By Sam Piha
Young people tell us they are most engaged when they are given opportunities to learn new skills. If young people are to learn the importance and joy of mastery, they need the opportunity to learn and practice a full sequence of skills that will allow them to become “really good at something.”
Afterschool activities should not promote the gathering of random knowledge and skills. Rather, afterschool learning activities should be explicitly sequenced and designed to promote the layering of skills that allows participants to create a product or demonstrate mastery in a way they couldn’t do before.
Programs often achieve this by designing activities that lead to a culminating event or product that can be viewed and celebrated by peers and family members. For older youth, many programs are depending on apprenticeship models to assist youth in achieving a sense of mastery.
Designing programs that allow young people to fully experience mastery requires a belief by the adults that young people of all ages can persist in building a complex sequence of skills, especially in areas that they have a passion for. This means allowing young people to make mistakes, to sometimes fail, and giving the support they need to persist.
What learning that SUPPORTS MASTERY looks like:
Five things you can do right now:
1. Explore and assess: It is important that you take the time with your staff to explore and assess your alignment with this supports mastery principle.
2. Plan for the skills and knowledge you want your participants to acquire in your program: Often when planning programs, staff people go straight to lining up activities to fill a determined stretch of time, without thinking through what the learning goals are for a project or the overall program. Instead of identifying activities, work with staff to determine what kinds of knowledge and skills you want your young people to acquire over time through their participation in your program. They might be academic skills, study skills, leadership or team skills. Now, consider what kinds of experiences and activities you can provide over time that will meet your learning agenda. Don’t feel like you have to do it alone! You can use or adapt curriculum materials to align with your participants’ interests and needs, and draw on teachers and others around you who may have more experience in planning against learning outcomes. Don’t forget to sequence the skills from easier to more difficult, and to allow the skills to build on one another.
3. Culminating activities: Take a look at your different “clubs” and determine which clubs would allow young people to host a culminating activity where they can showcase their newfound skills and/or finished products. For instance, a club studying dance or rap could host an end-of-term performance. Those engaging in activities that featured art could host a viewing of their artwork. Having a culminating activity motivates young people to hone their skills and receive recognition for their accomplishments. After a successful event, the positive effect on a group’s sense of community and the individuals’ experience of accomplishment can be quite profound.
4. Advanced clubs: With your staff, consider whether current clubs can be followed by advanced clubs – clubs that allow young people to continue to gain new knowledge and skills in an area that they have high interest. For instance, a video club where young people learn how to use introductory video software could be followed by an advanced club where they learn more advanced software, or moved onto learning how to create soundtracks or digital special effects.
5. Internships: For older youth who have shown a passion in a specific area, look for community partners who would be willing to accept an intern. Internships allow young people to advance their mastery and to see how they could use their new skills in a real-life work environment. It is important that the young people as well as the businesses are prepared in advance and are very clear about the expectations. Visit other programs that have successfully introduced internships and take advantage of articles and curriculum that have been published to assist programs that are just launching internship programs.
Below is a good program example of "supporting mastery":
Youth Institute (community-based); (Grades 8 – 10); YMCA of Greater Long Beach; Long Beach, CA
The Summer Youth Institute is focused on the process of digital movie-making which requires pre-production, production and post production work. The Youth Institute operates 8 hours a day, Monday through Friday for eight weeks. The youth are placed in production groups and operate in a collaborative learning environment throughout the summer. These groups are very diverse with no majority - gender, ethnic/race, age, or grade level. They have had executive briefings at Apple, Pixar, Google and EA Sports and all the executives, according to Youth Institute leaders, say the same thing, "We want employees who CAN work in DIVERSE groups. If you can't work in a diverse group, you will not work here long."
Each production group in the Youth Institute creates a short film, teen magazine, website, music production and 3D printing and product design. This work teaches youth critical, sequential, spatial, and analytical thinking, along with group work and problem solving skills. The process of making a movie is also project and product-based. Digital movie-making, if done right and well, demonstrates all of the Learning in Afterschool and Summer Learning Principles.
Sam Piha is the founder and principal of Temescal Associates, a consulting group dedicated to building the capacity of leaders and organizations in education and youth development.