Even though art education is one of the components of the official Palestinian curriculum, it continues to be taught haphazardly and unsystematically in schools with no focus on its value to child development. Art education is generally dealt with as a recreational and unnecessary activity by schools. Firm in the belief in the role of the arts in encouraging imaginative thinking and creativity among children, developing their motor and cognitive skills, and providing them with space for self-expression and new channels for broadening their experiences, Palestinian cultural institutions have throughout the years organized a large number of teacher training courses, children workshops and diverse art and educational programs. Nevertheless, these activities have had very little impact on existing teaching methodology and practices.
In this issue, Marwan Tarazi, Director of the Center for Continuing Education at Birzeit University (CCE), Wassim Al-Kurdi, Director of Qattan Centre for Educational Research and Development, and Jack Persekian, Director of the Palestinian Museum discuss their efforts, which they believe will positively impact the standard of art education in Palestinian schools while improving teacher performance.
Constituting more than half of the Palestinian population, school children are taught using conventional and outdated teaching methods, without taking into account contemporary learning models that match the changing landscape or our students and their learning habits and needs. This has given the Palestinian workforce a disadvantage at developing and competing in the 21st century. A paradigm shift in the focus and approach to education is required to achieve a transition from teaching to learning and from the transmission of knowledge to the construction and production of knowledge.
The mere notion of changing the educational system in Palestine is terrifying and it entails huge costs. Budgets are limited and the number of students is remarkably large. Moreover, sixty-thousand teachers, most of whom are compelled to join the teaching profession due to lack of employment opportunities, are paid low salaries. Such a situation will not change quickly and hence the challenge confronting us at the Center of Continuing Education is to creatively and innovatively make an impact on the existing curricula and to teach students how to use critical thinking and effective learning skills.
Learning Objects Bank in Science and Mathematics
We believe that training teachers in effective teaching methods is a key factor in the development of the teaching-learning process. Consequently, we set up a bank containing ‘Learning Objects’ or modules for use by teachers. Developed in cooperation with a group of professional academics and innovators in line with the official curricula, the Learning Objects are dynamic tools that aim at facilitating teaching. They were designed with the intent of achieving the desired educational goals provided in the textbooks. Each Learning Object comprises several components including resources, activities and pedagogy. Resources may consist of a YouTube film of a teacher explaining a particular topic, a video presenting a special experience, an article in a book, a picture or an online game. Inspired by Palestinian students’ real-life contexts, the activities are intended to encourage creative and analytical thinking. Clear and detailed instructions for the use of the Leaning Objects are incorporated within a data bank that teachers can utilize for analysis, criticism and stimulation. One of the most powerful offerings of the Learning Objects Bank is that they are fully aligned with the requirements of the Palestinian curriculum.
The process of developing these Learning Objects called for enormous efforts. Fortunately, the results we have achieved bode well, for they have provided students with an opportunity to think and engage with issues critically. Within two years, we were able to develop one-hundred-sixty Learning Objects in the areas of science and mathematics for the eighth and ninth grades which we applied to fifty schools. The project was later carried out in other schools in cooperation with the Ministry of Education. We have also conducted several tests to check the results and we have found huge discrepancies in the academic achievement of groups of students who have used the Learning Objects and students who have not.
Art Education Learning Objects
In cooperation with the Palestinian Museum and several Palestinian cultural institutions, we are now embarking on launching a program for the development of similar Learning Objects for art education. When we talk about science, for example, we are certain that the teacher has ample knowledge about the material that she or he teaches. But with regard to art classes, they are often taught by teachers specialized in other disciplines that are completely remote from art education. It is rare to find schools with art teachers that actually have a degree in studio art and/or art education.
We are eager to start constructing an effective art education Learning Objects for four academic semesters that would stimulate creativity, develop motor and cognitive skills, as well as offer space for self expression and provide channel to broaden experiences. The Learning Objects will be tested on a small focus group and if proven successful, they will be disseminated to and implemented in different schools. Finally, it must be mentioned that our target is not solely the teaching of art per se, but also the use of art in education in general and across disciplines. For instance, art can be used in the teaching of other subjects such as science. Our ultimate objective is to construct Learning Objects that are in essence artistic but can be used in the teaching of other subjects.
Wassim Al-Kurdi: In real life, art and science are inseparable subjects
In the past, we viewed our work in education through three tracks: the arts; languages and social sciences; and science and technology. Through our experience, we discovered that the world is not fragmented and that in real life the arts and sciences are not separate fields. In fact, they are two different ways to understand and interpret the world and develop opinions and viewpoints about it. The arts enrich and stimulate the imagination, and imagination is crucial to the development and advancement of science. Leonardo da Vinci, for example, would have not been able to develop designs for big engines had he not been at the same time a creative artist capable of imagination.
