The Building Blocks for Youth Success: A Q&A with the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research

Foundations for Young Adult Success: A Developmental Framework, a new report funded by The Wallace Foundation, brings together decades of research from many fields to show that children need more than academic knowledge alone to succeed in life. In this Q&A we asked the report’s authors—Jenny Nagaoka, Camille Farrington, Stacy Ehrlich, and Ryan Heath of the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research—about their findings and the implications for the world of expanded learning

Every Hour Counts: From your research, what does true success look like for young adults?

UChicago CCSR: Success means that young people can fulfill individual goals and have the agency and competencies to influence the world around them. It means that young people have developed an awareness of themselves and of the wide range of options before them, the competencies to pursue those options, and the ability to make good future choices for their lives as engaged citizens in the world. This larger focus is inseparable from goals related to college and career.

Every Hour Counts: What can adults do to support youth on the path to becoming successful adults?

UChicago CCSR: Adults can provide opportunities for young people to have developmental experiences. Developmental experiences are those which expose young people to new ideas, people, and perspectives; provide opportunities to engage in hands-on learning; include demonstrations of expert performance and models of high-quality work to emulate; offer extended time to practice and develop competencies; and ultimately allow young people to contribute their unique gifts to the world. Developmental experiences also offer opportunities to reflect upon one’s learning, to “name the world,” evaluate ideas, and to make connections between one’s actions and other things one cares about. Finally, wallace coverdevelopmental experiences support young people in integrating disparate occurrences into a larger sense of themselves in a way that propels them forward, and eventually, acting with agency in the larger world.

Every Hour Counts: How does the opportunity gap affect the future success of a young person?

UChicago CCSR: Children in the United States are afforded different access to experiences and opportunities in their homes, schools, and communities, depending in large part on differences in financial resources. This is compounded by other negative effects of child poverty, such as heightened social isolation, greater levels of parental and child stress, less access to health care, and higher exposure to environmental toxins and violence. Children of wealthier families benefit from being acculturated into dominant cultural norms and settings from an early age. All children grow up learning cultural navigation skills that allow them to have the agency to move with relative ease around their own neighborhoods and communities, but those skills do not always readily transfer to new contexts. A white child from the wealthy Chicago suburb of Winnetka would be just as out of place and ill-equipped to make his way through the violence-plagued streets of Chicago’s Roseland neighborhood as would the Roseland native in Winnetka. The difference is that the child from Winnetka can go his whole life without having to learn how to navigate Roseland, but the child from Roseland cannot gain access to “cultures of power” in American life without figuring out how to navigate Winnetka.

Every Hour Counts: What surprised you the most from your research?

UChicago CCSR: We spent a lot of time synthesizing research, theory, and practice knowledge from a wide range of disciplines and when we took a step back we were surprised at how much our developmental framework paralleled ideas that were advanced by well-established theorists such as John Dewey. In the past 100 years we have learned a lot about how humans learn. But it is really surprising how much recent findings in neuroscience parallel what was put forward by Dewey. For example, Dewey described learning as being a process of constructing meanings from direct experiences. More recently, neuroscience has shown us how as we go through our daily lives, the brain is constantly altering existing connections or creating new connections. These changes in neural connections are “felt” as changes in our sense of understanding.

Every Hour Counts: What is your hope for the impact this report will have on education?

UChicago CCSR: Our biggest hope is that this report helps bring about a change in the narrative about the purpose of education and how schools should be serving students to that end. If we want our kids to have the agency, integrated identity, and competencies that allow them to shape their own future, we need to see the role of schools as more than teaching academic knowledge and skills and take a more holistic approach. We need an understanding of how learning and development are processes that draw on all four foundational components—self-regulation, knowledge and skills, mindsets, and values and realize that attempting to isolate the teaching of cognitive factors from noncognitive factors does not reflect how students learn. The changes needed to guide children and youth to meet their full potential in young adulthood are rooted in the classroom but also need to be supported by changes in the larger policy environment.

To read the report, infographic, and additional materials, visit wallacefoundation.org/success.

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