As a project director in EDC’s International Development Division, Helen Boyle’s work has taken her across the Middle East and Northern Africa. She has come to know parents, teachers, and students in many different Islamic school classrooms.
Born in Springfield, Massachusetts, Boyle seemed destined for a life in education: Her father was a teacher and school principal, and her mother was a librarian. After teaching junior high for one year, Boyle joined the Peace Corps. While in Morocco, she became intrigued with Islamic schools. “I knew Islam was a religion that put great value on learning,” she says. “That got me interested in researching these kinds of schools.”
Boyle did her dissertation on the Qur’anic schools in Morocco and earned a doctorate in comparative education. She teaches Education in Islamic Society, a course at George Washington University. “It’s satisfying to know that EDC’s project work can contribute to better learning opportunities and resources for Islamic schools,” she says.
Around the world, EDC helps communities and nations enrich their schools by supporting teacher training and learning opportunities. In Africa, Helen Boyle and her colleagues have carried out research on Islamic schools (known as “madrassas” or “medersas”) to bridge the teaching of religion with math, sciences, languages, and other secular subjects.
Describe the kinds of Islamic schools.
There are different types of Islamic schools across Africa, in countries such as Nigeria, Ghana, and Mali, and the Somali region of Ethiopia. The most traditional Qur’anic schools just have religious instruction, in particular, memorization of the Qur’an, the Islamic holy book. Other Islamic schools offer both religious studies and some secular subjects, such as math, science, and English. In several countries (Nigeria, Mali, and Ghana, to name a few), national ministries of education are encouraging and supporting the addition of these subjects. The international development community is increasingly looking at how to offer culturally sensitive technical assistance to these schools, whether it be teacher training or interactive radio instruction.
What are some of the challenges facing Islamic schools today?
Many students in Islamic schools have not learned the official language of their country—for example, French in Mali or English in Nigeria. This leaves them behind in terms of education, particularly if they try to matriculate from Islamic schools into the public school system. Many Muslims in these countries have expressed the need for their children to receive both a secular and an Islamic education so they can better participate in both political and economic life.
EDC has completed studies, as part of various USAID projects, that look at the characteristics of Islamic schools, particularly in terms of teaching practices, as a first step to assisting Islamic schools as they integrate new subjects into their curriculum. Indeed, one of the priorities of our funder (USAID) is to learn more about how we can develop secular programs that are sensitive to Muslim religious traditions and improve the quality of teaching and learning in those classrooms.
How have Islamic schools changed?
As Islam spread across Africa in the seventh and eighth centuries, it brought with it some of the educational institutions that developed in Arabia under the prophet Muhammad. The traditional model was a school that solely taught children to memorize the Qur’an. As they evolved, these schools branched out into other areas— Arabic philosophy, science, mathematics. The longer a student stayed in school, the more they would encounter other subjects beyond Qur’anic memorization.
Centuries ago, these schools had interesting forms of pedagogy, including peer learning, individualized instruction, and self-paced learning. Students were evaluated on their mastery of the materials studied and not by a formal exam process. If a student did not master the material he was studying, he simply went back, got more instruction, and tried again. Although the schools were very authoritarian, many of the instructional practices they employed are ones that we are promoting today in our teacher training activities.
In many post-colonial African countries, Muslim populations were reluctant to send their children to the emerging public school system as that system was associated with the colonizer and/or Christian traditions. So they tended to keep their kids in Qur’anic schools to ensure that they learned about and were faithful to their own religious traditions.
Why are there so many misperceptions about Islamic schools?
People in the United States don’t really know much about them, and we hope our report will clarify some misconceptions about Islamic schools in general.
After September 11, 2001, we heard a lot of negative commentary about Islamic education. Ninety-nine percent of the time, concerns that Islamic schools promote terrorism are completely misplaced. When you talk to many teachers and parents in Muslim communities—they all want the best for their kids, the same way American parents do. No matter where we are, we hear parents of children in an Islamic school say, “I hope my child graduates from high school. I hope my child goes to college and becomes a doctor.” Those hopes are universal.
Originally published on July 13, 2009