by Musiimenta Modern Karema.

It is 4.30am, in the new upcoming suburb of Najeera. The school van driver is menacingly hooting at the gate of Mr. & Mrs. Ssenfuma, interrupting the peace and quiet of the neighborhood. The neighbors are cursing as they enjoy the last bend of their good night sleep-‘why don’t they prepare their kid early and the van finds him ready at the gate, instead of disturbing the peace and quiet of our neighborhood?’. Meanwhile, Kyle Ssenfuma, 4years old, a pupil in Kindergaten 1(aka baby class) has got used to being woken at 4.00am to prepare to be picked by the school van, and as the van driver hoots at the gate- at 4.30am, he is finishing up on his breakfast (a cup of white porridge and a chapatti) -, to pick his school bag and make a dash for the gate, otherwise the van will leave him!!

The van then picks Kyle, and makes a dash for the next pick-up, Viviane-3years old, and then another one, and then another one. It picks every kid in Najeera, Ntinda, Kigowa and Kulambiro (it is coded as ‘route A’ by the school), and arrives at the school gate at 7.00am. By the time the van reaches the school gate, Kyle Ssenfuma, Viviane and half their friends in the van who were the first kids to be picked by the van are asleep-in the van. They were woken up by their parents between 3.30am to 5.30am to prepare to be picked by the van, and endured the 2 hour drive around the 4 villages of Kiira Municipality, in a school van, whose shock absorbers were last repaired in the last holidays. The first order of business of the driver and the accompanying teacher is to wake the sleeping kids up and drag them into the school compound for games and sports!! What a way to start your day!!

It is very interesting how the socio-economic changes in society and the liberalization of the education sector in Uganda are affecting the present and future of our children. Why should a 4year old (some are as young as 2.5years old) be made to go through this horrendous lifestyle at such a tender age? Why are infants waking up at 3.30am? Are they working on their PhD theses? Why would a kid that age be made to bathe at 3.30am just because they have to fit in the modern life expectations? (the last time I checked, I used to wake up at 6am to go to our primary school in my village, and bathing at 6.30am was a challenge even when the water was warm). Why would a 4year old kid be leaving home at 4am or 5am going to school? Are they going for a high level cabinet meeting, or they have been summoned to go for an emergency National Security meeting? What are these kids going to do at 5am-has the primary curriculum been enhanced so that school hours start early and students get their bachelor’s degrees in P.7? And the 2-3hours of rotating around a whole division, is it our version of promoting domestic tourism?

The other challenge is the workload that these kids have. They spend the whole day studying and come back home with homework-on the very things they studied!! Why? Why should a kid in Kindergarten be given homework? What are you assessing? Why are you assessing knowledge acquisition by a 4year old, when you should be dealing with how they are relating with their peers, their participation in sports and games, their appreciation of colour, their ability to take themselves (or ask to be taken to the toilet) when nature calls, and other basic and social needs of a human being at that age? In effect, a kid wakes and starts their active day up at 3.30am to 5.30am, and will officially go back to sleep at 8pm to 9pm after completing their homework with mummy, all in the name of education (of course they have a siesta at school in between the lessons) !! 16 hours of active life for a 4year old. Are we training robots? And why give kids homework, only for it to end up being done by the parents? Are you assessing the parents as well? What happens for parents who are illiterate or semi-illiterate but have made their way from their deep villages to Najeera and want their kids to study in the high end schools, but have no idea what their kids are studying? Do you envision the inconvenience the parents are going through having to lie to their kids on ‘the correct answer’, only for the teacher to mark it wrong and the parent and kid meet each other in a rather unfriendly mood in the evening for a session that usually sounds like this: ‘Daddy why did you lie to me? Teacher marked my answer wrong’.

