Do they need our education?
Is the training offer in European youth work responding to the current generation and context?
by László Milutinovits
The question posed by the title of this article was necessarily something that our editorial team had to ask – but actually, after exchanging some thoughts about it with practitioner friends we realised that it’s quite a difficult one. Are we possibly afraid of questioning the relevance and impact of our work, or the way that we do it? Or is it simply too complex and therefore one is necessarily resistant to go into analysing the situation? This article makes an attempt to look at the issue from quite a wide perspective – hopefully in a thought-provoking way.
One of my favourite novelists, Viktor Pelevin, became well known by depicting the surrealism of post-Soviet Russia – however, in his more recent work he changed direction and dug himself into the near future. First, the shift made me a bit disappointed, but later I realised that actually some of the issues brought up have a stunning resemblance with the direction our societies are heading towards today. One of the stories takes place in a post-apocalyptic world where the majority of people live in poor, technologically backward cities, while a privileged minority live in a technologically advanced artificial flying city. The tech divide is amplified by the manipulative media controlled by this latter “high” society, leading to an immense gap between “poor” and “rich” where even the human nature of the former is forgotten or ignored (Pelevin 2015). In the other story, Pelevin goes so far that he simply makes an algorithm to be his main character, and discovers issues of superhuman intelligence and neuroscience (Pelevin 2017). Does it sound sci-fi? Am I am getting far from the topic? I am afraid not. If one has read Yuval Noah Harari’s recent international bestsellers, which reflect on questions of free will, superhuman intelligence and biotechnology and expected impacts of democracy, access to work and human rights, it is impossible to neglect the links with our question: what needs young people have in the light of such future, and what education and training should offer young people whose future is approaching faster than we may think, if not here already (Harari 2016).
Let us see then – what does European youth work offer to young people when it comes to training and education? Why and how do certain strategies define this content? How is training conducted and organised and by whom? Are the topics offered relevant at all?
Needless to say, this present article is not a research paper – it rather intends to collect a few observations, questions and learning points from a practitioner’s point of view. It focuses on residential training, study sessions and educational activities, bringing together international groups of young people, youth workers and leaders, and activists – and on activities taking place at the Council of Europe’s European Youth Centres (EYCs) or implemented in the EU youth programmes.
Training methodology – are we non-formal enough, or too much?
The last few decades have led to a remarkable increase in the number of training activities and publications, giving support, guidance and an incredible opportunity for experimenting with methodologies as well. Also, there is more or less a good basis and a consensus about the principles and use of non-formal education and intercultural learning, and many of the “classic” methods of experiential learning are widely used. However, one may have the impression that the environment and general conditions have changed a lot in a subtle way, often having a significant impact on the dynamics of training. Primarily, this has a lot to do with digitalisation – but let us go a bit beyond the usual discourse about “Can we use it? Is it bad or good?”, as it is just as important to see the impact on behaviours and our general state of mind.
The enormous and obvious impact of digitalisation has been already discovered in the smart youth work edition of Coyote. As Miguel writes in his article on the role of youth (work) training in Europe, it was in 2011 the first time he realised that there were more laptops in the training room than participants. And indeed, my experience is also that training rooms often partly turn into a kind of a co-working office with tables, laptops, cables, and participants and trainers alike hanging onto their smartphones almost as patients on infusion, constantly looking for plugs instead of looking at each other.
