Creating Optimal Learning Environments for Youth with Karen Pittman

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Show Notes

On this episode of Grow Kinder, we talk with Karen Pittman, an award-winning sociologist who has dedicated her career to starting organizations and initiatives that promote youth development. Co-founder, president, and CEO at the Forum for Youth Investment, Karen is a recognized leader in her field whose work with the Children’s Defense Fund, the Clinton administration, and America’s Promise has influenced US policy in youth development and education. Karen shares with us how she became interested in youth development, what creates an optimal learning environment for children, and the power that educators have to shape how young people learn.

Learn about Karen and the Forum for Youth Investment at



[0:00:02.7] AL: The Grow Kinder podcast features conversations with thought leaders in education, business, tech, and the arts, who all share one thing in common: a dedication to growing kinder in their work and lives and helping others do the same. Brought to you by Committee for Children.

Today, we talk with Karen Pittman, co-founder, president, and CEO at the Forum for Youth Investment. As a sociologist, Karen has made a career of starting organizations and initiatives that promote youth development. Karen was named one of the 25 most influential leaders in after-school by the National Afterschool Association. She most recently received the Lifetime Achievement Award from Partners for Livable Communities, joining previous honorees, such as former president Bill Clinton and former first lady Lady Bird Johnson. Karen talks with us about what creates an optimal learning environment and the power educators have to shape and change how young people are interacting and learning.


[0:01:02.0] AL: Welcome back to the Grow Kinder podcast. This is Andrea Lovanhill.

[0:01:05.4] MD: And Mia Doces.

[0:01:06.4] AL: Today, we get the pleasure of speaking with Karen Pittman, who has really made a career of starting organizations that promote youth development, including the Forum for Youth Investment. She's an extremely accomplished sociologist and a highly recognized leader in that area. A lot of her work has focused on broadening the definition of success and helping communities and organizations that are working in youth development, so we're excited to have her with us.

Hello, Karen. This is Andrea. How are you today?

[0:01:37.1] KP: I'm good.

[0:01:38.7] AL: We, in going through your background, we’re of course very aware of your work, and I know that you've had a lot of connection with our executive director, Joan Duffell, and are probably aware of our work. Going through your background, there's just so much there. You've had such a varied background, but really focused always on this area of youth development in a variety of ways. Can you tell us a little more about your background and what led you into youth work?

[0:02:05.4] KP: Absolutely. Well, what led me to youth work takes me all the way back to college, where I went to Oberlin College, which happens to be the place where Dave Weikart, who founded the HighScope Educational Research Foundation, works, and obviously, the Weikart Center is named after David Weikart. Dave Weikart was an Oberlin graduate, and he and his wife in the late 60s founded an educational camp for teenagers as a way to continue to test out their theories about active learning, which they had already done in preschool with the Perry Preschool, which still exists to this day and has had a huge number of longitudinal studies of the young people who went through the Perry Preschool in the original work.

Dave would come to Oberlin College every summer to recruit students to be counselor-teachers at the HighScope camp. He was looking in particular for college students who were interested in teaching. I was one of those, and so he recruited me to be one of the camp counselors. I spent my college summers being a camp counselor at this educational camp for teenagers, which was an eight-week residential camp that had everything from young people coming from the Mississippi Delta and Arkansas, they got people coming from France or Germany who were coming together, about 80 young people, 12 to 18, who would spend the summer together building a learning community.

That really was my opportunity, even though I didn't know it fully at the time, to be really schooled by one of the masters in what you would now call social-emotional development; Dave called it active learning. I think more honestly, it could be called whole-child development, because it wasn't just focused on social-emotional, but really integrating all that together. That just completely influenced my life.

By the time I had done summers working with Dave, it was clear to me that I wasn't going to go directly into teaching, because what I had just understood was high-quality instruction was not what I was seeing when I went to do interviews in schools. That led me to a career to figure out how we actually change what it is that we do and talk about, when we think about learning for young people.

[0:04:23.2] MD: I'm thinking that you must have been fairly young, just having graduated from college and working with teens. Do you have any interesting stories? You sometimes hear that, when people just out of college are working, especially with older kids, they could be challenging sometimes. Is there any student, or child, or youth, that stands out to you, or a story that you'd like to share with us?

