A number of researchers have argued that youth are a distinct group of learners compared with children and adults, yet surprisingly little research has been put forth on the experience of youth learning. Most research on learning has focused on either children or adults; and adult learning principles misguidedly remain the core philosophy for most educators and youth workers who work with youth audiences.
As stated by Knud Illeris, youth learning is "...a gradual transition from the uncensored, trusting learning of childhood to the selective and self-controlled learning of adulthood". Research on the experience of youth learning is important because it could provide a foundation for understanding how young people learn.
Of the studies that do exist, Choy and Delahaye indicate that when they study for exams, youth commonly use a surface approach to learning, a form of scanning that is usually absent of reflection, because formal education conditions them to do so. However, given a choice, youth prefer nonformal, less structured learning. This reveals a contradiction between how youth are usually taught to learn and how they prefer to learn.
Youth want a relational level of understanding -- to relate their learning to their everyday lives, rather than abstract thinking, according to Choy and Delahaye. Relational learning is often facilitated with an approach that begins with a concrete experience, followed by reflection, abstraction, and application as found in Kolb's learning theory.
Choy and Delahaye's findings suggest some interesting implications for us to explore. For instance, thinking about the role that youth work can play in shaping youth learning and recognizing that the less structured learning environments found in many youth programs are exactly the environments in which youth WANT to learn. We have a unique advantage because the environments found in many youth programs are unbound by the rules and expectations faced by schools and have the freedom to bring about nonformal and relational learning with the flexibility to consider all influences on a young person's learning.
Similar to Dana Fusco's point in a previous blog post, youth work is a developmentally responsive practice that has the ability to respond to youth needs in real time. We are uniquely positioned to understand the inner workings of youth learning and to help identify learning principles to guide practice.
Along with some colleagues, I am working on a study that is focused on describing the experience of learning of youth, with hopes of spurring future research geared toward identifying youth learning principles. What have you observed? Do you see value in identifying youth learning principles to help guide our youth work? Are you interested knowing more about how youth experience learning?
Extension professor and program leader, educational design & development