New Research Synthesis: Thriving, Robust Equity, and Transformative Learning & Development: A More Powerful Conceptualization of the Contributors to Youth Success

The Readiness Projects Partners

Each and every young person has great potential to thrive. The potential for thriving is universal, but so too is the existence of adversity. Young people can overcome adversities, but the ease of doing so is not equally shared. Opportunity structures — in schools, communities, and society — make it easier for some youth to avoid or buffer the impacts of adversity than others.

COVID-19 and the renewed attention on racial injustice thrust the country into long-overdue debates about how (not whether) to dismantle systemic, institutional inequities that are literally taking the lives of Black Americans and other people of color. Systemic changes are needed in every system — not just law enforcement and education. Educational equity cannot be achieved without a focus on racial equity.

We make these points in a new foundational research paper developed by the Readiness Project partners. Together as authors (David Osher, Karen Pittman, Jill Young, Hal Smith, Deborah Moroney & Merita Irby, representing the American Institutes for Research, The Forum for Youth Investment, and the National Urban League) we leverage recent syntheses of the science of adolescence, the science of learning and development, and the impacts of institutionalized inequities to emphasize that children and adolescents can realize their potential and thrive.

Presenting Compelling and Nuanced Definitions

The terms “thriving,” “equity,” and “learning and development” are often used. Definitions vary, however, and the relationship between the terms, however, is not always clear.

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Definitions that are more complete, nuanced, and scientifically grounded can highlight the dynamic interrelationships among these concepts in ways that should inform policies and practices. Nuanced definitions, however, are only useful if they are used. This is why the Readiness Projects not only offer sharper labels and language to signal the more ambitious definitions but also suggest a formula for conveying the relationship between them.

We suggest a simple multiplication statement describing the relationships between independent and dependent variables.

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Recognizing “ecosystems,” the paper has the multiplier insert included with this formula to emphasize the fact that schools and a host of other organizations — including libraries, museums, employment training programs, community, faith and civic organizations — have been charged with or have taken on responsibility for creating structured experiences that support learning and development in different contexts with different content.

Broad and Deep Evidence for Thriving

The paper includes reviews and synthesis of more than 180 sources across disciplines and offer these key takeaways in short:

  • Thriving youth are the goal. Thriving is the dependent variable we want to define, research, and work to increase. Thriving reflects a sense of growth or success in any number of domains.
  • Thriving is influenced by internal characteristics and attributes and external conditions. Other things being equal, young people with access to more and better resources (opportunities/advantages) are more likely to thrive. At the same time, young people who are resilient are better equipped to overcome adversity and take advantage of scarce opportunities.
  • Characteristics and conditions interrelate — each influences the other through the common door of experiences.
  • These characteristics and conditions can be improved independently with intentional investments. Individual characteristics and external conditions naturally change over time. They can also be improved by design.
  • These intentional investments must be designed to fundamentally enhance the everyday relationships and experiences of youth.
  • Expanding access to equitable, transformative environments that focus on thriving (beyond a single outcome), optimize transformative learning (beyond knowledge transfer), enhance development (beyond early adolescence) and address multiple determinants of inequity is a targeted and effective way to accelerate individual and collective thriving.

A Conceptualization for Action

Grounded in practice and informed by science, we offer this paper to help practitioners, researchers, and policymakers in their efforts to improve the lives of young people.

We all play a role, as systems and individuals, in designing and supporting equitable learning environments so youth can thrive and learn. We hope these concepts and definitions will contribute to the ability to move forward in a strategic manner across all life domains and settings which are important to youth and their families.

The authors are available to share more, apply these concepts, speak with groups exploring these ideas, and work through the science findings and equity implications for systems and in settings that support youth.

The Briefs, A Needed Formula for Youth Success, includes:

  • Two-page summary of the paper
  • One-page synthesis of research findings
  • One-page summaries of the expanded definitions of thriving, robust equity, and transformative learning & development
  • One-page summary of all definitions and dimensions

The paper, Thriving, Robust Equity, and Transformative Learning & Development, includes sections on:

  • A Timely Formula for Linking the Concepts
  • What We Know About Thriving, Equity, and Learning and Development
  • Key Findings from the Science of Learning and Development (SoLD) Research Syntheses
  • A Deep Dive into Individual and Collective Thriving
  • Aligned Conceptualizations: Thriving, Robust Equity and Transformative Learning & Development
  • Conclusion: Beyond Business as Usual

Access the briefs and the paper here>