Education in Afghanistan: A Path Out of the Thicket

 When you’ve spent every October of your life surrounded by the burnt glory of falling leaves tossed on cool autumnal winds in Vermont the toasty sun washed days of Afghanistan can be a bit disorienting.  The differences obviously don’t end there. Exiting Kabul International Airport, you are faced with a bit of a walk through a nearly empty plaza, spotted along the edges with Kabul’s distinct evergreen police trucks.  This is the first reminder that you are in a less than secure nation.  You may witness other foreign nationals being greeted by shiny SUVs and burly bodyguards whose pistols are hardly concealed in their pants waistband.  Some may quickly wrap their charges in bulletproof vests before hustling them into the vehicles.

Outside the airport the indications of insecurity dissipate and the collage of people, smells and faded colors characteristic of every third world urban landscape take over. There are the requisite beggars and enterprising young men armed with decent English skills that try to heft your bags on their backs and guide you to a taxi not ten feet away. This is Afghanistan though, not Costa Rica.  If you haven’t arranged your own secure ride from the airport you have no right to be in this nation.

Afghanistan is rich in history and natural wonders.  It is the kind of place that culture nerds and outdoor enthusiasts alike would love to sink their teeth into.  Unfortunately, decades of ongoing conflict mean that those wonders are firmly out of bounds for even the most intrepid of tourists.  In the 60s and 70s it was an entirely different sort of story.

This was once a budding democracy.  Students at Kabul University even wore mini-skirts!  Today, the burka is no longer a requirement, but any clothes that reveal the shape of a woman’s body are deemed far too tight.  Women now have much more freedom than they did under Taliban rule, but that does not mean there has been adequate improvement in their treatment.  They are treated as second class citizens and even those careful to mind their own business and wear conservative clothes are met with regular harassment on the street.  Even six year old boys are bold enough to assault passing women with venomous verbal attacks and the occasional stone.  They believe such assertions of dominance to be a part of their growth as man.

This cannot stand.  In the present world injustice is common in all nations.  The challenges are many and complex.  Success in changing entrenched cultural norms, such as the violent disrespect that a young boy is encouraged to show towards every woman he sees, will not happen overnight.  Long term commitment is vital to meaningful change.

The world over, it is clear that educating women brings the greatest return on investment.  Afghanistan has rich reserves of gold, fossil fuels, industrial minerals and rare earth minerals, but its greatest resource is the female population.  There is an opportunity today to educate millions of girls who are now widely free to go to school.  The Afghan school system, however, is woefully inadequate.  Girls in Afghanistan have a fire for learning, but there are precious few institutions capable of nurturing their educational development.

School of Leadership, Afghanistan (SOLA as it is commonly known) has the potential to be a model for educating women.  The school, technically a U.S. based NGO, has already changed lives.  As SOLA celebrates its fifth anniversary, its first batch of students are attending elite boarding schools and colleges in the U.S. and other nations.  The school has doubled its capacity this year and will soon house 40 students on site.

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To be a teacher at such a school poses entirely different challenges than the ones common at American public schools and universities.  At SOLA there are no disinterested students.  They are relatively well behaved and not only want to learn but crave the opportunity of education.  This does not mean though that teaching girls in Afghanistan is an easy task.

SOLA provides a free space for girls to be inquisitive and learn.  Unfortunately, the residue of the Afghan education system sticks stubbornly to the girls.  Afghan schools drill rote learning into their students.  When they arrive at SOLA this follows them.  They are constantly worried when they cannot memorize every fact and definition.  Critical thinking has never been introduced to them.  They don’t even believe that it is acceptable to ask questions of their teachers.

A typical class in Afghanistan consists of teachers demanding correct answers to voluminous homework assignments.  Explanations of the concepts students need to complete these assignments are few and far between.  Students are often reprimanded if they ask questions about the topics.