The other challenge is the load they are carrying on their infant backs. The kid is doing 8 subjects in baby class (I don’t understand why. I did 4 subjects in P7 when I was triple their age!!). For each of the 8 subjects, they have an exercise book, and a work book for homework. That makes it 16 books in their back bags. Given their very active age, they keep running across the compound, carrying this load on their very young and fragile spines. And then we wonder why we are having an increase in the number of spine injuries within young adults. 

At the end of the term, a whole week is dedicated to exams. Exams for 4 year olds!! What are you examining-whether a 4 year old understood or can memorise the concepts you taught them? At 4 years of age? Has someone thought through the impact of ranking a 4year old as the last performing pupil in class? Have we thought through the impact this will have on their confidence levels throughout their academic life and even life outside the classroom? This exam issue comes complete with the invention of ECD examination bureaus that have sprouted in almost every division of Kampala. This means that kids will be examined by someone who never taught them. What are they examining? If a kid came to your classroom unable to play with their peers, why not assess them at the end of the term on their ability to interact with the peers in and outside the class? If a kid didn’t know how to use the toilet, why not rank them at the end of the term on their ability in the same? If a kid started your class with speech difficulties, why not rank them on their ability to speak at the end of the 3 months of the term in your classroom? Why ask an examination bureau to set general exams for toddlers, as if they came into your classroom with general skill sets or general skill gaps? As if all this isn’t enough, a kid ‘fails’ a subject, and a teacher asks for extra funds from the parent for remedial lessons ‘so that the kid can cope with the rest of the class’!! How can a 4 year old be ranked a failure?

As we analyse the school drop-out rates in the education system, we need to start differentiating kids that dropped out of school, and those that literally ran away from school system. There was a time when drop out rates were explained by lack of school fees by parents, disability, early marriages, socio-cultural practices that curtail kids-especially girls; from continuing with their education pursuits. However, we are now faced with a new face of drop outs-kids of middle income families, who inspite of their family’s financial muscle just give up on education, and literally refuse to continue with school-kids who are going into education exile. My submission is that this can partly be explained by the system we raise up these kids. We overwork these kids right from day 1 of their school life, and so by the time they complete lower secondary-they are exhausted. Their bodies give way. The few that get into Makerere University and other Universities believe their long awaited ‘heaven’ has arrived, and so they are unable to complete University because they are catching up on 16 years of hard labour. We, as education practitioners, policy makers and parents need to sit down on a round table and think through where each one of us is going wrong. There are best practices in Early Childhood Education and other levels of education that we can learn from. We have nations that have made great strides in improving the quality of education to make it appropriate for specific age groups. We may need to learn best practices from these nations and hence be able to improve on our own. Otherwise we risk creating a nation of robots, and its attendant negative consequences. These consequences will be for all of us to suffer as a nation, and so we had rather all participate is fixing the problem, before it becomes an emergency. Let’s allow kids to be kids, their time to be grown-ups will certainly come.

Modern Karema is the Head of Program Implementation at Educate!