[0:04:45.3] KP: Absolutely. I mean, in my experience working directly with young people, – I started this work when I was 18 and we were working with young people, 12 to 18. There were a couple people who were my age. Then as I moved through college, absolutely really thinking about how working with young people who were close in age, one of the things that was so wonderful about this particular introduction to teaching was the amount of reflection and coaching that went into every day.

Dave Weikart knew very clearly that he was intentionally recruiting college students to work with middle and high school students and recruiting college students who hadn't necessarily, by definition, had a background in teaching ed, even though they might be aspiring to be teachers or counselors or other things in the human services. First of all, we spent a week at camp before the campers came, both getting the facilities ready, but also really spending time with Dave every afternoon, just understanding, without him using technical terms, what the goals were of this educational summer, and what the principles of active learning were, and how we were going to implement them.

Then we would have those daily and weekly sessions in which we really met to talk about both our experiences in trying to implement these approaches and talk about the campers themselves. I think in that context, one of the things that was most interesting was that while we clearly developed relationships and even friendships with the campers, the boundaries were so clearly set between the roles, the complementary roles that we were playing as counselors and that campers were playing as learners, that I really don't remember any negative experiences.

I remember an incredible number of positive experiences in which really just being able to be immersed in young people's lives fully. We lived with them 24 hours a day. We slept in rooms with them. We ate meals with them. Everything we did was with the campers. And so it was very important to really get those boundaries established. That's really one of the lessons I think that stuck with me: When we're really clear about what our roles are, age can matter less in that kind of important work.

We know in youth work, we're often introducing young people even if they're college students, or college graduates, into experiences in which there's a minimal age difference between them and the young people they're working with.

[0:07:16.7] AL: Thinking about this experience and also, you've worked in research and policy in direct work with kids and direct work with communities. That seems to have really culminated in the founding of the Forum for Youth Investment. Can you tell us more about the Forum for Youth Investment, and what led to bringing that into being, and what the mission is?

[0:07:38.6] KP: Well, the Forum for Youth Investment is the latest (and last, given my age) likely iteration of really trying to bring these ideas about active learning to life. As you said, we've been in research and practice and policy. My first job coming out of graduate school – first of all, it influenced what I went off to do in graduate school, so I ended up creating an individual program between sociology and education at the University of Chicago, to really both understand how schools are built and put together, but also really understand how young people learn. My career has been trying to blend those two things together, both the policy side of how we actually shape and influence the systems that are charged and have some responsibility for young people's growth and development, and then also how we really bring the research about how young people grow and develop into those systems and settings.

I would say, probably because of my camp experience I've always had an affinity for working with and understanding the value that community programs can play and the programs that are slightly outside of the formal boundaries of systems that have big accountability demands, like schools, or child welfare, or juvenile justice, what [role] those organizations can play because they have the flexibility to really implement what we know about youth development. They often don't have the resources, but they have the flexibility.

My career has taken me from bringing that kind of information into the Urban Institute, where I was a part of basically social science studies that were looking at these institutions and settings. I then moved to the Children's Defense Fund, where I was really trying to bring these ideas into the advocacy space. There one of the things – The two lessons that I learned there were that on the policy side, because our policies, at least for adolescents, are so deficit-focused and my job at the Children's Defense Fund was really to, in a sense, up their agenda from a general child agenda to one that's focused on specific issues related to adolescents, whether that was high school graduation, or substance abuse, or pregnancy prevention, delinquency prevention, et cetera.

I came in to flesh out the Children’s Defense Fund’s adolescent agenda. Obviously at that point, and still to this day, most of our public policies are really focused on fixing young people's problems, not really focused on positive development. Seven years at the Children's Defense Fund, looking at the limitations on the policy side, but also because I was running their pregnancy prevention work and we were working with communities, understanding again, the value that community organizations were playing in this space and really, frankly, the juggling act that they often played as they tried to stay funded, shifting their definition of what they were doing from one prevention goal to another, depending on what the hot topic was.

They wouldn't necessarily so much change what they were doing, but they would change how they describe what they were doing, and they would change their responsibility for certain outcomes. That really led me, from a research perspective, to say we've got to find a way to help programs that understand the importance of really developing the whole child, how to have them not artificially chop young people up into pieces in order to get funding that they then have to cobble back together, both in terms of the funding itself, but also the programming to support the child. That led me to leave the Children's Defense Fund and start the Center for Youth Development and Policy Research in 1990 with Michele Cahill. That was set up inside of the Academy for Educational Development.