There is a growing belief in the U.S. that a teacher should be a guide on the side not a sage on the stage.  In Afghan public schools, teachers are not even sages, they are just taskmasters on the stage.  One fifteen year old SOLA student, who is in the highest level of public school, is given a few days to learn the sort of organic chemistry that college courses teach over more than a month.  Not only is the time frame ridiculously short before such students are tested, but the Dari textbooks available to them to teach themselves are entirely useless.

One school cannot change the entire Afghan school system, but it can be a model that proves there is a better way.  SOLA is one such school.  It can teach girls to be leaders, to be critical thinkers and give them all the right tools to enrich their studies.  This opportunity though is handicapped by the fact that it is not a registered school, forcing its students to go to public school for half the day.

SOLA is unique in Afghanistan as its students take an English language pledge.  This is crucial if they are going to succeed in rigorous American schools.  All lessons at SOLA are taught in English.  The curriculum is grammar and reading heavy and after just a year at SOLA most students exhibit great spoken proficiency.

I have been teaching science at SOLA and am developing the science curriculum.  Since science is all about asking questions and thinking critically, no subject is harder to teach to girls that have been taught to listen passively and memorize their entire lives.  In the U.S. we begin teaching children to use observations to make inferences as early as the first grade.  By middle school the goal is to have fully developed their ability to understand the scientific method as a framework for solving scientific problems, their understanding of measurements and of graphing.  American students also learn the fundamentals of earth, life, and physical science throughout elementary and middle school.  The majority of Afghan girls at SOLA have no background in any of this and those that have studied more advanced sciences did so in Persian.

2014-01-25 Ian's science class (27)

Teaching oceanography at SOLA. © Ian Lynch.

Teaching earth science at SOLA has required first breaking down the deep seated understanding that learning means memorizing and building up the concept that learning is about asking questions and applying the use of knowledge to various situations. Science provides the ideal platform to teach students that learning is about doing, about experimenting, about gaining experiences, rather than remembering absolute answers.

Five months on from our initial introduction to scientific reasoning some of the students have internalized the concept.  For others though I still get answers that exactly mirror sentences I said in previous classes or they read in their textbook.  This unthinking acceptance of facts and statements found in teachers and books is dangerous.

The textbook SOLA has for earth science is 15 years old and so is occasionally outdated, particularly in astronomy.  I went so far as to use a bold Expo marker to cross out a chunk of the book talking about Pluto as a planet and a section titled Planet X that discusses the mystery of what may be beyond Pluto in our solar system.  Still, I hear them quote that there are 9 planets and that one popular theory about Pluto’s orbit is that there is a black hole just beyond our solar system.

While it is harmless that they should tell someone there are 9 planets (indeed some hardliners refuse to denounce Pluto as a planet) it raises alarm bells.  If these students are willing to believe and memorize everything they read, what happens if someone gives them a radical book full of corrupting lies?  I strongly believe that people should have access to any book ever written, but it is a bit scary to think that someone could read something without any critical thinking filter.

Furthermore, there is a culture of what Americans would call cheating in Afghan schools. Students will proudly tell me that they helped their classmate during a public school exam.  When I tell them this is wrong even the most honest are confused.  They say theirs friends will be angry with them for not helping.  This is not just the occasional guilt trip; as far as I can tell it’s an endemic problem.

When I encourage the students to work together on their homework I get 15 papers with identical answers.  The idea that copying answers is a serious offense is another novel concept to my students.  They complain that I told them to work together.  In a way it makes sense that students who have had memorization beaten into them would copy one another’s answers believing there to be only one possible response.

Getting students to develop reasoning skills and to learn how to collaborate without plagiarizing are some of the harder challenges of teaching in Afghanistan.  Luckily, not all the learning traits born of the Afghan education culture are so tough to overcome. The students have told me numerous stories about how their teachers admonished them for asking questions or challenging their explanations.  Based on the bewildering rules and facts they ask me about in confusion when I tutor them on their public school subjects, they have every right to question their teachers’ qualifications.

I started my first class by telling the students there are no stupid questions.  Everyone has the right to ask any question on their way to understanding.  It took some time for the newer SOLA students to grow comfortable asking me questions, but now that they are I can hardly stem the tide.  Many of these kids have never had the opportunity to share their own opinions or request a teacher’s help.  I sometimes feel bad, because I actually don’t have enough time to really hash through every subject with thirty plus students.