However, education in our schools continues to be fragmented and students are incapable of appreciating the value of the subjects they learn and how useful those subjects could be relevant to their daily lives. When the Palestinian school curriculum was developed, the plan was to reconfigure the curriculum for the basic stage (grades 1-6) as one complete unit in which science, arts, technology, language, social sciences and history would have a complementary and interdisciplinary relationship. Unfortunately, the new curriculum was carried out contrary to the plan; subjects and lessons were kept distinct and teachers assigned separate classes.
Drama in Education
Launched in 2007, the Drama in Education Program seeks to link different subjects such as the arts, science, technology and social sciences. Drama is a representational imaginative art form that reproduces reality and establishes a relationship between real and fictional/hypothetical situations. Accordingly, students reformulate and reconstruct life situations, try to understand and analyze them, and discuss and develop new attitudes toward them. Drama is more than just a mediator between reality and imagination; it is an approach that helps students see life through a series of relationships.
The Drama in Education Program is a three-year non-compulsory continuing program for teachers. Each summer, Palestinian teachers from Gaza, Jerusalem, the diaspora and the 1948 Areas meet with Arab teachers in the city of Jerrash in Jordan, where they receive intensive training. The program is demanding and requires teachers to do research and readings, and to apply what they’ve learned in schools. Teachers are also asked to collect, document and analyze data. The number of applicants for admission to the program has been increasing each year, which led us to increase the numbers accepted, and despite this, many teachers are still unable to join the program.
The Drama in Education is part of the Art in Education program which encompasses animation and cinema in schools, which is being implemented in eleven schools. We particularly encourage supplementing the eighth and ninth grade history curricula with films and we seek to establish cinema clubs in schools and organize children festivals in which school children shoot and make their own films. The main goal of this program is not restricted to teacher training and enhancing teachers’ experiences; it also involves promoting a conversation—a dialogue–about education.
Jack Persekian: An attempt to make an impact on education
After many years of hard work by Palestinian cultural institutions to promote art in schools, we look around and see no tangible results for their efforts. Even though many school children were inspired by the work of the institutions and new horizons opened before them, there have been no concrete results, nor has there been any documentation of those efforts. The problem is that the activities of the cultural institutions were considered extra-curricular activities, i.e. outside the educational curriculum, and therefore they were considered secondary/nonessential and nonbinding. Even the arts curriculum in schools is marginalized and the majority of teachers of art are not specialists in the field of art education. In many cases, art classes are cancelled to make up for classes in other subjects which are thought to be more important. After holding serious discussions with several cultural institutions, it now seems evident that we have to make an impact on the educational process and officially intervene to amend or develop the existing curricula which are imposed on both teachers and students.
Two Distinguished Programs
Today, there are two distinguished programs in the field of educational development. The first is A.M. Qattan Foundation’s program “Drama in Education”. It is an exemplary one but primarily focuses on smaller groups and is evolving to constitute the founding principles of the first model school in Palestine, which advocates a holistic education approach. Yet the cultural institutions involved in art education are keen to reach larger numbers of students and teachers and see art education organized and disseminated on a national scale through the Ministry of Education. The other program concerns a unique educational experience undertaken by the Center for Continuing Education at Birzeit University, titled “Learning Objects”, which is currently embarking on setting up a data bank containing newly documented references tested by multi-disciplinary team of artists, educational specialists, graphic designers, photographers, curators, filmmakers, multi-media specialists and others. The data bank will be accessible to teachers and the information contained therein can be used with students during mathematics and science classes.
Cooperation with the Continuing Education Center
The Palestinian Museum intends to cooperate with Birzeit University Center of Continuing Education on a program similar to the math and science programs in schools, through the involvement of artists and specialists in the field in order to collate necessary resources and present them to the Ministry of Education which in turn will make them available to school teachers.
The idea of this program is to focus on two classes in which students usually reach the first stage of maturity, around twelve years of age. At this age children start to shape their personalities, develop consciousness of their individuality and begin to individuate from their parents and families. In addition, children become more alert to their senses and hence intervention becomes more impactful and effective. For example, if the learning topic was about multi-dimensions in visual art, children will be provided with practical experiments like the use of lenses or the camera in addition to referring to art works and to turning points in the history of art such as the transition from two dimensional to three dimensional arts.
The art education Learning Objects will be complementary to the Palestinian Museum’s programs, mission and vision. We believe that if we succeed in reaching out to a large segment of school children we will achieve great benefits. Students will have the chance to be introduced to arts and will develop an interest in visual arts and culture in general. Indeed, the Palestinian Museum will house cultural and art activities geared toward those students, feeding their interests and fulfilling their needs.