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By John Mugo, Khadija Shariff, Agatha Kimani, Teddy Mutoni and Lucy Maina   The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn”. This is what the futurist, Alvin Toffler predicted more than a decade ago. And here in East Africa, this prediction is coming true. Even though Africa’s children trail the rest of the world in literacy and numeracy, and millions are still not learning, the ball game is shifting. Technology development and the mass movement of people is rapidly disrupting the traditional learning landscapes. As Civil Society in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, we have settled down to learn about learning under the Regional Learning Initiative (RELI). But RELI is not just about us learning. It is about how we are accelerating the bridging of learning gaps in our children’s learning. Much is known about the number of children going to school, and fairly much also about their learning outcomes especially in lower levels. There is compelling evidence on the crisis of learning in East Africa. What seems even more urgent is paying attention to what Sam Jones referred to as the pockets of failure, referring deeply to the disturbing inequity in the distribution of learning outcomes. The RELI convening in July 2019 uses a social justice lens to focus on the equity and inclusion of learning. It is the very pockets of failure that validate the notion of social justice, in that the pockets are created and reinforced by the system. Children from poorer backgrounds, from less educated parents, from further off-the-tarmac road do not mostly enjoy the same quality of education as their counterparts, and this casts them into the pockets of failure. As RELI however, we are looking further than this in exploring this notion. While much focus of our education systems has been on the foundational literacy and numeracy, and STEM, much more is needed. The Values and Life Skills Thematic Group has been looking beyond the learning outcomes to ‘what the children learn’. The Thematic Group established that values and life skills legitimately constitute foundational competences that our education systems must produce. While these skills have always been important to human existence and survival, and we even consider it improper to call them 21st Century. Glenda Kruss has the answer - that ‘the tacit skills, knowledge, and attitudes formerly developed through work experience are now expected to be an integral part of higher education programs and curricula, to provide the ‘soft’, ‘transverse’, ‘life’, or ‘high’ skills—as they are variously termed by different sectors’. This pressure has rippled back to necessitate that school curricula focus tacitly on these competences, and that college graduates demonstrate them to even access jobs. On this, we have been working on three learning questions: What do we call these competences, and which competences are the most critical for our context? Which methods and approaches are working in developing and nurturing these competences? Which assessments are best suited for our East African context? First, after several iterations of the conversation around concepts – soft skills, 21st century skills, transversal skills and other terms used – we came to the conclusion that ‘it is better to call them what we understand, so that the issue doesn’t become the concept, but the competences’. For this reason, we agreed on the concept of ‘Values and Life Skills’. A second activity involved systematic mapping of the competences we found most important, and those that our interventions focused on. The analysis concludes that three of them were considered the most important for the three country contexts-problem-solving, collaboration and communication. Three coincidences are worth highlighting. The just-concluded life skills scoping study in East Africa by Echidna Giving highlighted problem-solving, collaboration and communication as priority key competences. Similarly, the three African countries participating in the Optimizing Assessments for All project prioritized problem-solving and collaboration as the starting point for creating classroom assessments. Lastly, the Applied Education Systems has condensed 21st Century skills into 4 Cs; Critical thinking, Creativity, Collaboration and Communication. They have defined critical thinking as the practice of solving problems, collaboration as the practice of working together to achieve a common goal and communication as the practice of conveying ideas quickly and clearly. This alignment was purely coincidental, but turns out to be useful validation for our work. Problems are part of our everyday life. What makes a difference between one person and another is the way we understand the problem, the attention we give to identifying the possible solutions, and the action we take or the solutions we implement. Problem solving is however not about the simple problems, it is about the complex and difficult ones, where higher-order thinking is needed to arrive at workable and efficient solutions.Arguably, communication has never been as necessary and as complicated as it is today. Over the last decade in East Africa, internet and communication technologies have revolutionized access to information. The centrality of information and the higher demand for self-learning, unlearning and relearning demand that children are able to not just access information, but more importantly sort information, adapt and apply it immediately to what they are facing and where they are. The greater competition in our modern society, and the rapid flow of information and ideas has validated the Zulu proverb: 'If you want to walk fast, walk alone. If you want to walk far, walk with others'. Collaboration (also mostly expressed as teamwork in our context) emerges as a critical competence. Indeed, collaboration is poised as one of those competences likely to transcend automation and application of robots. As a RELI working group, we are thinking that deeper understanding of values and life skills is necessary as part of the course of action. To achieve such depth, starting with a few competences makes sense, rather than be overwhelmed by the hundreds of skills. Certainly, the prioritization exercise will also consider those skills that curricula have identified, to achieve greater alignment with our education systems. Once consensus has been reached, ourlearning journey will move into the next two questions – methods and assessments. While many of these are already in use, a more systematic process is necessary to consider what works and what doesn’t. We will look at the evidence, learn from the deviants, and just try things out. Luckily, we are many of us, and this makes all the difference. Collaboration.  

