The case for including developmental data in citizen-led assessments
The citizen-led assessment model promoted by the PAL Network has proved effective at generating a wealth of data on children's literacy and numeracy in diverse settings. Should this approach now be used to capture wider information on young learners’ other developmental outcomes as well?
October 23, 2018 by Stephen Bayley, University of Cambridge
4 minutes read
Research on executive functions in Rwanda. Credit: Stephen Bayley
Research on executive functions in Rwanda
Credit: Stephen Bayley

Since 2005, members of the People’s Action for Learning (PAL) Network have used citizen-led, household-based assessments to measure children’s basic reading and numeracy competencies. 

Now spanning fourteen countries across three continents, more than 600,000 PAL volunteers have tested over 7.5 million learners in regionally- and nationally-representative surveys in Africa, Asia and Latin America. 

Member organizations, which include ASER in India and Pakistan and UWEZO in Kenya and Tanzania, use one-on-one, locally-adapted assessments to measure children’s foundational skills and categorize them into five groups according to whether they can read letters, words, sentences or short texts.

The results are then shared with stakeholders including government bodies and community groups to inform education policies and strategies for improving learning outcomes.

Reading and numeracy currently lie at the heart of global education policy – and with good reason.  They provide important and catalytic building blocks for continuous, lifelong learning, offer psychosocial benefits such as increased self-esteem, and comprise the key indicators for Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4.1.  To achieve the other SDGs, however, education systems will need to foster a wider range of abilities and competencies among their learners. 

Beyond literacy and numeracy – and back to basics

Transferable skills and competencies like problem solving, critical thinking and creativity will be necessary to address and overcome many of the major challenges of the 21st century such as poverty, climate change and food insecurity.

The processes for nurturing these skills are nevertheless hotly debated and complex. Across sub-Saharan Africa, governments have introduced competence-based curricula to diversify their children’s learning but evidence of their success remains inconclusive at best. 

Instead, psychologist Helen Abadzi (2016) and economist James Heckman (2011) suggest a need to focus on children’s early cognitive development as the basis for their longer-term skills acquisition.

Already, considerable data on child development highlight the importance of not just school readiness, but also executive functions for later educational outcomes (Best, Miller & Naglieri, 2011).

‘Executive functions’ refer to children’s ability to control their own behavior, such as waiting their turn or putting up their hand rather than shouting out the answer.  They also concern how children manage their actions towards the achievement of particular goals by keeping the task in mind, ignoring distractions and adapting to the needs of the specific situation or problem (Jacob & Parkinson, 2015).  

Various studies show that early executive functions are strongly associated with both academic performance for children and life outcomes for adults.  They play an important role in helping children learn how to read and master basic mathematical processes, and may be more strongly correlated with achievement than typical measures of intelligence (Blair & Razza, 2007). 

A longitudinal study in New Zealand also found that self-control between the ages of 3 and 11 predicted wealth, health and rates of criminal convictions 30 years later (Moffitt et al., 2011).

Wider and richer data on children’s executive functions may therefore offer valuable insight to help identify early gaps and improve learners’ literacy, numeracy and longer-term life outcomes.

A widening field

Recent years have seen exciting progress in this area, with a growing body of research on children’s executive functions in low-income contexts.  Psychological studies have gathered data and produced literature on learners in settings as diverse as Pakistan, Argentina, Ghana and Tanzania, although they tend to use relatively small sample sizes.

By contrast, the Measuring Early Learning Quality and Outcomes (MELQO) initiative led by UNESCO, the World Bank, the Brookings Institution and UNICEF has developed adaptable tools that can be used to assess young children’s executive functions and school readiness on a larger scale.  Established in 2014, MELQO recognizes the need to understand early competencies to achieve SDG 4.2 on quality pre-primary care and education, and had been field-tested in ten countries as at the end of 2016.

However, because MELQO assessments are typically conducted in schools, its uptake depends heavily on government interest, systems and resources to capture such data.  School-based sampling also leaves out children that are absent or not enrolled. For these reasons, citizen-led, household-based approaches to child assessment, such as those used in the PAL Network, could offer a solution for collecting more data on young learners’ executive functions.

A PAL model for early functions?

Measuring children’s early cognitive development in this way could involve one of two possible models. In each case, the data collection would draw on trained local volunteers, a key component of the PAL Network approach. In the first model, existing PAL members would use the MELQO instruments or similar open-source tools to expand the competencies measured through their current household-based assessments.  In the second, the PAL approach would be recreated by new bodies drawing on the experiences and learning of PAL members in conducting citizen-led assessments. 

Looking ahead, interest in data on children’s early cognitive development seems to be growing, not least given the SDG 4.2 indicators and their potential relevance for other goals. Whether and how such data are captured going forward will ultimately depend on feasibility, both in terms of securing funding and the practical logistics of carrying out such work. 

These would hinge on donor priorities, government appetite and grassroots commitment, but the MELQO activities to date show that people can and already are being trained to conduct executive function research in diverse low-income settings.  Between the MELQO tools and the PAL model, this endeavor would therefore not be starting from scratch. 

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there is a site which is still developed to help students in Kenya to learn. This site is called

In reply to by Abdillah

Many thanks Abdillah - I'll check it out!

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