Tuesday, October 20, 2009

What have you learned today?

I remember it well, that smell of a classroom. They smell like chalk and new notebooks and hastily poured cleaning agents after sitting empty for a summer. Every year from age five on I'd don my new school clothes and take lessons from teachers who were "old" because they were in their late twenties and early thirties. They taught us all sorts of wild and wonderful things and we soon learned that this thing called knowledge was something with endless possibilities. First it was 2+2 then it was 2X2 then it was 2a+2b and soon we got into all sorts of complicated equations with funny symbols and more letters than numbers. I remember The Letter People, Oregon Trail, and a mock election in sixth grade in which I voted in a real voting booth. Each of these learning exercises were not rote memorization but creative ways to teach children how to think critically.

I was fortunate to grow up in a country with universal access to education and find it difficult to imagine a place where this is not so. Yet there are so many children across the world who don't have access to education, and even in those countries (like Lebanon) where most children go to school, various problems plague the curricula. For example, in Lebanon the different confessional groups often teach their children their own versions of historical events, so children from one part of the country learn different "facts" than those from another part. (Indeed, some Lebanon schools tear out the pages of history books when they find something they don't like.)

There is little "social cohesion" involved in Lebanese education, according to the Center for Lebanese Studies and the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at AUB, which held a conference last week entitled Education for Social Cohesion in Lebanon. The conference discussed the need for hands on civic education and critical thinking in Lebanon's education curricula.

Recommendations from the conference include:

- Lift restrictions currently imposed on student councils in public schools and provide support and training for students on running student councils

- Emphasize critical and analytical history education, which is as important if not more important and persistent than developing a unified history text book which might take a long time to be developed. Hence there is an urgent need to run teacher training workshops for teaching history through active and analytical pedagogies

- Provide financial incentives to schools to recruit a more diverse student body

- Teach about the Palestinian refugees in the national history textbook

- Emphasize the role of the school as a community of learners, support and inclusion, rather than a technical institution primarily concerned with official exams

- Encourage parental engagement

- Switch from knowledge-based civic education, which is ineffective in promoting social cohesion, to a more hands-on approach

- Support the National Educational Scouting Group

- Train teachers to learn to interweave social cohesion in their classroom
The beauty of universal public education is exactly that - it creates a social cohesion among a nation. It would be wise to consider adopting the recommendations of the Center for Lebanese Studies and the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at AUB.

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