Skip to main content

How do young people learn? We don't exactly know

Jennifer-Skuza.jpgA number of researchers have argued that youth are a distinct group of learners compared with children and adults, yet surprisingly little research has been put forth on the experience of youth learning. Most research on learning has focused on either children or adults; and adult learning principles misguidedly remain the core philosophy for most educators and youth workers who work with youth audiences.

As stated by Knud Illeris, youth learning is "...a gradual transition from the uncensored, trusting learning of childhood to the selective and self-controlled learning of adulthood". Research on the experience of youth learning is important because it could provide a foundation for understanding how young people learn.

learning.jpgOf the studies that do exist, Choy and Delahaye indicate that when they study for exams, youth commonly use a surface approach to learning, a form of scanning that is usually absent of reflection, because formal education conditions them to do so. However, given a choice, youth prefer nonformal, less structured learning. This reveals a contradiction between how youth are usually taught to learn and how they prefer to learn.

Youth want a relational level of understanding -- to relate their learning to their everyday lives, rather than abstract thinking, according to Choy and Delahaye. Relational learning is often facilitated with an approach that begins with a concrete experience, followed by reflection, abstraction, and application as found in Kolb's learning theory.

Choy and Delahaye's findings suggest some interesting implications for us to explore. For instance, thinking about the role that youth work can play in shaping youth learning and recognizing that the less structured learning environments found in many youth programs are exactly the environments in which youth WANT to learn. We have a unique advantage because the environments found in many youth programs are unbound by the rules and expectations faced by schools and have the freedom to bring about nonformal and relational learning with the flexibility to consider all influences on a young person's learning.

Similar to Dana Fusco's point in a previous blog post, youth work is a developmentally responsive practice that has the ability to respond to youth needs in real time. We are uniquely positioned to understand the inner workings of youth learning and to help identify learning principles to guide practice.

Along with some colleagues, I am working on a study that is focused on describing the experience of learning of youth, with hopes of spurring future research geared toward identifying youth learning principles. What have you observed? Do you see value in identifying youth learning principles to help guide our youth work? Are you interested knowing more about how youth experience learning?

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

Print Friendly and PDF


  1. Jen, you've put this topic forward in an interesting way. My knee-jerk reaction is always to jump on the suggestion that the learning preferences of young people are drastically different from those of adults. But your notion that young people must move from a child's perspective where they trustfully take in whatever adults offer to a more selective stance certainly makes sense. It must happen slowly, over time, and as a consequence of having the maturity to say, "That doesn't make sense!" or "I see little point in learning that!"
    As far as the learning environment, I find little evidence that children, young people or adults learn more powerfully in formal, highly structured settings. Some may prefer the structure of a classroom to the messier nonformal settings, but it's hard to know if that is a learned expectation or a truly better learning environment. I look forward to more from you on this subject! Thanks, Joyce

  2. Hello Joyce –
    It is good to hear from you. Thanks for your comments.
    Indeed, there is something to be said about the power of nonformal or informal learning environments! I think it is important to embrace the idea that “learning” can happen anywhere and at any time – it is not something that only happens in formal classrooms or settings - along with recognizing that “education” can include a spectrum of informal, nonformal, and formal learning experiences and combinations of each.
    Regarding the distinction of youth learning, I think it is interesting to explore from a youth perspective “what is the experience of learning like? - as a way to understand this part of their lifeworld. It is tempting to assume that the youth learning experience is similar to the adult learning experience. However, by going to the youth themselves and asking them describe their experience of learning is a way to know more about it and to understand the similarities and/or distinctions.
    I am interested in more of your thoughts on this topic.

  3. As long as it's just you and me for a minute here, we can chat! I hope that you are going out to ask young people about what this experience of learning is like, what it means, how it happens. Such research calls for very well-crafted questions, and I want to recommend our colleague Mike Baizerman as a superb "question-crafter." I've watched Mike over the years come up with what at first seems like an obtuse question that actually is immediately understood by people (and young people) and elicits deep and meaningful responses. Another good question-crafter is Michele Fine who has done lots of research with young people about young people. I'll be following this pursuit of yours to better understand the meaning of learning to young people. Joyce

  4. Hello Joyce –
    Thanks for extending the chat and for suggesting resource people. This study’s methodology is phenomenology. Stay tuned …

  5. Hi Jen,
    I just read an article that referenced a 2009 study that debunked the myth that you should teach to different learning styles (just google "debunk learning styles" for some links). As a person who questions every finding, I have to look closer at this because I think there are many good reasons for differentiating instruction that we would miss if we stopped using this approach. Which leads me to your post- I agree that youth development has the opportunity to apply to youth's need to explore their world hands-on. I just worry that in the future we will begin to compare the traditional classroom style with the more organic style and miss the benefits of each of these approaches. As a youth worker, I'm comfortable in owning the benefits of my approach- but I also see the value of other approaches. I guess I want to see the academic/out of school time distinction put to bed to focus on what is best for the "whole" youth. What do you think?
    I'd love to hear more about the studying that you're embarking upon. Would you share some details?

