On Measuring the Magic


Over the years, I have worked with many teens helping them develop an “elevator speech” as part of their community action work. For those of you unfamiliar, an elevator speech is a short synopsis of something that is important to you, and something that you can share in the time it takes to ride an elevator- that is, it is … short. We train youth to be able to talk about what is important to them this way because it is often the case that we only have a few minutes to share with another; to make an impression that what we are saying is worth considering.

For all my years of teaching youth this preparedness technique, I had never, actually, well… given an elevator speech myself. Until two times recently.

The first was in Washington DC last summer where I was attending the Coalition for Juvenile Justice conference. There was another conference of medical doctors taking place in the same hotel, and I found myself getting on an elevator with a couple of doctors from Norway as we all headed up to our rooms. One of the doctors asked me what the juvenile justice conference was about and I immediately thought: “WOW! This is a real elevator speech about to happen!” But I was prepared, and as I spoke about alternatives to incarceration for young people, alternatives that research shows have the power to save young lives, ensure equity, save money, and enhance communities, the doctor was listening hard. When the elevator reached his floor, his fellow doctor stepped out, but the doctor I was visiting with waved him off, saying ” I want to hear more about this… I’ll be right back down” as the door closed and he rode up to my floor with me so I could finish my story.

The second elevator speech opportunity happened last fall, not in an elevator, but in a hallway at the Greenbrier in West Virginia during the NAE4-HA conference. I ran into Jennifer Sirangelo, President and CEO of National 4-H Council, outside a ballroom where she introduced me to her mother, a long-time educator, who was attending the conference as Jennifer’s guest. Her mother asked me directly: “so what is it that you do for 4-H?” And again, I immediately thought “elevator speech! Sans the elevator!”

I said simply that I work to figure out how 4-H works its magic with young people, and then I help others ensure that they are doing all they can to make that 4-H magic happen. With a warm smile and a twinkling eye, she nodded and said: “well good. You keep doing that and all will be fine.” I could not help but smile in return.


At the end of January I had the opportunity to travel to Kansas, just east of the big snow storm that landed on the western half of the state, to introduce the 4-H Thriving Model to the Kansas 4-H Team. It was a lovely morning general session, where I presented an overview of the model, followed by two more in-depth sessions in the afternoon. As I made my way though the morning presentation I became aware of something that I thought I could articulate better, and that is the understanding the difference between content outcomes and 4-H’s magic.

4-H Thriving Model fun with colleagues in Wichita Kansas

This awareness was raised again last week when I was visiting with a group of 4-H evaluators who are interested in helping support future research on the 4-H Thriving Model. As we shared our experiences with evaluation in 4-H, it became apparent that most of that experience is related to measuring content outcomes, and not on how 4-H works its magic.

At the heart of the 4-H program we work with youth and their interests to provide educational programs for them to learn content; Computer science, animal science, cooking, horticulture, civic engagement, leadership, you name it… we do it. The goal of the content area of 4-H programs is to build skill, mastery, and efficacy – all critically important to healthy youth development. Since we started evaluating 4-H programs in earnest in the early 2000s, our focus has been largely on measuring these learning outcomes.

While learning outcomes are important, measuring them alone does not help us understand how 4-H works its magic. For that we need to probe differently, into the process of what happens while youth are engaged learning the content of a particular program. This process is where youth development, as opposed to content learning, happens. It is the magic that happens when a young person joins 4-H to learn about bunnies as a 10 year old, and “graduates” from 4-H 8 years later having achieved key developmental outcomes, confident, responsible and ready to step into the next stage of life. If we do our job well, youth learn a lot of content in our programs, and in the process (note that word again) a whole lot of youth development is taking place too.

So the 4-H Thriving Model, at its heart, show us the process of youth development in 4-H – it describes how 4-H works its magic. The model also sets the stage for us to measure the magic in ways we have not been able to do so until now. Being able to measure the magic and the content outcomes that youth learn allows us to collectively tell the story of the impact of 4-H on young people. And this story should be one we all have ready in our elevator speeches! You never know when you might need it.

Thriving on,

Mary Arnold

On Advancing the 4-H Thriving Model

Welcome to October everyone, and the start of a brand new 4-H (and academic) year. The unusual cold of the last few days in Oregon has definitely set the stage for the coming autumn, and with it all the excitement of a new year of learning as we work together to help youth thrive!

To catch you all up a bit, I took the summer away from the blog in order to re-energize and refocus after what turned out to be an unexpected and rather unwelcome rough spring. When spring turned into summer I jumped into my nine month sabbatical that is intended to accomplish a singular goal of advancing the 4-H Thriving Model across the national 4-H System. It is such exciting work, and I am so excited to get underway with the next steps of this project.

But this summer was an opportunity to take a deep dive into the current literature in youth development, as well as look more closely at one of the preeminent developmental scholars, Erik Erikson, upon whose work a great deal of our modern youth development theory and practice is based. It took a while to get through the dense but very informative biography entitled Identity’s Architect: A Biography of Erik H. Erikson. I hope over the coming months to share the ways in which Erikson’s work influences our practice today.

I also completed a few manuscripts, including one on the first wave of research on the 4-H Thriving Model co-authored with lead analyst Dr. Ryan Gagnon, which will be published this month in the Journal of Human Sciences and Extension, entitled Illuminating the Process of Youth Development: The Mediating Effect of Thriving on Youth Development Program Outcomes. Another manuscript updating the 4-H Thriving Model and describing the next steps for advancing it is ready to send off for review. And another fun paper written with my colleague Jon Gandy was just published in the Journal of Extension describing a participatory evaluation project we did with some teens to get their take on the 4-H Thriving Model, entitled Youth Participatory Evaluation: Matching 4-H Youth Experience to Program Theory.

But by far, the bulk of my time was spent preparing to launch a task force chartered by the National 4-H Program Leaders Working Group (PLWG) to advance the 4-H Thriving Model across the national system. The interest in, and support of, the 4-H Thriving Model as the way we define positive youth development in 4-H has been wonderful, and at the same time full of challenges. Adopting the model with clarity and fidelity requires three things: (1) professional development for 4-H staff and volunteers; (2) further research on the model using a realistic evaluation approach: “What works for whom under what conditions;” and (3) organizational alignment across all entities of the 4-H program, focusing especially on helping the system understand that the 4-H Thriving Model is not a departure from other models we have used to describe 4-H.

The moment arrived last spring when it was clear I could no longer do this work alone. And the best news? I don’t have to because of the many talented and dedicated scholars and practitioners across the 4-H system who are willing to help guide the work.

Over the summer I put out a call for membership on this PLWG Advancing the 4-H Thriving Model task force and was delighted to receive applications from 55 people who want to participate. I am so excited to get underway with this work, and as we do, I will keep you informed on the blog.

So, welcome to this lovely season of fall. I hope you all get off to a successful start of the 4-H year. And to my colleagues here in Oregon, I look forward to working with all of you as we build forward from today together- with our singular goal of helping youth thrive.

Thriving on,

Mary Arnold