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. At 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 Michelle Mbuthia