Talk Differently: Youth Development vs. Education

“You talk differently to students than we do”. This is what a teacher recently told one of my Neutral Zone colleagues who was visiting their school in preparation for our student engagement work. I mused reflecting on this interaction. After a little Mouth_Talk_SpeechBubblepondering I reached the conclusion that what this teacher observed is the difference between approaching students using a positive youth development framework versus educating them with a (traditional) focus on academics.

As we consider schools today, there are huge challenges about how they operate. As Ted Dintersmith, the Producer of Most Likely to Succeed the highly compelling documentary about the problems with schools recently shared in a Boston Globe Op Ed:

The biggest obstacle to advancing education is that we still cling to that obsolete Prussian model. Students shuffle from subject to subject in class periods punctuated by ringing bells. They memorize, cram, and drill on low-level material. They jump through (increasingly expensive) hoops, and develop skills for jobs that no longer exist.

What fundamentally happens at most schools might be understood as transactional. Transactions focused on the business of “schooling” happen between school administrators and teachers and, trickling down, transactions focused on “learning” occur between teachers and students. What is missing in this process is the fact that students are human beings, human beings at a unique stage in their development. As such, each student requires particular supports and opportunities in order to help them thrive. The Prussian factory model doesn’t work.

So what can educators do to prepare students for the 21st century workforce, be active citizens in a democratic society and most importantly support them through healthy growth and development? The answer lies in positive youth development.

An educational approach focused on positive youth development can include any number of key facets that are not currently the norm in traditional educational settings. Some of these include:
• Providing students with safe and supportive environments by focusing on positive school culture and norms (that are student driven!) and problem-solving approaches to negative behavior – like restorative practice. Learning and participating in these processes not only help students thrive but help them carry these practices into their adult lives.

• Focusing on student-teacher partnerships by allowing youth to have a voice and ownership in what happens both across their schools and in the classroom. Such relationships between youth and caring adults helps to develop students as engaged learners, competent citizens and enhances an authentic connection between students and teachers.

• Encouraging students to pursue their interests and supporting them to engage in relevant, challenging experiences. Such learning, with a focus on creating tangible products and ideas, provides students with opportunities to build skills and experience an increasing sense of competency and relevance.DSC_0420

• Providing students opportunities to contribute and connect to the broader community. These pursuits help students to be taken seriously and to build their sense of efficacy and mattering. Such experiences provide students agency and a sense of empowerment that help them grow into thriving adults.

Educational guru Deborah Meier reflected in her book The Power of Their Ideas that when children are young we are careful to design educational settings that are developmentally appropriate. But as students get older, especially as they enter secondary education, we ignore their humanness and create classrooms and school structures that not only fail to help students thrive, but actually stifle them.

For far too long schools have treated students’ developmental outcomes as separate and even secondary to academics. It is about time we “talk differently to students” in order to help them grow and thrive.

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