Educational reform in Lebanon is going slowly; schools are struggling and both teachers and students face tough challenges ahead. State schools have many problems including poor learning environments and in underprivileged areas school drop-out rates are high.
The allure of lessons
Around 40 kms south of Beirut, Sidon is the third largest city in Lebanon and home to many people living below the poverty line. Learning World visited a girls’ school and found small, ill-equipped classrooms with bad lighting. In the winter, inadequate heating adds another disincentive to coming to school. But many of the girls here are keen to learn.
The NGOTeach for Lebanon works to eliminate education inequality and decrease absenteeism and drop out rates. One of its programmes aims to foster youth leadership and civic education in a country divided along sectarian lines.
Teach for Lebanon says that poor quality teachers are also a problem. So they recruit qualified university graduates and now have 22 new employees working in 13 schools all over the country. Sahar Mashmushi, who teaches Arabic and theatre studies, is one of them: “The students’ educational levels are very low, and they need help in every way, from A to Z. We are here to encourage students to express themselves. I make them free so that they can bring out their potential. We have lots of students who have great potential, and we are trying our best to help them.”
Soon, these theatre studies will be held in a specially equipped room, provided through donations. And later on, they want to paint the school walls and improve the desks.
A class act
Yusser Chediac is a biology teacher at a secondary school in Beirut. Using all her energy and will-power, she got her students involved in a project which went on to win international acclaim.
She explained how that came about: “I have been teaching for seven years, using the same content and the same pedagogy, and I felt I wasn’t advancing. So I started taking risks, and trying new methods in the classroom. And when I felt the students interacting and teaching me new things I was encouraged to take more risks.
“So I found myself inventing a new method, which involves encouraging students to chase after education and then education chases after them. I was trying out my own way of concentrating on the skills that the students will need in the job market.
“I took a very dry subject – paper pollution – a subject which students weren’t interested in learning and teachers weren’t interested in teaching. We made students research information which we didn’t have, and when they realised that they had to produce new information they were more excited. Then I made them use a real problem-solving method, dealing with real life and real problems.”
“By talking to environmental associations, they became more motivated to make good use of paper and be careful about recycling. Now they have a Facebook page and a website which contains all their research in order to raise awareness about paper pollution. Since then they have been organising an annual paper collection campaign at school.”
In 2012 Yusser Chediac won an international award for innovative teachers. She was ranked third worldwide for her project in the building information and critical thinking category.
The American University of Beirut
The American University of Beirut was founded 140 years ago by American missionaries in Lebanon and Syria, and has faced many challenges in its time. In 1991 one of its buildings was destroyed by an explosion, and although it was later rebuilt, the university is still affected by the Lebanese politics.
Peter Doorman, the director of the American University of Beirut, told euronews: “With the ongoing instability in the region – and it is not just Lebanon itself which remains politically divided – we are starting to see a spillover now in Lebanon, especially with the Syrian crisis bringing probably close to one million refugees to Lebanon; so those are things which continue to concern us.”
The university is ranked as the best in Lebanon, and is in the top 250 universities worldwide according to Quacquarelli Symonds.
Professor Makhlouf Haddadin has been teaching at the university for 49 years and won a prize for his participation in the Davis-Beirut chemical reaction. He said: “What characterises this university is that it is in Lebanon, and in Lebanon there is freedom, particularly academic freedom which is not present in most Arab countries.”
With faculties in agriculture and food services, arts and sciences, engineering and architecture, health sciences, medicine, and a business school, the university is based on the American liberal arts model of higher education. Fees are however, on average around 18,000 US dollars (13,000 euros) a year, which is prohibitively expensive for many students.
Peter Doorman, explained: “We have budget issues of course, every university does. AUB relies very much on the tuition we bring in. One reason we have raised tuition in recent fees is that we are using a portion of these tuition fees for financial aid for students who can’t otherwise afford to come to AUB.”
It is expensive, but there are no shortage of people applying to study here.
Amal Mabsoot, who is a student at the university, gave us one reason: “In this university they don’t segregate along sectarian lines. We get places here according to our educational achievements, not according to which sect we belong to.”
Noor Hamdan, another student at the university, provided another: “The American University certificate is highly valued in the job market and opens a lot of new job opportunities.”
The university also has three museums, which are open to the public. At the archaeology museum for example, university staff organise workshops to teach children about their history and culture. But despite this, Lebanon is still seeing an exodus of bright young talent from the country.