Reflections on the benefits of life skills and values to Africa’s adolescents 

Dr. John Mugo on a monitoring visit with colleagues, Tana River County.

Dr. John Mugo, Executive Director of ZiziAfrique Foundation, on a recent monitoring visit with colleagues in Tana River County.

The Assessment of Life Skills and Values in East Africa is a new initiative of the Regional Education Learning Initiative in Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya. Known as ALiVE, it seeks to enhance East Africa’s education systems by integrating life skills into their work.  

Though the formal curricula in the three countries now include life skills at varied levels, academic learning outcomes are still the focus, with few pathways dedicated to the development of life skills and values. The school assessment systems have not incorporated life skills and values, and the available assessment tools for these transferrable competences are developed mainly for western contexts. 

By July 2023, ALiVE hopes to have developed contextualized assessment tools for problem solving, collaboration, self-awareness and respect. 

Building on our experience with Uwezo, East Africa’s massive household learning assessment, we will use the tools to assess adolescents aged 13-17 years at the household level, use the large-scale evidence to drive public awareness and inform policy, and animate a regional community of learning and practice to both strengthen local assessment capacities and amplify Africa’s voice in global education. 

As East Africa launches and celebrates this new initiative, I am taken down memory lane to my adolescence. Only now do I come to notice the role played by values and life skills to determine my life path to where I am today. I attended a boarding secondary school governed by laissez faire principles. My first day at this school will never escape my memory. I was pinched by older boys standing behind my father. And when evening came, all my bedding, cutlery and toiletries were taken away by other boys. We slept on metal bars, spent endless hours washing clothes for our seniors, and preferred nights under coffee bushes to escape the horrible harassment in the hostels. 

Drugs were peddled on the hostel corridors and weed smoked inside classrooms at prep time. One chose whether to attend the evening individual study after dinner, or just idle around and get to sleep, or cross the fence and go to the local town. Looking back, the school population was split into two: a minority that worked hard to acquire and utilize life skills and values, and the majority that did not learn. 

Saying no to drugs, and sitting there and chatting with peers smoking weed demanded high levels of self-awareness and critical thinking. For a 16-year old , waking up and going to class at dawn, or sacrificing fun after dinner to go study demanded collaboration (seeking and offering peer support) and grit (persevering for long-term goals). Not fighting or avoiding teachers demanded a high sense of respect. Food was scarce, mainly because the commotion and scramble for food would leave half of the available meal on the floor. Sharing the little you got with someone necessitated empathy and love, while to the contrary, walking away with an empty plate and sleeping hungry demanded strong perseverance.  

While my experience may sound far-fetched to a Western audience, these remain the realities faced by many adolescents in Africa today.  

In situations of conflict or drought, the life stage of developing identity and choices is highly compromised. Bullying in schools is still very rampant, and millions of children from extremely poor households fall out of the education system – not because of cost, but following the much untold psychological suffering.  

All this experience has inspired me throughout my career in pedagogy and gives me a burning desire to change the lives of today’s young boys and girls.  

The intention of ALiVE, therefore, is to contribute an East-Africa wide conversation on how each child, each adolescent could acquire life skills and values. There is no better time than now, to achieve this. From the 2011 Heckman Lecture and 2012 Publication that brought global attention to soft skills, to the Kaufman and Kautz (2012) article that established the predictive power of soft skills for success in life and work, thousands of publications have now provided the evidence and argued for life and values as a priority for education systems. Yet, only few stories have been told, and few testimonies are documented. 

As we launch the ALiVE initiative, our expectations are high: 

  1. That working with local experts, we will produce contextualized assessment tools – simple, activity-based tools – that appropriately assess these complex competences.  
  2. That we will generate large-scale, household-based evidence on the extent to which our adolescents possess these skills, and systematically categorize those that do, and those that don’t.  
  3. That we will use the evidence to reach every policymaker, every teacher, every parent, and every young person, to win attention and focus on these critical competences.  
  4. That we will emerge as a new generation of experts in East Africa who have dared to measure these complex skills. 
  5. Most importantly, that adolescents and their parents, the people of East Africa, will access a platform to share the stories with the world.  

Welcome, ALiVE. 

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