We ran that until the call came from the Clinton administration to lead the president's Crime Prevention Council. That sounds like a strange thing for somebody who's committed to youth development to be put in charge of leading the Crime Prevention Council, but we had, along with Children’s Defense Fund, been advocating for a long time that we needed some way to really leverage the myriad of federal programs that come out targeting these specific areas: pregnancy, dropout, violence, drugs, delinquency, et cetera. We needed a way to cobble those together, and we needed a way to really move up from treating problems to preventing problems, and ideally then to really moving up into promoting development.

Even though it ended up being called the Crime Prevention Council, what had started out as an argument to create an “Ounce of Prevention Council,” following some of the work that was being done in Chicago, when the opportunity came to put that together, you could say I drew the short straw, or the long straw, depending on how you want to read it. I went into the Clinton administration to really lead that council. Again, the good news there was there was an amazing set of folks who were leading or were the deputies of all of the federal agencies from Child Welfare, Juvenile Justice, Health and Human Services, all of those folks came to the table and recognized the need to galvanize a positive definition of what we were achieving for children and then really understand the continuum of services from treatment, even punishment and remediation, through prevention, and on the way in to positive development.

That work still happens informally through something called the Interagency Working Group on Youth Programs that's housed at the federal government. The Clinton administration's Crime Prevention Council itself was short-lived, for a bunch of reasons. At that point, having left setting up the Center for Youth Development and Policy Research, I needed to figure out what to do next. The short story is I decided to go learn how this was happening in other countries, especially from a policy perspective.

I spent time at the International Youth Foundation. Merita Irby, who's the co-founder of the Forum, was part of that work with me. Then as we started to do work at the International Youth Foundation, it felt like time to bring those lessons home, and so we created the Forum for Youth Investment. The Forum for Youth Investment was intentionally named the Forum for Youth Investment to really focus on the fact that we need to do smarter investments in young people from a both public side and a private side, and that those investments really have to span all the places where young people spend their time.

As fond and committed as I am to promoting youth development and promoting youth development in community-based youth programs, we also wanted to make sure we were looking at policies and programs and opportunities to support work in all the places where young people spend their time voluntarily or involuntarily.

[0:14:17.5] MD: Karen, let's get back to the community programs for a minute. I'd love to circle back on that, because you have such deep experience in this area. Could you tell our listeners a little bit more about the characteristics, and I know there are lots of different kinds of community programs, but in the successful community programs, what are some of the characteristics that those all share?

[0:14:39.5] KP: Well, when we think about community programs that young people go to, the first thing we think about is that they go to them voluntarily. I mean, obviously there are programs that many people are assigned to, to go to by the court, et cetera, but the predominant thing when we think about programs in the community, whether those are programs that are sponsored by your rec department, your library, they're a part of national affiliate organizations like Boys and Girls Clubs, or the Ys, or they are locally based programs, which there are many wonderful locally based programs that are developed by folks in the community that really want to make a difference in young people's lives.

Obviously, there are also programs that are run or associated with faith-based organizations and civic organizations. The homes for these programs are quite varied. What they have in common, and I think this really is a very important commonality, is that for the most part, these are programs that young people go to voluntarily, they are programs that families seek out and enroll their young people in for a variety of reasons, from extra child care, to enrichment, to skill building, to exposure, to specific things, to even enrolling young people in programs so that they can achieve mastery in things that they're interested in, whether that's the arts or music, et cetera.

The voluntary piece of this is very important, because the fact that you have to create a place where young people want to come, and a place where families feel safe sending their young people, means that these programs start with relationships. That's very different than when I'm sending my young person to school, which is required.

That's a structure in which we lead with content. The expectation is that I'm sending my child off to learn. I hope people will be nice. I hope this will be a positive environment. The focus is on learning and on learning a codified amount of content that's been the great thing and put into policy.
The fact that community organizations and community programs are basically being run by organizations in the community, and second, are being attended by young people and enrolled in by families who really have to look at this thing and make a choice about whether they want their young person to spend time there, or as the young people get older, whether they want to spend time there themselves.

