Three years ago Egypt’s Ministry of Education set out to improve the quality of primary education for the country’s rural girls and boys. Working from the ground up, the New Schools Program (NSP), as the effort is known, encompasses all aspects of school reform—from acquiring land and building new classrooms, to training teachers and supervisors in active learning techniques, to developing hands-on instructional materials.
A recent mid-term evaluation of the project documents significant progress in teaching and learning, while also underscoring the challenges inherent in any attempt to make widespread fundamental changes in classroom culture and teacher practice.
The traditional Egyptian classroom is worlds away from what we think of as an active-learning environment: walls empty of student work, desks arranged in rows, children performing recitation and dictation. “Our goal was to introduce teachers to a more student-centered, active pedagogy,” says EDC’s Helen Boyle. “The idea of the teacher as an authoritarian figure with the right answers is very ingrained in the Egyptian tradition. We are trying to move them away from the traditional ‘chalk and talk’ method toward more active learning and critical-thinking techniques.”
In the first phase of the project, Boyle and her colleagues provided groups of NSP teachers six day-long seminars on different teaching strategies, including active learning, cooperative learning, project-based work, and multiple intelligences. The participants include both novice and experienced teachers, 50 percent of whom are women. In order to provide ongoing support for the teachers as they return to their classrooms, the project also offers follow-up sessions with Egyptian staff in the local schools.
The initial seminars emphasized the importance of making, finding, and using teaching materials, manipulatives, and aids from the local community. “These are very resource-poor schools,” Boyle explains. “There is no supply closet with construction paper and glue and crayons and tape for kids or teachers to turn to. Teachers need to be very creative to develop materials from the community: making puppets, making clay to build figures for use, bringing in plants for a science corner, or developing activities with the use of bottle caps and plastic bags.”
EDC staff also worked with Egypt’s Center for Curriculum and Instructional Materials Development to produce teachers guides and kit-based materials that support the new teaching strategies. As a follow-up to the training, each teacher received a guide with ideas for creating hands-on materials and activities that can be adapted to a variety of lessons—for example, collecting beans or macaroni for lessons on grouping in math, or bringing in seeds for planting in science class, or having children create their own storybooks in Arabic.
Two years in, the project has produced improvements in teaching practice, according to the project’s evaluators, Aguirre International. They report significant changes in the ways NSP teachers are organizing their classrooms, including arranging students in small groups and decorating walls with hand made learning materials. The team reported that the beginnings of cooperative learning and some forms of active learning were evident and that some teachers had begun to use hands-on materials, most notably manipulatives like stones, pasta, or beans in math lessons.
But the team also noted that changing teacher practice is a slow process, one that can take years. While they observed that NSP teachers have, fairly consistently, moved from a stage of relying solely on rote learning and group recitation to rudimentary forms of active learning, they also stressed that many of them need further support, training, and time in order to be fully conversant with the new teaching practices.
“The report was helpful in confirming what we already suspected: that while the teachers are making some progress, we need to do more to help them master the content of active learning, not just the form,” says Boyle. “It’s not just about putting posters on the wall or rearranging the chairs, because when you look closely you see that the materials on the walls are still teacher produced, not student work. They also had arranged kids to sit in groups, but they’re sitting in groups to do dictation. This is the form of active learning, but not the substance.”
In the next phase of the project, staff will focus on the role that supervisors and principals can play in supporting innovative teacher practice. “Conceptually these instructional leaders are on board, but it is the same challenge the teachers face of moving from a conceptual understanding to practice,” says Said Assaf, EDC’s resident education advisor in Cairo. “Traditionally supervisors have performed more of an inspectional function—quizzing teachers and testing them. There is very little room for professional support in that model. Instead we will be working with them to develop something like a coaching model.”
The project has begun this work by bringing together regional groups of principals and district supervisors to receive training and orientation in the principles of student-centered instruction and the role of instructional leadership. With an eye toward long-term sustainability, the project has also adopted a “train-the-trainers” model with these school- and district-level leaders so ultimately they can provide school-based training and curricular support. “Bringing the supervisors on board is critical because what really matters to classroom teachers is what the supervisor writes in his notebook,” explains Assaf. “So if you want to try something new like this in your classroom, you really are taking a risk if you don’t have institutional support behind you.”
The report also acknowledged that NSP faced several systemic constraints in its goal to improve teaching and learning, including the rigidity of the national curriculum and the time allotted for each subject during the school day. NSP’s mandate does not include curriculum reform and teachers are not free to deviate from the nationwide school timetable, so EDC has had to focus on helping teachers utilize active learning within the confines of this structure. “The Ministry has tentatively agreed to allow some flexibility across disciplines and in scheduling on a pilot basis in some 4th grade classrooms,” says Boyle, “but this idea is very new in Egypt.”
The evaluators also noted that the supplementary instructional materials produced by EDC in conjunction with the Ministry’s Center for Curriculum and Instructional Materials Development were well liked and utilized by teachers. “We are pleased that as a team we were able to provide teachers with relevant and effective tools for guiding active learning in their classrooms while incorporating their own creative ideas along the way,” says EDC’s Katharine Yasín. The team also expressed confidence in EDC’s monitoring and evaluation instruments, noting that EDC’s data in tracking the effects of the training program was very consistent with what the evaluators themselves observed as they visited classrooms.
The mid–term evaluation was carried out by Aguirre International and the five person team was composed of American and Egyptian educational and community development experts. The team spent four weeks in October of 2002 collecting data on the program, largely through interviewing stakeholders, reviewing project documents, visiting project sites and observing classrooms in session. The team also visited several Egyptian schools not associated with NSP, for the sake of comparison.
Originally published on February 1, 2003