Diversity in Ways, Settings, Thought, and Discourse of Learning
The idea of the proposal is to hold a seminar in Beirut, for 3 days (14 –16 October 2003). The seminar seeks to bring together about 20 people, mostly from Arab countries, who have been working within diverse ways of thinking and learning as well as to prepare for further meetings in the future on the topic. It will be organized by UNESCO Beirut and the Arab Education Forum, in collaboration with UNESCO-Collective Consultation of NGOs/ Paris, the Arab Resource Collective/ Beirut, and Shikshantar/ Udaipur, India.
The need for the seminar grew from conversations that took place in several conferences: “The role of education and culture in Arab development” which was held in Sharga on 15-17 Dec. 2002, “Unfolding learning societies” which took place in Udaipur, India on 18-22 Dec. 2002, and “Alternative discourse in education: Towards new notions of quality to promote lifelong learning for social transformation” a UNESCO-Civil Society seminar at the World Education Forum which took place on 19-23 January 2003 in Porto Alegre, Brazil. A common concern that arose in these conversations is the need to bring out the diversity and richness that exist in ways, settings, thought, and discourse through which people learn. The seminar will bring together several people who have been involved, for a number of years, both within formal education and in community projects that embody learning and the construction of thought. The purpose of the seminar is to open up the discussion to include dimensions and views that are usually missing in current discussions on education in the Arab region. It is also to open discussions with people from the South, which have been neglected among Arabs in recent times where discussions in general have been limited to people from Europe and North America.
In a world in which the imagination, thought, discourse, and change are dominated by “information age,” “globalization,” and ready meanings and solutions, one crucial dimension in constructing authentic thought and knowledge is for each person/ group to investigate and co-author the meaning of the words they use, through constant reflection, articulation, and discussion. Words do not only gain meanings from dictionaries, texts, and “experts” but also from experiences and reflections of people. Such construction of meaning and thought is currently lacking in the Arab region (as well as other regions), which has been a main reason for the absence of diversity and authentic thought in modern times. Like many regions around the world, there is a lot of activities, projects and programs going on in the Arab world, and a lot of re-wording of imported ready-made theories, but very little (if any) reflection, articulation, and discussion of what people do, i.e. very little construction of authentic meaning, thought and knowledge. Needless to say, such construction is crucial in education and learning as well as for the healthy growth of individuals and communities.
Within the tremendous changes and challenges which the world (including the Arab world) is facing, there is a need to look again and rethink much of what is taken for granted today, including education and its role in societies. Education is a concept that is relatively new. Before the age of education, there was learning and teaching, and alongside education there has been learning and teaching that continue to be active outside educational institutions (which over the years have increasingly been made invisible or rendered worthless). There is a need to investigate teaching and learning as they are conceived and practiced in education today as well as their underlying logic, worldview and assumptions. At the same time, there is a need to explore, in more depth, the different ways of teaching and learning that existed in the pre-education age or continue to exist alongside education. These embody diversity in learning that needs to be recognized, critically looked at, explored, and legitimized.
In order for it to happen, learning does not necessarily require special settings, ready standardized materials, and professionals. It happens all the time in diverse settings and conceptions. A main challenge facing communities every where is to reclaim diverse ways of living, learning, teaching, knowing, relating, doing, and expressing – ways that exist and ways that need to be developed.
There has been more questioning of education as the only way to learn in places such as India, Africa, Central and South America, as well as in some countries in Europe and North America, than in the Arab world. Many groups[i] in these regions have been involved in questioning current dominant practices and thought in education and in articulating authentic visions concerning teaching and learning (through experimentation and reflection). The Arab world needs to experiment, reflect, articulate, question and to come up with its own visions – rather than continue to copy ready models from the West. The absence of these from the Arab world today is very strange in light of the fact that such dynamism, spirit and diversity flourished widely in the region in the past – it was even more prevalent a hundred years ago[ii] than now. There is a need to explore what is happening in other regions as well as what took place in the Arab region in the past, and ask some hard and fundamental questions. In order to enrich the discussion in the seminar, arrangements are already taking place to invite 5 to 7 people from Asia, Africa, and Central/ South America who have been questioning their situations and experimenting with various ideas and approaches
The following questions may be helpful in starting the discussion concerning education, teaching and learning in the Arab world. Hopefully, the discussion will start among participants before the meeting (via emails, faxes, or even face to face wherever possible). The purpose of the questions is to stir some “stagnant” seed ideas that lay somewhere deep in each person and to generate more questions to explore collectively:
1. What insights have you gained, through your work, in relation to learning, and the building of thought, knowledge, and wisdom?
2. What are some of the concepts/ beliefs/ relationships that you had to rethink as a result of your personal experiences, reflections and discussions? In other words, what are some of the things that you had to unlearn to make your work more relevant, meaningful, and rooted?
3. What are some of the meanings you feel you have “co-authored” for words that you use, through reflecting on your work (meanings that you feel more in tune with your experiences and realities)? And, what are some of the words that you feel describe what you do and experience, better than those currently used? And what are some of the dominant words that you feel are irrelevant to your work?
4. What are some concerns that you have concerning the concept of diversity? Does it, for example, exclude universals in your opinion?
5. What are your experiences with learning and change?
6. What are some of the things that we don’t know about learning in the region? And what are some other things that we need to look at more deeply in order to understand diversity in ways that bring out richness in human experience and living?
7. What sources, materials, stories, books, videos, and persons you think should be brought into the discussion?
Outputs of the seminar may include:
· An elaborated paper on the theme of the seminar (that includes ideas, experiences, questions and concerns that people raise in the seminar) to be distributed in the Arab world;
· A web site that will continue the discussions around the theme;
· Plans for a bigger international meeting around the same theme in 2004;
· Plans to participate in regional and international meetings that we connect with (such as the World Social Forum meeting in January 2004 and/or 2005); and
· Exploration of other sources, materials, organizations that can contribute to the discussion.
[i] Just to mention few: www.idsp.org.pk (Pakistan); www.swaraj.org/shikshantar (Udaipur, India); www.multiworld.org (Malaysia); www.kufunda.org (Kufunda Learning Village, Ruwa, Zimbabwe); www.pioneersofchange.net (South Africa/ Denmark); www.newhorizons.org (New Horizons for Learning, Seattle, WA, USA); 21st Century Learning Communities; … Other individuals and groups include: Gustavo Esteva (Oaxaca, Mexico), PRATEC (the Indies, Peru); Coumba Toure (Mali and Senegal); …
[ii] To mention few: Shediaq, Mohammad Abdo, Sakakini, Afghani, Jibran…
From other regions, probably Gandhi and Tagore in India stand out as two distinguished persons who were very perceptive and visionary in this regard. Hind Swaraj by Gandhi is a must for those who are interested in looking at a different vision…