Dr. Rima Karami-Akkary, director of TAMAM, talks about education in Lebanon and the region before and after COVID-19: what’s changed, what hasn’t, and a surprising development.
November 8, 2020
What did TAMAM focus on before COVID-19?
TAMAM allows a team of university educational researchers and trainers to go into schools, k-12, to help empower teams of teachers to bring about school-based reform. We help teachers become leaders. Since 2007, we’ve worked to help teachers and principals become agents of change instead of just carrying out policy directives from others. The schools identify what they want to work on with us--inclusion, teaching of Arabic, improving teacher evaluations, improving student engagement, redesigning the science and math curricula, etc.
You work in Lebanon, Oman, Jordan, Sudan, and other countries. Is there anything you see in common across the region?
We live in a region where development in education has stalled. People have tried investment, reform, and new ideas, but the impact on student learning has been dismal. Students don’t do well on international exams in general. They lag.
One common factor around the region is an infatuation with the latest ideas from outside, for instance from Finland or Canada. But schools often miss how to contextualize and implement the idea so that it truly becomes their own and makes an impact on improving the quality of the teaching and learning that is overall pretty low.
Of course, there are great variations in the region, too. In one country, there was a boys’ school where it was hard to get the boys motivated to study because the wealth of their families had already guaranteed them a house and a job after graduation. And we’ve been in other schools with fifty kids in one room, where basic safety and hygiene is an issue.
What have you seen since COVID-19?
Naturally some schools were better prepared because they had already integrated technology into their curriculum. These schools were better able to deliver services and adjust. Others, where there aren’t the resources, basically shut down and offered classes since last March. How can teachers deliver lessons and homework digitally when students don’t have the devices, and when a country like Lebanon has just about one of the worst internet connectivity on the planet?
COVID-19 has forced all of us to improve our practices. For example, school/parent engagement, since parents have basically had to set up school in their home. We need now to build partnerships. If a school was loosely organized, and roles weren’t clear, COVID made the whole learning situation more overwhelming. Schools used to more teamwork were able to problem solve better.
Is there any silver lining to the pandemic for schools?
There has been an assumption that teachers here aren’t innovators, not capable of designing a curriculum. We’ve known that the expectations of the role of a teacher need to be raised, and COVID-19 has forced those raised expectations.
There have been real success stories coming out of the pandemic. Teachers have had to figure out what’s most important in their curriculum and how to communicate it over a screen. They’ve had to innovate, take ownership, and just get the kids learning. It’s been good energy for change and improvement. Change isn’t scary anymore--it’s happened. Now they’re saying when life goes back to normal, they’re going to keep some changes. Many are newly motivated even though they are beaten up and overworked.
What do you see when you look ahead?
Certainly I see hope for education in the region to get better. We’re going to be focusing on the essential skill of problem solving.
TAMAM has worked in sixty schools, and we have a solid network interested in change. COVID-19 brought change to the door. These teachers and administrators are learning to plan, identify objectives, modify their plans, and deal with situations that are different from what they were used to.
We used to meet once a year as a big group. Our AUB team was always advocating to develop professional associations and networks. Well, now we meet by Zoom every Saturday afternoon to exchange ideas. The networking between the schools has flourished organically, and the schools are working together and posting videos for each other of what works.
Our education department at AUB has a bigger role to lead educational improvement in the region. We’re going to be more proactive in helping schools and encouraging the networking among themselves. After the disaster situations of the past year, schools and their educators will be eager to learn.