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What is Unique About Exploratory Learning During Adolescence?

May 25, 2022

Filed in: Learning & Education

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What is unique about exploratory learning during adolescence?

This was the first question tackled at our recent symposium by Jamila Walida Simon, Youth Development Specialist at New York State 4-H, and Dr. Ron Dahl, Director of the Institute of Human Development at UC Berkeley. After all, we can learn through exploration throughout our lives–what’s special about this kind of learning in our adolescent years?

During adolescence, our motivation to explore the world is amplified, explained Ron. “There’s an increased proclivity to explore, there’s an increased tendency to find novel and ambiguous experiences more enjoyable,” he said. “It’s unique because those are turned up at a time when young people are searching for who they are in a broader world.”

At the same time youth are more motivated to explore the world, they’re also more sensitive to social feedback, Ron explained. “All of us want to be admired, none of us want to be put down, disrespected,” he said. “But the intensity of the feelings connected to that are turned up.”

This intensity means that the trial and error that are part of exploration have to occur in the context of belonging. Positive relationships with peers and adults can create a safe space for trying new things that might not work out. During adolescence, we need to be part of a culture of “it’s safe enough to challenge yourself.”

“We need some combination of safety that promotes exploration and some risk–the falling down and the getting back up,” said Ron. “The feeling of ‘we’re in it together,’ either from family or the feeling of family.”

Adults need to ensure they’re creating that space to include and welcome all of the young people in their programs–particularly youth who usually face steeper consequences for mistakes due to racism and other inequities in our society. “It is super important for us to do our own identity work before we enter into any spaces where we’re engaging with young people,” said Jamila. “Because how we feel about other people will bleed right into the space, whether we say it or not.”

4-H does some of this work through their JEDI (Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion) program. They take the moments of trauma and microaggressions that inevitably occur at events and turn them into teachable moments for volunteers, mentors, and young people.

“We’re doing those in a safe environment where it’s OK to make a mistake, it’s OK to have an ‘oops’ and ‘ouch’ moment, and it’s also OK to apologize and correct those mistakes,” said Jamila.

Adults can support exploration in other ways, too. One way is to look for “sparks” in the young people they work with. “When are those young people coming alive? When is that light in their eyes really coming alive when they’re engaged in an activity?” Jamila asked. “It’s noticing experiences and then gently moving them through those experiences so they can begin to flourish. So you can become a ‘spark champion.’”

Key Takeaways

  • Our motivation to explore and to try new things is amplified during our adolescent years, along with our sensitivity to social feedback.
  • We need safe spaces and a context of belonging in order to take positive risks and try things that might not work out.
  • Adults can support exploration by noticing “sparks” and creating supported opportunities for “challenge by choice” so young people can stretch themselves.
  • Adults need to do their own personal identity work to ensure that they’re part of the safe space young people need.
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