School systems are widely criticized today for their inability to provide youth important critical and strategic thinking skills. New York City residents especially feel that public schools focus too much on standardized test preparation and not enough on fostering the skills that students will need later in life. Educational reform is an issue that has been scrutinized, dissected, and attempted countless times, yet the results never seem sufficient. Many parents ask themselves how their children are to gain the abilities they need, not only to earn a high school diploma but also to succeed in life, from public school education. However, a recent study conducted by professors from the University of Illinois uncovered that youths tend to develop strategic thinking skills from programs outside the classroom, shedding new light on what areas educational reform should emphasize on.
The study examined eleven high-quality urban and rural arts programs and youth leadership programs. The researchers followed the development of strategic thinking in 108 ethnically diverse high school-aged youths by conducting numerous interviews with them. The researchers define strategic thinking as a form of thought involving more than just logic—“It involves learning to anticipate the disorderly ways that events unfold in the real world.” Six of the organizations studied were leadership programs that involved planning community activities, lobbying government agencies, or other activities. Five of them were arts and media-based programs in which the youths’ works were often presented to the community.
Higher-order pathways of the brain develop during adolescence. Thus, youths become able to think at more advanced levels about the dynamics of the real world. Yet, this can only occur if they are given the right experiences. Youths engaged in leadership and art-based programs learn by thinking and talking through the demands of their situations. They learn to brainstorm and plan for unforeseen twists and turns and thus realize the importance of planning. They’re also able to understand the thought processes of the people they are trying to influence. The interviewed youths described their newfound skills as being beneficial in school and beyond. They became better at time management, setting goals and carrying them out, and learning to take into account the things that could go wrong. The researchers discovered that ironically these are skills they rarely learn in the classroom and are more likely to acquire from participating in outside programs.
“In school you learn how government is supposed to work. In youth leadership programs, youth learn how government actually works. They also learn how to influence it,” said Reed Larson, one of the professors involved in the study. “The best way for teens to acquire strategic thinking skills is to use them in working through real-life problems and situations,” he said. “This study shows that good after-school programs provide a valuable context in which teens can learn to think strategically.”
Educational reform is an issue legislative officials and their constituents might never reach a conclusion about, at least in terms of how to better our public schools. Perhaps, the real problem is in the focus of the reform. Youth leadership and art-based programs are where the real-world education takes place. Although the proper reform could also make this an integral part of everyday schooling, at the moment the best response would be to enforce the creation of high-quality after-school programs that can foster strategic thinking skills in youth and encouraging students to join them. These programs can fill in the gap that school education leaves and also provide as a positive recreational activity for youths.
by Betty Diop (Re:LIFE Writer/Columnist)
B.A. Applied Psychology