By Sam Piha
In Part 1 of The Science of Learning and Development, we discussed the importance of this new science. Below we continue our interview with Dr. Deborah Moroney. Dr. Moroney is the Managing Director at the American Institutes for Research (AIR), and she recently authored a briefing paper entitled, “The Science of Learning and Development in Afterschool Systems and Settings.”
On December 5th, 2019, Dr. Moroney will serve as our featured speaker at an upcoming Speaker’s Forum. She will be joined by Jeff Davis (California Afterschool Network), Dr. Femi Vance (AIR), and a youth worker and an afterschool participant from the All Stars Project of the San Francisco Bay Area.
Below is the continuation of our interview with Dr. Deborah Moroney.
Q: Your brief emphasizes the importance of relational settings. Can you describe what you mean by this?
A: I do think there is a lot to unpack in that term. First, we all can agree relationships are important – even primary to learning and development. No one disagrees with that, but we need to first make them explicit and define actionable strategies to bolster relationships to be meaningful, reciprocal, and mutually respectful. Many of us have had that one teacher or youth worker that changed our lives in some really big way. I certainly did – he was a counselor at a camp where I had a made-up apprenticeship after I aged out of the program. Not only did this counselor create an age appropriate way for me to engage in the camp, but he provided opportunities for me to be a leader in a scaffolded way, try new things, and build skills in areas I was interested in. We spent time daily reflecting on these experiences.
The first idea here is that relationships are intentional – and not the result of happy accidents. Secondly, relationships are more than a set of interactions. They take place in settings that offer the conditions for those relationships to thrive. Key characteristics of relational settings are those that offer both physical and emotional safety, where people’s cultures and identities are defining elements (as opposed to being acknowledged, at best), and that celebrate people’s strengths. High-quality afterschool settings are set up in their design to be relational settings. My friend David Osher and colleagues in the SoLD Alliance wrote a great paper on this – everyone should read it.
Q: One of your findings is “context is the defining influence on development.” Can you say more about what you mean by “context”?
A: The SoLD Alliance describes context as the world around us – our experiences, environments, and cultures (SoLD Alliance, 2019). I am not sure I can do any better than that in a paraphrase. In our brief, we pay special attention to cultural competence and responsiveness as a part of context – not because other parts are less important but because a) through our quality efforts we check a lot of the context boxes, and b) because this is an area where I think we all (not just afterschool but people who work with youth) can improve as culturally responsive settings are key to establishing and maintaining contexts that are equitable for all young people.
Q: What do you believe are the greatest opportunities for afterschool programs and systems implementing these important qualities you discuss in your brief?
A: First, I think we have an opportunity to capitalize on the afterschool systems we have already invested in. These systems were designed to support afterschool programs in implementing the design elements articulated in SoLD. Some of these gold star systems include the intermediaries involved in the Every Hour Counts partners and cities (including California’s Partnership for Children and Youth), the National Afterschool Association Affiliates (which includes CalSac) and the 50 Statewide Afterschool Network (such as the California Afterschool Network). The federally funded 21st Century Community Learning Centers to have the potential to adopt and implement components of SoLD as they have other innovations in afterschool. Again, I think California has a shining example of a statewide system that partners successfully with other intermediaries to provide valued services to local programs to promote quality implementation. So we need to learn from these systems and ensure that all afterschool programs are high quality, which is foundational to the other components of SoLD.
Second, we need to use these systems to promote the other aspects of SoLD where we need to grow (e.g., partnering with other service systems, developmental fit, cultural responsiveness) through professional development for staff.
Third, we need to support staff by providing them with stable career pathways and incentives for professional learning. We cannot continue to innovate as a field if we cannot support the adults who are so critical to fostering youth learning and development. We have an opportunity to up our game here on behalf of young people, but we have to start with staff.
Dr. Deborah Moroney is the Managing Director, American Institutes of Research (AIR). She specializes in bridging research and practice, having worked as a staff member for out-of-school programs early in her career. She's written practitioner and organizational guides; co-authored the fourth edition of “Beyond the Bell®, A Toolkit for Creating High-Quality Afterschool and Expanded Learning Programs,” a seminal afterschool resource; and co-edited Creating Safe, Equitable, Engaging Schools: A Comprehensive, Evidence-Based Approach to Supporting Students and Social and Emotional Learning in Out-of-School Time Foundations and Futures. Presently, Dr. Moroney serves as the principal investigator on national studies of afterschool initiatives.
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.