This has enormous impact on the physical setup of training spaces, leading to a more distracted training environment – but more importantly, also, on the level of attention and therefore capacity of people present (?) to focus. In his ground-breaking work, Flow: the psychology of optimal experience, Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csíkszentmihalyi defines attention as power that allows individuals to fully indulge themselves in doing things, leading to a highly focused mental state leading to productivity (Csíkszentmihalyi 1990). The constant use of devices definitely creates a disturbing “digital noise” in training settings, breaks concentration and may also lead to conflicts – for example when somebody starts sharing a live video of an ongoing sensitive presentation or reflection without asking for a consent – do not forget that this may be such an obvious deed for many that they would do so without any hesitation. The question for trainers is: are we properly preparing participants to benefit consciously from the non-formal education (NFE)/intercultural learning (ICL) environment? Do we clear the ground adequately – with special regard to reflecting on the culture of using social media in this specific setting – before jumping into our activities? Or another aspect is that despite their immersion in the digital environment, it is not at all easy to involve participants in e-learning – probably the gamification element is attractive enough to grab temporary attention, but does not help long-term learning processes.
Another tendency is that – maybe similar to the way our attention and (in)ability to focus is sliced up in tiny pieces now – trainers and preparatory team members of study sessions at EYCs tend to design programmes where a plethora of elements are jammed into the flow, often without leaving enough space for deeper experience and reflection. For example, I was once invited by a study session team to arrange an online video intervention by colleagues from Strasbourg on the work of the Council of Europe in the field of gender equality – for a maximum of 3-5 minutes (!), obviously something less than appropriate and meaningful. Of course, this is an extreme example, but frontal presentations of more than 20-30 minutes also lead to resistance/frustration or at least disengagement. The situation is the same in the case of more interactive sessions, especially ones based on experiential learning: they are often cut as being too time-consuming. Also, the proliferation of new tools and methods – often used as ends in themselves and not adapted properly to people and context – makes it difficult for trainers to keep up and agree on, and to align the methodology of their activities. While all this is in strong contrast with the tendency of having shorter and shorter activities…! However, the good news is that, according to my experience, good old methods, if properly embedded in training, can still work and deeply engage participants – but only if the overall programme respects the core values and principles of NFE and leaves enough space for experiential learning and inclusive participation.
Training content – is that what they need?
In his work, 21 Lessons for the 21st century, Yuval Noah Harari suggests that in a future of uncertainties and accelerated change, education must focus on developing four key competences, namely critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity and he is also in favour of the lifelong learning approach. He also reflects on the current crisis and the future of liberal democracy (Harari 2018). The EU youth programmes, currently under the umbrella of the Erasmus+ programme, seem to have a similar direction by aiming at reducing youth unemployment, developing new skills required by the labour market, supporting innovation and co-operation, and also encouraging participation in European democracy – in Gisele Evrard-Markovic’s article on Glimpses of the European Training Strategy, there is more to read on that. The Youth for Democracy programme of the Council of Europe focuses less on the question of employability but rather seeks to achieve the active participation and autonomy of young people in peaceful and inclusive societies of Europe in general, by addressing three priorities: access to rights; youth participation and youth work; and inclusive and peaceful societies.
When it comes to the actual topic of the training implemented, I sometimes have the feeling that it often reflects a weird combination of trainers’ hobbies, personal interests or concerns and institutional expectations – but it is a question of where the interests of young people come in.
The study sessions at the EYC potentially offer a bigger space for young people to initiate educational programmes according to their needs, as teams are made up of young junior facilitators delegated by youth networks, rather than of more experienced (freelance) trainers. However, they accordingly sometimes lack the capacity for setting up an environment where participants are prepared to make the best out of the experience by equipping them with a conscious “learning to learn” approach. Also, there is a phenomenon of focusing entire activities on single, specific and sometimes very complex topics while failing to leave free space to build the basics of intercultural learning and learning about and through human rights. In other words, full training dedicated to intercultural learning or human rights is as rare as a hen’s teeth nowadays, as well as ICL and HRE often not being integrated properly into programmes.
It also needs to be noted that the fact that there is a highly diverse offer, especially in the decentralised programme of Erasmus+, makes it possible for young people to choose what they really need. Also, the youth field in general is highly reactive and resilient and the first to address emerging needs, which is favourable in rapidly changing societies – something that is still a competitive advantage when compared to formal education. Also, the new EU Erasmus programme does consider the necessity of equipping young Europeans with skills needed to foster employability but also social cohesion – including forward-looking topics such as climate, clean energy, artificial intelligence as well as robotics, data and arts/design.