  6. Hi Jen,
    Thanks for putting this blog out there. I am always interested in how youth learn and how youth work practice can support their learning. I agree with Sam that it is not an either/or situation. Formal Learning has its place. However, my bias is towards a constructionist approach where youth and adutls co-create the learning experiences together. I like the term Sam used, "whole" youth. Putting the focus on the whole youth belongs in formal and non formal learning. I look forward to seeing where your research leads you and what youth have to say about how they learn.
    Jeri Ezaki

  7. Hello Jeri and Sam –
    Thanks for joining in the conversation. I agree with your point about focusing on the “whole” youth. Arguing about which type of learning environment is better deflects energy that could otherwise be placed on understanding young people in general, their learning experiences, and their educational needs, interests and desires. At the same time, I think there is value in shining light on the significance of nonformal and informal learning environments because it opens up our minds to the spectrum education that exists in the everyday lives of youth. I think it is also important to name and communicate the value of learning that occurs in youth work (public and private value). As you both pointed out, this is not at the exclusion of the value of formal education.
    Thanks again for your comments.

  8. Jennifer Griffin-WiesnerNovember 4, 2011 at 9:25 AM

    Hi, Jennifer. I am SUPER interested in hearing more of what you have to say on this topic. I think we are a turning point with our public education system in the US and that non-formal and informal learning environments are going to become increasingly significant and recognized as contributors to young people's overall "education." Thanks for the introduction to some of your work!

  9. Thanks for this interesting topic. I have been giving a lot of thought of looking into my own learning in hopes for growth in my work with youth. In my experiences of youth work I have been a part of developing curriculums, training programs and complex school systems. I have been a part of trying to initiate, direct, accelerate, require or even simply getting out of the way of learning. The overarching question that I create a dialogue with is; How do I create a culture of learning? What tools and concepts do I have?
    I am drawn to to a quote that reflects learning in an engaging way for me. I recently read this from an author on the Danish Folk High Schools.
    “When a flock of young people are brought together at a school which has no examination as its final aim, the question arises not only as to what we, the teachers, have to say, but also what the young people will answer. There, where the teachers’ abilities and the pupils’ thirst meet, at anytime, there is the school’s work.
    Perhaps the time will never come, when we can say: “Now we have a complete program.” In the course of time the program must change as the population develops. And I hope that the Folk High School will not become an institution in the sense that it stands finished and done with, but I hope that it will be borne onward by the independent personalities who devote themselves to its service. If they are not fit for it, the work of the school will stop on its own.”
    Thomas Rørdam, *The Danish Folk High Schools – Second revised
    edition*(Copenhagen, Dot DanskeSelskab, 1980), p. 59.

  10. There are so many ways to go off of your blog, Jen! The lack of research in youth learning is incredible to me. When reseraching learning environments, I also found that the data is focused on young children and adults. We can look at the brain studies from David Walsh and others and know that we can't teach the same way to youth as we do to the other populations. Within that, we know we can't teach the same way to groups within the youth. Learning styles and environments play an very important role in the way we engage youth in their learning. As stated in a previous blog post, if we begin to think as formal and non formal learning as physical structures and then focus on the best way to engage youth in learning and reflection then we will be giving our future adults the best education possible. The days of 'formal vs nonformal' need to be done and an effort to bring forth a paradigm of new pedogogy that encompasses educating the youth as a whole person no matter where the setting should be the path that higher education takes for training teachers and educators.

  11. Hello Jennifer -
    Thanks for joining the blog discussion and reinforcing the importance of youth learning.

  12. Hi Brian and Nicole –
    I appreciate your thoughtful comments.
    Brian, the overarching question that you use to create dialogue – How do I create a culture of learning? - is one that I hold dearly. Thanks for sharing the citation from the Danish Folk High School and the author’s hope that the school will not become an institution in the sense that it stands finished and done with, but rather that it lives onward by the independent personalities who devote themselves to its service. What approaches do you use to help build a culture of learning or has you put it to get out of the way of learning when necessary?
    Nicole, I like how you put out a call for bringing forth a paradigm of a new pedagogy that encompasses educating the whole person regardless of the setting while recognizing the value of informal, nonformal, and formal education (and combinations of each). I am interested in learning more from your scholarship. Thanks for contributing to this discussion.

  13. Thanks for your comments, within my previous statement of getting out of the way of learning, I believe I have some concepts and tools. This may not be the best way to describe this feeling, but it does feel necessary with a thoughtful intention. I think there is an importance of idea generation in learning. I identify with Eleanor Duckworth in her book "The Having of Wonderful Ideas and Other Essays on Teaching and Learning. It makes me think of a tool that I try to balance . She makes a connection with the nature of teaching with the role of tutoring. "There is an importance of keeping the pressure off. Needless to say, one hopes to learn how not to force. It's not easy for a teacher to let go of a plan of how things are expected to proceed. We simply can't force or the situation can disintegrate." I believe this is an important aspect of creating a balance with flexiblity, spontaneity and structure in learning, with the need or tool of learning "not to force".

  14. Hi Brian -
    The book by Duckworth sounds interesting. You have piqued my interest - especially with the points about "keeping the pressure off "and "not to force". I look forward to reading it.
    Thanks for extending the conversation.

  15. Thanks for starting a conversation around how young people learn.I was laughing to myself because I have a 14-year old daughter and her learning style is pretty funny and strange. She waits until the last minute to do her homework and to study for tests. She's a procrastinator (like me). She says that she doesn't like some of her teachers so she's probably not learning a lot in those classes. She spends more time texting her friends, checking out facebook and listening to music. I don't know how she learns but it is apparent that it has something to do with social media and electronic devices. That's probably why so many schools are giving laptops and tablets to students these days.


Post a Comment