More Than Just Caring: A Discussion with Karen Pittman


Karen Pittman is Co-Founder, President and CEO of the Forum for Youth Investment, an organization committed to providing ideas, services, and networks that leaders need in order to make more intentional decisions that are good for young people.

Q: The lessons from the science of learning and development are inherently hopeful. What are the strengths that young people and their communities are bringing to this crisis?

The strength that young people are bringing to the crisis, or to any experience they have, shows that young people in general, and in particular adolescents, are rapid learners. We focus on adolescents because adolescence is a particularly special period. When working with adolescents we need to be extremely open to building new skills, making new relationships and innovating in certain ways while also looking for opportunities to use the skills that they have.

If young people have adults around who are helping continue to practice and hone their skills, they may be getting even more resilient in this time.

Q: What’s one piece of concrete advice drawing from the science of learning and development that you would elevate for every educator or other adult supporting young people?

My advice is to start with relationships, and understand that developmental relationships are more than just caring. It starts with caring, but it really moves through to make sure that young people are cared for and feel that they have a connection. It moves into making sure that young people have a sense of agency, that we’re sharing power with them, that we are really helping them think about how to be challenged and how to grow. But we still have to have the learning component. We still have to have the content. And if you are an adult who is not an official teacher, there is still content that can be delivered. It is important to support them.

Q: What is the education issue that is around the corner that you hope people start addressing now? How would knowledge from the science of learning and development help us advance equity as we take it on?

We really need to take to heart that learning and development is all about experiences and relationships. The drivers of learning and development should be understood within a dynamic systems model that builds equal opportunities for forming relationships. That does not in any way mean that schools are off the hook. Rather, it means schools are the official place where we have put the responsibility for helping young people learn and develop.

We have a moment to think differently. We can really take the time now to paint the big picture of what that could look like. Even if we’re making a short-term response, we know how that short-term response fits into a longer term solution.

We’re going to have to think about how we do learning in a fluid space. We’re going to think about where those places are, not just between school and home, but where can young people safely be brought together in smaller numbers in groups that are more flexible?

We need to think about the adults who are in the building and then the adults who are in the community. We have an opportunity to think about that now and get that whole lay-of-the-land assessment of who’s available, what’s available and on a community by community basis, make these plans that will inevitably look different.

The sooner we do that, we will advance equity because the gaps are revealed, as we’ve just seen from sort of pulling the cover back and seeing the huge differences in access to connectivity.

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