Looking for alternative education in Egypt?

In 1914, a manual was published to instruct students enrolled at Madrasit al-Mu’almin al-Uliyya — one of two leading teacher-training institutions at the time — on how to become good teachers. The manual in question was called “Usul al-Tarbiyya wa Fan al-Tadris” (The fundamentals of rearing and the art of teaching) and was written by Amin Mursi Qandil, a writer, translator and teacher.

The interesting thing about this manual and its 1928 edition, which I studied, is just how “progressive” it was.

The manual praises questioning in the classroom and encourages teachers to let students answer each other’s questions in a collaborative manner. It encourages teachers to only consider answers as “good” when students demonstrate that a sufficient level of thought has been put into them. Usul al-Tarbiyya praises story telling, the use of visual aids and imagery in the classroom, and advocates the use of cinema and film to explain complicated matters. The only text worthy of being written up on the board, according to the manual, is text based on student input. Qandil is critical of rote memorization and traditional forms of learning. Ultimately, he encourages critical thinking and imagination and sees the teacher’s role as a sort of facilitator who helps unleash student creativity and development. A couple of decades after Qandil wrote this progressive manual, the critique of existing state-sponsored educational methods was steadfast.

In 1937, historian Abd al-Hamid al-Batriq severely criticized the state of the Egyptian education system: “Here, the teacher does everything. He prepares the lessons and dictates them to the students while they remain planted in their seats as pure recipients who have little effort to make in obtaining and processing information. In the world’s modern schools, by contrast, students are trained from a tender age to think for themselves and to shoulder responsibility for their work.

The rather progressive vision advocated by Qandil in 1914 seems to have influenced Batriq’s critique of the existing educational system in the 1930s, which according to the above criticism has remained a far cry from the avant-garde fundamentals of the Usul al-Tarbiya manual.

While it is practically impossible to know for a fact whether progressive principles of education were applied in Egyptian classrooms at the time, we can safely say that today’s educational reformers complain about very similar issues to those addressed by Batriq.

International organizations such as the United Nations Development Program and the World Bank have been bombarding Egypt with reports on the dire straits of its education system, criticizing the system’s suppression of critical thinking and its inability to prepare students for the job market.

Almost no educational reformer today would tell you they are in favor of rote memorization, or that they believe students should be forced to learn. Such positions are passé. Aid programs targeting Egypt’s education system and its Ministry of Education have in many ways emphasized progressivism. Even Ministry officials pronounce themselves in favor of such progressive reforms; whether these are actually being implemented however is a different story.

In reality, private lessons have replaced school attendance, even though the latter officially continues to be mandatory. Teachers often subject their students to maltreatment, harassment and abuse. Monotonous methods of instruction, the overemphasis on exams, unfair grading and almost non-existent future prospects are merely a few of the issues students and parents repeatedly lament.

It is not just that the quality of education has deteriorated; schools are also unable to provide a safe and enjoyable environment for students. In short, the state of our education system is abysmal.

Given how poorly the official system has been educating students for decades, it is no wonder that parents, students, teachers and others are looking for alternatives. Changes in perception have aided the birth of an alternative education movement to provide immediate solutions to our more than pitiful situation.

One such solution is home schooling. Even though there is no official legal framework under which parents wishing to home school their children in Egypt can do so, a handful of brave and adventurous parents I personally met, fed up with what the Egyptian education system has done to their children, have decided to pull their children out of school and teach them themselves. From the beginning, they reported that their children were happier and that they were making significant academic advancements compared to when they were still in school.

Home schooling is great for parents who have time on their hands. But for parents working two jobs a day each, it is difficult to juggle with work, especially in the absence of a supportive home schooling community. Not all countries allow home schooling. In Germany, for example, children are forced to attend school by law and home schooling is not acknowledged as a legal option. We are yet to have a proper debate in Egypt on home schooling, its potential benefits, its scope, framework and potential risks.

