An “open” path to learning life skills

Asheema Singh

In his foreword to the National Curriculum Framework (NCF), 2005, Prof. Yashpal wrote, “Education is not a physical thing that can be delivered through the post or through a teacher. Fertile and robust education is always created, rooted in the physical and cultural soil of the child, and nourished through interaction with parents, teachers, fellow students and the community.”

NCF 2005 notes that educational processes should engage learners in creating knowledge that is relevant to their experiences, promote healthy attitudes and enable them to think critically and respond to real-life situations in positive and responsible ways. In tandem with these recommendations, UNFPA India (United Nations Population Fund) supports the Ministry of Human Resource Development’s (MHRD) ambitious Adolescence Education Program (AEP). By building on relevant experiences of young people, the program focuses on enhancing life skills to enable them to tackle real-life situations effectively. National Institute of Open Schooling (NIOS) was also implementing AEP as part of its distance learning programs. For those who don’t know, NIOS is an autonomous institution under MHRD. It provides educational opportunities to individuals who do not enroll in formal secondary schools either due to some constraints or as a matter of choice. Open learners are essentially self-learners with no teachers to guide them on a regular basis. Hence, the self-learning materials in NIOS assume immense importance and are popularly known as ‘teachers in print.’ The question in front of us was how do we support life skills development of young people who are not available for a face to face intervention? Curricular integration of life skills seemed like a good option.

Life skills, as defined by WHO, are psycho-social abilities that empower individuals to connect with the self as well as others and develop a healthy lifestyle and positive behaviours. Life skills enable individuals to deal with stress and pressures in life and equip them with the competence to manage challenging situations.

Psycho-social abilities are instrumental in developing physical, mental and social well-being and are considered to be essential components of educational objectives. As a matter of fact, life skills are objectives of holistic education.

The 10 core life skills recognized by WHO are
• Self-awareness
• Empathy
• Effective communication
• Interpersonal relationship
• Creative thinking
• Critical thinking
• Problem solving
• Decision making
• Coping with stress
• Coping with emotions

A parallel can be drawn between the objectives of education mentioned in the Delors Commission Report (1993) and life skills. Life skills may be grouped into four objects of education proposed by the Delors Commission (UNESCO 2005). Learning to know comprises knowledge and critical thinking, learning to do implies practical skills, learning to be is synonymous with personal skill while learning to live is all about social skills (Sengupta, Sinha, Mukhopadhyay 2012).

The critique on formal education is that it has concentrated too much on the cognitive dimension (literacies) rather than on reflective and the psychosocial dimensions. This unidimensional education fails to facilitate a holistic development of young people as compassionate, caring and responsible citizens.

A number of researches show that life skills can be systematically acquired and reinforced through non-formal and informal learning settings. This gap in school education is well addressed through initiatives such as adolescence education that aim to respond to developmental concerns of secondary school students and enhance life skills among them.

Considering life skills education as an important value addition to the overall quality of learning, AEP places equal importance on the development of cognitive and life skills. AEP recommends that within a school system, life skills learning needs to be included in all teaching-learning processes including the teaching-learning of scholastic subjects.

Keeping the limitations of the open schooling system in mind, NIOS strongly recommended the integration of life skills within the existing subjects. One of the subjects selected was social science.

Social Science is an area of study that presents a historical perspective, provides the contextual landscape and informs learners about their rights and responsibilities so that they can meet the challenges of life successfully. In a broad sense, the whole subject revolves around transforming the learner into a good citizen – an important dimension of citizenship education. The broader context weaves in elements of culture and raises awareness and empathy on issues of concern. The integrated study material has been conceptually planned to provide the right focus on areas and issues of concern.

The major components of the NIOS lessons are introduction, objectives, contents, in-text questions, what you have learnt (summary) and terminal exercise. The life skills enriched lessons have added elements like activities and extended learning (Do you know?). The style of writing and delivering the core contents has also been considerably changed. It has been made more experiential and relevant to the learners’ real life experiences.

The introductions to the lesson have tried to include content related to life experiences as also to the previously taught content. Using a variety of formats like a conversation between a father and daughter in a lesson on people’s participation in the democratic processes, or the singing of the national anthem (in the lesson National Integration and Secularism), or a dialogue between a grandmother and granddaughter (in the lesson Religious and Social Awakening) or a narrative (in the lesson Local Governments and Field Administration) makes the context interesting and relevant. Apart from awareness, introductions provide an opportunity to connect emotionally and generate empathy. They are thus able to build a kind of mental readiness considered essential for subsequent learning of the content.

The objectives have been framed with a focus on the intended outcomes. The intention was to allow the learners to reflect on higher learning outcomes related to life skills. Employing words such as assess, compare, analyze, evaluate, etc., was an attempt to encourage in learners the use of abilities to deconstruct, synthesize, think critically and solve problems.

