Education is Context

Life Skills September 30, 2018

Quality Education at Mass

“Education is life!” A quote commonly used and very rarely understood or put into practice. We live in a time where Education has become a fixed form in an ever-changing world, where the student and the teacher in a classroom is perceived as a constant, while human beings & contexts remain an everlasting variable.

I am an Egyptian who was fortunate enough to go to an International private school in Egypt. A very rare, high quality education opportunity back home, compared to the kind of education the majority of the Egyptian students get access to. Back at school, I learnt that life is not just about literacy & numeracy and that self-learning and self-motivation are key to live and thrive in the future waiting ahead. I learnt that educating the mind and the character is more important than the textbook and the homework. I will never forget my teacher at grade 6 arguing with my parents on not obliging me to memorize and that more homework meant nothing to my success as a learner.

I look around at our education system today, with 22 million students, majority of which enroll into public schools. A system with 7+ thousand private schools and more than 45+ thousand pubic schools, across 27 governorates and almost 1 million teachers working for the public system. A system struggling to meet the needs of the learners and provide them with capabilities needed to become future responsible, productive citizens, accountable to one’s own self and other. On top of the many sufferings of our country; poverty, corruption, economic and political instability, education comes a main contributor to preparing generations to come and to holding them accountable to a better future.

The main challenge in education in developing countries like Egypt is offering good quality education at mass. How do we reach the millions of students while maintaining quality education standards that are not only achievable but also practical. A question that has been tackled by many educators and thought leaders for years, and has not one route to its answer. In my opinion, context is key, education is context. Understanding learners, their environment, their social activities, their needs, and their aspirations. How they envision their own education, what they want to learn, and how they want to learn. By knowing how they wish to see themselves in the future and by helping them acquire the skills necessary to draw the road map to their goals. By connecting education to context, to the everyday life of the learner, by connecting education to real-life!

After achieving my Bachelor and Master Science degrees in Networks Engineering, working for private-sector, multi-nationals and academia, I quit my job and started to pave my path to work for educational development in Egypt. Just before applying to my Ph.D. I decided to join Educate Me Foundation, a non-profit, youth-led organization being on its leadership team as Operations Director.

Educate Me aspires to re-define education in Egypt, transforming the system from being content-based to being skills-based. This is done through two main activities; first is establishing a community school K-4 in an underprivileged area with 280 students, which we so call our lab-school. The lab-school is community-run, where community staff are trained on a learner-centered model that incorporates 21st century skills along with the national standards of the Egyptian curriculum.  The second is accessing public schools and offering the teachers & school staff, a learning journey that uses a humanistic approach that incorporates best practices from our lab-school and empowers them to apply 21st century skills in their learning activity. We have operated in 170 schools, in 7 governorates across the country, reaching 5000 educators to date. We also connect them together in a network, with both an online and offline components. The network enables them to share resources, best practices, get access to mentors and learn from one-another. With a chance to meet policy-makers and have actual conversations around the education system.

Through the work in public schools we have found that the solution is not in establishing more schools and building parallel education systems. Social & civil sectors would hardly ever be able to fulfil the needs gap in terms of numbers especially in a country with a large population like Egypt. Therefore, working around the system from my humble opinion is not a smart solution for mass education. Accessing the existing public schools and developing from within is a mission impossible yet should not be overlooked. While most work focuses on doing more infrastructure, better curricula, extra-curricular programs for students, and opening more classrooms or schools the scene lacks actual work with the teachers themselves. We all remember old school teachers, whether on a positive or negative note. We remember words, phrases, small acts or specific moments we have endured in our childhood. Teachers act as role models for children in their early stages for years. Hence reminding teachers of their core mission and the chance they have everyday to impact the hundreds of kids and lead by example is the simple secret key. Our work with teachers should be to empower and offer them an opportunity to become innovators, and agents of change within their classrooms, schools and districts.

Through our work we have observed teachers changing their attitudes, transforming their schools with limited resources to make their learning activity more engaging. We have seen teachers creating a lighting system in the school library to classify books by genre, with minimal resources. Others chose to throw the sticks they used to hit the students with and decided to become more humanistic and respect students despite the large numbers inside the classrooms. We have seen others refusing to take promotions despite their needs for higher income to continue creating direct impact to the students. Real impact is achieved not by enhancing the teachers’ teaching skills but rather by focusing on them as human beings, desiring to be understood, respected and heard. As a result, they become more empathetic towards their students, engaging in their lives, building bridges, connecting more easily, adding value and creating impact that would last beyond the learning outcomes.

Neama a second grader from an underprivileged area in Egypt used to be an aggressive, inactive girl, whom would not participate and remain silent most of the day. She was more often than not punished for her mistakes and troubles. When her teachers were reminded of their role towards her and coached on changing their view to her, showing her love, empathy and respect, Neama became closer to her teachers and friends at school. She regained her trust in human beings. Neama is now one of the cheerful, caring students, whom is able to receive and give love, writing thank you letters to her teachers every week. She participated in the end of year showcase on stage; after not being willing to participate even in class activities. So instead of living a very disappointing childhood, and growing up to become a passive individual. She has enhanced her communication skills, became able to connect easier with the world around her and is developing skills that would prepare her for the future waiting ahead. Neama is now enjoying a comfortable childhood, not because she lives in a luxurious home, nor because she goes to a high-end private school but because in that community school in the midst of the harsh life she lives, her teachers are able to love, understand and have her heard. 

There are endless success stories to share but the most inspiring of all is the fact that teachers are willing to change their attitudes towards a better humanistic environment with their students, only when they are appreciated and feel safe.

After all, student and teacher in a classroom are not the sole parameters of the equation. Context determines needs, potentials and aspirations. What works in one place might not necessarily work in another. Thus educators and thought leaders should focus more on understanding the context and adapting to what is out there; allowing teachers to be the source for best practices and evidence-based approaches, to innovate and become the future education leaders.

In our ever-changing world, especially in developing countries, the need for contextual education is emerging; it is not any more an educational model that is good to have but rather a necessity.  Our world is in deep need for less theories and more practices. We need to believe in our students & teachers and allow the space for them to define what today’s education really is.