On Being A Flashlight on a Dark Night

I am sure  by now that you might think I have disappeared from the blogosphere, and to a certain extent you would not be wrong. I have been underground for a few months, navigating the dizzying amount of teaching and travel that seems to show up on my calendar every spring. As I near the end of this schedule I am finding time to come up for air and reflect on all that I have learned over the past few months. One advantage of a packed travel schedule is a lot of time on airplanes and in hotel rooms to catch up on reading, followed by the resultant thinking and sorting through that all that reading entails. I am left feeling much more informed about our field of youth development and how it applies to helping youth thrive, and also a wee bit overwhelmed trying to decide how best to share all this wonderful information!


Long, long, ago, in a university not so far away; long before I joined the faculty at Oregon State University as a youth development specialist, I directed a graduate program in interdisciplinary studies. The students in this program were largely well into adulthood, returning to school to study things that had become deeply meaningful to them as continued on the life course. Because of the interdisciplinary nature of the program they studied all sorts of things: art history, art and culture, world religions and spirituality, philosophy, ethics, and organizational communication. It was an interesting time for me as I was quite young to be directing such a program, and often times much younger than the students I was supposed to be “teaching” (ah… youthful hubris, no?).

One of the honors I had a program director was working with the students on their graduate thesis, and teaching the required research course series that led up to the thesis writing. Over and over again students would present ambitious research plans, plans in which they set out to answer every question burning in their hearts and minds. Such complicated questions! Questions that would require a zillion different approaches to answer. When I tried to guide these students to narrowing down their question I was often met with disappointment, if not downright resistance. The disappointment stemmed from the student feeling that limiting the scope of their research would end in an answer that was very dissatisfying. “That’s not the whole story!” they would protest. They were correct, of course, and yet I stood firm because I knew that it was necessary to clearly define and delimit their research, because in reality, they could only answer one question at a time, no matter how many were burning in them.

These reactions led me to describe the process of social science inquiry as such: It is as if all that we need to know about a subject (oh I don’t know, how about how to help youth thrive, for example) is available, but the setting is a very dark night, out in the country. And we, as social science researchers have but one flashlight to figure out the landscape. My one flashlight beam is one research question, and it helps me see part of the landscape. As I ask more questions, all one at a time with a separate sweep of my flashlight, I understand more and more about what I am trying to see. And when other scholars join in, each bringing their own point of light, we begin to get a fuller picture of what we are dealing with.

Illuminating the landscape of how the 4-H program helps youth thrive is just like this, we are understanding more a little bit at a time. The 4-H Thriving Model has emerged as a more complete picture of how 4-H works its magic on youth, thanks to the many, many (many!) scholars who have contributed their flashlight beams of understanding through research.


The 4-H Thriving Model is built on many strands of important developmental research; strands that are interwoven together to create a whole picture of the process of youth development. But, indeed, it is complex! And there is a great deal to understand, ponder, put into practice, and yes… still to learn!

So stay tuned for a more active Helping Youth Thrive Blog as we step from spring into summer. My plan is to organize the posts in the following way:

Monday Musings- let’s talk about deeper connections between our youth development practice and life

Practitioner Tip Tuesdays – let’s learn from each other how to help youth thrive! (you are cordially invited! to contribute)

Research Wednesdays – a summary of recent research about youth thriving and its implication for practice

Thriving Thursdays – activities for helping youth thrive that you can use

Thought Leader Fridays – let’s hear from those scholars who contribute to our understanding of how to help youth thrive


Thriving On,

Mary Arnold


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