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Are life skills universal? A few non-obvious inspirations drawn from a Ugandan curriculum

Jan Bazyli Klakla

There is hardly any disagreement when it comes to the claim that schools ought to teach skills useful in everyday life. Yet, the criterion according to which one decides what is or is not a life skill remains a constant source of incertitude. Serendipitously enough, a Ugandan school subject dubbed “Life Skills” might exemplify one of the solutions to the said conundrum.

The proponents of the subject in question have indicated the categories of those competencies that, in their opinion, the school ought to teach. By the same token they, metaphorically speaking, took the floor in the debate on how education may assist students on their way through life. It is one of the voices that needs to be considered while designing a new interdisciplinary curriculum.

The World Health Organization defines life skills as “abilities for adaptive and positive behaviour that enable humans to deal effectively with the demands and challenges of life” (WHO, 1994).  The notion and the scope thereof have been operationalized as something that young children ought to be taught, but also as something that can be acquired through both study and practice, which makes educational context its natural element.

Concepts abound as to how the teaching of life skills in the educational system should be organized. In many countries they are in fact scattered over a dozen or so different subjects, so that their implementation is characterized by intersectionality. In other countries, such as Liechtenstein, South Africa, Kenya, and Malaysia, as well, indeed, as in Uganda, particular school subjects have been developed along with corresponding life skills curricula.

Are life skills universal?

The above variety of actual implementation notwithstanding, the question which seems to be a common denominator here is: What competencies ought to be taught within a life skills curriculum? And, since we attempt to view education globally: Do the competencies in question depend on the place and society where they are to be practiced? As with the majority of questions regarding complex issues of social life, the answers here have to be: “It depends” and “Well, yes and no.”

If the idea behind teaching life skills is actually becoming adroit at the skills that we use in our everyday lives, then it is only natural to adjust it for local cultural, social, economic, geographic, and political determinants. This is due to the simple fact that everyday life looks different in different places on earth, and so, different sets of crucial life skills are needed relative to a given place. A young person living in Uganda most probably meets with life challenges that are different from the ones a young person growing up in Liechtenstein faces and corresponding life skills curricula ought to take it into account. So, let us look into how the said determinants impacted the Ugandan curriculum.

Today’s Uganda is subject to dramatic population growth taking place, unfortunately, alongside degradation of the natural environment and diminution of natural resources. The unemployment rate remains relatively low (9.2% in 2017), which is a result of a predominant proportion of employment in the agricultural sector (64.3% of the entire working population as of 2017), where it is relatively easy to find an odd job for a low wage, which obviously does not always allow one to meet their basic needs for livelihood (Uganda Bureau of Statistics, 2020).

The Ugandan Life Skills Curriculum pointedly emphasizes utilizing the eponymous skills upon entering the job market. Hence, such issues as “resource management” or finding “different alternatives for earning a living” are itemized in the curriculum, alongside the obvious one – entrepreneurship. However, regardless of how we judge the selection of those particular skills, one thing seems to remain crucial:

Life skills ought to address particular problems and simultaneously offer concrete solutions.

And that is precisely why curricula have to take into account specific local conditions and determinants. At this level one may by no means suggest their universal character.

We are all humans after all

But let’s not get carried away by this type of reasoning, which first and foremost underscores differences among peoples. Even though we function in sometimes dramatically different cultures, in distinctively separate communities, and come from places remote from one another, we all still have more in common that it may seem. We are all humans after all. Therefore, we may indicate such life skills that – regardless of where we come from – facilitate our functioning both as individuals and as various groups’ members.

The Ugandan curriculum (Ministry of Education and Sports of the Republic of Uganda, 2011) distinguishes three categories of life skills, in accordance with which the country’s programme of teaching them is structured:

  • “skills of knowing and living with oneself” (pp. 5–15);
  • “skills of knowing and living with others” (pp. 16–26);
  • “life skills for making effective decisions” (pp. 27–33).

The first of the mentioned categories relates to students’ self-development and providing the students with support in those character features which are conducive to their being themselves both consciously and happily. The said features of behaviour or demeanour encompass: self-awareness, (adequate) self-esteem, assertiveness, and the ability to cope with stress and one’s emotions. The second category pertains to individuals as members of communities, and involves developing relationships with others, negotiating skills, empathy, effective communication, and constructive, non-violent conflict resolution. Finally, the third category includes some pointers useful while facing the challenges that today’s world brings; it involves creative and critical thinking, but also decision-making and development of solutions to problems.

