When Egypt’s Ministry of Education set out to increase the number of rural girls attending elementary school, it had to begin with the basics-building more classrooms. Because the schools in the Egyptian countryside have traditionally been large, overcrowded, and located a good distance from village centers, the Ministry, together with USAID and CARE/Egypt, has opted to build new, smaller schools in the rural villages.
The Egypt New Schools Program, as the effort is known, also seeks to improve the quality of the education rural girls and boys receive once they’re in class. Toward this end, CARE/Egypt has invited EDC’s Multichannel Learning Center to develop a teacher training program and hands-on classroom materials for the New Schools Program.
“Our goal,” says EDC’s Helen Boyle, “is to introduce teachers to a more student-centered, active pedagogy. 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.”
Boyle and her colleagues are currently offering the teachers six day-long seminars on several different teaching strategies, including active learning, cooperative learning, project-based work, and multiple intelligences. They are also working with the teachers on strategies for integrating learning across the curriculum. The participants include both novice and experienced teachers, 50 percent of whom are women.
Boyle emphasizes that the Ministry invited EDC to help them improve the quality of the teaching in rural schools, not to “Westernize” them. “Egypt has a national curriculum, and we’re working within that curriculum, helping teachers teach it better, not trying to alter it,” she says. The project focuses on instruction in Arabic, math, and science for grades 1-6. Egyptian students also study religion, with the majority Muslim population studying the Quran and Christian children studying the Bible. “We don’t touch religion,” says Boyle.
Teaching across such different cultures is sensitive work, and Boyle, who spent nearly a year in a northern Moroccan village studying its Quranic preschool, is in a good position to bridge the differences between Muslim and Western educational traditions. “We work hard to be in harmony with Muslim traditions, and we try whenever possible to link what we are doing with those traditions,” says Boyle. “For instance, in the Quranic tradition, you’ll find many of the teaching strategies we advocate today in the West—things like group work, peer tutoring, and student presentations of content mastered. In the traditional Quranic schools, these strategies are used mostly in the service of memorization, so that’s very different from what we’re offering, but we try to make the connections where relevant. We also emphasized the Quran’s endorsement of education for girls as well as boys.”
The training sessions are conducted in ways that invite the teachers themselves to participate as active learners. “We’re finding that the teachers really love the experience-we give them lots to think about,” Boyle says. “And we make this active learning strategy explicit with them, asking them to reflect on their experience with questions like, ‘Did you learn the material better this way?’ The teachers are generally very receptive to these ideas because they make sense, and good teachers recognize that. The teachers get the concepts—the real challenge comes when they begin to put them into practice. That’s always the toughest part.”
In order to provide support for the teachers as they return to the classroom, the Ministry of Education is offering follow-up sessions with Egyptian staff in the local schools. MCL staff are also working with Egypt’s Center for Curriculum and Instructional Materials Development to produce teachers guides and kit-based materials that support the new teaching strategies. “The emphasis in the guide is on helping teachers learn to develop their own hands-on materials for children, which is new to them,” explains Boyle. As a follow-up to the training, each teacher receives 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.
In addition to the teachers guides, the kits also contain a few materials that teachers could not realistically make themselves—big books for reading aloud, a large laminated map of ancient Egypt with geography activities on the back, and cassettes of educational songs. All of the materials have been greeted enthusiastically by the teachers, says Boyle, but the cassettes have made the biggest splash: “All of the Arab educators I know are asking me for copies-even non-educators are asking me for copies for their children.”
In her work with the New Schools Program, Boyle has been struck by some of the similarities between Egyptian and American teachers: “A lot of the concerns the teachers raise when you introduce them to a more student-centered practice are similar to what we hear in our work with teachers in the United States—concerns about the time involved—’We don’t have enough time to teach like this.’ Or coverage—’We have to cover X amount of material no matter what.’ Or the need to teach to the exams. Resistance to change is universal—so we’re putting a lot of effort into developing the kind of support and resources teachers need to internalize these changes.”
Originally published on June 1, 2002