Tuesday, March 14, 2017

The Youth Development Jig-Saw Puzzle: Clocks and Clouds

Don Siegel

One thing that is becoming increasingly obvious to those of us interested in youth development is that the complexity of the field can be overwhelming. While everyone’s goals seem to be in one way or another related to building a vibrant, happy, healthy, resilient, and self-sufficient youth, there is a cafeteria aspect to how various theoreticians propose that this can be done. Being somewhat facetious, one can go down the buffet line and take a bit of social-emotional intelligence, some academic enrichment, a helping of college and work readiness, and a portion of health and wellness. As well, most youth development programs have themes such as art, sports, technology, music, etc. that purport to teach core skills that in some way relate to and develop critical assets. Figuring out how program activities and themes relate to asset development, if they do at all, is not an insignificant issue in determining to what extent a program is contributing to a child’s life.

In thinking about this, I have come to realize that no one really has the perfect formula for building a thriving and vibrant kid. One approach to dealing with this problem is provided by those who embrace complexity, and assert that youth development work can be best characterized as an emergent system. In a nut-shell, this line of thinking asserts that reducing complex systems to lower levels provides us with a distorted picture of how the system actually works. To paraphrase the philosopher Karl Popper, youth development work reflects more of a cloud problem, in that a cloud is something that is dynamic, constantly changing, and best studied as a whole.   In essence, such thinking relates to my previous post in which I attempted to make the case that youth development is like the powerful effects that we see in Blue Zones, or communities that foster the development of expertise in distance running, squash and baseball.  No one or two variables can explain such phenomena. But, being part of a community that uniquely intertwines many interacting variables, where the whole is greater than the simple sum of its parts, seems to be the best way to describe what is happening. Taking an element or two from such a community, and transplanting it to another locale, to determine whether desired outcomes can be replicated seems like a logical and interesting experiment, that, for whatever reasons, has not gained much traction.     

On the other hand, an alternative perspective, using Popper’s perspective would be those who view youth work as a clock problem. A clock can be taken apart piece by piece to determine how it works, and put back together again. The whole, is nothing more than the pieces. Approaching youth development in this way would be aligned with folks in the logic model business. They break things down into inputs, that provide support for programs to engage in a range of activities, which, in turn, produce outputs, that, ultimately, lead to a variety of outcomes. Folks who fund youth development programs tend to think like this since they wish to know if, and how their investment is related to whether a program’s activities are connected to how a kid fares in the future. Economists have even produced papers that quantify future monetary returns expected for every dollar invested in a youth development program.

So, is youth development a cloud problem or a clock problem? My experience tells me that it is both. Limited resources make it a clock problem as we must decide what to do and what not to do. As we learn from research design, clock logic will provide us with some inkling as to what is going on with regard to how our activities affect our youth. Using the statistician’s language we can separate variance accounted for from variance that remains unknown. From such a perspective, the process of program development and execution entails adding and subtracting activities to account for more and more of the variance associated with producing healthy, vibrant, and self-sufficient adolescents who are ready and able to transition into adulthood.

Nonetheless, while clock logic provides us with a methodology for sharpening program activities, it does not provide much guidance for the day to day stuff that happens which divert our activities from being executed, as planned, or more importantly, disrupts a child’s life and makes engaging in program activities irrelevant. So much of youth development work entails dealing with the unexpected, and being able to go outside the clock in order to reestablish its significance. This entails cloud logic. A program cannot function if the building in which it is housed is on fire, and a child cannot do homework when her head is ready to explode because of a toothache. Programs and kids are dynamic systems, like clouds, that are in a state of constant flux. When the unanticipated happens, staff must be prepared, and ready to throw whatever they have into resolving the issue.

My suspicion is that the best youth development programs embrace both clock and cloud logic. Both are necessary to produce youth who can transition seamlessly from childhood to adolescence, and from adolescence to adulthood, but neither approach is sufficient alone. This is a message that is equally important to folks who work in the youth development field who tend to be biased toward one of these approaches or the other, as well as to funders who are looking for payback on their investments. By all means, look at a program’s clock logic, but also understand that the clock ticks inside the cloud.