By Sam Piha
Why is learning enhanced when it is meaningful?
Research tells us that if we hope to make a difference in young people’s learning, we need to provide opportunities for learning that is meaningful. If young people are engaged in meaningful participation, they are empowered to be self-directed, make responsible choices about how to use their time, and participate as group members in making decisions that influence the larger program and what they learn about.
They are also given the opportunity to learn group leadership skills and to assume leadership roles in planning activities and projects. They have opportunities to “give back” by contributing to the program, to other young people, or to their larger community.
We know that young people experience their participation as meaningful when they report feeling a sense of belonging and ownership in the program. When they are participating in meaningful ways, they feel that their contributions are valued, and, by participating, they “make a difference.” In a program that fosters meaningful youth participation, adults serve as mentors and facilitators to build the skills of the young people. “Fostering meaningful youth participation means providing opportunities for problem solving, decision making, planning, goal setting, and helping others, and involves adults sharing power in real ways with children,” writes Nan Henderson, prevention specialist.
What MEANINGFUL learning looks like:
Three things you can do right now to promote meaningful participation:
1. Explore and assess: It is important that you take the time with your staff to explore and assess your alignment with this meaningful principle.
2. Encourage self-reliance and responsibility to the group: Allow young people to responsibly address their own needs, whether it is access to the drinking fountain or to art supplies. Design your program space and storage system in a way that allows young people free access to needed project supplies, materials and equipment. The privilege of access comes with responsibilities of caring for and returning things to their proper place. Brainstorm the needed agreements with your group to ensure the respectful use of these materials.
3. Incorporating the Interests of Young People: Regardless of the teaching and learning methods you employ, it is important to incorporate young people’s interests in your program. You may want to survey the young people in your program about their interests, and then work to incorporate opportunities to learn academic and life skills into activities that reflect these interests.
You can build on learners’ existing knowledge and skills. When introducing a new topic or project, begin by allowing young people to show what they already know. There may be some true “experts” among them. By building off the momentum of their knowledge and prior experiences, you can help them both test and deepen their present understanding. Equally as important to designing programs with young people’s interests in mind, is ensuring that programs are relevant to the learners. It is crucial that staff understand young people’s life contexts, including their cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds and have the flexibility to design programs that are relevant to participants.
To learn more see our Youth Development Guide 2.0. This 165- page guide is available as a free download or can be ordered as a spiral bound, hard copy.
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.