Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Preparing Young People for Lives of Meaning

Sam Piha
By Sam Piha

Heather Malin, Ph.D., is the director of research at the Center on Adolescence at Stanford University. Her new book, Teaching for Purpose: Preparing Students for Lives of Meaning, caught our attention. We believe that afterschool programs serving older youth are well positioned to nurture youth and their sense of purpose. Below we share some of Dr. Malin’s responses to our interview questions. 

Q: What drove you to author this book on "purpose"?

A: I’ve been doing research on how young people develop purpose in life for over a decade, conducting interviews and surveys with adolescents to understand what matters to them and why, what goals they set for their lives and how they act on those goals, and what social conditions support them as they create purpose in their lives. 

I knew that there were people out there creating programs based on our research, so this book was an opportunity to connect with those people and share their work with others who are looking for ways to support students to develop purpose.

Q: Can you briefly describe what you mean by "purpose"?

Heather Malin
A: In our research lab, we specifically define purpose as “a generalized and stable intention to accomplish something that is meaningful to the self and of consequence to the world beyond the self” (as defined in Damon, Menon, & Bronk, 2003). This is a mouthful, but it basically means that we see purpose as a driving and enduring goal to contribute to something larger than the self. It’s understanding your own strengths and values and connecting them with something that the world needs. It doesn’t require changing the world. Purpose can be found in helping a family member just as easily as it can be found in working to end global poverty.

Q: How does one teach "purpose"?

A: That’s a big question. From what I’ve seen, I think we create our own purpose, and conditions around us can make that easier or more difficult. That doesn’t mean more affluent and well-resourced people have better access to purpose. In fact, we find that challenging life conditions and negative experiences can lead some people to develop purpose as a response. So, how do we provide the conditions that will enable more young people to create or develop their purpose? I think it requires starting with an environment of compassion and encouragement, with adults who act as mentors and role models of prosocial activity and who prioritize an authentic relationship with their students. In that environment, students can openly explore their values, strengths, and the things that are meaningful to them. 

Next, they need to translate those values and meaningful things into aspirations for their life and learn how to plan and take small steps toward accomplishing those big goals. Then, they need opportunities to act on their goals, to see that they’re capable of taking action and doing things that can have a positive impact in the world. That’s a nutshell version, but there is more detail in the book.

Q: How is this applicable to those who "teach" young people in community and school based afterschool programs? 

A: This book was specifically aimed at educators who work in schools, with hopes of contributing to the ongoing movement to re-invent schools. However, the fundamental ideas can be applied by anyone working with young people, including those working in community settings. In fact, practitioners in out-of-school programs are at an advantage for supporting youth purpose. There is more opportunity to mentor young people in activities that are meaningful to them, provide them with real-world responsibilities that matter, and create a sense of community and belonging that might be harder to come by at school. 

We’ve found that structured youth programs are wonderful for supporting purpose development when they provide an integrated web of purpose support. That web is made up of a social network that offers encouragement, access to information and knowledge needed to develop an interest and reflect on how their values relate to real-world issues, and opportunities to take authentic action in response to an interest or concern.  

Q: Is the notion of "purpose" applicable to adults who work with young people or only the young people themselves? 

A: Absolutely. One of the most important social resources for young people to develop purpose seems to be adults who model purpose in their own lives. An educator’s purpose doesn’t have to be teaching, but if it’s something they can share with their students, that is a gift they can offer that will make it more likely their students will develop purpose. 

Youth organization leaders are likely to be very purpose-driven people, but even those with a strong sense of purpose can lose sight of it over time. I believe, and other youth purpose researchers agree, that helping youth practitioners reflect on and be more aware of their own purpose is key to supporting young people to develop purpose. Aside from that, practitioners who show up with a stronger sense of their own purpose for being there are probably going to create the compassionate environment that will enable young people to express and explore their purpose. This is why the book begins by asking readers to explore their own purpose – so they understand what I mean by purpose and so they can bring that sense of purpose to their work with young people. 

Q: In your work, did you notice any important distinctions regarding different audiences of youth? 

A: The most important finding in this area is that there is very little difference in the level or amount of purpose experienced by young people from different backgrounds or with different identities. We don’t have thorough data available on this, but findings are fairly consistent that purpose scores don’t vary much by ethnicity, socioeconomic status (SES), or gender. There are small differences that practitioners might pay attention to. For example, girls usually report a greater sense of purpose than boys, and girls are more likely to have beyond-the-self goals for their lives, but be less likely than boys to act on those goals to have what we consider engaged purpose.

In analyses of ethnicity and SES, the effect sizes of these differences are so small that I’m hesitant to say it has implications for practice. I think that there can be qualitative differences in purpose that are worth paying attention to: we can have the same level of purpose but in very different areas of life, or experienced in very different ways. The content of our purpose is shaped by our context, family, upbringing, and other social factors that are related to our ethnicity and social class. 

The takeaway for practitioners, I think, is that exploring purpose with young people is an opportunity to get to know them better, and to connect better with them, their families, and communities.

