Off the back of Jo Dolby’s Balancing Act feature in this month’s magazine, we have a series of blogs on tension and paradox within youth ministry. This week, Rob Tumilty, Deputy Director of Oxford CYM and Senior Youth Worker with Oxford Youth Works, looks at Product and Process.
Should youth work have set outcomes and measurable targets to achieve? Or is it all about the process and the relationships we build with young people? How do we set vision and identify clear aims without becoming slaves to meeting those aims?
Jo’s thought-provoking article has set my mind thinking about some of the profound paradoxes we hold within our work and at the centre of our faith. There is undoubtedly an inherent tension between a focus on the process of working with young people and looking to meet pre-planned products as the main outcome of this work. Youth workers have differed over which appears to take precedence. However, while they both represent fundamental aspects of our work, perhaps they do not need to be in opposition. I have three thoughts about this apparent tension, the final one being inspired by an unlikely source.
Firstly, a tension may arise as a result of the language we use. How we understand the two concepts and choose to express them is likely to determine the extent to which we view product as the polar opposite of process. For instance, building relationships may be seen as both an end in itself and the process through which informal education occurs. It is also hard to discuss either without reference to curriculum and outcomes, which are themselves debated and contested concepts within youth work theory.
Youth workers tend to have a natural bias towards either product or process
John Stuart Mill argued that if we wonder whether we are happy and attempt to focus on attaining that happiness, then we actually prevent ourselves from ever being happy. It is only in doing things that make us happy and fixing our minds on those things, that we discover happiness along the way! A similar paradox lies at the very heart of the youth work process. It is paradoxical because by focusing on what we want to happen to a young person (e.g. developing greater confidence or deepening in faith) we may lose sight of the relationship, under-pinned by our youth work values, that enable her to discover and take the opportunities to develop in confidence or faith. Highlighting this philosophical paradox, Jon Ord asserts, ‘…for the process to be successful, it is often necessary to specifically not focus on the end point or the desired outcome to enable its achievement.’This always reminds me of the ‘God’ character telling Evan Baxter’s wife, in the film Evan Almighty, ‘If someone prays for patience, you think God gives them patience? Or does he give them the opportunity to be patient?’
Secondly, picking up on Jo’s ‘Pendulum swing’ idea, I think youth workers tend to have a natural bias towards either product or process. Last year I was at a meeting of statutory and voluntary groups involved in work with young people from a range of perspectives and approaches. I remember listening to one worker who said quite unequivocally, ‘Our work always goes wherever the money leads. That’s the reality of modern day youth work. A pot of money appears, we apply for it and then the work suddenly has a new shape, location and remit.’ Everything in me wants to react strongly to this statement but, for him, it really was simply about finding a product with clear outcomes and some lovely funding attached. Perhaps he would acknowledge there is also value in the process of working with a group of young people but this would always take backseat to viewing them as a means to an end on the way towards meeting a government or other agency’s target.
Jeffs and Smith have, perhaps unfairly, often been seen as sitting at the opposite end of this notional spectrum, with statements such as, ‘I cannot comprehend why youth work needs a curriculum any more than a house needs wings.’While this narrow understanding of curriculum as product broadens significantly in their later writing, it does highlight the flawed notion that to focus on process has to mean shunning any formulation of intended outcomes or product in our work with young people. Again, in my view, this is simply not the case. I wonder whether you have ever noticed a natural tendency toward either product or practice as your default position within your work? I am convinced that quality youth work includes planning for young people to meet specific targets (outcomes), while building in opportunities for their learning and development to occur and continuing to look out for and embrace the numerous unanticipated opportunities for learning along the way.
Thirdly, when I first trained as a youth minister back in the mid-1990’s, I learned that, ‘If you aim at nothing, you’re sure to hit it!’ This has stuck with me. A few years later, my first degree taught me that youth work is also fundamentally about learning through relationship and conversation, based on clearly defined values. Must these remain in tension or, with a nod to Jo’s reference to Hegel’s triangle in her article, can both be held together to create something new? In my own work, I have found a way of intentionally bringing process and product together through a course we are running with Sixth form students called ‘eXplore: Youth Work and Peer Leadership’. Through the pilot version of this course last year, I learnt a valuable lesson. I had become overly concerned about getting young people through the course, to gain a level 2 NOCN qualification, and in danger of missing the opportunities for us to learn together through the process. Unlikely as it may sound, it was the head of sixth form who reminded me that whether or not they ‘Passed’ the course, these young people were growing as people through the process and learning huge amounts through engaging in youth work themselves with the space to reflect on their experiences. For this school, while I was stressing about getting young people through the course work ‘product’, I was reminded that it was always far more about the quality of relationships being built and its impact on those individuals, the group, the school and the wider community – not to mention the youth workers!
So, a process model of youth work does not have to mean an absence of planning or curriculum. Neither does it imply an avoidance of focus on product or clear outcomes. Through the eXplore course we have been able to use the time together in the classroom as educators to provide the impetus to work alongside these young people in surprising ways we could never have foreseen as youth workers in the wider context. We have a vision for the work these young people will engage in and a set of learning outcomes to be met if they want to gain an accredited qualification, enabling them to become assistant youth support workers. However, the process, reflected in time spent alongside them, is not simply a means to this end product. It is a time of wondering, experimenting and often laughing together. Opportunities to learn are continually happening along the way and they in turn create new process and product in the midst of this wonderful paradox.
Rob Tumilty is Deputy Director of Oxford CYM and Senior Youth Worker with Oxford Youth Works
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