The final session was an opportunity for participants and presenters to sift through the ideas that emerged in the 2 days of discussion. Participants reported on the discussions they had had in breakout sessions and their responses to the workshop framing questions (see Chapter 1 and Appendix D). The workshop closed with concluding thoughts from committee members.
Participants had two opportunities to discuss their responses to the primary topics raised at the workshop, and to focus on the perspectives of practitioners. The group representatives reported that individual participants shared the following ideas:
- Character is not a trait and does not break down into easily measurable components. Nevertheless, it is reassuring to learn that there is constancy in the theoretical background for current ideas of character and social and emotional learning—that “we really are a field.”
- Policy makers, researchers, and practitioners all need to act in a more coordinated way, but the lack of a shared language is an obstacle. Coordination could help all concerned avoid misunderstandings and make the available information more effective.
- An organization needs to define for itself, in a collaborative way, what character goals it will pursue. “Fuzzy-sounding boundaries are OK,” said one participant, because the goal is to identify what an individual program is best poised to address. The focus should be on the behavioral level, on what it looks like when young people have a particular kind of character. Each program should revisit its definition of character goals every few years to be sure the definition is aligned with the objectives of primary program stakeholders.
- The work of out-of-school youth development programs cannot be understood in a vacuum, and it is critical to examine issues of race, income, class, gender, and culture. That reality is complicated by real-world limitations in funding and other resources.
Evidence of What Works in Developing Character
- A few basic structures stood out as especially important: responsive engagement, reflection and critical thinking, awareness and affirmation, and a focus on relationships.
- Modeling behaviors is not enough—it is important to “get kids reflecting on what they do, to help them be intentional about it,” according to one participant.
- Professional development is critical yet many programs lack the resources for it. It is often the first thing cut when resources are reduced, and the field needs to raise awareness of its vital importance.
- Training and feedback for adults is key—“people really do want to improve, but they need support,” said one person. To help engage staff in the culture of evaluation, it is important to be sure there are ways to provide rapid feedback and flexibility for quick adjustment.
Implementation and Evaluation
- Evaluation is a key way that programs can demonstrate their worthiness to funders and policy makers, yet few have sufficient resources to do it properly.
- The work of these programs is a journey. The role of the organization is to create an environment in which staff feel comfortable receiving feedback and are encouraged to reflect on what they are doing.
- Evaluation can be done with a variety of methods—an overreliance on the goal of randomly controlled trials would be a mistake.
- Practitioners are not often asked about the kinds of research they want and need. They want help “getting better at what they know
they want to do,” noted one participant. The relationship between research and practice is “not linear,” so both practitioners and researchers need to be active in trying to “translate” what the findings mean for practice.
- Sometimes it is worth taking a strategic risk on an untested idea, if the potential reward is high. The key is to treat the effort as a pilot test and to carefully and honestly evaluate both successes and failures.
The workshop ended with closing thoughts from several committee members.1
Lucy Friedman noted that the workshop discussion did not focus much on what is known not to work, but that there is evidence on this as well. Scaring young people and “pouring” information into them are both ineffective, for example, she said. This is an exciting time in the field, in her view. She sees researchers and practitioners coming together to “change the conversation” and help gain recognition for the importance of out-of-school time. Continued developments in research are necessary to this, she observed.
Jennifer Brown Urban noted that the available workshop time did not allow William Trochim to describe the practical, “how-to” elements of their work, but she encouraged participants to use the paper and project website as resources.2 She also commented that collaboration is challenging for organizations, and that the diversity in out-of-school opportunities is a good thing. “We need as a community to provide as many opportunities as possible so kids can find what meets their needs and interests,” she said. This diversity makes research challenging, but the individuality of programs is often what makes them work, she observed.
Catherine Bradshaw reinforced the message that measurement tools beyond surveys are important, and that researchers need to consider what can be learned from programs with a wide variety of missions and definitions of familiar objectives. If a program does have an impact on character, she wondered, can it count as character development even if that is not a part of its philosophy?
Ellen Gannett commented that she as a practitioner feels proud of the efforts her colleagues have made to join forces with researchers and also to articulate their own ideas and questions. Building a skilled and stable workforce has become a high priority in the field, and she said she sees the
1 Not all of the committee members were able to be present for this final discussion.
2 See https://core.human.cornell.edu/research/systems/protocol [December 2016].
effects of that and of the many contributions from research. The out-of-school workforce, she suggested, “stands shoulder to shoulder with other professionals,” and is on its way to further growth
Richard Lerner thanked the participants for their contributions to a rich discussion of the many dimensions of the challenge. The workshop enhanced his understanding of the complex issues and particularly reinforced the importance of making cultural diversity and social justice a predominant focus in both research and practice, he noted. The primary goal for character education under any name is to “make the world better for young people,” he said, and “the passion for doing better work on behalf of young people through research and practice is a noble purpose.”