The Puggle: May 2018 edition

Welcome to Echidna Giving’s “Puggle,” where we share monthly updates on news and research related to girls’ education. This month we’re diving deep on a topic related to one of the areas in our new strategy: what are the skills and mindsets that adolescent girls need in order to thrive in school and beyond?

It turns out that experts in many different fields have stumbled on the importance of a set of skills that aren’t typical school subjects (reading, math, science), but are enablers of success in education and beyond. Economists talk about the importance of non-cognitive skills. Psychologists talk about personality traits and socioemotional learning. Development scientists stress the importance of self-regulation and executive function. Practitioners use a mix of terminology like soft skills, transferable skills, life skills, and 21st century learning.

The fact that so many disciplines are stressing the importance of learning skills of this nature suggests that we are onto something. But can we define what “something” is? When it comes to adolescent girls in the developing world, what “somethings” are most important? These were the questions that a cross-disciplinary group of researchers came together to grapple with in early May at a workshop hosted by UC Berkeley’s Innovations for Youth (and funded by Echidna Giving).

 From a report by the Chr Michelsen Inst and the Brookings Inst. Click on image to go to source.

From a report by the Chr Michelsen Inst and the Brookings Inst. Click on image to go to source.

Based on the meeting, it’s clear that we have a lot to learn across disciplines on this subject. It’s also clear that our ability to do so is hampered by all the Jingle-Jangle—people talk about the same concepts using different language and use the same language to refer to different concepts. For example, “life skills” can embody everything from financial planning to sexual and reproductive health to social and emotional skills like self and social awareness or some combination thereof, depending on who you talk to. And Prevention Scientists don’t even realize that their research on social and emotional learning is relevant to the life skills conversation, because they don’t use the same language. One potential solution to this problem may come through the Taxonomy Project out of Harvard, which is creating the Rosetta Stone of social and emotional learning frameworks.

In the future, we may get even farther, faster thanks to this work. But even in the present, there were several strong themes and takeaways we reaped from the conversation:

  1. RELATIONSHIPS are an input to building skills and an important outcome in and of themselves. Participants discussed the fact that many soft skills are “caught” more than they are “taught,” and are learned implicitly through relationships from the time a child is born. Much as our relationships teach us skills, relationships themselves are an external asset. And it may be an asset that we undervalue. For example, this paper “argues that education and employment programs are commonly built on an economically-focused “dominant discourse” that…overlooks self-identity and social connectedness factors that are crucial to youth.” As one participant put it, “it’s not just cognitive domains we care about, but also affective domains.” Adolescents need to feel relevant, valued, and connected. A single, stable, committed relationship with an adult is predictive of child success.
  2. EARLY & OFTEN is the best time to interveneThe Adolescent Brain: A second window of opportunity builds from a workshop hosted by UNICEF exactly two years before this meeting. It argues that adolescence is a critical time period to establish healthy patterns of behavior and social and emotional learning that can increase positive development trajectories. The report places particular emphasis on the window of early adolescence—ages 9-14 years. Development scientists at the UC Berkeley meeting also stressed the importance of intervening early and often. They shared about key inflection points and salient events for girls, around which interventions can be especially helpful. For instance, nutritional supplements in adolescence can help overcome early nutrition deficits. There is also a window of time when girls have higher levels of testosterone than boys and are willing to take more risk—is there a way to exploit this for good, for example by encouraging academic risks to take on subjects they might otherwise shy away from? The meeting felt like the tip of the iceberg in terms of what we can gain from Understanding the Adolescent Brain.
  3. ADULTS mediate outcomes for adolescents. Students will not successfully learn social and emotional competencies unless their teachers model them. And yet we focus very little on the teacher training needed for adults to gain the skills they’re trying to instill in learners.
  4. POWER is part of the equation. If we expect gender equality as an outcome of education, we need to reckon with issues around gender and power. Participants talked about how the language in girls’ education has shifted from “empowerment” to “life skills,” and how taking “power” out of focus may be more palatable, but doesn’t necessarily serve girls. As one participant asked: “Are we trying to prepare girls for life or are we trying to equip them with the skills to change it?” Evidence from Nicole Haberland at the Population Council shows that gender explicit programs—those in which participants discuss issues related to gender and power—are more likely to affect health outcomes than programs silent on gender. They may also reduce violence and increase education. We know too little about the mechanisms for this effect (negotiation? critical thinking? agency?), and about how it affects education outcomes in addition to health outcomes (for example, is it a mechanism for advancing critical thinking?). These are questions worth exploring.

Coming out of the workshop we were left wondering the following: If we had to define a set of core competencies—salient across contexts—could we? What would they be? It’s something our team will be preoccupied with in implementing our strategy: ideas welcome!

Finally, a few time-sensitive opportunities for girls’ education, in case you missed them: