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Aflatouns play with empathy

How to Measure the Seemingly Unmeasurable

The international organization Aflatoun has an intriguing approach to assessing changemaker skills in its students.

By Laura Zax

October 25, 2013

Although many educators agree that empathy, initiative, and problem-solving skills are important to student success in the 21st century, these skills are often underemphasized because they’re not easily measured. These so-called “soft skills” aren’t captured in traditional standardized assessments, like tests, and it’s difficult to draw scientificically rigorous conclusions about the correlation between implementation of certain practices and improvement in these skills. Yet one organization has found a solution: ask the kids.

Aflatoun student holds up a picture of people holding hands.

Aflatoun, a social and financial education program that serves over 1.3 million children across 84 countries, teaches children about their rights, how to save money, and how to launch social and financial enterprises. So far, Aflatoun students have launched over 3,000 social enterprises such as a center for youth illiteracy in Zimbabwe.

Measuring amorphous outcomes—changes in self-esteem,  willingness to work in teams, enthusiasm for community participation, acceptance of others—is par for the course at Aflatoun.  They have to do so at over 8,000 partner schools and education centers all over the world. Rather than doling out a standard test or survey, Aflatoun provides partners with a toolkit designed to help them solicit children’s stories about how Aflatoun has impacted them. These stories allow educators to understand changes in children’s attitudes and behaviors that the children attribute to Aflatoun.

In this way, Aflatoun has gathered a wealth of specific stories about how their program has positively impacted the children’s lives. Their goal is to make sure that every child has had a transformative experience—and knows how to articulate it.

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Want to try a similar approach in your own classroom, school, or organization?

Here’s a summary of Aflatoun’s method and questions to help you get started.

When conducting a focus group, Aflatoun recommends that their partners start out with an icebreaker and have the children introduce themselves. Then, they begin with some general questions that help children get comfortable with speaking:

  • Think about your school. What do you like about your school, and what don't you like?
  • What are your favorite classes?
  • You are attending Aflatoun classes/clubs. What do you think about Aflatoun?

Once every child has gotten the chance to speak, adult facilitators delve into more specific—and more challenging—questions:

1. All of you here know lots of other people in your community. What do these people have in common?

  • Follow-up: What do you think about a person who has a different religion or culture?
  • Follow-up: Should boys and girls be treated differently?

2. Think about you in the future, what do you want to do when you get older?

  • Follow-up: Looking into the future; do you feel like you have control over what will happen to you?
  • Follow-up: What do you need to be successful in the future?
  • Follow-up: What don’t you have? How will you get that?
  • Follow-up: What are the things around you that you don’t like or want to change?
  • Follow-up: Do you think you will be able to change them?

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Ashoka Fellow Jeroo Billimoria is a leading social entrepreneur whose work has always revolved around the protection and empowerment of children. Having set up multiple organizations, Jeroo is now building on the success of Aflatoun, an organization that educates children aged 6-14 on social and financial education. She is starting a movement in ChildFinance―a movement that empowers children both socially and financially and creates access to financial products and services for millions of children.