Q: The concept of "purpose" joins other new concepts that have entered the afterschool conversation including "SEL", "agency", "civic engagement", "growth mindsets", etc. How do you see "purpose" aligning with these? 

A: I see purpose as strongly interconnected with SEL, civic engagement, and “agency”. I advocate for purpose as a framework for SEL that integrates some of the goal pursuit strengths (self-regulation, agency) with moral strengths (empathy, compassion, social awareness). 

Teaching for purpose ideally means providing young people with opportunities for values reflection that strengthens compassion and social awareness along with opportunities to develop important goals and take action. These efforts can help youth exercise self-regulation and agency. Civic engagement is an important way for young people to act on beyond-the-self goals that really matter to them. 

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Doing Away With "Disguised Learning"

By Sam Piha

Many afterschool leaders describe their programs as using “disguised learning”. I always cringe when I hear this term. Why you ask? 

1- Definition of “Disguise” 
According to the dictionary, disguise is defined as “to change the appearance or guise of so as to conceal identity or mislead, as by means of deceptive garb; to conceal or cover up the truth or actual character of by a counterfeit form or appearance; misrepresent”. Why do we need to conceal learning or mislead the learners? How is this related to children, their learning, or our role as teachers? 

2 - Assumptions about Learning 
This term assumes that you have to hide learning. I always found this offensive because through my experience as a classroom teacher and youth worker, children love to learn. They have an innate drive to learn and master, thus why the need for disguise?  “Disguised learning” is like “candy flavored medicine” - it assumes that learning is foul tasting but good for you. 

3 - Assumptions about Play
“Students think they are merely playing, but they are simultaneously learning.” This assumes that children only learn through play when adults sneak it in. We know that play is an important form of learning and that children are always learning.

Source: Gemba Academy
The problem is that adults have managed to make learning a negative thing by making it boring and divorced from the real world and young people’s interests. In this way, we have suppressed children’s drive to learn and master. 

Instead, we need to ensure that learning experiences are challenging and engaging. In the LIAS project, we name five attributes that promote young people's learning: Learning needs to be active, collaborative, meaningful, support mastery, and expand horizons. We can even be transparent about our learning objectives of the activities. 

I believe that those touting “disguised learning” are well intentioned. We just need to do away with this term. Instead we can talk about being intentional about the learning objectives, informal learning, using clever ways to introduce learning objectives through non-traditional tools, such as games, to encourage students to have fun while they learn. 

Source: Gettingsmart.com

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

How this Chicago After-School Program Helped Shift the Arc of Kids’ Lives

By Sam Piha

We promote social emotional learning, character building, and participation in afterschool programs by promising that these things will help young people succeed in “school, work and life”. We are all familiar with research and evaluation that confirm that these things increase academic outcomes in both the short term and down the line.

We now have a study looking at how participation in an afterschool program changed the arc of young people’s lives. According to Valerie Strauss of The Washington Post,“ ‘You Can’t Be What You Can’t See’ is a new book by Milbrey W. McLaughlin that looks at the long-term effects of an after-school academic program in Chicago’s notorious Cabrini-Green public housing project, a violence-wracked complex that was located on the Near North Side of Chicago and was once home to some 15,000 people.”   

David L. Kirp
We interviewed Milbrey McLaughlin in a recent LIAS blog post published on June 19, 2018. We now invite you to read a review of her book and commentary entitled How this Chicago after-school program helped shift the arc of kids’ lives — for the long term. This is written by Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post and David L. Kirp from the Graduate School of Public Policy at UC Berkeley. 

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Immigration and Afterschool

The harsh rhetoric surrounding immigration and the aggressive policies of this Presidential Administration has been very hard on the youth and communities we serve in afterschool. The Learning in Afterschool & Summer (LIAS) Project has published several blog posts on this issue, including guest blog posts by youth and practitioners working to address these issues with young people. Below, we call your attention to several of these important posts.


My name is Angie. In my infant years I didn't know who my mother was, for she had immigrated to the United States after I was born, leaving me and my brother under my grandmother’s wing. READ MORE


School officials report anxieties have reached new heights since Donald Trump’s inauguration, with possible consequences on young people’s ability to focus on school work, the willingness of parents to attend school events, or even to bring their children to school. READ MORE


Be aware of the joking and poking that happens in schools. Create a close to zero tolerance space for immigration jokes. For many students, it is not a joke. Also, be aware of the conclusions many undocumented students are coming up with through their time in the educational system. Residents and undocumented students with undocumented parents might conclude that higher education is not an option for them. READ MORE


California is home to the largest undocumented population in the country. Approximately 250,000 undocumented children are enrolled in California schools and an average of four students per classroom throughout the state have an undocumented parent. “Mixed status” children, children who have legal status but their parents do not, are as susceptible to the ramifications of enforcement as their undocumented peers. READ MORE


In expanded learning programs, we are seeking to learn the effects of childhood trauma and design programs that integrate trauma informed practice. Thus, we were horrified by the Trump Administration’s practice of “zero tolerance” which inflicts trauma on children and youth. READ MORE