 By Leah Anyanywu The Learner-Centred Teaching Thematic cluster in RELI Kenya, an initiative sponsored by Wellspring Philanthropic Fund, convened to discuss school-based coaching and its role on improving student learning outcomes. Representatives from Dignitas, PAL Network, Women Educational Researchers of Kenya (WERK), Zizi Afrique, Africa Education Trust (AET), Dupoto-e-Maa and Lwala Community Alliance (via skype) attended the session. The workshop explored instructional coaching, challenges to implementing it with fidelity, and ended with a roundtable discussion. Contributing to the discussion featuring Rebecca Crook, co-found of Metis, Patrick Ndungu, a curriculum support officer from the Teachers’ Service Commission, and Martin Odhiambo, an instructional coach from RTI / Women Educational Researchers of Kenya (WERK) through the Tusome Early Grade Reading Program in Nairobi. Instructional coaching is the intentional and ongoing practice intended to support learning and develop new skills and capacities between two individuals. Coaching can also be between a coach and a group of coachees (group coaching). Coaching has been proven to improve teacher performance and acts as a bridge between theory and practice. Instructional coaching has been widely researched in the United States, but data on coaching in the African context is still being developed. Ben Piper reports that, “Research on in-school teacher pedagogical support is rare in Kenya and other developing countries. The limited evidence from available studies that we examined suggested that even short-term instructional coaching could lead to teacher behavior change.” Coaching may be particularly effective in developing countries because of the limited formal education and in-service professional development opportunities available to the average teacher. What are the barriers to implementation? Implementing instructional coaching at scale is a challenge. Several organizations present had various coaching aspects in their programming and unanimously agreed that coaching is labor intensive. Furthermore, coaches face resistance from teachers. Teachers can be unwilling to receive or implement feedback and some fear that coaching is a form of surveillance. Many institutions do not understand what coaching entails. This lack of clarity and trust can yield speculation and resistance. Furthermore, when coaching is linked to performance management, the results can be harmful to teacher performance and to the coaching relationship. Programs implementing coaching also noted that time allocation threatens quality implementation. Schools and organizations alike are trying to maximize time and coaching is only successful when the meeting time is prioritized and kept sacred. Which factors affect coaching effectiveness? Humans are dynamic. As a result, coaching teachers requires consistency and norming to achieve comparable impact across schools. One factor affecting coaching is the ratio of teachers to each instructional coach. Coaching conversations take time and the coach has to be able to routinely support all teachers for there to be consistent growth. When a coach is expected to support a heavy load of teachers, their support can deteriorate. Moreover, coaching varies in approach. To address the time challenge, some organizations leverage group coaching to support more teachers. However, group coaching lacks the depth of individual coaching. Additionally, coaching varies in the content delivered. Coaches can support specific subjects or general best pedagogical practices. Subject specific coaches are able to offer technical support to teachers while general coaches check for the use of best pedagogical practices (e.g., student engagement, lesson planning). Finally, not all coaches can effectively build relationships across the teachers they support. Differences in culture, age, and background all affect coaching. Combined, the above factors influence the effectiveness of coaching at the program level. How can we measure the impact of instructional coaching? While data on instructional coaching is limited, each organization approached measuring impact differently. To accurately measure the impact of instructional coaching, there needs to be a clear baseline on particular performance areas. In example, were teachers lesson planning? Were learners engaged? Collecting robust baseline data will allow organizations to measure the impact of instructional coaching. Coaches need to collect anecdotal qualitative evidence from the field. This could include success stories from the teacher or observations in change of teacher practice. By collecting and disseminating stories from the field, organizations can tell a cohesive story of impact. Since teacher performance directly impacts student performance, measuring student performance is another indicator to potentially measure the effects of coaching. Lastly, teacher and coach self-reflection is another opportunity to measure the impact of coaching. When teachers are constantly prompted to self-reflected, they can identify areas of growth and describe the impact of the provided coaching support.  So what needs to happen to implement coaching at scale? After the panel discussion, the participants brainstormed the next steps required in order to improve instructional coaching and to support its implementation. One potential next step is creating a centralized curriculum for all instructional coaches. It is important to think about the support structures provided to coaches and to norm on a shared definition for coaching and mentoring. Various non-state actors should share their approach to coaching to help other institutions improve coaching implementation. Since coaching is relatively new to this context, sharing materials will prevent organizations from reinventing the same thing. As the implementation of instructional coaching increases, coaches need access to additional training, professional development, and support. Moreover, there needs to be a common tool that organizations who implement coaching can use. This tool can collect the common indicators and include probing questions that coaches can ask. Based on the conversation about leveraging technology, one participant recommended leveraging technology to ease implementation. The use of tablets or smart phones will allow coaches to collect qualitative and quantitative data from the field. Coaches can then share this data and feedback with the organization and with the teacher. This tool could also include additional tools that the coach could use to support the coaching conversation in the field. In example, there could be a document with potential probing questions or strategies to try. The tool could also access a shared data base of best practices that could be shared with the teacher. Technology can help to strengthen the systems used to measure coaching while providing access to additional resources to support coaching. Finally, accountability must be shared between the coach, the teacher, and the broader school community. Challenges should be addressed collectively and teachers should feel ownership over their growth and development. Organizations can reflect on additional next steps required to set coaches up for success. Moreover, school leaders must be on board and briefed by the coach before coaching begins. Mapping different coaching models and best practices will help organizations learn from each other. Organizations can cultivate strong teachers in each school as potential peer coaches. In the case of RTI, the initial coaching session aims to groom an institutional coach promoting a cascaded coaching model. In all, with thorough planning and implementation, instructional coaching can add value to educational organizations and has the potential to greatly impact student learning outcomes.  

