Community-Based Learning Project: Reflecting on Alwan wa Awtar

Uditinder Thakur, a student of International Peace and Conflict Resolution at the American University in Washington, DC, participated in AMIDEAST’s fall 2012 Area & Arabic Language Studies program in Cairo, Egypt. In this blog post, he describes the lessons learned from teaching children in Cairo’s poorer suburbs with a local NGO.

It’s remarkable to think that my time at Alwan wa Awtar is coming to an end. It has definitely been an enlightening experience so far, from learning about education to aspects of Egyptian culture, but I would have never thought that I’d come away with the lessons I’ve learned.
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I came into my experience with many questions, and even more doubts. Alwan Wa Awtar is an NGO located in the area of Masakan Square, in the town of Moqattam just outside of Cairo. The organization’s goal is to encourage critical thinking through programs geared at cultivating a love for learning among participants. Upon my interview, I was told that the program typically hosted activities including painting, song writing, instrumental music learning, poetry and other forms of art. These are activities that the Egyptian school system’s typically side-line, giving children a reduced level of exposure to the arts. However, to my surprise my coordinator’s were eager to have me start a physical education program as well as a history program when they learned about my previous experience with children. Their willingness to tolerate ambiguity, and encourage me to create a new program for the students, won me over from the start as I saw it as a clear demonstration of their desire to live the same message that they aimed to convey to their students.

It is entertaining to think that much of my time has been spent teaching children values of discipline, hard-work, imagination and peace, while these are the very same reasons why my own father had me enroll in Martial Arts at an early age! I came into my teaching position with high goals, huge lesson plans, and a head full of ideas. I quickly discovered however that the best way to deal with this situation was not to quickly formulate high morals and values to “teach” anyone.

Instead I reformed my goal to one of self-education, teaching through learning.

My approach was based both on my own beliefs and desires, and on ideas and scholarly debates that are at the forefront of the field of education. As a product of the US education system I understand the debate on issues of critical thinking in education versus sheer performance, and I wanted my teaching experience to be an authentic attempt at giving my kids the most that I could offer them in all realms of education.

Egypt’s education system is in many ways a product of the industrial age, similar to education in the U.S. and Europe in the early 20th century. Huge emphasis is placed on performance in the form of test scores, standardized curriculum, and rote memorization. This system was originally formed during the reign of Egypt’s Mohammad Ali, in the early-mid 1800′s. The desire at that point in time was to reinvigorate Egyptian knowledge in regards to mathematics and hard sciences, subjects that the country lagged far behind their European counter-parts in. The result was a neo-liberal approach to education, one in which learning was framed as a means through which the country could ” increase productivity, national income, and socio-economic mobility. The system remains intact today for the most part, as students are separated into classes with strict curricula and a heavy emphasis on memorization and repetition, which very little attention being paid to issues of critical thinking.

This system would be less problematic if it were actually fulfilling its goal of offering opportunities for increased social mobility, but the result has been anything but that. A study by the Social Fund for Development 1995/97 reported that households with a head who had completed only primary school were among the nations poorest. This is to be expected, but the opposite side of these figures are startling. Even for those Egyptians who have degrees, jobs are scarce, and when there are openings they often find that they lack the necessary critical thinking skills to compete. This phenomenon is referred to as the “diploma disease,” in which certificates and degrees of qualification gain such importance that students and faculty sacrifice learning for the sake of routine pedagogical methods. These methods result in hosts of students who have essentially based their entire education on “studying for the test,” while their teachers have based their entire system on “teaching to the test.” Such rigid boundaries on learning are part of the reason why almost 80% of Egypt’s total unemployment rate is composed of individuals who do have a degree, they just don’t have any marketable skills to match it.

It was in response to these pressing issues in Egypt’s education system, that I decided I needed to learn before I taught students. Doing so would give them greater freedom to speak openly, exchange ideas and thoughts at will, and most importantly it would give me a sense of what I was in for. The resulting dialogues were enlightening at least, and remarkably stimulating at best. My students began with topics related to history, and within 10 minutes were engaging in lively debates on the merits of Emperor so-and-so, and the importance of such and such event. They gained a freedom that taught them facts and figures occasionally, but more importantly it taught them and me the value of a new paradigm of viewing education reform. By getting to know my students, I learned more than I ever thought I could…and I’m more than grateful.

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My students taught me many things, as can be exemplified by their quotes below. For instance;

“People are all essentially good” – Ali

Lesson?- Self explanatory…people are essentially good!

“Fighting is bad, but what choice do we have? When somebody hits you in public, you’ve got to stand up for yourself.” – Yusef

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Lesson?- Sometimes it is much easier to speak with students about their experiences and struggles before throwing morality at them. Starting off with “violence is never good,” is an ideal, but with kids in the real world you have to sometimes help them dream before you can through ideals at them. Learning where they are coming from helps you to formulate better solutions on how to help.

“When can we play? Are we just going to learn today?”- Habiba
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Lesson?- The difference between play and learning is hard to surpass, but not impossible. My kids helped teach me just how much their ability to dream had been held back for a long time, and by listening to them first I learned to identify the issues we needed to tackle. Teaching them that they could learn and play at the same-time was only the result of engaging with them actively first.

By dealing with them in a friendly way, while simultaneously asserting a level of authority I was able to get through to them and earn their trust. In doing so I witnessed a marked increased in their desire to learn and show me that they were paying attention, as I had suddenly become a friend they wished to make a good impression on rather than a teacher they had to fear.
img_1508Lessons aside, if there is one thing I’ve learned throughout my time with Alwan wa Awtar, it is to take time to learn before teaching. Some of my students taught me the most valuable lessons I could learn here in Egypt. It turns out sometimes the children really ARE our future after all.

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