Another educational option, of course, is the Internet. With the launch of online educational programs locally and internationally, children and students can turn to the web for their education. Online educational material can either be used alongside official curricula or be used as a substitute altogether. Recent years have seen the birth of platforms such as Nafham.com and Tahrir Academy. The latter in particular works much like Wikipedia, in that it encourages anyone wishing to disseminate any sort of knowledge in video format in Arabic to do so. The outcome is fascinating: a complete repository of videos on all subjects, skills and theories specifically aimed at students.

Students about to graduate high school or pursuing an undergraduate degree can also now sign up for a year-long study program at the Cairo Institute for Liberal Arts and Sciences (CILAS), which is inspired by the traditions of liberal arts education and prépas. The institute enables access to liberal arts education using an array of non-mainstream pedagogical methods. This option is beneficial for those who are dissatisfied with the education they have received thus far.

Parents who are not interested in pulling their children out of school can of course enroll them in after-school activities that use alternative education methods, such as experiential learning, for example, Alwan wa Awtar — an NGO based in Moqattam — uses art and music to help children from the area express themselves freely. Some parents have sent their children to Alwan wa Awtar specifically to keep them off the streets. 

Another option is to enroll your children in an alternative education school using child-centered learning methods such as Montessori. Unfortunately, there are very few of these in Egypt (there are Montessori nurseries now beginning to add primary school grades to their program, but they are not widespread and are often expensive). Egypt is yet to see the spread of affordable alternative schools, free schools and democratic schools, yet such conversations remain far from public debate.

The challenge facing these alternative educational initiatives, however, is that the law is crippling and the state is resistant to change. Because education is a highly centralized process, and because Egyptian bureaucracy remains stifling, such initiatives often face problems that can threaten their very existence.

Government schools are extremely difficult to penetrate in order to promote other schooling systems to students or parents. Home schooling is frowned upon because official educational content is so centralized and because the future after homeschooling is not very clear. Registered NGOs face a set of problems with the Ministry of Social Solidarity, especially when it comes to questions of funding, which can in turn affect the quality and sustainability of their educational projects.  And, finally, very few parents trust the Internet with their children’s future.

And this is when we must ask ourselves the following: Why talk about this universe of alternative parallel education when all we really need is to implement the wonderful principles articulated almost 100 years ago by Amin Mursi Qandil in Usul al-Tarbiyya wa Fan al-Tadris?

There are at least three reasons why we should begin to have a meaningful and nation-wide conversation about alternative education. Firstly, there is a time factor. Do we really want to wait another 10 years or so until the system is hopefully fixed, and if so, what do we do with children who are currently enrolled in school? — leave them to their dreadful fate?

Secondly, and this may come as a surprise, progressive education much like all of the proposed options presented above, does have a number of critiques. Kieran Egan, who has written extensively about progressive education, critiques the disappearance of almost all rote memorization/learning from American schools. In “Getting it Wrong from The Beginning” (2002), he suggests, “Knowledge does not exist in books or in computer files. They contain only codes that require a living mind to bring them back to life as knowledge. Knowledge exists only as a function of living tissue. Knowing where to find knowledge or poems or speeches is nothing like having that material as a part of one’s living tissue. It affects how we think and feel and education is about precisely improving these things.”

Egan shows us that we must be careful with what we perceive to be “ideal” forms of learning. This is precisely why such a debate is necessary to address the various pedagogical methods out there and their critiques and to help us assess them adequately before we adopt them as state policies.

Finally, it is necessary for us to experiment with other forms of learning and education in order to reach best practices that can then be used by the official education system. As long as these practices are not even debated, we continue to be at the mercy of those whose policies we have suffered from for so long.

Let us then finally begin a meaningful nation-wide conversation about alternative education. Let’s talk about all kinds of education. Let us critique, understand, experiment and learn from our mistakes. At this point, we really have nothing to lose.

Fairda Makar worked on “Usul al Tarbiyya wa Fan al-Tadris” for her Masters thesis.

Farida Makar