Changing the Arab Approach to Education
Wherever I go around the TYO building, I see volunteers—mostly university-aged students from Najah or Al-Quds Open University—working in the classrooms with the core teachers or with my fellow interns. For many Americans, this scene would not seem out-of-place; volunteering and contributing to our communities is seen as a civic duty, or even more simply, as the right thing to do.
However, across the Middle East and the Arab world, this concept of volunteering one’s time for free is not widespread. In my Professional Competency class at Najah, I have had many conversations with my students about internships and volunteering. The majority of my students do not see why a person would give their time away for free; more than once I’ve heard them say, “Why wouldn’t you be studying during that time or relaxing with friends?”
These sentiments stand in sharp contrast to my experience at TYO where each day I see my volunteers tirelessly helping me not only in my own classroom, but also in each Core classroom and intern classroom. The volunteers are the backbone to each of our classes. They help us prep the materials for each day and clean up afterwards; they ensure that we successfully and smoothly carry out each lesson plan; most of all, they are the reason TYO can say our programs are sustainable. Through their experiences as volunteers in various classrooms, the university students at TYO are building up their own repertoire of skills and knowledge that can enable them to possibly carry out their own lesson plans and teach their own classes in the future—this is what makes TYO sustainable.
One of my volunteers helping my students plan their “New Nablus”
In comparing TYO’s own volunteers to my Professional Competency students at Najah, it strikes me that NGOs throughout the Middle East and around the world need to start involving teenagers and university-aged students as volunteers in their organizations. It not only allows for the sustainability of the organization, but it also ensures that NGOs are helping to build up the leadership qualities in those who most need it. This is especially true in areas in the Middle East struggling with high unemployment rates—although volunteer positions are often unpaid, the experiences and knowledge gained are invaluable, and may indeed help these volunteers to secure jobs in the future.
One organization, the Arab Thought Foundation, expanded this idea into an initiative in 2011, calling for a culture of volunteerism. For more information on their initiative, go to: https://www.arabthought.org/en/projects/arab-initiative-foster-culture-volunteering
In the Middle East hands-on learning generally takes a backseat to rote memorization. Beginning in primary school, teachers bombard their pupils with an unreasonably large amount of information, which they attempt to commit to memory in order to attain high marks on their secondary school examinations. These examinations, such as the Thanaweya Amma in Egypt and the Tawjihi in Jordan and Palestine, cover a daunting array of subjects and essentially determine a student's field of study and, according to the 2004-2009 USAID strategy for Jordan, their future prospects. However, one should not underestimate the power of practical education. In my experience, those who engage in hands-on learning, whether working in a relative's shop, practicing language skills with native speakers, or volunteering at a local NGO, are generally much more focused, driven, and successful in their local, regional, and the global economy.
The example of language acquisition strongly underpins the case for hands-on education. I have met countless university students who, despite studying English in school for years and possessing impressive reading and comprehension abilities, cannot form simple sentences in the language. On the contrary, a few of the 10-11 year old students in my sports and health class have little trouble conversing in English because they have continuously practiced the language with native speakers at TYO. Regardless of their Tawjihi scores, if these students continue their language acquisition through this hands-on approach they will have greater access to the Palestinian economy, in which English is a crucial skill and unemployment is over 23%.
In addition to my students, my volunteers also demonstrate the importance of hands-on education. Unlike most university students who I have met in the Egypt, Syria, and California, the volunteers and translators who donate their time and energy to TYO will graduate with not only a certificate, but also a variety of experience working with children, translating, and performing administrative tasks. After slaving away all session on the soccer pitch teaching wacky activities to children and listening to me use incorrectly gendered Arabic commands, my volunteers will gain valuable experience, professional direction, and possibly even a job.
Despite the low regard for hands-on education in Palestine, the greater Middle East, and across the world, it is an important supplement to formal education. The success of students and volunteers at TYO is a testament to this idea that professional experience must accompany conventional learning. Whether in Palestine or the United States, such experience gives students the skills and confidence to be successful in their personal and professional lives.
The message of hands-on learning is one that is essential to the intern experience at TYO. As interns, we are not only inspiring children to learn through informal, exciting lesson plans- we are also ourselves learning the basics of our studies by the realistic application of those studies. Some of us are learning the Palestinian dialect of Arabic, some of us are learning the interworkings of NGO management, some of us are learning the mechanics of running a classroom. All in all, however, we are each gaining perspective that no college campus classroom could ever possibly provide. The conversations, social interactions, and dynamics of doing volunteer work provide immeasurable life lessons that we will carry with us for the rest of our lives.
Repeatedly, I have found myself gaining perspective and insight about the world around me by sharing my time with underserved communities around the world. My time at TYO is no different. By coming to Palestine, I have gained the insight of how the community works- insight that no amount of reading or studying could have given me. Through interacting and working with the local people, it easy to understand the importance of supplementing all education with hands-on experience- whether that be volunteer experience for those interested in education or psychology- or science and math projects for those students studying hard sciences. In any educational setting there must be an emphasis on discovery through real world trial. After all, the greatest minds in history learned by doing- not solely by reading.
But don't just take my word for it- check out the good.is Guide to Volunteering, https://www.good.is/good-guide-to-volunteering for more information on how you can get engaged. I promise, you won't regret it- and neither will your resume.