Nurturing life skills: the three dilemmas! In East Africa where I live, around 45% of the 150 million people are below 15 years. A further 28% are youths between 15 and 24 years old. This demographic trend has got governments thinking of the future for their countries! Analysts have opined that, having a youthful population could be both an advantage or disadvantage depending on how governments prepare youths for the modern-day challenges. So, governments are continuously exploring ways to harness the power of a youthful population for economic development, global competitiveness and decent jobs. Educators, business leaders, academics, and governmental agencies across the world have identified a set of skills, abilities, and learning dispositions that would help individuals to learn, live and thrive in the 21st-century society and workplace – life skills! There has been growing public and policy discourse about mainstreaming life skills in education in the East African region. But, these conversations have remained haphazard, scattered and sometimes closed to many. However, there is a new platform for this conversation in RELI- The Regional Education Learning Initiative. This initiative brings together organizations working on education across the region to learn, collaborate and influence policy among other things. So, in April, the RELI Tanzania Life skills cluster member organizations met in Tanzania's capital Dar es Salaam for a skillshop. We were joined by RELI country leads, alumni of some of the life skills interventions, a government representative from the Office of The Prime Minister and a host of experts. We wanted to push the boundaries of our influence on government policy discussions by showcasing our work to a policymaker. Besides, appraise ourselves on progress in developing life skills policy in Tanzania. The sessions were so interesting and thought-provoking. They comprised of presentations, case studies, expert and policy presentations. Every session was worth the while! Each came loaded with so much learning yet so much to reflect upon. The three dilemmas! Several barriers and challenges in the development of life skills were identified during the skillshop. These include; Uncoordinated and fragmented efforts among different actors. Poorly monitored and evaluated impacts. Also, competing interests and constraints leading to limited support from school administration. Limited availability of trained staff. Low interest by teachers even when the Life Skills are in the curriculum. There is also a problem of reliance on rote learning. Of course, the challenges posed by limited resource materials remain. Additionally, several dilemmas emerged from the skillshop. The following three are particularly worth pondering in the days ahead! Missing: A standard definition and framing of life skills!All the organizations present had a general consensus on the importance of and the concept of life skills in the current world. But we have a problem! We all had varied definitions and framing of the term life skills. Life skills, soft skills, socio-emotional skills, interpersonal skills, and 21st-century skills were all names used by different organizations. At least the Swahili translation ‘stadi za maisha' was undisputed. Even when the individual life skills were similar, there were variations in categorization. For example, there are those who categorize life skills into three groups; self-efficacy, relationship and cognitive skills. Yet, others put them into 4 groups; ways of thinking, ways of working, tools for working and ways of living in the world. Lastly, we had those who categorized them into; Learning to know, learning to do, learning to be and learning to live together. Mixed: Life skills focus and prioritiesThere is variation in focus and the number of life skills across different organizations. The number of life skills organizations worked on ranged between 5 and 16. But, problem-solving, communication, critical thinking, innovation and creativity, decision making and self-esteem emerged as the most