• Chris Sowton

Workshop facilitator: British Council Syria

Given the high demand for teacher development opportunities, but the considerable challenges of working in Syria, the British Council Syria (based in Lebanon) held a one-day workshop in Beirut for around 25 educationalists from Homs, Aleppo, Lattakia and Damascus. They represented a range of INGOs, NGOs and CBOs working in education. I facilitated this discussion throughout the day. Photos of some of the planning outputs appear below:

Key findings

Some interesting / noteworthy findings emerging from discussions include:

  • It was noted that Russian is now on the Syrian curriculum in some areas of Syria.

  • In some locations the curriculum is treated as a political football. This is a common phenomenon in post-conflict societies, where state power is ambiguous or weak and the school can become the locus for disagreement. Specifically, north-eastern Syria was identified as a location where this was happening, between the Kurdish and Syrian curriculums.

  • “The elephant in the room” was the extremely poor working conditions of teachers, and the low morale and lack of motivation which arises from this. Already very low wages have been decimated by inflation, with a monthly salary of around $70 for teachers being cited. Clearly, this is something which has a huge impact on any kind of initiative to improve the quality of language teaching inside Syria, but which delivery organisations can have little influence over. However, it is something which must be considered when designing programmes since it casts a long pall over any efforts.

  • When asked to give their definitions of ‘language’, language was not always seen purely in ‘linguistic’ terms. For example, it was described as “a combination of words, phrases and movements to express ideas and thoughts” and as “communicating thoughts and ideas in many dimensions: verbal (including inflection, intonation, etc), visual, and silence”. One respondent pointed towards the value of language as “the best way to get to know people’s stories” and another as “a vehicle by which thoughts and needs can be expressed”, the emphasis on needs here being particularly interesting. Another respondent noted that language was “not only way to communicate - there’s also sports, arts and music”.

  • When asked to give their definitions of ‘resilience’, it was interesting (albeit in a small sample), resilience is commonly defined / perceived in deficit terms. Definitions of resilience in this vein included “withstanding adversity”, “to withstand situations”, “to cope with recurrent challenges”, “having no choice but to be resilient in the face of circumstances”, “the ability cope with hardships/problems”.

Outcomes / Recommendations

  • Teachers and trauma: Teachers / educationalists are generally not experts in the field of trauma. However, it was also noted that teachers are, effectively, at the front line, and regardless of whether they are trauma experts or not, they will frequently have to deal with these issues. Given this, teachers should be helped to deal with this in the classroom (i.e. teaching-focused mechanisms to enable children displaying trauma to cope within the classroom, and to enable as positive a learning environment as possible) as well as support in their own psychological self-care, which there was little evidence of.

  • English for specific purposes: In addition to the need for general English to be taught, there is also the need for support in promoting English for specific purposes in certain areas. One particular area noted was support for medical professionals (e.g. at the UNFPA) given the importance of English as a lingua franca in this scenario. There is a potential an opportunity to work alongside agencies on developing materials / training for such programmes.

  • Conversation classes as a means of mitigating social tension: One particular challenge in terms of social cohesion which is currently being experienced is the mixture in the community of Syrians who remained in the own area, IDPs from other areas of Syria, and returning Syrians. The potential for conflict between these groups is significant. Language learning potentially offers an opportunity to mitigate this conflict, through the vehicle of conversation classes. These classes could have psychosocial materials embedded within them (although this would not be explicitly mentioned). The viability of peer facilitation is also an area which could be explored.

  • Partnerships and programme delivery: The importance of partnerships was a common theme noted throughout. Successful programme creation and delivery depends on funders, knowledge holders and delivery mechanisms working well together. One of the useful outcomes of this event was the breadth of organisations that was present, and the ability of each to learn about how others work, and also the restrictions they might have in terms of what they can deliver (e.g. for some actors working on the ground to realise the funding prohibitions for some of the larger agencies in particular areas).

  • Curating learning materials: The importance of materials was discussed at some length, with all actors saying how crucial it is to have access to high quality materials – but that they often lack the knowledge about where to find this information. The creation of some kind of ‘kitemark’ initiative which identifies language-learning websites / materials /courses which would be of use and relevance to stakeholders would be very useful.

  • Pedagogical support: Teachers / teachers trainers would benefit from having additional information about more communicative methodologies. Given the circumstances within which they are working, delivering F2F / blended learning may be challenging, and so the provision of materials for self-learning (or peer facilitation) could be a productive and effective way forward. These sorts of materials could include self-study information about classroom management (e.g. pairwork, groupwork, ways of organising e.g. doughnut / snowball), functional language, useful sources of additional information, ways of dealing with trauma in the classroom etc. It would be especially useful if this information could be linked directly to curriculums in use, so that teachers could integrate them directly into their practice.

  • Non-verbal communication: The importance of non-verbal forms of communications was noted, especially within the context of emergency provision, especially body language (e.g. for use in medical situations). Another interesting area which is potentially worthy of exploration is how emojis are used to scaffold communication.

©2019 by Chris Sowton