Sunday, June 18, 2017

Disruption in the Youth Development Non-Profit Sector

While this week’s readings seemed distant from my work in the youth development non-profit sector, there may still be some connection to my field as relates to trends in education. Education approaches tend to ebb and flow based on the “flavor of the week.” When I was a child, for example, reading was taught by phonics, which was a wildly popular approach at the time. Two decades later, the trend was to teach “sight words,” that is, have kids recognize the most commonly used words so that they can recognize them on sight. This is similar to another trend, the “whole word” approach. In my experience, different subjects and educational approaches become popular for a limited amount of time (5-10 years) before another subject or approach takes its place.

Currently, I operate a youth program that is capitalizing on two current education trends: STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) and Making (project-based learning where youth learn through making objects or products). My program is also involved in design thinking and human-centered design, which are also trends but not as well-known as the first two. Because of my program’s emphasis on these trends, especially STEM, we have been able to secure funding from foundations promoting these subjects and approaches. In particular, there is a lot of funding focused on STEM. Like many of the companies detailed in the excerpts from The Innovator’s Dilemma, we have built our success on deepening our understanding and innovation in the area in which we currently operate.

How will we survive the inevitable disruption to this work? Like all other educational trends, STEM and Making undoubtedly will fade away as trends (and consequently, the funding for these trends will dissipate as well). To survive, we must be prepared to identify and excel in the next trend, whatever it may be. If the trend is in an adjacent area, we may be able to adapt easily. However, it will be difficult or impossible for us to adapt to a trend in a radically different area (for example, I see little opportunity for us to capitalize on the supposedly up-and-coming push for HEPA - healthy eating and physical activity).

I have been keeping my ear out for upcoming trends and probing experts in my field on the shelf life of existing trends. While I cannot state with certainty which subjects and approaches the foundation community will be funding a decade from now, there is security in the fact that technology will remain critically important throughout the 21st century, and thus a STEM program like mine should always have some relevance.

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