Recognition for Afterschool as a Learning Environment

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Recognition for Afterschool as a Learning Environment

 “There is no greater investment than in afterschool programs,” which helps make the hours between 3:30 and 6:00 p.m. safe for kids and a time to support the work being done in the classroom.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel made this statement at a Department of Education panel discussion I attended last week on education policy featuring Secretary of Education Arne Duncan along with the mayors and superintendents from Chicago, Los Angeles and New York City.  The discussion covered the cities’ successes and challenges and ways their schools are giving children the opportunity to succeed.  Collectively, the three systems serve nearly 2.5 million students, 77percent of whom are poor and 88 percent of whom are minority.  
 
It was refreshing to hear a mayor engaged in education reform highlight afterschool programs as settings for learning.  It was not a surprise that afterschool programs came up in the context of keeping children safe—that has been a core mission of programs for decades.  Mr. Emanuel’s message, however, that afterschool programs also reinforce or complement classroom learning was great to hear.  Too often the engaged learning that occurs in afterschool programs has escaped the attention of policy makers at the local, state and federal levels. 
 
The mayor’s comment is one of many recent examples that point to a better recognition among policy makers that afterschool programs are a critical component in engaging young people in their own education.  A number of efforts have helped make the case for engaged learning after school, including the eight Principles of Effective Learning Programs released by the Afterschool Alliance in January, discussed here.

The Learning In Afterschool and Summer project, based in California, has done an excellent job of highlighting what engaged learning should look like in an afterschool or summer learning program.  Their five core learning principles are supported by recent brain research and the growing science of learning:

  1. Learning that is Active: Learning and memory recall of new knowledge is strengthened through different exposures: seeing, hearing, touching and doing (1).  Afterschool learning should be the result of activities that involve young people in activities that allow them to be physically active, stimulate their innate curiosity, and that are hands-on and project-based.  Hands-on learning involves the child in a total learning experience, which enhances the child’s ability to think critically (2).
  1. Learning that is Collaborative: Knowledge should be socially centered, as collaborative learning provides the best means to explore new information (3).  Afterschool programs are well positioned to build skills that allow young people to learn as a team.  This includes listening to others, supporting group learning goals, resolving differences and conflicts, and making room for each member to contribute his or her individual talents.  Collaborative learning happens when learners engage in a common task in which each individual depends on and is accountable to each other.
  1. Learning that is Meaningful: Young people are intrinsically motivated when they find their learning meaningful.  This means having ownership over the learning topic and the means to assess their own progress.  When the learning is relevant to one’s own interests, experiences and the real world in which they live, a student becomes increasingly motivated.  Community and cultural relevance is especially important to recent immigrant youth and those from minority cultures.  Young people in afterschool can be encouraged to apply their academic skills to their areas of interest and real world problems rather than learning that is focused entirely within academic subjects.  Learning experiences are more meaningful when they involve responsibility, leadership and service to others.
  1. Learning that Supports Mastery: Young people tell us they are most engaged when they are given opportunities to learn new skills (4).  If young people are to learn the importance and joy of mastery, they need the opportunity to learn and practice a full sequence of skills that will allow them to become “really good at something.”  Afterschool activities should not promote the gathering of random knowledge and skills.  Rather, afterschool learning activities should be explicitly sequenced and designed to promote the layering of skills that allows participants to create a product or demonstrate mastery in a way they couldn’t before.  Programs often achieve this by designing activities that lead to a culminating event or end product that can be viewed and celebrated by peers and family members.  For older youth, many programs are depending on apprenticeship models to assist youth in achieving a sense of mastery.
  1. Learning that Expands Horizons: Young people benefit by learning opportunities that take them beyond their current experience and expand their horizons.  Learning about new things and new places promotes a greater sense of potential for what they can achieve, and brings a sense of excitement and discovery to the learning environment.  Meeting new people can expand social networks in ways that create new opportunities.  Afterschool programs have the flexibility to go beyond the walls of their facilities.  They can use the surrounding community as a classroom and bring in individuals and businesses that young people may not otherwise come into contact with. Expanding young people’s horizons also includes helping them to develop a global awareness.  This includes increasing their knowledge of other cultures and places and their understanding of the issues and problems we have in common across cultural and political divides.

These principles serve as a great messaging piece to further spread the word that afterschool and summer learning programs are more than keeping young people safe.  Organizations and individuals can sign-on in support of the Learning In Afterschool and Summer principles and help continue to make the case to policy makers that the engaged learning taking place in afterschool and summer learning programs contributes to student success.

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