, and assessment-centered and reflective of the community they are in.
McLaughlin constructed a theory of ideal learning environments focused on youth, knowledge, program assessment and reflective of the community. It is hard to find fault with these ideals:


Learning environments are effective when young people know that they matter and that they are central to what happens in the program. So it's important for youth workers to build on youth strengths, reach out to young people in the community, involve youth in the selection of materials, and provide personal attention to each young person in the program. It's hard to argue with this. But is it possible to be youth-centered all the time? Is it ever necessary to veer off this center?


Knowledge-centered learning environments motivate youth and contribute to their development by having concentrated programs that aim to deepen skills and competence through intense engagement in a specific subject. They point to learning as the reason why youth should get involved. These environments have a clear focus, high-quality content and instruction/facilitation, and embedded curriculum. If you are like me, you probably took a deep breath after reading that description -- not all youth are drawn to a program to learn. So, how can youth workers build knowledge-centered learning environments that attract young people with a wide range of reasons for participating?


Youth workers need to know the impact of their program on the lives of young people. Last week, Sam Grant discussed evaluation in program design. Equally important, youth need to know the progress they are making in their learning based on their own standards. The experiential learning process can be used to help youth reflect critically and apply new knowledge and skills. Youth workers who use cycles of planning, practice, and performance can help young people find their own rhythm within the program. Feedback and recognition methods can help youth know when they excel. Using a variety of assessment techniques brings new, relevant and challenging learning to the youth. But where is the balance between assessment and other priorities?

Reflecting the community

Community learning environments are usually informal, which helps youth to relax enough to "get into" the learning without the anxiety they sometimes experience in school. Therefore, it is important to conduct programs in community and/or bring community into the program by inviting family, agency partners, and other caring adults into the program planning and implementation processes. For some young people, youth-serving organizations serve as a primary source of relationships and support. An environment rich in community resources can help youth build social capital. Finding natural ways to build community into a learning environment requires resourcefulness on the part of the youth worker. What is sacrificed in a program if the learning environment does not reflect the community?

But reality sometimes gets in the way of reaching our ideals. Do you aspire to McLaughlin's ideals, or different ones? How can we build learning environments that best support the growth and development of young people? How do you balance your ideals with the realities of practice?

Jennifer A. Skuza, PhD
Extension professor and program leader, educational design & development

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  1. Jennifer, I'm so pleased you dusted off this wonderful piece and brought it to our attention. What's more succinct and on target than youth centered, knowledge centered, assessment centered and grounded in community? I also love how these 4 points are described in a more narrative fashion in Urban Sanctuaries: Neighborhood Organizations in the Lives and Futures of Inner-City Youth (McLaughlin, Irby & Langman, 1994). Wow! That's 17 years ago! But like the report you mention, the book is really a classic in terms of research done with young people and by youth workers along with the university team. As Tito says in the last line in the book: "Kids can walk around trouble, if there is some place to walk to, and someone to walk with."

  2. Hello Joyce,
    Thanks for noting the book Urban Sanctuaries. It is another one of my favorites and is definitely worth rereading from time to time.
    On a different but related note about Urban Sanctuaries, McLaughlin et al. use the incipient phrase, “First you find a wizard,” to lead off an important chapter on effective adults who work with youth (p. xv). Although the wizards they are referring to are adults who work in youth-serving organizations, the same can be said about any adult who works with youth. Adults who do this effectively possess special qualities that make them successful in working with great numbers of young people. I like to refer to this wizardry as an educator’s way of being. I think it is important to mention the role of adults and qualities they possess in conversations about building learning environments.
    Another book that comes to mind is Bart Hisch’s A Place to Call Home. It reinforces many of the McLaughin’s points but also emphasizes the importance of learning environments that draw on the youth’s familial environment and peer group. Do you have thoughts on how A Place to Call Home relates to building of effective learning environments? For instance, he points out that programs with a family-like environment provide many of the supports that, ideally, a family would provide. This is especially the case with young people who view a youth-serving organization or program as a primary source of relationships and support.
    Thanks for your comments.

  3. Thanks for the great post and comments. I too am a Milbrey McLaughlin fan, but I take exception with her “wizards” term for extraordinary youth workers because I see it as another one of the elusive, idealized “impossible dreams” that your post is getting at. There are amazing, savvy, intuitive practitioners, but I’d like to demystify them. I don’t believe that expertise is something you are merely born with or not; I hope it can be unpacked and developed. Is that knack for knowing what is right to do and good to be with a given young person magical, or can that wisdom be cultivated?

