Researchers and practitioners arrive at the importance of life skills education from multiple perspectives, but regardless of whether they bring a lens of health and wellness, economic prosperity, or broader empowerment, the skills they prioritize include several common denominators. In Chap. 2, Murphy-Graham and Cohen (this volume) consolidate areas of overlap across different discourse communities into the themes of mastery of knowledge, social and emotional competencies, and critical thinking. In Chap. 3, Brush et al. (this volume) cluster skills into cognitive, emotional, social, values, perspectives, and identity domains. They find that social and emotional learning frameworks place the greatest emphasis on the cognitive domain (which includes critical thinking, planning skills, attention control), and the social domain (which includes, e.g. social problem solving, cooperative behavior). Many life skills frameworks also emphasize the values domain (consisting of ethical, intellectual, performance, and civic values) and, to a smaller extent, the emotion domain.
To summarize this in the simplest of terms, there is agreement that youth need to understand and regulate themselves, be capable of relating to others, and know how to interpret the world around them. These capabilities are central to being able to live life well.
If there is one single skill area that the volume draws out as particularly important, it is critical thinking. Youth need higher order thinking skills, including the capacity to be critical of the world and its injustices. They also need to develop problem solving skills that enable them to tackle these injustices. Across several chapters, we see arguments that this type of critical thinking is the key to ensuring that programs are transformative and not merely helping youth better deal with their marginalization. For example, in Chap. 5, Kwauk (this volume) argues that
youth must have the opportunity to understand the broader structures of power and privilege in which they are embedded. They must learn to decode dominant culture with the aim to transform not only their own experiences in the world, but also the world itself.
This is not just about being better able to understand power structures, but also about getting youth to challenge these structures, including by changing their own perspectives. One example of this comes in Chap. 9, where Sahni (this volume) describes how the Prerna school in India equips students to both understand and change their realities. Sahni’s school is about “helping children gain a greater sense of self-awareness, recognize themselves as equal persons, develop agency and voice, and critically examine societal norms and oppressive social structures.” Importantly, the schools work not only with the marginalized, but also with powerholders. For example, when it comes to supporting greater gender equality, the school works with boys to shift their “toxic mindsets.” Although this is more difficult because boys have something to lose when it comes to relinquishing their power, the example shared in this chapter shows that change can be fostered carefully, respectfully, and effectively.
We see a second example of this in Chap. 8, in which Arur and Sharma (this volume) describe how adolescent boys of lower castes in India are taught critical literacies that help shape their career aspirations. As these boys engaged in documenting their lived realities by video, they were able to critically understand local issues (particularly around sustainable development) and analyze what mattered to them in ways that helped to uncover potential career choices.
A third example comes from Chap. 10, where Pacheco and Murphy-Graham (this volume) describe the ACHME program in Honduras, which aimed to help students make informed decisions about marriage despite the fact that their economic and sociopolitical context constrained the choices available to them and presented them with ideas and values that encouraged early marriage. The program developed critical thinking in students, helping them to understand power relationships, to redirect the flow of these relationships, and to uncover mainstream norms that they assume to be in their best interest even if they are actually harmful. By getting students to think critically, the program sought to increase cognitive dissonance and lead them to shift their thinking in order to reduce inconsistencies in it. This seems to have played out in practice. For example, students developed the capacity to uncover assumptions about gender roles—like the idea that housework is a woman’s job that men should not engage in—and began to articulate their dissatisfaction with the status quo.
Even when life skills frameworks and programs include critical thinking, they often leave out some of these important components. In Chap. 5, Kwauk (this volume) argues that the way we conceptualize critical thinking could be expanded so that it captures skills like understanding and recognizing unequal power relations and picking up on unspoken cues. She argues that a “transformative approach would attend to the metacognitive elements of equipping girls with the tools to read, decode, and act upon the opportunity structures around her, as well as the sociological elements of building collective resistance against conditions of inequality.”
This concept of building collective resistance points to the other shortcoming in the way that many life skills frameworks are framed, which is that they focus on developing individual skills that youth can independently enact. The hyper-focus on individuals is arguably a very “WEIRD” view of schooling, applied in Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic countries. The concept of WEIRD societies was developed by anthropologist Joseph Heinrich and psychologists Steven Hein and Ara Norenzayan. In a 2010 study, they argue that behavioral scientists frequently publish findings that claim to unearth universal truths about human psychology, but these studies draw on research done only with subjects from WEIRD societies, who are in fact frequently outliers when it comes to many dimensions of psychology, motivation, and behavior. Research done on subjects from WEIRD societies is therefore not representative, nor generalizable to the entire human race. One of the differences they point to is the fact that Westerners tend to view themselves as independent, autonomous agents, whereas non-Westerners tend to have a more interdependent view and think of themselves in terms of roles and relationships with others. From this research we can infer that educational interventions designed for students in WEIRD societies are not equally applicable in non-WEIRD societies. In WEIRD societies, an emphasis on individual skills independently enacted might be well-suited to context, but that might not be as helpful to youth in non-WEIRD societies, where there is a greater emphasis on the collective. Yitbarek et al. (this volume) describe this disconnect in Chap. 11 when they demonstrate how the skills that matter most for Afar wellbeing, which include an emphasis on collective and community wellbeing, are not the same as the skills that are covered in the general education curriculum.
In Chap. 4, DeJaeghere (this volume) argues that youth need to develop relational skills. There is a disconnect between teaching life skills to youth as individuals and expecting them to act on these skills independently, and the need to change larger social outcomes like gender inequality, which are societal and not individual in nature. DeJaeghere argues that “The ideas, beliefs, and attitudes that young people practice to live a good life are not individually learned or enacted; they are influenced and enacted in relation to others and their environment.” She further argues that a relational approach would rethink both which skills are taught, as well as how they are used. For example, teaching self-confidence does not change the barriers youth face or allow them to be confident in settings that continue to reject them and deny their dignity. I would argue that it’s not only how skills are used that matters, but also the way in which they are taught, an idea we turn to in the third theme, which follows.