We have a phrase that gets used often: that young people vote with their feet. They may come for basketball, but they end up staying for the relationships. When we think about wonderfully important topics like kindness, kindness starts from an investment in relationships and in relationship building. These organizations, whatever their focus, have an advantage in that the people who have set them up have started out by thinking that they have to create spaces and places where young people feel safe and feel supported and then feel engaged.

[0:17:39.0] AL: I have a few -- actually several follow-ups to that, because I think it's such an interesting –the setup of a dichotomy between school and after-school care community-based programs. You've talked about quality of content and being content-driven in schools, in previous talks that you've given. You've also talked about this idea of quality of context, which can be in schools, can be in other areas. I believe you've said that you need both, right? That one of the challenges in some of the after-school care, or environments that are out of school, that they have such potential, these environments, for safety, for belonging, for positive relationships, for engagement and development for kids. They’re settings where kids can really practice things around social-emotional skills and other skills.

A lot of the folks that I think talk about those contexts worry about there being such variation in quality, because they're not part of a connected large system, they can form connections between each other and community programs. What are your thoughts on quality and the quality of the context in after-school and out-of-school settings? What needs to be done there? What is being done there that you're excited about?

[0:19:01.2] KP: Yes. I definitely want to talk to you about quality, but having set up something, I want to put something out there first, if I can, which is really this understanding that we have about what creates optimal conditions for learning, or the optimal environment for learning. What our gut told us was that you have to – that in an ideal you start with relationships. You then build trust, so young people have a sense of belonging. You then infuse rich, instructional content. That doesn't have to be academic content, but it does have to be content.

Content is a critical part. We're not just getting together to be nice to each other for six weeks. We have to be focused on something. Content really is a critical piece of this, in order to meet interests and get engagement and do skill building. The other piece of this is that we have to – it comes out of building relationships and trust -- this has to be focused enough, and the adults have to be skilled enough, to provide individualized support.

That doesn't mean pull-out programs or anything formal, it just means I need to know you well enough to be able to slightly customize how I work with you based on who you are. That may mean that some kids like to hug, and some kids like to shake hands, and some kids like to do a high-five, if we do a very simple example. Just knowing that is important and not assuming that everybody's the same. Then we have learned from the brain science over the past 10 years that we have to be explicit about helping young people build these critical skills, skillsets, and mindsets. That's the new piece that's been added in, whether we call it social-emotional learning, or social-emotional and academic development, or life skills, whatever, we've learned that we have to actually be more intentional about that skill building and that we can be more intentional about it, more explicit about it, and really accelerate skill growth.

Those five things have all sort of been understood. What we now have from the brain science -- and this has been codified fairly recently by a set of researchers who’ve banded together under something called the Science of Learning and Development, SoLD -- the Science of Learning and Development has really summarized all the research across the fields, not specific to schools, but really specific to how we learn and how the brain really influences how we learn.

It's reinforced this fact that -- not just that we need to teach social-emotional skills, but that learning really is social-emotional and cognitive. Engaging the brain happens first, and then the content flows in. We know now a huge amount more that really undergirds these gut feelings that we had about youth development principles. We knew in general that when people were using these youth development principles, they got better results. Now the brain science tells us absolutely, definitively, why we get those results and why it is important to start with context.

That said, that context really does include content. What happens if we just come in and do relationships and make sure young people feel trusted and belong, but we don't do the rest of the things: We're not maximizing our time with them. If we just come in and focus too heavily on the content and don't pay attention to the other things, the value of that content is diluted, because young people really aren't set up to experience a learning setting. We understand that all of these pieces have to be in place. Now we need new ways of assessing quality that really look at all of those.

If we go into schools, we tend to assess quality too heavily on the content side. Do we have teachers who have the right content knowledge? Are young people making academic process? Are we using evidence-based curriculum? We tend to assess too far on the content side. Are we focusing on rigor? On the youth side, we were focusing a bit too much on the relationships.

