Life skills education in our schools

Sheela Ramakrishnan

It seemed almost providential that as I sat down to pen my thoughts on this topic, the television was on and the movie ‘Chak De’ was droning away in the background. When I finished putting down my skeleton points, (as I always do when I write something) it struck me that I did not have to go too far to find some meat for this piece! It was all there for everybody to observe and absorb. The interplay between personal values of different individuals influencing life skills, individually and together, has been eloquently portrayed in the film.

A formal reflection on this subject began when I was asked by Teacher Plus several months ago, to review the NCF and then comment on the life skills portion. I had looked through the document quite carefully, found references to value and peace education, but none on life skills. That set me thinking… why was there no reference?

It would therefore be relevant to consider exactly what we mean by life skills. It is a fairly new coinage … much in the way moral science is now called value education.

Value education is very well defined, and even has textbooks based on the subject. The need to anchor our children in the fundamental tenets of harmonious living cannot be stressed more. The uncertain and aggressive world we live in today is an outcome of the moving away from ideals to extreme practicality. “What’s in it for me” is the mantra of the day. While we understand and appreciate the dynamics of a changing world, do we really need to climb on somebody else’s back to make ourselves more comfortable?

In spite of the best efforts of the educational system to bring some semblance of understanding of the black and white of life, the other parts of the child’s world still present a conflicting picture. It has now therefore become important for children to learn that life could also be the colour grey.

Most schools have value education lessons as part of their curriculum, not only to fulfil the requirement of the NCF, but also because there is a keen sense of responsibility, to play a role in keeping the fabric of society together. And this task by itself being such a mammoth one leaves policy makers and administrators, perhaps with no mental space to look at the other side of the coin.

The term life skills itself seems to be caught up in some ambiguity, in both its understanding and expression. Some consider value education and life skills as synonymous. The term could be open to several interpretations, but the following analogy seems to bring clarity to me.

Value education could be likened to the hardware of a person, while life skills is the software. Our fundamental values that determine how we cope with life. And therefore life skills could perhaps be used to mean coping skills, where the methods that we use to cope, are based on the kind of values we believe in.

Life skill lessons are given by several NGOs to those youngsters who live in disadvantaged conditions and situations. It is ironical that the urban elite children, most of whom are privileged not to be exposed to the harsh realities of life, are not given these lessons as systematically. When “make or break” moments happen in life, children flounder, as they are not skilled in processing the situation. In a world that is increasingly dynamic, we need to engage with our children early on, about the process and the outcome. A systematic reinforcement would perhaps make them better equipped.

life-skills2The sketch alongside is an attempt to bring clarity and to demonstrate the link. The pointers given are neither complete nor prescriptive. They are indicative and it is best left to each institution, educator or parent, to fix the options.

One is driven by certain fundamental values imbibed early on in life, which are almost like beacon lights for an individual. Development of life skills may take on various dimensions, based on the situations and experiences thrown in our way. Therefore we can say with reasonable certainty that life skill development depends on the number of significant experiences that one has in life. While the experiences by themselves could have either produced pain or joy, which fade away with time, the skill that one develops to deal with the situation remains with the individual.

In my opinion, life skill is not a function of chronology, but of experiences. We may have adults who have sailed through life almost in a straight line, while there may be youngsters who have gone through life in zig zags.

The question that one may ask is then, why talk about life skills for children? If it is all in the realm of experience? The answer lies in the fact that like everything else in life, one cannot wait for the event to happen, for processing to begin; therefore providing simulated situations based on others’ experiences, helps the child understand to some extent how to cope with even unfamiliar situations. Much like giving a theory class so that one can be prepared for the practicals! This is becoming more and more imperative, due to the increasing complexity of our world today.

Is there a comprehensive set of values and a set of life skills that one needs? My submission to that is that there could be a set of core values that one may wish to lay down as operating principles, while the life skills that are required to see one through the journey of life, are several. Ultimately, however, all decisions are based on values.

It is for this reason, that value education classes alone, while extremely necessary, may not be sufficient to equip the children for life. While children need to imbibe strong values, they also need to know when to put them to use and how, during the ups and downs of life.

What is the current effort in schools? With increasing pressure to complete the syllabus, driven by competition, schools are hard pressed to find time to focus adequately on this vital aspect of education. Of course, this may happen unconsciously on the games field or elsewhere, but a consciousness of the process needs time for reflection, which often gets pushed to the backburner in most cases.

Some work has begun in small pockets of the country, based on the priority and vision of the school. Those that lay more emphasis on growth than on marks somehow manage to squeeze in time to at least build some awareness. But by and large, it is as yet an unexplored area in mainstream schools.

One possible suggestion is to weave both value education and life skills into the time table. A 5 minute adjustment in the duration of periods over 5 days would give one sufficient time for this vital ingredient. I must add, that these sessions do not require to be talked about only during formal time slots. A creative and concerned educator can find several reference points within the curriculum. Even a simple act of allotting group work to children in class, is an opportunity to build team building skills in the children. However, the internalization of the skill can only happen if one spends time in discussing the dynamics of the experience, to resolve the probable struggle that may have happened when groups of individuals work towards a common goal. The advantage in providing an exclusive time slot is only to ensure that this “dissection time” does not get overlooked.

The format for these classes could vary, but it is important to mention that these are not regular “classes”. Therefore, activities, discussions, role plays, drama, art, circle time, debates, case study analysis are some of the options. Including watching Chak De!

The author is partner in Edcraft, Hyderabad, a firm engaged in making teaching-learning materials, conducting workshops and providing consultancy services. She can be reached at [email protected].

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