Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

The Egyptian Education Question

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I needed to blog this out of my system. Let’s call it blog therapy.

For a long time (since I was 10, no kidding), one of the most central missions of my life was to help improve education in Egypt. For some time, I used to think I’d do it with grassroots work. Then I decided to do a masters and PhD in education. And at the same time of starting my masters, I changed jobs, to the same Center for Learning and Teaching (CLT) where I work today. I started as an entry level instructional technologist, and am now an associate professor of practice. The core of what I do is the same: faculty development: I give workshops, do consultations, do pedagogical research and smaller assessments of learning and teaching. For faculty at the American University in Cairo. Not your typical Egypt. Not your typical university. The elites, the privileged, and yet they could still do with the faculty development. But through working in this great department in a prestigious university, you get asked to help out in all sorts of ways that do help Egypt. Like consulting and workshops for NGOs, UN organizations, etc. I love doing that, and I love the people who ask me to do it. I actually hate that some ask to pay me for it (ugh). And I was very fortunate that when AUC’s Graduate School of Education opened, they asked me to teach there (adjunct). They asked me to do the ed tech diploma, and in hindsight, there is no way I could have taught anything else. I have zero experience with K-12 education in Egypt. I have loads of ed tech experience from working at CLT.

I do not believe Egypt’s public school teachers should be learning about ed tech. It’s not a priority, there is soooo much else to fix first! But look, technology is not going away and they can benefit from it. It still has enormous potential especially for informal learning. And while I teach ed tech, I have an unhidden agenda of focusing on developing their critical and creative thinking, as well as their lifelong learning attitudes. You can teach those things with almost any subject matter, and I am glad of the opportunity to teach in-service teachers. Occasionally, I have had opportunities to facilitate Critical Friendship Groups (CFGs – really cool formats, check them out) and work on non-ed-tech stuff as well.

Now the most important thing I have learned doing all sorts of teaching of K-12 teachers (as opposed to my day-to-day work with AUC faculty) is this: I know very little about their context. I need even more time and contact with what’s happening in schools to be able to make informed decisions with what their real problems are and which solutions would work.

This is really important for me because I believe that a lot of educational reform occurs at the policy level with people guessing from data what the real problems are. How much of what teachers really face every day is known? I don’t know. Even the teachers are affected (of course they are) by the hegemonic discourse of the media and policy makers.

One thing is clear to me: Everyone in the system needs a bit of curriculum theorizing of the kind that has practical value. I have yet to meet anyone who talks curriculum theory, if at all. They don’t need to have read Habermas or Stenhouse or Cornbleth or even Freire or anyone really. But I need to see someone who looks at “curriculum” as what it really is. Not a textbook. Not a syllabus. Not a set of assigned content. A colleague was recently telling me about a study about changes in Egypt’s history curricula that only looked at the textbook changes and decided not much had changed. He told me they neglected to look at how the exams had changed. Who looks at curriculum and forgets to look at assessments???

Anyway. The reason I needed to start blogging this out of my system is:

Two questions that were asked of me last week got me thinking.

The first was by a colleague (and I only remember it vaguely): if you had the opportunity to be part of a group of people working on education reform in Egypt, but you know that not much action would come of it, would you participate?

My response? I would; it would be depressing and frustrating, but I would, even though I do not believe I am the best equipped to do so, and I respect people who do participate in good faith. This particular colleague is someone who has that opportunity. I don’t envy her, because I can imagine how frustrating it is. I don’t want to be in that position not because I worry about the frustration, but because I worry that I do not have the knowledge or wisdom to do it right. But if I were in that position, I would do my damndest to find ways to research it properly and get the voices of teachers heard over the voices of policymakers, to work on consciousness raising for teachers and help them move beyond the dominant discourse in this country.

So I have said would not want to be in those shoes just yet because I don’t feel equipped to handle them. Why?

I didn’t grow up in Egypt, only tried the Egyptian educational system for three years, and it was awful. It remains awful. In more ways than I can count. When I came for university, it was AUC. Elitist bubble. I worked first a multinational, elitist bubble. Did some grassroots work, but still elitist even though you get out of the bubble and do good stuff (I love it, but have not been able to do as much of it since I got married, started my PhD, traveled a lot with my husband, then had a child and finished the PhD). I still do little bits here and there, but not enough.

When I started teaching teachers, this was my avenue for making a difference on a small scale in Egypt. It still is. Teaching undergrads to design educational games (which I did last semester for the first time and hope to continue doing forever!) is another way of influencing the future of education by getting young college students thinking about education that way.