This newfound, unbridled reservoir of questions in the students has actually made moderating the series of round table discussions I have been organizing difficult.  The students hardly let our guest speakers talk before their hands skyrocket to the ceiling and numerous students are quite upset at the end when they did not have an opportunity to speak.  I think these talks are already quite unique in that at other institutions few guest speakers entertain two hours of questioning.  One of our guest, a lawyer, jokingly remarked, “I feel like I’m the one on trial for once!”  One of the biggest challenges with educating at SOLA is there is never enough time in the day.  The students are just too numerous and a lifetime of stifling schooling leaves their needs too great for the current student to teacher ratio.

While SOLA can do a lot for its own students they are but a small drop in the sea of uneducated Afghans.  The government needs to start ramping up its efforts for widespread improvement to be a reality.  So far, Afghanistan has focused on building schools.  This has allowed them to promote the favorable statistic that the number of kids in school has increased from 900,000 in 2001 to 5.8 million today, 2.2 million of them girls.  The Ministry of Education also expects every student to have a place in a primary school by 2020.  These rosy numbers look great on executive summaries to donors and line up neatly with the UN’s Millennium Development Goals, but they paint over the real issues.  When looking at these numbers one also has to consider that many of the students that are registered rarely show up for school for various reasons from security to poverty.

The government’s push to build schools has left the more serious problems of access, textbooks and quality of instruction severely wanting.  The schools that have been built in the provinces have been poorly sited.  They are often so far from the homes of students, that they are unable to attend.  Many children miss school because they have to work on the streets or in the home due to abject poverty.  If the commute to school is two hours roundtrip by foot and school lasts four hours, this eats up the child’s whole day.  The need to earn for food and heat therefore precludes them from an education. The government has tried to remedy this problem by offering rice and oil to families that send their girls to school.  Of course, as soon as the incentives cease the girls stop attending school again.  Hungry children can’t be expected to walk two hours a day even if their parents are willing to let them go.

In the more unstable regions of Afghanistan poor children are also excluded from schooling, because the simple act of walking to school is too dangerous.  Families that want to send their kids, particularly girls, to school often have to keep them at home due to safety concerns.  Unlike wealthier families, they cannot drive their children to school or send them to private schools in safer regions.  SOLA provides a unique opportunity for such girls, in that it accepts students of all backgrounds from every province free of charge.  SOLA’s 40 student limit though is entirely insufficient to meet the needs of an entire nation.

After the rapidly growing number of schools follows a huge number of teacher vacancies.  The Minister of Education, Farooq Wardak, also boasts that the number of teachers trained has jumped from 400 a decade ago to 77,000, most of them women. What the quality of training is though is a question that seems to have been ignored.  From talking to many students and educational professionals in Kabul I assess teaching abilities to generally be extremely low, particularly in the high schools.  The figure that is bandied about is that as much as 70 percent of the teachers in this country do not meet the minimum education requirements to hold the job.  Clearly the need to fill teacher postings has lowered the bar for applicants.

Another problem is that teaching is not seen as a profession in Afghanistan.  It is a part time job at even the best of Kabul’s private schools.  Young people see it as a stepping stone job not one to be held too long or seriously.

Teachers are periodically inspected by government officials.  Monitoring any program is important in any country and the intent of these checkups is obviously good, but their effect is not.  I have heard far too many of my students complain that their teachers threaten them with bad grades if they complain or challenge them.  This means that students have no recourse when teachers give them endlessly useless homework and make them recite answers in class instead of providing instruction.  I have even been told by some that their teacher simply shows up and does not teach.  These people are not teachers, they just appear in the school so they can collect their pay, literally stealing from children’s education in the process.

