By Dr. Rana Dajani
I was already a lecturer at a university for two years, when I realized, that real change starts at a much earlier level, in school. So, I decided to become a school teacher. It is not easy to be a teacher, rather, it is a huge responsibility. If I were a decision maker in the government, I would make it compulsory for every graduate to be a teacher for at least one year, in order to appreciate teachers and the huge role they play in crafting our new generation.
I learnt by experience, that the learning process does not comprise so much, about the curricula, the infrastructure or even technology. It is all about the TEACHER! Through out history and even now, it is the shared experience of the learning process between the teacher and student that guides, inspires, leads and stimulates the student. Education is all about lighting the fire!
Teaching is where the rubber hits the road
With the advancement of technology and accessibility to the internet, acquiring information has become very easy. In such an environment, the role of the teacher becomes even more paramount. The teacher is in the classroom to guide and inspire, to entice and engage the student. Therefore, teachers’ training and preparation becomes extremely important.
The approach to teaching and learning should be student centered. It is up to the teacher to creatively find the key for each student, by employing different methods and approaches.
Everything is changing so fast and we don’t often know the future we are preparing our students for. Therefore, we must change the focus of the current curricula from content and knowledge, to skills and tools, in order to be able to analyze and cope with whatever circumstances they encounter. We need to use problem based learning, games such as minecraft, that allow a student to explore, be curious, ask questions and seek answers. It has been a common practice, to shut up the curious student who questions, in every context, be it the home or the school, so they become almost like zombies.
Content should also be reevaluated. Certain topics in the science curricula of Islamic countries are not discussed because these are either religiously sanctioned or considered a taboo such as biological evolution, although they are well known facts. Students must be allowed to explore and to develop their own opinions, rather than being restricted from engaging with these subjects.
Learning through practice
Knowledge should not be in an ivory tower separate from reality. Students should learn how to use the knowledge they acquire, in their communities. Therefore service learning should be implemented. Service-learning combines service objectives with learning objectives, with the intent, that the activity changes both the recipient and the provider of the service. This is accomplished by combining service tasks with structured opportunities, that link the task to self-reflection, self-discovery, and the acquisition and comprehension of values, skills, and knowledge content. There is a dire need to engage young learners with real-life learning.
Service learning combines the idea of community service with experiential learning, in a manner that helps to determine and meet real and well-defined community needs. It facilitates the transformation of a young person from a passive recipient, to an active service provider and consequently helps redefine the perception of youth in the community, from a cause of problems to a source of solutions; so that the students become change makers and doers, employing their knowledge and skills to build their society.
Reading is key to children’s development
Students need to read and write to be able to learn and express themselves. There should be more focus on training them to write and write well, to read and enjoy reading. One of the most important challenges and core impediments to development is reading literacy (allitracy). Reading levels are very low. One major international assessment, the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), found that the average student in low-income countries, as well as Muslim countries, is performing at the fifth percentile of the OECD distribution. Most Muslim countries, for instance, rank far below the average for reading scores on Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) [See infographic]. This is the same in most developing countries, negatively impacting education systems and economic outputs of the countries.
Reading is essential to development of children’s personality, imagination, and cognitive and communication skills. Through reading, a child draws upon the experience of others to recognize problems in their community and skills of others to develop solutions and the courage of others to execute the solutions in their communities. Through reading, a child learns about other cultures and people and begins to respect, understand and accept others, that leads to less conflict and more peace in the world. Though it is clear that children’s futures are not solely dependent on reading instruction, reading is a critical and necessary precondition for skill development. Children who do not develop reading skills during the primary grades, are on a lifetime trajectory of limited educational progress and therefore, limited economic opportunities.
Children must learn to love and enjoy reading to reap its benefits. Many programs attempted to increase reading levels by providing books, have failed. Research has shown that reading aloud is key in fostering the love of reading. In the West, this task is fulfilled by parents, teachers or librarians. Although these individuals are present in developing countries, the culture hasn’t embedded a sense of enthusiasm for reading aloud, and many are illiterate or lack reading skills and habits.
The love of reading
Therefore, I have developed an innovative model that provides a practical, cost efficient, sustainable, ‘grassroots approach’, that involves women and the community to increase reading levels among children aged between 4-10 years, by focusing on the read aloud experience to plant the love of reading. The We Love Reading (WLR) program constitutes training local women to hold read aloud sessions in public spaces in their neighbourhoods, where books are routinely read aloud to children. This is our “library”.
WLR chooses books that are age-appropriate, attractive, neutral in content, as well as in the native language of the child. In addition to promoting the experience of reading, WLR empowers women readers to become leaders in their communities, builds ownership in the children and community members and serves as a platform for raising awareness on issues such as health and environment (video).
Reading has traditionally been considered boring or a waste of time outside of academic or religious contexts. WLR is changing attitudes and letting people know that reading is fun.
Finding answers in the right places
Students often do not like science because it requires a lot of memorization rather than understanding. But with a solid background competency in reading, science could be made a lot more fun. Education is not the amount of students enrolled in school or the type of disciplines the students favor. It is about what we are teaching our students with regards to how they should think. Or how to be independent and creative.
Once a student acquires these skills, he/she will discover the discipline that he/she enjoys, pursues, and excels in. You don’t want everyone to be a scientist but you do want some – a sizeable number – to spend their lives discovering the mysteries of nature. Unfortunately for us, we are reaping the rewards of focusing on the wrong things.
Ultimately, if we focus on teachers, creative approaches of problem-based learning, community engagement, and reading and writing, we will be able to develop a generation who can not only solve some of the most fascinating mysteries such as our origins and ends, but also address daunting challenges that we face as a community and as humanity.
Dr. Rana Dajani obtained a Ph.D. in molecular biology from the University of Iowa, USA, in 2005; a Fulbright alumnus, she is currently Professor at the Hashemite University, Jordan.