Youth development in Sierra Leone has traditionally been viewed as a parallel (and separate) track to education. Our educational reform discourse has erroneously focused on bifurcated debates over achievement vs. opportunity gaps, equity vs. excellence, academics vs. non-academics skills, and college vs. career readiness; rather than focusing on all aspects of learning and development as complementary components to each other. A new report, from the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research Foundations for Young Adult Success: A Developmental Framework, calls attention to the need to integrate the knowledge of youth development and education in order to help young people succeed as adults.
The Sierra Leone government must understand that youth development does not happen in isolation. Decades of research, from John Dewey, James Coleman, to Urie Bronfenbrenner, all suggest that context matters and that young people’s development is influenced and impacted by both internal and external environments. In particular, the obstacles young people face in following a successful path to adulthood vary greatly by contextual factors such as poverty and the resources available in their communities.
Thus, as the new developmental framework notes, our definition of young people’s success in Sierra Leone needs to become more inclusive — “that young people can fulfil individual goals and have the agency and competencies to influence the world around them.
The framework asks us to recognise the congruence among diverse learning experiences across settings as critical stepping stones in “helping young people develop an awareness of themselves and of the wide range of options before them, competencies to pursue those options, and the ability to make good future choices for their lives as engaged citizens in the world”.
The framework is consistent with the Institute for Educational Leadership’s Guideposts for Success, which notes that all youth need:
- a) access to high-quality standards-based education regardless of setting;
- b) information about career options and exposure to the world of work, including structured internships;
- c) opportunities to develop social, civic, and leadership skills;
- d) strong connections with caring adults;
- e) access to safe places to interact with their peers; and
- f) support services to allow them to become independent adults.
From the framework report, it’s clear that for young people in Sierra Leone to get the support they deserve, adult beliefs, as well as the systems that guide practice working with young people, need to be reimagined so that youth development and education are seen as inextricably connected. Especially in the era of accountability and standardised assessments, the framework report notes that it is critical that we rethink the systems of practice, focusing attention on building learning organisations where adults and young people can learn, reflect, and grow in safe spaces that encourage continuous development and improvement.
For example, too often we see learning as an isolated experience; however, multi-disciplinary research tells us that young people need to make meaning of their experiences in what Jenny Nagaoka, lead author of the framework, calls the action-reflection cycle of a developmental experience. An action-reflection cycle provides young people with space to both experience a new opportunity and reflects on it in meaningful ways:
- Have they enjoyed this new experience?
- What aspects did they like or not like, and why?
- Did this new experience help them understand a topic or an issue in a deeper way and connect with past experiences?
The action-reflection cycle allows young people to build agency, an integrated identity of who they are today and who they want to be, and to acquire new knowledge, skills, mindsets, and values.
Young people are continuously developing and learning. Thus, they benefit from access to wide-ranging learning opportunities and an array of supports, including strong, authentic relationships with both peers and adults. Young people deserve a holistic approach to learning and development, one that helps prepare them to succeed in college, career, and life. And, for that, we need to take collective responsibility to design and nurture intentional learning spaces where young people feel safe to learn and explore as they develop. As the framework concludes:
“It means asking practitioners to question their own beliefs about what is possible and rethink how they work with young people on a day-to-day basis. It means asking policymakers to focus on a bigger picture and broader set of outcomes and to consider policies that would support the efforts of practitioners in developing our young people. It means asking researchers to provide accessible, meaningful, and actionable answers to core questions of policy and practice. It means asking families to understand the needs of their children and work with the institutions they cross every day so that these needs are met. It means asking for change within existing institutions and structures while also asking what new institutions and structures might better serve our vision”.