Active Learning: (FAQs)

 In 2011, the A.C. Ratshesky Foundation revised its guidelines for supporting youth development programs in the Boston area.  It narrowed its youth focus to “Active Learning” programs only.

1)      How does the Foundation define “Active Learning” programs?

The A.C. Ratshesky Foundation prioritizes supporting youth programs aligned with the following design elements that researchers consider essential for active learning:

    • Real-world relevance: Authentic activities match the real-world tasks of professionals in practice as nearly as possible. Learning rises to the level of authenticity when youth work actively with abstract concepts, facts, and formulae inside a realistic—and highly social—context mimicking “the ordinary practices of the [disciplinary] culture.”
    • Ill-defined problem: Challenges cannot be solved easily by the application of an existing algorithm.  Instead, authentic activities are relatively undefined and open to multiple interpretations, requiring youth to identify for themselves the tasks and subtasks needed to complete the major task.
    • Sustained investigation: Problems cannot be solved in a matter of minutes or even hours. Instead, authentic activities comprise complex tasks to be investigated by youth over a sustained period of time, requiring significant investments of time and intellectual resources.
    • Multiple sources and perspectives: Learners are not given a list of resources. Authentic activities provide the opportunity for youth to examine the task from a variety of theoretical and practical perspectives, using a variety of resources and requiring youth to distinguish relevant from irrelevant information in the process.
    • Collaboration: Success is not achievable by an individual learner working alone. Authentic activities make collaboration integral to the task, both within the course and in the real world.
    • Reflection (metacognition): Authentic activities enable learners to make choices and reflect on their learning, both individually and as a team or community.
    • Interdisciplinary perspective: Relevance is not confined to a single domain or subject matter specialization. Instead, authentic activities have consequences that extend beyond a particular discipline, encouraging youth to adopt diverse roles and think in interdisciplinary terms. 
    • Integrated assessment: Assessment is not merely summative in authentic activities but is woven seamlessly into the major task in a manner that reflects real-world evaluation processes.

2)      What does the Foundation look for in organizations engaging youth in active learning?

 In addition to the guidelines, the Foundation screens proposals with an eye toward three major criteria:

Active learning is core to mission.  Providing experiential education/active learning for young people is a central aspect of the organization’s mission and a driver of the organization’s creativity, innovation, and ongoing partnerships.  You have to be sort of a zealot to do this work well.

Intensive, year-round involvement with a cohort of youth.  Short-term classes, workshops, or events rarely have the intensity or duration needed to build strong teams that solve real-world problems.

The proof is in the projects.  Participants take leadership in producing tangible products, services, or experiences that benefit the larger community.  Murals, workshops, gardens, videos, and volunteering in the neighborhood are nice as an introduction, but young people can do so much more.

3)      What types of programs are not a priority for the Foundation even if they have elements of “learning by doing”?

  • Enrichment programs that focus mostly on grades, test scores, and graduation
  • Tutorial and remedial education programs
  • College access programs
  • Mentoring programs
  • Summer job programs
  • In-school programs
  • Programs of public, private, charter, or religious schools
  • Youth organizing programs
  • Short-term community service programs
  • Programs that serve a small (<20) cohort of youth

4)      What are the “grey areas” within the interests of the Foundation? 

Teen leadership programs.  Many organizations have generic teen leadership programs that have active learning components, but they rarely are mission-driven or evolve into a major comprehensive effort to engage youth as active citizens or community problem-solvers.  We do not expect that many will be of interest, but there may be occasional opportunities to help a few of them leap forward depending on their geography and ambitions.

Teen environmental education programs.  There are dozens of fantastic youth environmental leadership programs, but only a few place young people at the center of the organization or go beyond a short-term, service-learning activity.

Youth arts.   We set a very high bar for arts programs because they already have mastered many elements of experiential learning.  Few youth arts programs have real-world relevance and youth leadership beyond traditional recitals, performances, or public art projects.  The Foundation expects arts organizations to go beyond the norm of the field with regard to involving youth throughout the artistic and production process.

Youth advocacy and organizing.   Public policy or political education, while important, have not traditionally been an area of interest for the Foundation.  While many youth advocacy programs may meet the criteria of active learning, they do not fit the current mission of the Foundation.

5)      How can we tell if our organization is a good match with the Foundation?

  • Are youth the primary focus of your organization and is experiential education core to your approach?
  • Do the “real tasks” take place in a real setting and address real problems?
  • What examples can you give where the work of your organizations’ youth has made a difference in the community?
  • What local and national networks or coalitions related to youth development does your organization participate in?
  • Has your organization pioneered any social innovations, unique strategies, or key resources in the field of youth development or experiential education?
  • To what degree could you say that you are the “anchor” or lead youth development or experiential education organization in your respective neighborhood, community of interest, or issue area?
  • Do you have a critique of mainstream out-of-school time, academic enrichment, and youth development programs in the Boston area?  If so, how does your organization’s pedagogy, youth development practices, and outcomes address this critique?
  • What examples of youth-led leadership are reflected in your organizational structure, planning, evaluation, or governance?

 6)      Where can we learn more about experiential education?

You say tomato…The Foundation calls it “active learning” but will not get into a semantic battle with you about what to call it.  This post by John Larmer puts the seemingly endless list of of the names of the various practices into perspective.   

 Can your program past this test?  “A simple test used to see if authentic learning is happening is to observe whether the event planning has any designs to reach out to the “real” world. Does the authentic learning event have direct, meaningful connections or applications outside of the classroom?  Are there any real world connections either going out of the classroom or going into the classroom? If all that is being done is discussing and making inferences to real world examples only, then it’s not authentic learning. Don’t get caught up in the trap. Discussing, making inferences, creating mock-ups or simulations are all very important elements in working towards “real life” learning but they are still vicarious.”

How far to the right is your organization on this continuum of participation?  Maine Youth Action Network’s wonderful continuum can help you understand and identify how power is shared among youth and adults within your organization. Different organizations may have different values and goals for youth participation, and the power balance will probably shift in one direction or another, or even back and forth, over time. Regardless of where your group or organization falls on the continuum, it is important to understand your organization’s level of youth participation and to identify your own goals for youth involvement.

 A sliding scale for keeping it real.  Everyone says their program has something to do with “authentic” learning.  But not everyone agrees what this means.  We like this quiz because it suggests that there is a sliding scale of authenticity for projects, which goes from “not authentic” to “somewhat authentic” to “fully authentic.”  The Foundation tries to identify examples of work that would be defined as “fully authentic”.

Data is a required.  Evaluation of youth development programs is a weak spot of most organizations.  When we review proposals to the foundation, we can tell from reading the section about outcomes that very few organizations have a strategy, a system, or set of indicators that help them manage their programs.  This guide is not particularly strong on evaluating experiential education, but it may provide insight on how you might think about evaluating your program.

Got technology? This paper white paper explores what constitutes authentic learning, how technology supports it, what makes it effective, and why it is important.  The emphasis is on the use of technology but it does a great job of defining what constitutes “learning by doing”.  It also underscores our observation that most youth development programs do not use technology to its full potential.