However, with all the quickly shifting needs and priorities, does this mean that the old ones are satisfied/fulfilled? The extraordinary attention paid to competencies related to entrepreneurship and employability also makes one ask the question: if we are copying the pace that the business sector, capitalism and the market dictates – this not only diverts attention from core values like human rights, inclusion and diversity but may also be in conflict with other emerging interests of youth movements, such as the topic of sustainability and the environment. Last but not least, one may also wonder whether addressing youth issues mostly from the perspective of social sciences is still adequate – or in order to prepare for the future outlined previously, we need to consider a broader scope, so that we understand human behaviour and the mechanisms of societies through other lenses such as neuroscience, AI and bio(techno)logy; and sometimes also think out-of-the-box and about how the business or media sector would address the same challenges.
Trainers, providers and users – why are we doing training, actually?
Previously the overarching institutional priorities behind the content of youth training were mentioned – nevertheless, one would also ask the question why all these activities are provided after all, and by whom. In giving an answer as to why, one may ask for an evidence-based needs analysis and organisational reflection – that is often missing. Not to mention that due to lengthy project cycles and fluctuation at youth NGOs, often young people who attend training are actually not the ones envisaged at the time of the needs assessment for a project application. It may therefore be tempting to accept the fact that educators and providers have to be flexible enough to handle that process when the actual course begins, with the young people/youth workers who attend.
Another point is the capacity of the youth sector to actually absorb the available EU funds for training. I do not intend to question the goodwill and, of course, investment in the youth sector in general is welcome. However, the structural background provided by youth work stakeholders to implement education and training is significantly different in European countries. There is a huge imbalance between countries with decades of culture of youth work as a profession, with amazing youth centres and other low-threshold spaces for youngsters, and ones where youth work is only delivered by youth NGOs that survive on a project-based approach day by day in a shrinking space for non-governmental civil society initiatives. In the article How do you learn to be a youth worker in Europe? the authors also point out that in many countries, NGOs or similar platforms carry the load of education and training of youth workers, often without adequate support. Is it fair to expect them to deliver the same quality, and is it meaningful to invest large amounts of money in training young people who are actually not able to use the skills they gain because of the limitations of this shrinking space? Wouldn’t it be equally relevant to first support the recognition of youth work in Europe and ensure structural support? Probably the Council of Europe Committee of Ministers’ Recommendation on youth work is more than relevant as a guiding document for decision makers when considering these questions, as it recognises the contribution of youth work to the development of European societies and calls for the establishment of a framework for education and training of youth workers as well as adequate support in general (Recommendation CM/Rec(2017)4 of the Committee of Ministers to member States on youth work).
Additionally, it is also necessary to discuss the question of reaching out to disadvantaged youth. Inclusion as a horizontal priority, a principle and as a topic is highly present in the youth field – therefore when describing the reasons for organising training, the intention of involving such young people is often quoted as a high priority. On the contrary, in practice one can probably risk stating that in this respect we still lag behind a lot. Of course, huge efforts and investment of financial and human resources by organisations and trainers make the implementation of much high-quality inclusive training. Also, the EYCs in Strasbourg and Budapest provide unique safe spaces and services such as sign-language interpretation and accessible rooms. Nevertheless, activities with mixed-ability groups are still rare, unless the work with disability is the core topic of the training and, similarly, one often only meets participants of a Roma or Sinti background or young refugees at educational programmes specifically focusing on the given target group. Not to mention all the young people who have no access to international training due to a lack of English language skills.
Despite all the critical thoughts above, I believe that active and dedicated trainers, educators (and even colleagues working directly at institutions) by cultivating a constant and lively connection with young people can also rely on their motivation and instincts to define the aims and objectives of youth activities. Also, by having direct access to the opinions of young people, youth organisations and their networks have a key role in informing institutions and training providers about relevant needs.