When we consider the above enumerated competencies, we are compelled to conclude that their practical implementation can easily be highly divergent between Liechtenstein and Uganda but, at the same time, they can be regarded as extremely weighty in both of these cases. Therefore, we should not forget that

life skills stem from a universally human circumstance of being a self-aware social creature who is immersed in the world.

All of us have the need for self-actualization despite its having such an opulently variegated character from one person to the next. Each of us has a deep need of being in contact with others and living in community, even though the groups we belong to differ, as do the relationships we enter into. Each and every one of us faces problems we need to resolve and challenges we have to confront, however varied they may be. So, from a humanistic perspective, life skills allow us to be the kind of humans we want to be. In this sense: life skills are universal.

Can the Ugandan curriculum provide a direction?

The Ugandan Life Skills curriculum, the same as any other curriculum, has its flaws and advantages. I have already mentioned some of the latter; by extracting them into a separate single subject, the curriculum in question seems to favour the type of education which is not so much centred upon acquiring knowledge as it is on working on oneself (i.e. on one’s character and personality) and self-development.  Taking as its point of departure the assumption that life skills ought to address particular problems and simultaneously offer concrete solutions, it focuses on the country’s specific realities; by acknowledging the universal circumstance that human beings are self-aware social creatures who are immersed in the world, the curriculum addresses the true essence of life skills.

Some of the programme document’s conceptualizations are indeed worthwhile and interesting, for instance, defining “assertiveness” as “an individual’s ability to express his/her views, opinions and feelings without violating the rights of other people.”  Other documents, even if not quite fully developed, might shed some non-obvious light on otherwise obvious categories. For example “effective communication” is understood therein not as an efficient way of passing on information, but as “the fuel that starts a relationship and keeps it going.” It is, undoubtedly, an instance of taking an otherwise common concept, and expressing it in a compellingly vivacious tone.

Regrettably, there is no way of characterizing the curriculum in question as a ready-made solution. Most of all, what it lacks is an in-depth reflection on the enumerated skills and competencies, and on how one might genuinely teach them. However, it only opens more space for the future designers of interdisciplinary curricula. They should take up the challenge set before education by the idea of life skills, and take advantage of the categories already indicated in, for instance, the Ugandan curriculum, and eventually, seek teaching methods that would transcend the general postulates of teaching through discussion, brainstorming, pointing to examples, and role-playing exercises.

Our intellectual journey to Uganda results not so much in finding the holy grail of interdisciplinary teaching and learning, but in befriending others on the same quest.

What the Ugandan Life Skills project tries to encapsulate is undoubtedly a part of the broader discussion of what schools ought to teach. It also constitutes one of the voices accompanying the efforts to devise an interdisciplinary subject which, in its assumptions, is to teach the skills in question in accordance with their local context. Some of this has already been indicated by the people who devised the Ugandan curriculum. 

To sum up, the Ugandan (re)searchers have had experience with both finding new paths leading to a set goal, and with wandering entirely astray. It is only with the former that we would like to follow into their footsteps.

References

Ministry of Education and Sports of the Republic of Uganda. (2011). Life Skills Curriculum for Primary School Teachers in Uganda.
https://download.ei-ie.org/Docs/WebDepot/Life%20Skills%20Curriculum%20for%20Primary%20Teachers%20A5%20_for%20seps.pdf

Ministry of Education and Sports of the Republic of Uganda. (2011). Life Skills Curriculum for Primary School Teachers in Uganda. A Teacher’s Hand Book.
https://www.labeuganda.org/resources/Life%20Skills%20Curriculum%20for%20PrimarySchools%20-%20%20TEACHERS%20HANDBOOK_B&W.pdf

Uganda Bureau of Statistics. (2020). 2020 Statistical Abstract.
https://www.ubos.org/wp-ontent/uploads/publications/11_2020STATISTICAL__ABSTRACT_2020.pdf

World Health Organization. (1994). Life skills education for children and adolescents in schools. Introduction and Guidelines to Facilitate the Development and Implementation of Life Skills Programmes, World Health Organization  (No. WHO/MNH/PSF/93.7 A.Rev.2).
https://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/handle/10665/63552/WHO_MNH_PSF_93.7A_Rev.2.pdf

About the author
Jan Bazyli Klakla
Having obtained a Master’s degree in both law and sociology, along with a Bachelor’s at the Centre for Comparative Studies of Civilisations (all three degrees at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków), he then received a postgraduate degree in international migration from the University of Warsaw. Currently, he is pursuing double Ph.D. in law and sociology at the Jagiellonian University. Simultaneously, he manages a research project on the impact of institutional and legal factors on the choice of acculturation strategies among foreigners in Poland.
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