  4. Thank you for the great post and comments! I am enjoying the different authors that are being talked about and I look forward to reading these. I am familiar with McLaughlin and the article about learning enviornements.
    When I look at my own personal growth with my work with young people, I am drawn to my experiences with learning enviornments that seem to thrive when there is flexibility, spontaniety and an intentional structure to them. The balance of structure is something that I am continously thinking about with attention to flexibility and spontaniety in my work. Are there any authors that may shed light on this issue?

  5. Hi Kate –
    I had your same reaction to the term “wizard” when I first read Urban Sanctuaries - then later settled on the phrase “an educator’s (or youth worker’) way of being” because it seemed less magical but still got at the those qualities that don’t fit neatly on expertise check-list. For instance, these adults know themselves well, are deliberate in how they relate to others, and have certain assumptions about the worth of all people that filter their thoughts and feelings about others. To me this gets at the heart of one’s way of being and is an important part of what makes youth workers effective. It can be cultivated over time but also include the aspects of that we are born with. What are your thoughts on this?
    Thanks for raising your points, Kate.

  6. Hi Brian –
    One place where your question comes up a lot is in working with middle school aged youth because they are at such a unique place in their development and their learning environments need to reflect that uniqueness. For instance, a middle school teacher in Woodbury, MN that I know described middle school aged youth as
    “Middle schoolers are a perfect blend of child and adult. They can understand nuance and sarcasm, and still love to play tag.”
    So flexibility and spontaneity in the learning environment are especially relevant for that age group – at the same time it needs to be balanced with intentionality. You may want to refer to the Winter 2006 Rethinking Programs for Youth in their Middle Years. New Directions for Youth Development for some ideas and insights on your question - even if you are not focused on middle school aged youth in your programming. Within that journal, I co-authored an article with Mary Marczak, Jodi Dworkin, and Janet Beyer that you may find particularly interesting because in part it addresses specific learning environment qualities: organic, free-spirited, less structured, more connected and so on. It is entitled What’s Up? What young teens and their parents want from youth programs.
    Your may also want to explore infed on informal and nonformal education ideas, theory, and practice. It may give you insights on how to build a learning environment where learners can thrive.
    Do others of suggestions?
    It is great to hear from you, Brian.

  7. Jennifer, this is such an important question, and I think it is one that we will be wrestling with more and more as we embark on our campaign for a meaningful focus on quality in our programs. I tend to think of the ideals for youth work and not so different from the ideals for parenting: they are critical principals that we use to orient ourselves in much the same way we use a compass, rather than being a checklist like we use for grocery-shopping. No youth worker can design a program that will always live up to these ideals, just as no parent can fulfill their own parenting principals every single moment of every single day. But the question is, "Are we using these principals to orient us in each of the decisions that we're making? Are we creating assessments that give us feedback on how well we're meeting them? And do we then implement changes in order to better fulfill these goals?" I see this as an ongoing developmental--and evolutionary--process.

  8. Hi Kathryn -
    The parallel you draw with your analogy helps put this blog’s question and its potential answers into perspective. For me, your comments also imply the importance of being improvement-oriented in everyday practice and that having this orientation could help bridge the gaps that sometimes exist between ideals and realities.
    Thanks for being a part of the conversation.

  9. I appreciate the post and four notions expressed here are very relevant! I agree that theory can serve as a foundation of creating meaningful programing for youth. As practitioners we have to continually examine theory with a critical lenses to ensure that it applies to the programs that we run and that we are also challenging these same theories and the areas that they are lacking. In addition, we must continue to examine the theories presented, however the implementation or application is sometimes where the challenge lies. What McLaughlin says provides a clear framework from which this work can evolve and ensure that the appropriate components exist within programs for youth.

  10. Jennifer - terrific post on a very important question. How we as youth workers, program providers, and systems work to balance the ideal with the real everyday and across time is critically important to youth and to the field. The balance between youth-driven and various ways of supporting youth-centered learning through structure and relationships is an interesting example of this struggle. Similarly at a system level, the balance between an efficient system of youth community learning opportunities without duplication and a strong developmental system where choices and possibilities abound and encourage exploration is tricky. I look forward to thinking about your question on each of these important levels.

  11. Hi Simone –
    It is good to hear from you. I am drawn to your statement “As practitioners we have to continually examine theory with critical lenses to ensure that it applies to the programs that we run and that we are also challenging these same theories and the areas that they are lacking”. This is such an important lesson for practitioners.
    Which brings me to another point more broadly about having a theory of youth development … I think it is important for practitioners to articulate their own theory of youth development based on literature, discussions, practice and personal experience. That way regardless if one is attempting to build a learning environment or any other facet of youth development, that practitioner will know what s/he stands on and can make informed decisions along the way. It may also become evident that one’s own theory often changes over time. What are your thoughts on that point?


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