New assessment of foundational ‘life skills’ for East Africa

School should not focus only on literacy and numeracy: it should rather be a place where children can be supported to explore, interact, learn to learn and negotiate obstacles in life.

May 31, 2023 by Khadija Shariff, Assessment of Life Skills and Values in Zanzibar, Tanzania, Esther Care, University of Melbourne, and John Mugo, Zizi Afrique Foundation in Kenya
4 minutes read
Credit: Assessment of Life Skills and Values in East Africa (ALiVE)
Credit: Assessment of Life Skills and Values in East Africa (ALiVE)

Youth unemployment in Africa at 12.7% is below the world average, but if one considers under-employment due to insecure jobs and those who completely withdraw from the labor market, you get almost double this rate. Literacy and numeracy are not the answer to this problem. Yes, these skills are needed, but are they enough? No.

Life situations and employment’ demand far more than this, and skill development for children and adolescents in East Africa cannot wait until the end of compulsory schooling.

The purpose of education has been debated over millennia, from agrarian societies to the industrial and information ages, varying by culture and by class. Today, most nations see education as a way to equip children with knowledge and skills to survive and thrive in an ever-changing world.

While basic education systems have focused on cognitive skills, there are recent shifts toward broadening educational goals. This shift has placed Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda among the well over 100 countries worldwide introducing ‘breadth of skills’ to their education policies and curricula in the form of life skills or 21st century skills and values.

However, information on how young people in East Africa develop these skills as well as how education systems can integrate them coherently into teaching and learning is lacking.

Skills can range from competencies such as problem-solving through to more recently popularized concepts such as resilience. How do systems move from aspiration to implementation? And at what point do teachers start in the classroom with each skill?

Examples of evaluation criteria from the Alive Kenya 2022 assessment report.
Examples of evaluation criteria from the Alive Kenya 2022 assessment report.

Why do we always talk about assessment?

Assessment can tell us what that critical point is – where to start teaching. There is a recent proliferation of assessments for literacy and numeracy, due in part to Sustainable Development Goal 4.1.

This is highly appreciated, but why are there not similar assessments of the broader knowledge and competencies associated with education for sustainable development (SDG 4.7) and the skills shifts we see in curricula worldwide?

Increasingly, there are initiatives that gather information about children’s functioning skills beyond literacy and numeracy. One such is UNICEF’s measurement of Life Skills and Citizenship Education.

Another is the Assessment of Life Skills and Values in East Africa (ALiVE), drawing from the collaboration of 70 organizations in the Regional Education Learning Initiative (RELI) network.

These initiatives highlight the importance of a broader set of skills and provide information to education systems that can guide the response to the question of where to start.

Students being assessed at home.
Students being assessed at home.
Assessment of Life Skills and Values in East Africa (ALiVE)

First large-scale, household-based assessment of life skills

ALiVE has taken on the imperative of ensuring children are better equipped to live constructive and adaptive lives - beyond reading, writing and arithmetic. Having developed tools to measure life skills and values, ALiVE has recently assessed 45,442 adolescents across Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda.

ALiVE is the first of its kind to capture life skills and values of children at large scale through household-based assessment, both those in and out of school.

In the absence of national performance standards for life skills across East Africa, ALiVE has produced evidence of how children solve problems, collaborate, develop self-awareness and respect for each other. Importantly, the findings provide guidelines for realistic starting points for teaching in the classroom.

ALiVE has yielded many important lessons from its contextualization studies in November 2020 to tool development and large-scale assessments, through to its results dissemination events in 2022-2023. Two lessons are key to understanding these life skills: 1) contextualization is essential, and 2) direct reporting makes evidence accessible.

From 2023 onward, these lessons continue to guide ALiVE as the initiative engages with measuring the life skills of 6- to 17-year-old children.

Contextualization is essential

Contextualization refers to many things: local understandings of skills, use of local scenarios to assess skills and assessing in the context in which the skills can be demonstrated.

ALiVE, by being locally led and implemented, reflects regional understanding of life skills and values as they are seen in East Africa, rather than global or Western understandings.

Direct reporting is important

The timely communication of assessment results is a core tenet of ALiVE. Communicating results in clear behavioral language is important as East African communities increase their understanding of these skills.

Each educational jurisdiction in ALiVE now has access to detailed reports on how their 13- to 17-year-old children currently solve problems and collaborate, on their self-awareness and how respect guides behavior.

Working out how these competencies can be nurtured in formal education and vocational training is the new focus. And Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda now have access to the data that can make the difference.


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The current prevailing problem has been offering life skills education in higher education

In the words of Dr Myles Munroe, he defined curriculum as a system of information transfer, built on certain philosophies about life, that is designed to produce a product just like the philosophy intended. He went further to suggest that the curriculum that was introduced by the colonial masters did not impart life skills especially on self worth, self esteem and self concept. In that case the outcome of that curriculum produced persons who had not emancipated from that mental slavery.

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