In 2010 I received funding from the Jackson Institute of Global Affairs to conduct research on the obstacles to curriculum reform in the UAE and Jordan. Throughout my research one of the most obvious (and expected) observations I arrived at, was that education reform efforts were completely stifled by systemic realities—such as high stakes exams and a lack of continuity in reform efforts—which made the system a complete nightmare to navigate. At the end of 2011, while working in Dubai, I met Joi Ito, of the MIT Media Lab, who advised me to implement innovations outside the system and all its complexities if I wanted to create any real change. In his words, “the system is seriously broken—maybe beyond repair”.
In 2012, I met Shaylyn Romney Garrett and her husband James, the founders of the nonprofit, Think Unlimited, in Amman. Shaylyn and James both came to Jordan as education volunteers with the American Peace Corps. The Garretts trained for their service in a small Bedouin village outside Mafraq in the north of Jordan, and then spent two years working in public schools and youth centers in the city of Salt. Early on in their work, the Garretts were introduced to Jordan’s focus on the notion of “critical thinking” as a centerpiece of the country’s education reform efforts. However, they saw few of these efforts reaching into pubic school classrooms in any meaningful way. Furthermore, parents seemed resistant to Ministry-level reform efforts out of a misunderstanding of their goal, and an understandable desire to ensure that their children were on the “school path to success—any deviations from preparing for the memorization-focused national exams being seen as unnecessary distractions.”
In response to this situation and the local challenges to implementing reform, the Garretts developed Brain Camp, a teacher-guided curriculum to teach students “creative thinking and problem solving” during the summer. In Shaylyn’s words, “we wanted to take teachers and students outside of the classroom, outside all the brokenness of the system.” The Garretts want to give a new generation of Jordanian students a glimpse of what education can really be outside of the world of tests and rote learning. More importantly, they want to give teachers a chance to experience what “it really means to be an educator.”
Think Unlimited’s curricula focus on eight critical thinking skills, each divided into two learning components (an interactive presentation followed by activities where these skills are applied). In contrast to the current Jordanian—indeed, most Arab nations’—school curricula, Brain Camp (and its semester-long afterschool equivalent, Brain Builders) consists of game-based, student-centered, activities oriented, and grounded in the real world. In James’s words, “the curriculum is really a narrative about what we do with the skills that we have. We use them to benefit our communities and solve problems in the world around us.”
While the benefits to students are quite clear, I believe the more interesting part of the equation is that the Garretts, have found a way to get overworked, grossly underpaid Jordanian teachers excited about adding over 30 hours a semester to their current workload—for no financial incentive. The teachers seem to be purely motivated by “how fulfilling it can be to be an educator and see your students learn.” According to James, Brain Builders achieves this goal by doing three things: by giving the teachers clear defined roles, supporting them “like crazy,” and holding them accountable to very high standards.
James and Shaylyn emphasize that Brain Builders, which is being implemented in cooperation with Madrasati, is still in its pilot phase with the first twenty teachers having completed training and a practicum period, and set to implement the program on their own this fall. Nevertheless, I believe there is a lot to be learned here about the importance of incentivizing teachers to teach more creatively and inductively. It also shows that with the right amount of support and trust, our teachers are ready to put their best foot forward and lead the way. As Marwan Muasher and Muhammed Faor emphasize in their report, “Education for Citizenship in the Arab World,” such education will be the key to the future of a democratic Middle East.
Nafez Dakkak is interested in Education Reform, MENA politics, social entrepreneurship, and tech start-ups and is a firm believer in the power of gamfication. His main passion is the intersection between technology and education entrepreneurship.
Photo Credit: Nafez Dakkak