Foto: Rasmus Bøgeskov Larsen

Reforming the school system with toasted marshmallows

The Danish-Egyptian Dialogue Institute has taken the Danish folk high school tradition to Egypt to support social and political stakeholders. This has helped people like Nariman Mostafa, who has set up an independent school with a completely different approach to teaching.

The course is soon over. But there is no exam. As a matter of fact, there is no syllabus either. And none of the students have ever done any homework. They have actually not had any subjects. And none of the teachers want to be referred to as teachers.

Instead, the course finishes up with a market day. The students have to present, and hopefully sell, some of the arts and crafts they have worked on over the last two months. The students have purchased the materials in the stores of Cairo from their own budgets, and together they have planned the market day and decided how to distribute the profits.

The learning takes place through creative processes. Photo: Rasmus Bøgeskov Larsen

Daily life at the Mesahat school consists in an internship. Mesahat means ‘space’, and the school is trying to create a space for a natural form of learning. The aim is that students should love to learn, and that they become good at learning on their own. During the two months at summer school, the students have acquired knowledge and experience in things such as art, teamwork and mathematics without being instructed in the traditional way.

“The world is changing every day, and there is always something new to learn. It is crucial that children are able to learn themselves, so they can adapt and find their way through life,” says Nariman Mostafa, the founder of Mesahat, who not only runs a summer school but also teaches during the normal school year.

“In the normal school, you just have to do what you are told. And if you don’t, you are punished.”

Nour Khaled
Student at Mesahat

The methods at Mesahat are completely different from a normal Egyptian school. At traditional Egyptian schools, rote learning, strict discipline and corporal punishment are all a part of everyday life.

“I love to go to school, but I can’t learn anything in the ordinary school with its tough methods. I’m afraid of going there,” says Nour Khaled, an 11-year-old girl who goes to Mesahat.

“In the normal school, you just have to do what you are told. And if you don’t, you are punished. It doesn’t matter what you want to do yourself,” she says.

Folk high schools are popular

Nariman Mostafa is one of the Egyptian ‘changemakers’ who has been on a folk high school course organised by the Danish-Egyptian Dialogue Institute (DEDI) in Cairo. Since 2012, DEDI has tried to transfer some of the basic ideas from the Danish folk high schools and evening schools to Egypt. The programme, which is called ‘Civic education for participation’ (CEFP), is one of the largest and longest-running DEDI programmes, and so far it has trained 400 Egyptians who are socially and politically active.

At Mesahat, the title ‘teacher’ has been replaced by ‘facilitator’. Photo: Rasmus Bøgeskov Larsen

“Egypt is going through a dramatic transformation currently. But the formal education system has been weakened, and many young people lack essential skills. There is therefore a good deal of interest in the model of schooling that is inspired by Danish folk high schools and evening schools, where the teaching is adapted to individuals’ needs,” explains Hans Christian Korsholm Nielsen, director of DEDI.

The participants on the programme have used their new skills on everything from parliamentary politics to the start-up of new civil society organisations. One of them, for example, is starting an information campaign to get young people involved in the forthcoming local elections. Another has founded an organisation that helps female refugees integrate into Egyptian society.

It’s about children’s curiosity to learn. Photo: Rasmus Bøgeskov Larsen

“It is crucial to Egypt that young people especially become committed citizens. We therefore give them the opportunity to strengthen their capabilities and to acquire the necessary skills for them to play an active role in society.”

Shahdan Arram
Head of the CEFP programme at DEDI

Flame of curiosity

It is not only from the Danish folk high schools, however, that Nariman Mostafa found inspiration for Mesahat. It is also from India and the United States. The method is called ‘self-directed education’ and is based on the idea that when students’ natural curiosity is the driving force behind the learning process, then knowledge and skills are absorbed much more easily and the children’s ability to take the initiative in life is strengthened.

The students at Mesahat therefore decide themselves what they want to do every day. This is true even when a student wants to roast marshmallows.

The students learn about fire while they watch how it melts the marshmallows. Photo: Rasmus Bøgeskov Larsen

“My friends will get a shock when I tell them that we roasted marshmallows at school today,” says Nour Khaled with a roguish smile. “If they believe me at all, they will insist that it cannot possibly be a real school that I go to.”

While the summer school’s six students sit around the portable stove and toast marshmallows, they learn about fire and its nature. The teacher – which at Mesahat does not have the title ‘teacher’ but rather ‘facilitator’ – does not decide what students have to learn but instead helps them find answers to the questions that crop up in their own heads.

One of the boys, Selim, is particularly fascinated by fire. So when they finish roasting the marshmallows, he wants to try and set fire to other things. While most teachers would probably put the matches up on a shelf at a height where children cannot reach them, the facilitator goes out into the playground with Selim and helps him set fire to everything he can find.

“I am sure that Selim’s fascination with fire will lead somewhere. It will grow into an interest in the natural sciences and give him a natural desire to learn to understand how things become what they are and how we humans can create new things,” says Nariman Mostafa.

Nariman Mostafa
Founder of Mesahat

It is not just about letting Selim learn about fire but about quenching the flame of his curiosity.

“I am sure that Selim’s fascination with fire will lead somewhere. It will grow to an interest in the natural sciences and give him a natural desire to learn to understand how things become what they are, and how we humans can create new things,” says Nariman Mostafa.

Diploma society

It is not easy, however, to get society to accept such radically different notions of teaching. The state apparatus does not want to relinquish its monopoly of authority over schooling. And many parents are worried that their children will not succeed if they leave a school without recognised diplomas.

The students love to learn and get good at learning themselves. Photo: Rasmus Bøgeskov Larsen

It is therefore crucial for Nariman that she can argue convincingly for her ideas and that she knows how the decision makers think.

“We live in the society of diplomas, and Mesahat cannot grow unless we are able to legalise our teaching and prepare a recognised type of examination,” says Nariman Mostafa. This was the reason why she took one of DEDI’s school courses focusing on ‘public advocacy’.

“I’m actually a qualified dentist. So I didn’t know anything about how to convince the wider community and the decision makers. That is why it was perfect for me to be able to take a course like this,” she says.

“The normal schools kill all our ideas. Whatever I find interesting, I am forced to do everything their way.”

Mazen Khaled
Student at Mesahat

Together with a group of parents, Nariman is now preparing a policy paper to the Ministry of Education, which is the first step towards recognition of Mesahat.

One person hopes that she will be successful, namely 10-year-old Mazen. He would like to continue at Mesahat so that he can realise his dream.

“The normal schools kill all our ideas. Whatever I find interesting, I am forced to do everything their way,” says Mazen Khaled.

“Here at Mesahat, I have chosen myself to learn how to go hunting and swimming, and to speak different languages. This is exactly what I need when I grow up. As my dream is to become an explorer.”