While it must be said that the Ministry of Education is seriously lacking in the resources to monitor and evaluate all the schools in Kabul, let alone the far flung provinces, this does not mean they should be let off the hook.  Now that they have accomplished their goal of rapid school building construction they cannot rest on their internationally perceived laurels.  Now they need to refocus on the quality of instruction with a heavy emphasis on modern teaching techniques to build reasoning skills.  If Afghan children join the ranks of questioning, thinking students in other parts of the world, perhaps the pervasive ignorance that fuels the violence of conservative Afghans will decrease.  The next Afghan generation would also be more prepared to take advantage of international markets and use this country’s wealth of natural resources to its benefit.

For its part, SOLA is hiring Afghan women to attend intensive teacher training in the U.S.  This is a first step whose effectiveness cannot be evaluated for some time, but it may prove to be another model for the Ministry of Education to learn from.  Once the teachers return from their training they will co-teach in the classroom with international volunteers well versed in modern teaching techniques.  They will also co-create the curriculum being as progressive as possible within the prescriptions of the Ministry of Education.

The fact that to become accredited, even as a private school, an organization has to follow the requirements of the Ministry is also suffocating to projects like SOLA. Accredited schools have to teach students up to 16 subjects at once.  This is both counterproductive as it splits student focus and can be a serious drain on resources for a small school like SOLA.  While private schools do have some wiggle room within the Ministry requirements it is not enough.

The huge hill of accreditation from the Ministry is the primary reason SOLA classes are so irregular and at times ineffective.  Because students have class four hours a day at public school this limits the number of classes SOLA can require of the students.  SOLA teachers also have to be mindful of not giving too much homework for the same reason.  Additionally, public schools teach students in shifts, further limiting the hours that SOLA can offer classes.  This means the same class at SOLA has to be taught in two separate sections, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, further draining teaching resources.

Public schools close from early December to early March, meaning these months are the time SOLA has to really offer consistent, quality coursework.  Even this time is impacted by various stoppages.  These are caused by public school exams that stretch over a month to late December due to Ministry ordered school closings for holidays (the dates for which are often determined mere days before) and security (such as when the Loya Jirga meeting happened in late November, putting Kabul in lockdown).  Older students also want to spend a lot of their time in the winter studying (which means memorizing) for the Concur exams, which determine whether a student earns as scholarship to Afghan colleges.

SOLA does a remarkable job given the circumstances to provide girls of any ethnicity and province a free, improved education, but it is not enough.  The current solution to the Afghan education system conundrum from SOLA is to send its students to the U.S. and elsewhere on scholarship at private boarding schools.  Until drastic changes are made in the sputtering Afghan education system, which has far outgrown in terms of infrastructure the Ministry’s operational capacity, this is really the only way to give these girls a good education.  SOLA provides a guiding light for the rest of a nation, but that is all it can be in its present form.  Even if its students do not excel fast enough to be accepted to foreign boarding schools, they are at least learning something and are living in a safe place where they are insulated from violence against women and cannot be forced to marry at a young age.  While this may not seem like much to some in developed countries it is a huge benefit at least on a personal basis.  The longer a girl remains in school before marrying the more likely their children will be to attend school and go further than she did.

Living and teaching in Afghanistan is a daily struggle as one may imagine, but it is not one without gigantic rewards.  No teacher will ever be met with greater enthusiasm and gratitude from their students than a quality teacher in Afghanistan.  Just like every challenging issue around the world pinned down in the doldrums by oppressive, close minded cultures, the state of education in Afghanistan, particularly girls’ education, is absolutely overwhelming.  That does not mean working for change is not worth it.  As with all tough subjects, when you look at the statistics and they don’t fill you with despair then you don’t understand the numbers, but if you meet the people involved, the young Afghan women burning hot with the passion to change their society and you aren’t filled with bursting hope then you have not a heart.  The SOLA girls are unmatched in their capacity to dream and their commitment to work for their future.  All would be wise to watch out for their coming rise to influence.  If ever there was a dark horse I’d bet on it would have to be the women of Afghanistan.

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© School of Leadership, Afghanistan. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this image without express and written permission from School of Leadership, Afghanistan is strictly prohibited.

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