Ditch the Textbooks

The Holy Trinity of a formal education is classroom, exam, diploma. This model is being challenged all over the world.

Ten-year-old Mohammed sits cross-legged in his family’s tent in Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan. It is 2013 and he is reminiscing about his childhood in Daraa, the birthplace of the revolution in Syria, which he escaped in 2012 amid fighting that saw his uncle and grandfather killed.

Mohammed talks about riding a tractor with his father on the family farm. He describes long days riding along countryside lanes. His memories are happy ones, of his home, his family, his village and the neighbors, and of spending time with his father, on the land.  The soil there was red, not like the parched white earth around the camp. He was too young to drive the tractor himself when he left Daraa, but that was his dream, to one day be responsible for the family farm.

Since the start of the war in Syria in 2011, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), 4.8 million Syrians have fled to neighboring countries including Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey and 6.6 million are internally displaced within Syria. A large proportion of these are children. And the Syrian refugee crisis is only one part of a larger movement of people from across the region affected by conflict and instability.

Aid agencies warn that without education, Mohammed’s generation will become a “lost generation,” without the knowledge and skills needed to rebuild their countries and reintegrate. They are scrambling to get children into schools. But what education? In today’s world, what is valuable and valid knowledge? And who decides?

Learning to survive

Workers and volunteers at the Refugee Support Network (RSN), a UK-based NGO, offer educational support and mentoring to unaccompanied children, helping them to learn English and boosting their IT skills. Many of the beneficiaries are young Afghans whose asylum claims are rejected by the British government. These children are given leave to remain in the United Kingdom until they reach the age of 18, when they are sent back to Afghanistan. The UK government provides foster care and education. This is all intended to help them through their formative years in the UK and to reintegrate into life back home.

The reality, however, is much more complex. An in-depth study of returnees conducted by RSN found that the majority face significant challenges to reintegrate despite their education. These difficulties include cultural dislocation, stigma and unemployment, combined with financial difficulties and a relatively high cost of living. As one returnee put it: “I will have to try to go back to another European country rather than starve here in Afghanistan.”

Far from Afghanistan, in Yemen, accountancy graduate Khaled has spent the best years of his life trying, and failing, to make a living in his profession.  Unable to get a stable job, he became an amateur photographer, a hobby that led him to youth protests, working closely with Nobel Peace winner, Tawakul Karman.

Persistent attempts by his tribe to draft him into military service led him to escape Yemen across the Red Sea and to seek refuge in Somalia, one of the most dangerous countries in the world. “I am a civilian above everything else,” he says. Unable to find suitable work in Somalia, he continued to Sudan where he connected to a smuggling operation, which led him across the desert to Libya. After disappearing in the Libyan desert for one month and his family being forced to pay $2,200 for his release, he is now sitting in a warehouse about 75km from Tripoli, waiting for his name to be called to take the notorious journey across the Mediterranean Sea to Italy.   In the meantime, he hears that his younger brother back home has been drafted to fight in the front line in Maarib.  Neither would have faced these threats had they had stable livelihoods.

A global concern

Beyond these stories is a stark discrepancy between the promises made by formal education and the realities of livelihoods and employment on the ground. A gap which produces fodder for conflict.

Youth unemployment in the Middle East and North Africa stood at 30.4 percent in 2014, the highest of any region in the world.  But the challenge is not one of the south alone. Take a look at young people in the West. In the US, generation Y, those born in the 1980s and 1990s, have been described as the unluckiest generation yet. According to research conducted by the Pew Research Center, one in five 18 to 34-year-olds in the US will hold off getting married and having a baby for financial reasons, and one in three of those aged 25-29 have had to move back in with their parents. According to the Urban Institute, young people lag behind their parents in wealth by 7 percent.  While the young in the West are the highest educated the world has ever seen, the financial crisis has meant that having an education and a university degree is not necessarily a ticket to stability anymore. What happens when we add conflict or Global Warming to the equation? Or the over-exploitation of finite resources?

Self-directed learning

The most interesting and innovative models for learning are not the large scale global initiatives to get as many children into classrooms as possible in the shortest amount of time, or those trying to produce replicable copy-paste models of regurgitated learning packages with a certificate spat out of a printer at the end. In fact, the most interesting models reject exams, diplomas and standardised curricula altogether and see learning as inherently unique, self-directed, locally grounded and sustainability-minded.

These experiments in learning are cropping up all over the world. In Germany, Forest Schools are opening up where children spend their primary school years playing under the canopy, never entering a school building. In rural Bihar, one of the poorest and most densely populated state in India, Project Potential works with local youth to design their own university, creating spaces for visionaries to transform their own societies using local knowledge, skills and resources, rather than look for a better life elsewhere. Even in war-torn Syria, the Kurdish population of Rojava has started the Mesopotamian University. Little is known yet about this university, although visitors describe it as being based on egalitarian, feminist principles, the university and build on the knowledge of the people, their land, history, traditions, and strengths; a space where the value of knowledge is contextual and self-determined rather than decided by a central authority.

Back in Zaatari, it is 2016 and the family are still in the camp. Mohammed’s parents have decided to enrol their children in school. They are dissatisfied because the children are learning the Jordanian curriculum and the value of their certificates will be unclear upon return to Syria.  But beyond that, the family is aware that Mohammed is not learning how to drive his father’s tractor. He is missing the flow of the seasons, the depth of knowledge he would acquire, knowing when to sow which seeds, how to irrigate, how to plough, how to read the soil. As a refugee, Mohammed cannot learn that on his land. But he cannot, either, learn that in school. 

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