common across board. This begs the question. How many skills can be nurtured at a time? Do we need to come up with an essential package of life skills? Do we need some ordering or prioritization? Are there skills that are more relevant to the different stages in education and contexts? Are there life skills that are more foundational to the acquisition of the others? Methods: The 3 pathways in nurturing life skills Then there is the issue of approaches and methods used in nurturing life skills. The presentation from experts and government were as intriguing as they were interesting. We realized that among the member organizations, there was little evidence on what methods and approaches work and those that don't. In the end, though, three methods/approaches emerged during a presentation by Richard Mabala, a life skills advocate who helped us come up with 3 broad approaches. Integration, infusion and stand alone. After reflection, it emerged that almost all members used more than one approach. But, just how different are these approaches? Integration is where life skills are weaved into all the subjects in the curriculum. This is usually the most preferred by curriculum developers as it lends itself more to a whole school approach. It also doesn't appear to work at cross-purpose with the curriculum or give teachers an extra burden. The main disadvantage, however, is that it often becomes difficult to measure the outcomes and results. This approach is also unfavorable with special groups such as out-of-school children and those in crisis situations. Then we have infusion, where life skills get integrated into a few identified (carrier) subjects. This method is sometimes preferred as it may theoretically cause more exposure, with the least disturbance to the curriculum. Also, it needs a few supplementary materials and a Ministry circular to start and most of the cognitive Life skills can be integrated. It is however considered kind of ‘a teaspoon’ approach that has not been known to yield great results. Last but not least, we have the standalone approach – where life skills become distinct subjects in their own right on the curriculum. This approach creates more congruence between content and teaching methods. It is more likely to win the attention of students and teachers than when presented as an add-on to another course lesson. Also, teachers can incorporate skills and materials from other subjects, creating better support and involvement from other teachers. Easier to examine the subject than if infused and thus teachers are more likely to be motivated to teach it well. But, it may need specialized training for teachers. May also suffer negative perceptions as the subjects are bound to be seen as unimportant. It can often suffer neglect because of time constraints in the school timetable. So, what did the skillshop achieve? At the end of the 3 days, it was encouraging to see that this skillshop had helped us achieve 3 outcomes that would go a long way in furthering our work in this region. One, we secured an invitation to input into and to participate in the validation meeting for the Tanzania life skills draft policy coming up in June. Second, we realized that the Tanzanian government had made great progress in entrenching life skills into the education system and the government representative was elated to learn that there was already a movement that they could rely on to provide input based on actual experience in implementing life skills projects. Lastly, having shared about our projects, methods and experiences, we left knowing organizations amongst us could pair-up for cross-organization learning and support to sharpen our focus and approaches moving into the future. But what do you think? Is there an intervention out there that you believe has succeeded in nurturing life skills? If not, what would you want a life skills program to deliver? What could help such an organization achieve its goals? How might such an intervention be structured? Let's discuss!

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