Structured youth programs: A review of the research

By Bronwyn Bevan - June 2013


Vadeboncoeur, J. A. (2006). Engaging young people: Learning in informal contexts. Review of Research in Education, 30, 239–278.

This 2006 paper reviews the ways in which structured informal learning programs for youth have been characterized in the research literature. The author summarizes findings from 141 peer-reviewed or foundation-funded papers. A brief historical review shows that characterizations of structured youth programs have fluctuated in response to social, cultural, and historical conditions. For example, the balance between youth development and education has shifted from time to time based largely on political conditions. Vadeboncoeur cites seminal research (e.g., Greenfield & Lave, 1982; Maarschalk, 1988; Resnick, 1987) to describe how informal has consistently been defined in contrast to formal. Generally, informal education has been defined by location—namely “not school”—and not by other central features such as content, relationships, pedagogy, curriculum, or assessments.

The author reviews the theoretical orientations of previous studies of structured informal learning programs and summarizes the literature’s call for more theory-based approaches to research and evaluation. Vygotskian [see Glossary] perspectives have largely dominated research on the structures and processes of informal education, while cognitive approaches have dominated the literature on learning outcomes. The paper briefly summarizes the critiques of well-known outcomes studies, such as Mathematica’s 2004 study of the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program. These studies have been described as suffering from methodological challenges, lack of strong conceptual frameworks, and timing pressures triggered by funding agencies.

To provide examples of promising programs and research approaches, the author discusses three categories of programs, each representing a different “participation framework”: 

• Performing arts programs 

• Literacy, science, and technology programs 

• Museum or science center programs

In performing arts programs, young people participate as both creators of and critical responders to performances in, for example, theater or dance. They develop their verbal, social, and metacognitive skills as they develop a critical stance. Highlighted programs and research come largely from the work of Heath, McLaughlin, and colleagues.

In literacy, science, and technology programs, young people often participate in social-group and apprenticeship modes, working with other students as they develop mastery of the program’s conceptual domains. Highlighted programs and research include TASC, Fifth Dimension, and City Farmers, among others.

In discussing the third category, museum and science center programs, the article, oddly, does not focus on museum-based youth programs but rather on museum experiences generally, including research that documents conversation, explanation, and interaction at exhibits.

The paper closes by discussing a participation framework that can be applied to design and study of informal learning programs for youth. This framework focuses on social and discursive practices—how people interact and represent ideas—and the relationships among them, attending to location, relationships, content, pedagogy, and assessment. The author argues that such a framework will not only aid in the understanding of a given program but will also help researchers make connections among learning opportunities.

Theoretical Basis 

The author takes an explicitly sociocultural [see Glossary] perspective on learning, focusing on the ways in which people participate in social situations or activities. This perspective undergirds her proposal to examine informal learning in terms of the forms of participation available to learners, arguing that how people engage in activity relates directly to what they learn. The author says that it does not make sense to look at outcomes without understanding how participation has been structured to facilitate particular kinds of learning.

Implications for Practice 

The paper provides concrete examples of structured youth programs and posits a framework that can be used to design and research such programs. The article is useful information for those interested in conceptualizing and studying youth learning in informal settings. Its review of the research (as of 2006) on structured youth programs provides important background for study groups or literature reviews.