With a child and a full time job (with a long commute to boot), activism is very difficult for me. So I have a LOT of online time after my child goes to sleep. I use that time to learn. And I use that time to connect. And I use that time to write, and writing is my activism. With it (this blog and other places where I write), I share what I learn, I ask questions, and I learn as others respond. I think and I connect, and I give. And it makes me happy to feel useful that way.

That still doesn’t make me an expert on Egypt’s K-12 education. So I am still thinking about this one, and how to reach the level of knowledge that would make me comfortable enough to participate more fully.

The second question was from my mom. I was excited about two incidents that happened to me in one week. I will not name names, but two big shot ed techies (of the critical, cool and caring connected folks I wrote about earlier) were emailing me. One asked me to write for her; the other asked to interview me online. The names of these people mean something in my circles. They mean little to people with me at work (probably, poor them) and definitely nothing at all to my mom. She understands in general that she “doesn’t get it” about academia and my work, but she sees me happy and excited so she just goes with it. So then she asked me this question:
“I understand that this is good for you and all, but how is what you’re doing [all this connecting with big shot people in ed tech in the US] helping Education in Egypt?”

How indeed?

I hadn’t thought of it properly, for some reason. But she’s made me think. It hurt a little when she asked it, like I had lost sight of my life goals. I don’t know whether what I write now will go beyond my initial response to her, but I am writing to help myself think.

On a macro level, I think it is important for power-knowledge to have people from this region become thought leaders in the ed tech field (or any field for that matter). A lot of educational discourse is imported and Westernized and does not represent what is happening over here. I think it’s important to have local voices on these things… Both for us here in the region, and for the West to learn and stop talking about us like they know what they’re talking about. That’s also why I loved starting up Edcontexts and love the team of facilitators who are working on it with me, all of us with postcolonial visions, but all of us also lovers of ed tech and the critical, cool, caring and connected we learn with online about it.

Of course, that level above includes learning about what’s going on in the world, collaborating closely with some wonderful people. It’s great for me personally in terms of enjoyment, it’s exhilarating academically, and it is also rewarding on the micro-level…

On the micro-level, I can do wonderful things with my students because of these connections I have made. The light in their eyes when someone from another country comments on their blog is priceless. It makes them feel useful, like what they write is valuable and worth writing. It’s a big seller for open blogging. And it gives them ideas of what to do with their blog beyond the class requirements, and what the online universe can bring. I plan to play an online twitter game with my students with other students in the West, and that has huge potential, too. So they can see twitter’s value (ahem, beyond organizing political protests, which, ahem, cannot be underestimated).

Somewhere in between all of this, my learning and the way this enhances my confidence gives me leverage at work. Being picked to be interviewed by the Sloan-C (now OLC) for virtual participation, then being asked to be on a steering committee for an upcoming conference? That was a huge hit at work. It was a huge hit for me.

It all has no direct benefit for education in Egypt, though. But it does this: it builds my knowledge, connections and experience, so that what I learn can help me better think of what to do here.

This reputation building for academics is crucial, i think, for other people to take one seriously.

Or maybe it’s me who does not take myself seriously. I don’t know. It’s not too cool to take oneself seriously. I hope I never lose that naive sense of wonderment when someone well-known in my field retweets my article or comments on it or DMs or becomes my fb friend. I hope I never lose that adrenaline rush of having an article of mine published, or a conference presentation accepted. But how’s that helping Egypt? Ummm I don’t know, except it’s how Olympic athletes might feel to have their country’s flag up there or something.

The other perspective on all of this is that my kid is about to go to school in a year’s time inshallah, and I(we) need to choose between the options. It’s a strange mix of trying to find a balance between:
A. A non-Egyptian education (we have several imported options in Egypt) coz Egyptian sucks
B. Foreign edu that keeps the “spirit” of its imported educational system (some use the name and syllabi but teach memorization still)
C. Foreign edu that does not wipe out Egyptian identity too much (that’s apparently difficult if B works well)
D. A school that we can afford
E. a school that is not a hell of a commute for the child (you wouldn’t believe how this last factor which my husband truly cares about is messing up the whole thing for me).

You know what? I am not a fan of importing educational models of others, but Egypt needs to learn from Finland. Ban private education (already highly problematic, neoliberal, you name it) and keep it all public so that the richest of the rich have a stake in making public education good enough for their own. That is soooo not gonna happen, but how I wish it would.

But that’s another story.

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