Now one of the things that was always assumed is that there was some content, but one of the challenges on the community side, as you said is just the sheer diversity of the kinds of programs, and the kind of content they're focused on, really meant that, for example, when we began to do the work that now the Weikart Center is known for, the youth program quality assessment and that whole intervention, in a way we had to be content neutral, because you couldn't anticipate what the content was that was being delivered in the program. But we could underscore the fact that these other key elements about relationships and trust and engagement in some kind of challenging experience -- I didn't have to define the experience, but we could observe whether young people were engaged in something that felt challenging -- that that was an important part. Quality really has to look at all of those pieces.

[0:23:45.9] MD: Karen, also just following up on that. In some ways, it sounds simple to say that, and then we also know that making sure that the caregivers and the people who are running the programs and are working with you, have themselves the skills to build relationship and trust, in addition to content delivery. What are your feelings about training, and especially when some of the positions are lower-paying and they aren't as professionalized as, say, working in a public school system? How are we to think about accounting for that?

[0:24:20.9] KP: I think this is one of the most important questions that we have an opportunity to answer now, both with the science. It is the question of how and how much training do people in general who work with young people need to have. Then in particular, how do we train people who are coming in to these more informal youth development settings, where often the staff are part-time, often the staff are young, they're college students, et cetera, where you're assuming that they're only going to stay in that particular job two or three years at most, so the organizations that are hiring them are not necessarily that invested in their training, and in which, frankly, this has not been elevated enough to be seen as a profession that people say, “I am going to be in this. I'm going to be a youth worker for the rest of my life,” in the same way that people say, “I'm going to be a teacher,” or “I'm going be a nurse.”

With all of those challenges, one of the things that I think this new set of research on the importance of having adults create powerful learning settings is that one of the things that has happened is we recognize the power that adults have to create that setting. I'd be happy to send it to you. We're working closely with an organization called Turnaround for Children, that is really focused on how you bring this whole-child approach into schools, not as a curriculum but as a way that really starts with helping all the staff in the schools -- not just the teachers, or the administrators -- understand the power of the science about how young people learn and how important it is, about how you both set up learning settings and how you monitor and control your interactions with young people, in order to maximize connections and learning and development.

That means that they're looking at connecting to and training the folks who work in the cafeteria, the bus drivers, the counselors, not just the teachers. In some ways, this idea that we have to broaden our understanding of who the adults are that can actually influence young people and then broaden our understanding of the amount of time that we have to train them and our understanding of, frankly, how much they've been pretrained and whatever they came through as a professional, whether their preservice training included enough about child and youth development.

In general, in all of these fields -- whether it's teaching, it's folks who are going into juvenile justice and child welfare, folks who are looking at going into employment -- there's a recognition that all of these professionals need to be retrained, or trained in child and youth development and trained and retrained in this understanding of how to create learning settings. That's one of the things that we're pushing just generally.

If we want to talk about the allied youth workforce, who are the people that work with young people? In libraries, rec departments, schools, youth organizations, juvenile justice centers, who are the people that work with young people, and how much understanding do they have about how learning and development happens? How much understanding do they have about how their decisions and their behaviors and their ability to have good practice has an influence on young people? Then where do they go for support? That question is being asked more generally, which is a good thing. And that's one of the things that we're promoting.

Then I think we have to specifically come back to your question of what about the people who are in after-school programs, or youth programs, in which these are not professionals who have some other degree necessarily, or some consistent degree, they haven't been trained to do X. Now we also want them to understand child development and understand the science of creating learning settings.

These are people who were hired because they like kids, and they have some skills, and they want to work with young people. To the extent that that's who we’re working with, we have a responsibility to also figure out how we elevate the importance of that job and the opportunity to make sure that they are trained not just in basic safety procedures, but they're also trained in this information.

Toward that end, I think one of the things that's exciting -- and we also have a partnership with building with the University of Pittsburgh, with their School of Education, where Dr. Tom Akiva, who actually is also connected to Dave Weikart and to the Weikart Center from the long history. He actually will tell you that he was one of the students, not one of the first students in Perry Preschool, he’s not quite that old, but he actually went to the Perry Preschool, as well as worked at HighScope and at the Weikart Center.

What Tom has been doing is really figuring out how to take the essence of what it is that we want practice to look like, and give it to people, first in videos, because that's the fastest way to communicate what we want something to look like. Then give them the opportunity to reflect on those videos, based on their own understanding and experience, and say, “Why does that look right to me? What's going on in that video that I think I would like to be able to do, or I think I do?” That's becoming a way to jumpstart these conversations and give people who have a limited amount of experience, but also have a limited amount of time, a way to be able to understand what the goals of practice are and be able to assess themselves against that.