The content has been enriched, augmented with real-life experiences and presented in a sequential order that is both logical and psychological. The focus on gender and culture has been maintained throughout. The heads and subheads are organically related and linkages well-established. Inclusion of adolescents as a distinct population group in the chapter, Population: Our Greatest Resource, focuses on their special needs.

Overt adolescent concerns run though all chapters and are a lesson in citizenship education, making learners aware of their past and prevalent practices with a view to making them more responsible. Addition of some relevant content in some specific chapters, viz., Transport and Communication; Population: Our Greatest Resource; Indian National Movement or Religious and Social Awakening in Colonial India, tends to connect learners with life experiences, personal observations or anecdotes that make the presentation meaningful.

The life skills enriched study material carries illustrations that are distinct, impressive and pertinent. They engage learners leading to meaningful retention of knowledge and help raise sensitivity and build empathy. The illustrations are well chosen and help make the presentation wholesome and vibrant.

In-text questions play the important role of providing an opportunity to the learners to assess their understanding of the content studied and make mid-lesson corrections. In the enriched study material the questions are more varied and complex as well demanding the exercise of higher level abilities, viz., analysis and synthesis of information. The questions related to life situations call for reflection involving critical thinking and problem solving.

Activities included only in the new study material are value additions that not only make learning interesting and participatory but also are the pivot for training in life skills. The activities are thoughtfully planned and provide scope for explorations of the new dimensions of the content. They do a wonderful job of affirming and extending knowledge as also provide scope for application of knowledge. Seeking opinions of stakeholders, preparing action plans on issues of importance, writing letters or voicing responses to challenging situations are some activities that will facilitate communication skills, critical thinking, ensure correct understanding of the issues as also provide scope for reflection, introspection, decision-making and negotiation abilities. They offer the possibility of making learning proactive and help to increase awareness and build empathy and self-esteem.

Do you know and ponder facts are interesting ways to weave in relevant important information. Such historically and culturally significant insertions help to clarify knowledge, build a broad framework and a wider perspective. They thus provide scope for extended learning in an interesting and self-explanatory manner.

What you have learnt in the integrated study material largely contains all the essential ideas and concepts and is a ready reference for exams.

Terminal questions in the enriched study material are varied, with a focus on higher learning outcomes. Interesting questions like asking learners to list problems faced by them during a journey, presenting quotes of freedom fighters and asking learners to respond as an Indian citizen, describing the situation of a widow and thinking of ways a sarpanch can ensure education of her children or asking their viewpoints on electoral reforms are some important questions that would make learners use their abilities to analyze, synthesize and generalize. Preparation of an action plan and project provide scope for inquiry and help to strengthen learners’ communication skills as also make them more sensitive to local environs and issues.

As a subject social science includes content that provides learners with a perspective that is crucial for making them aware of issues and concerns, rights, duties, responsibilities and challenges of their lives as citizens. Citizenship education and cultural context are thus implicit. The material is gender sensitive and there has been a conscious effort to make it inclusive as well. The attempt to build life skills is apparent in all its components; be it content presentation, where narratives, conversations and dialogue involve learners in critical thinking and bring awareness that is important for building empathy, suitable illustrations related to cultural content, activities that involve learners and encourage them to inquire, probe and synthesize knowledge with a direct focus on training of life skills, or better framed in-text questions and terminal exercises that focus and try to assess higher level learning outcomes.

Active engagement involves enquiry, exploration, questioning, debates, application and reflection, leading to theory building and creation of ideas/positions. (NCF 2005 pg 17-18)

In pursuance of this goal the materials encourage learners to take ownership of their learning. NIOS life skills enriched study materials have attempted to provide opportunities to the learners to question, inquire, debate, reflect, and arrive at concepts or create new ideas leading to life skills empowerment. The subject is replete with opportunities to exercise core life skills in a highly contextualized manner. The activities are in sync with the content and life skills are chosen with their relativity to the specific subject. Each activity encourages the learner to question preconceived notions and restructure ideas enabling the learner to construct knowledge. It is expected that learners will learn to exercise life skills in their day-to-day life while practicing these activities.

Note: You can access the social science material developed by NIOS at http://www.nios.ac.in/online-course-material/secondary-courses/Social-Science-(213)-Syllabus.aspx

The author is a senior consultant with UNFPA. The life skills enriched study materials were developed during her posting with National Institute of Open Schooling (NIOS) as Project Coordinator for the UNFPA-NCERT supported Adolescence Education Programme. A strong advocate of unified approach, she uses innovative methods to include critical concerns such as adolescent rights, gender, sexuality, substance abuse, etc. She has conducted skill building workshops for teachers, counsellors and lesson writers. She has published several papers in national and international journals and has contributed to books. She can be reached at [email protected]..

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