As conclusions, I would offer a set of tips for trainers and institutions – they may not give an ultimate answer to our original questions, also most probably, one could not justify a clear YES or NO – but there are surely promising developments as well as a lot of room for improvement and forward thinking. Hopefully, the article is inspiring enough in that sense and the points below can be used for self-reflection for all involved in non-formal education, so that the youth sector better defines aims, objectives and content, as well as addresses the right needs and promotes appropriate and efficient methodologies to the fullest possible extent.
In the youth field:
- A mapping of the content of training delivered in the youth field could facilitate a better understanding of how the needs and interests of young people are addressed – and learning from existing research findings, such as Mapping the educational and career paths of youth workers.
- Working with more solid youth networks may guarantee better that the foreseen target groups attend, thus meeting needs better and contributing to higher-quality training.
- Investing in training and education should go hand in hand with the development of the youth work field through adequate support.
- The contribution of young people in defining priorities has to be ensured through structures linking youth organisations and decision makers and institutions.
- Prepare for the future – consider a broader scope beyond the social sciences and discover changes to come in human behaviour and the mechanisms of societies through other lenses such as neuroscience, AI and bio(techno)logy.
- Clear the ground for an optimal training experience in non-formal education – consider social media and devices at training courses (their use and impact on behaviour and attention).
- Agree on rules with participants, and go back to the basics of how one can learn best in this setting (use of devices, learning to learn, self-directed learning and attention, respect).
- Think carefully and develop a conscious approach towards making use of trends in using digital technology in NFE – adapting to, or also challenging and shaping existing mindsets if needed.
- Adapt to new habits/technologies BUT insist on protecting the “soul” and human-friendly space and methodologies.
- Take your time and dedicate appropriate time to experiential learning and reflection while keeping the programme dynamic and methodologically diverse.
- Within a context of quickly shifting priorities make sure that basic priorities and values are considered and covered, including intercultural learning and learning about and through human rights.
A million thanks for the thoughts and contributions
of Laure de Witte, Jan Lai, Nerijus Kriaučiūnas,
Bogdan Imre and Bastian Küntzel,
as well as for the team currently involved in the ongoing
revision of T-Kit 6: Training Essentials –
namely Gisele Evrard-Markovic, Sabine Klocker,
Snezana Baclija-Knoch, Mark E. Taylor
and Stefan Manevski!
Bibliography and reading
Coyote #26 Smart Youth Work:
- Showing yourself(ie) by Maria Schreiber
- Digital developments in youth work training by Michele di Paola
- Glimpses of the European Training Strategy by Gisele Evrard-Markovic
- What is the role of youth (work) training in Europe today? by Miguel Ángel Garcia Lopez
- How do you learn to be a youth worker in Europe? Research findings to inform the work of trainers and educators by Tanya Basarab and Mara Georgescu
Csíkszentmihalyi, Mihaly (1990), Flow: the psychology of optimal experience, Harper Collins, New York.
Harari Y. N. (2018), 21 lessons for the 21st century, Jonathan Cape, London.
Harari Y. N. (2016), Homo deus: a brief history of tomorrow, Harvill Secker, London.
Pelevin V. O. (2015), S.N.U.F.F., Gollancz, London
Pelevin V. O. (2017), iPhuck 10, Moscow
O’Donovan J., Cairns D., Sousa M. and Valcheva V. (n.d.), Mapping the educational and career paths of youth workers, EU-Council of Europe Youth Partnership.
Proposal for a Regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council establishing 'Erasmus': the Union programme for education, training, youth and sport and repealing Regulation (EU) No. 1288/2013 – COM(2018) 367 final, European Commission.
Recommendation CM/Rec (2017)4 of the Committee of Ministers to member States on youth work, Council of Europe.