It was early on the second morning of the workshop on countering school dropouts when I witnessed a group of Moroccan youths rediscover the joy of learning.
As we arrived at the workshop room that morning, my co-facilitators, Mostafa and Najat, and I expected we would have the room to ourselves for about an hour before the boys and girls arrived.
We were wrong. We had underestimated the enthusiasm of our young participants and found that most of them had arrived early to review homework and prepare for the second day of the workshop. They greeted us with smiles and many quickly crowded around, all talking at once, eager to know what we would do that day.
When we told them the program wouldn’t start for another 30 minutes, one young person asked if they could help us prepare. My co-facilitators quickly handed out tasks as I put the finishing touches on our plan for the day.
Half of the 24 young people at the workshop in Rabat already dropped out of school and the other half had been deemed “at-risk” of leaving out of middle school. They had come from six locations across Morocco to participate in Creative’s Improving Training for Quality Advancement in National Education (ITQANE), a project funded by USAID that engages students in an open dialogue about the causes of school dropout and explores possible solutions to the problem.
Throughout the day the young people were actively engaged; they responded to each question and activity with a level of energy, seriousness, excitement and joy that was infections – a notable change from the shyness we witnessed just a day earlier.
They coordinated each activity, completed their work on-time, and spoke clearly and confidently when presenting their results. We were impressed with how rapidly they learned new and complex content, and how much fun they were having. Or, was it that they were having fun and rapidly learning new things?
The third day dawned with even more excitement and enthusiasm as the young people began to realize how much they were learning and how confident they had become in their new-found ability to conduct research.
Tasked with examining the causes of school dropout, they focused intensely on developing a sampling strategy, learned to run effective focus group discussions and designed a protocol for selecting participants. The young people were soon talking like old pros about topics with which they hadn’t previously been acquainted.
During a break for tea, one young woman told us that she had been worried she wouldn’t be able to learn the research skills. Indeed, she had been so scared of failing that she couldn’t sleep the night before her departure.
Standing in front of us with a bright smile and her shoulders squared, she announced that she was now confident she could learn the skills needed to be a successful youth researcher. Her peers, who had overheard her, nodded their heads in agreement and loudly voiced similar feelings.
STOP PUSHING ROPE
On my way back to the workshop room, the Head of the Directorate for Non-Formal Education approached me with a stern expression on his face. I silently wondered what I had done wrong.
“What have you done with all our Moroccan youth?” he asked in a serious voice before a smile spread across his face. “In my 20 years of working in education in Morocco, I have never seen young people like these, learning so much and so quickly, being so happy and so positive, and behaving so professionally and talking so confidently. We need all of our young people to be like these youth! How did you do this?”
I exhaled and smiled at him, relieved he was happy with how the workshop was progressing.
In response to his question, I told him “We did not push rope.”
He blinked and cocked his head to the side with a look of confusion. “What do you mean?”
I asked him if he had ever tried to push rope across a floor when someone was holding the other end. His look of confusion deepened and he replied, “Nothing happens when you push rope; it has no impact.”
I nodded my head and explained that pushing rope is what many teachers around the world do in their classrooms, pushing content at students with the hope that something will happen, but the sad truth is that pushing content has little if any impact on learners.
The education official smiled with understanding and asked, “So, if you did not push rope, what did you do?”
I explained that the responsibility for the changes he observed was mostly due to the young people themselves. “We did very little, the young people were much more responsible for what you are observing than what my co-facilitators and I are doing. All that you are seeing has always been inside of them. We are just creating an opportunity for it to emerge and flourish. When we create opportunities for learning and joy to coexist, all people, especially young people, will behave just as these Moroccan youths are behaving.”
The young Moroccans at the workshop demonstrated that learning and joy are inseparable and mutually reinforcing. Sadly, the education official observed, not all classrooms are filled with such joy. Indeed, his observation is not unique to Morocco; it is unfortunately all too common around the world.
Soon after most children start formal school, the joy of learning, a joy that begins at birth, fades because of the “pushing rope” approach that is all too common in formal education. This is self-defeating. Only learners can learn. Teachers and education systems cannot cause young people to learn, yet teachers and school systems can and do prevent learning.
If learning is a core goal, then we must create an environment that allows learners to rediscover the joy inherent in all learning. When this is achieved, learners take ownership of their learning and rediscover the joy and excitement inherent in quality education.
Creative continues to promote the joy of learning through education projects in Morocco, Nigeria, Tanzania and Zambia.
Eric Rusten is a Senior Associate, Education for Development, with expertise in designing, implementing and evaluating teacher professional development programs.