I think we're coming up with new ways to acknowledge that we have a part-time work force, we sometimes have an experienced work force. We can't give up on this. We actually have to double down on the importance of conveying these ideas.

[0:29:59.0] MD: Yeah. I think obviously on the policy side, I don't know what's happening in places, but it just did occur to me that when young people want to work in the food service industry, they have to take some minimal amount of training to learn about safety. You would think that there might be some requirement in the same way for people who are going to work with kids in any capacity in the state.

[0:30:21.9] KP: Yes, absolutely. That's one of the reasons, I think you all know, that at the Weikart Center we really try to come into this at the system level, or the network level, to introduce the idea that it's absolutely possible and doable to really scale up training for part-time and full-time staff who are in these programs and in this broad field in a way that is both doable and affordable. Not just do a training, but to have that training happen in the context of a continuous quality improvement system, which means we're not just giving people one-shot professional development and hoping that it sticks. We're actually putting in place some kind of assessment to make sure that they're actually bringing those lessons back into their interactions with young people, that they're making plans.

They're getting feedback. We call it “right-stakes feedback.” This is not about “You're going to lose your job,” but “Here are some things you could work on, based on an agreed-upon set of standards and goals; which ones do you want to work on?” and now we have to provide support. Then we can come back and see if you improved. That assess, plan, and improve model has to be built in at the management level. You're absolutely right that this is the opportunity that we have, with all this new research coming out, to make sure that as we're thinking about investing in staff development, we're thinking about not just investing in staff development to implement safety standards, or to deliver a specific content, but also to look at this important idea of context.

[0:31:53.3] MD: It's interesting what you're talking about with the videos. Certainly now with technology, there are new kinds of opportunities for ongoing education and training and support. We did an interesting study here. My group here at Committee for Children were really interested in seeing how we might support children's social-emotional development in their online spaces, in their multiplayer game spaces, like in a Minecraft situation. We started to think about how we can build technology.

But then we realized that really what we should be doing is working with the moderators, because often in those spaces, especially in more educational settings, they have high school students or college students who are moderators for the behavior of the kids in the online space. We did just that. We did what you're talking about. Very contextually, we trained the moderators in the actual – in Minecraft -- using the Minecraft videos and situations there to help them support the kids in their behavior and had some pretty significant changes from where they started out. When there was misbehavior in the online space, the moderators would just act in a punitive way: They put them in Minecraft jail, the kids; they’d kick them off the game.

Then we saw these changes of the moderators starting to use certain language, like “Well, you knocked down the castle, how do you think that's making him feel? What do you expect someone might – how might they react in a situation like that? What should you be able to do?” We’re really finding that we're having the biggest impact in the work that we were doing with the young moderators.

[0:33:37.3] KP: I think that's a great story, and it's a great example, again, of the power of both giving the adults -- or in this case, the young adults who are working with children -- giving them a sense of what they should be doing, why they should be doing it, and then giving them very simple ways to change the how. Those can be tips, those can be practices, but that combination of bringing that information in is really important. And it really is about helping people understand both the implications of what they can do, and your example was just a perfect example of, you demonstrated to them the power that they can have.

I mean, if you're kicking kids out of a game, that's power. That's not the only way you can exercise power. Again, there's this wonderful quote of -- we talk a lot about school climate, and there was a quote from a teacher that's been working with Turnaround [for Children] for a while, who said, he realized he controlled the climate in his classroom with his kids. That was his job. He could make it rain, he could make it snow, he could make it sunny based on what he did. It wasn't this amorphous idea of school climate, it was we could control the climate of what's happening in this interaction that's going on by how we shape things.

That information is really powerful for adults, to know that they have that capacity to change how young people are interacting, which clearly then influences how they're learning, how they even have the opportunity to learn, if they're not kicked out of the game. That's really about improving practice. It's not about implementing a set of rules or implementing a curriculum; it really is about giving practitioners the information that they need to think about the power their practicing and think about how to improve them.

[0:35:18.8] AL: I've been thinking a lot…we've been doing more and more learning in out-of-school-time spaces and youth development, and also around just training and supports for adults working with kids across the board in whatever capacity, because we see a lot of what you're talking about, the power and potential in those spaces and things that could really positively affect outcomes for kids. It really has made me think about the types of community programs that made a difference in my own life.

Also during college, I worked in the public library system and the kinds of things the libraries did to support kids, especially during the summer when school was out, the programs that they would run and the care that was put into those. The thing that keeps coming back to me is one of the things that made that so successful was…my memory of it is that there was actually a really deep connection to what was happening in schools, so the public libraries were also supporting what was happening with schools, and they understood what the school programs had done in the year before summer started.

My experience of working with schools is that that's not often the case that they have deep connection with community programs, and also with families: that families seem more connected with community programs than they do with the schools. What are your thoughts about that and what could we do to improve those connections, so that there's a focus for kids in all of the contexts that they're in?

[0:36:46.1] KP: That's a great question. I think one of the main things that we could do -- and there are lots of ways that we could do this -- is to slowly chip away at the idea, and this is an idea that I think is held by both the public and K–12 officials, that the most important learning happens in schools. The learning that we have codified and paid for and monitor with No Child Left Behind, et cetera, that learning does disproportionately happen or not happen in schools. We have found for years, just as you were saying, that when we start off a meeting and ask people to think about their most powerful or significant learning experience, it rarely was in school.

Or if it was in school, it was rarely with a teacher who was teaching one of the core academic subjects. It was with “my art teacher,” or “my music teacher,” or “the person who was helping us with the student yearbook.” It was something in which you had a little bit more time to build relationships and that idea, the combination of an opportunity to actually build relationships, an opportunity to be a little bit more flexible about the pace of how the learning happens and how the skill growth happens, and an opportunity to have some choice over what you're doing. Those really are the key ingredients that end up with people remembering powerful learning experiences.

It often is, “I remember so-and-so (put a name in), who really spent the time with me to help me learn X.” That kind of experience, just because the way school is set up, it's very hard to have that happen in school. Reed Larsen has been doing these – Well, I mean, you can tell how long he's been doing the studies when I say they started out as beeper studies. He had young people carrying around beepers (with permission), and they would be beeped regularly and take out a little notepad and they would write down where they were, then they would write down essentially “Were you motivated? Were you paying attention? Were you paying attention at all and were you interested?” I mean, “was your head involved and was your heart involved?” if you want to think of it that way.

What he found was that for the most part in school, neither. They were there, but they were not engaged. Then when they were with their friends, which is why we get to risky behaviors, their heads were often not fully involved, but their hearts were completely in there. These were social experiences for them, and they were fully committed in them.

When they were in sports, you had high levels of both. He's an adolescent psychologist. He found the highest levels of both that head and heart when young people were in what he ended up calling voluntary youth organizations. That led him to really start to look at youth work and understand what was happening in those places.

Now the message from that research wasn't that we should have kids not go to school and all go to youth organizations. Again, it's just back to these basic ideas that if you're going to attract young people to something where they have a choice of whether they come or not, you have to pay a lot more attention to all of the elements, not just the content. That's really the lesson, and we somehow need to get that lesson into schools. Especially as we now moving out of the No Child Left Behind era, where they're – those things, both those kinds of classes and that appreciation for learning progress and relationship building that couldn't be measured specifically with test scores, now that we have a little bit more room to bring that back in, I think we need as a broader community of people who are supporting learning -- and that includes the libraries and the museums and the rec departments and all the organizations we've talked about -- we have to figure out how we can demonstrate our value, not just as transactional partners, because we're often the places where students go when they leave school, to moving into being strategic partners and in specific, being learning partners. I say learning partners because it's often the case that when schools think about who they need to partner with, they think about organizations that can come in and provide services that are not about learning but are about making sure young people have their basic needs met, et cetera.

Those health and social services are important, but we have an opportunity now, I think, with this new science, and with the push for social-emotional learning, and even the economic analysis, that for young people to be successful, it's not just about academic content, it's about building this full set of skills. We really have an opportunity to figure out how in our communities we help schools accelerate breaking down the barriers to do this natural active learning during the day.

We also have opportunities to come in to the day, which more and more organizations are taking advantage of. Organizations like communities and schools do their work completely during the day. Organizations like Playworks come in and really help either relieve educators of the responsibilities around recess or help train educators to really take advantage of that amount of time.

All of those are new things that we can do and figuring out how to build more strategic partnerships with schools, so that that natural alignment of both content and relationship knowledge can move back and forth.

[0:42:08.7] AL: Man, there's a lot to think about there, and a lot of good takeaways for us and I'm sure our listeners. One of the things that you hit on repeatedly, which we believe wholeheartedly in, is the effect of positive relationships with adults and how that can truly influence kids’ lives over the course of their lives. Do you have an example of a relationship that you had with an adult, a specific adult that did this positive relationship building that really engaged your heart and your mind?

[0:42:37.3] KP: Well, lucky for me, I have many. I say lucky for me, because I grew up here in Washington, DC, which is where we're sitting right now. I went to the DC public schools. Now I was within a working-class family with just my mom. My dad had passed, so there was not a lot of money and not a lot of time, because my mom was working.

In the course of all that, I managed to go to a series of public schools, from late elementary school through high school, which were actually focused on doing exactly what we talked about. I've actually gone back and researched it, and this was when the DC public schools were in something called the Renaissance period. They were experimenting with all of the things that people are experimenting with now: block classes, team teaching, looping (where you stay with the same teacher for more than one year), all of this as a way to really expand learning opportunities and build relationships.

I looked at my high school yearbook. Just because I've had such a positive experience, and it was a very diverse high school where kids came from all over the city, not a magnet school. This was when tracking happened. It was a fully tracked school. Young people from all over the city came to a school which was just under-enrolled. They used that school to do this experiment with all these wonderful ways to make sure young people were fully engaged. I did a tally and I looked at the extracurricular activities under every young person's name, and there are probably maybe 3 percent of the students in the yearbook had less than two extra-curricular activities listed. Everybody was involved in something at every level. That was a key part of the school, to make sure everybody had something that they were engaged in that really met their interests, whatever that was, whether it was cheerleading, Latin club, whatever.

I then looked at the clubs and the photos of the clubs. The clubs were integrated. The best I could remember, the kids were integrated not just racially and ethnically, but also again, by track. I have so many teachers from my middle school (or junior high at that point as it was called) and high school experience that I'm going to say I'm one of those exceptions. When I think of folks who really leaned in, helped me identify interests, helped me figure out where I was going, helped me academically, but also really helped me and my peers really build deep personal relationships. The majority of those folks were actually teachers, from English teachers, math teachers, music teachers. They were the exception, and it was because these were schools that were intentionally built to bring young people from across the city and make sure that they actually fit together into a learning community.

Again, very similar to the goals that David Weikart had when he started the high school camp in the 60s. I was able to find that, and that's probably why I resonated so much with the work that he was doing.

[0:45:38.8] MD: That sounds incredible. It's easy to see how you ended up continuing the work and having so much success and impact in your work. Karen, where can listeners find out more about you and the work of the Forum?

[0:45:51.7] KP: Well, the Forum has actually just rebuilt our website. You can go to and learn a lot more about us. We're a small but complicated organization. As you know and your listeners may know, we have – our main offices are here in Washington, DC, where most of our policy and thought leadership staff are, but we also have offices in Ypsilanti, Michigan, which is where HighScope is, and so all the work that has been built up around working directly to support quality improvement for youth organizations really stayed connected, brought that HighScope legacy out and stayed in Ypsilanti, Michigan. The Weikart Center for Youth program quality is clearly a part of the Forum, but it's still based in Ypsilanti. Then we have offices in New York City, where SparkAction, which is our online advocacy platform, that’s, is based. Lots of pieces of the Forum. We have regular webinars and thought leader sessions about once a month that you can sign up for and newsletters and all that standard stuff.

[0:46:55.3] MD: Wonderful.

[0:46:56.0] AL: Fantastic. Karen Pittman, thank you so much for joining us today. It's been a real pleasure.

[0:46:59.6] KP: Thank you so much. This was great fun.


[0:47:02.3] AL: Thanks for listening. We hope you enjoyed our conversation with Karen Pittman. You can find more episodes at If you enjoyed our conversation today, make sure to rate and subscribe on iTunes or Stitcher.