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From Beirut with Love

Eastwood CollegeTo be honest I could have easily spent a lot longer in Beirut than the 48 hours allowed by my publisher. I was left wondering how I’d missed the pleasure of visiting Lebanon for such a long time and vowed to return. Although as it happened it was necessary to return home and then onto Spain to attend an urgent family matter that cast a shadow over an otherwise insightful visit.

 

Lebanon, like many countries I have visited both on this project and others in my life, came loaded with expectation as a result of reckless and inaccurate media reporting. It’s a shame because if you wanted to find a nation where Europe, Africa, Asia and the Middle East genuinely converge to create their own special culture then Lebanon and specifically Beirut is where you would find it.

 

The country has a heady Mediterranean feel replete with bad drivers and a party atmosphere that boasts a population who look like they’ve just landed from a Milan fashion parade. That the Beirut Art Week was running at the same time of our visit added to this vision given that the nightlife palpably bubbled with regional and international artists, designers, filmmakers and photographers as well as the well-heeled fashionistas. Difficult to reconcile this with the Foreign Office warnings that only essential visits to Lebanon should be ventured and media reports of an exodus of foreign workers. The population of Lebanon is around 4 million but this number has swelled by the addition of nearly 1 million refugees from Syria meaning that nearly 1 in 4 people in the country will be Syrian which lends a human dimension to the realities of conflict in the region. Like Jordan, Lebanon does what it can to support this draw on its resources and that includes its schools. The immediately visible impact of negative media coverage of Lebanon is a massive reduction in tourism where many of the restaurants, bars, hotels and clubs are undersubscribed.

 

We were kidnapped at the airport by members of the Khoury family, founders of Eastwood College and were quickly whisked from arrivals to the harbour side restaurants and cafes of Beirut for a meal which can only be described as both opulent and delicious. Certainly a welcome treat following the diet of economy airline food that my team and I have been sampling during this project!

 

And this was the Khoury family that we got to know over the next couple of days. Passionate, generous, caring and above all incredibly open about their experiences and efforts to constantly improve their school.

 

Amine KhouryEastwood College was founded by Amine Khoury in 1973 when he was just 19 years of age with Ms Hazel St.John MBE. It was founded on a Christian basis as a private K12 international school. Since 1973 the school in its various incarnations has been bombed, as collateral damage in various domestic and non-domestic conflicts, and reconstructed 3 times, ultimately relocating to its current location some distance from the “demarcation line” of past sectarian disputes. Today the school is effectively multi-faith supporting a cohort of students from more than 40 nations as well as locals. The school also has an intake of students recently joined from Syria as a result of the recent diaspora.

 

It’s a relatively small school with around 300 students from kindergarten through to K12. Small classrooms with small learning groups of up to 15 students in a class. The school operates what appears to be an American based curriculum within the context of the Lebanese Baccalaureate.

 

Michel KhouryIt’s on visit to the school that I begin to see how the seemingly disparate locations and contexts of my various visits on this project begin to connect. Eastwood College already has an enviable reputation in the region which is by no small measure due to the efforts of its founder and driving force Amine but the recent return of his son Michel and daughter Joelle to the family concern after periods of higher education and high level careers in the USA are an attempt to maintain the schools success and relevance well into this century.

 

It’s here that we discover strong links, regard and sharing of knowledge with Essa Academy, the school that we visited during our UK tour and it’s clear to see some similarities of approach as the younger Khoury’s work to transform the learning and teaching in the school.

 

Like Essa, there are no interactive whiteboards (IWB’s). Instead, each classroom is fitted with flat screen HD televisions and walls that invite being written on. Every teacher and student has an iPad and inexpensive Apple TV devices in every room allow material from any iPad to be shared with the class. Extensive use is made of the free iTunes U software where the school has already created a wealth of material, some of which we saw being shared at Essa Academy in the UK earlier in the week. The software allows teachers to present materials, set tasks and provide students with almost 24/7 access as well as out of school hours email response.

 

Joelle KhouryI sat in on numerous classes and discussed what was happening in the school with different members of staff. The Khoury family were eager to know what I thought despite my reassurances that I wasn’t there to judge, review or compare with other schools. My reason for being there was to understand how they were approaching transformation within their own context. Where, for example, at Essa Academy broadband bandwidth was in plentiful supply here in Beirut bandwidth is tightly restricted immediately creating challenges for any school in the nation wishing to benefit their students via connected learning. The restrictions on bandwidth in Beirut aren’t as much for ideological reasons as for paralysis within government where policy decisions are either protracted or just never taken. Digital access just doesn’t seem to have been made a priority within Lebanon as an enabler for economic growth let alone education which seems at odds with other aspects of its forward thinking population.

 

I really enjoyed being at the school and had a genuine sense that the student cohort were enjoying their experience there making sufficient academic progress that meant that many go on to be accepted at Ivy League universities in the US or similar in Europe or in the region. In regards to the bold “digital transformation” programme initiated by the Khoury’s I believe that they will be successful but what I saw was what I’d regard as a moment in time, the first steps in the right direction rather than what might be regarded as an end result. It should be said that the end results based on the metrics of standardised testing with which we are familiar are very good so what is being attempted here is to keep the school ahead of the curve.

 

If I had to be critical I would say that what was happening at Eastwood College today was a transition that has yet to impact pedagogy in so far as the initial benefit is that the large number of print books that weighed down a students shoulders has now been reduced to an iPad. Like the example in Ghana this transition does not require a significant change in teaching practice and so is a low skills threshold approach to introducing digital platforms but nevertheless is a Trojan Horse for change.

 

Classes that I saw seemed somewhat reminiscent of classrooms + technology rather than environments where the technology was embedded within the learning. This is what usually happens when tablets and so on are introduced within a classroom. The teacher inevitably teaches to the platform. But my feeling was that at Eastwood this was a transition to a change in pedagogy, curriculum and timetable perhaps in a similar way to Essa Academy who had taken the benefits of time-saving and efficiencies as a result of technology to allow students and teachers the oxygen of time and space to transform.

 

TeacherI also felt that the small class sizes and 1:1 approach of Eastwood would lend itself well to the work that Sugata Mitra has been conducting in the field of Self Organizing Learning Environments where students could collaborate together to solve big problems and where the teacher switches from the guide on the side to the critical yet encouraging friend.

 

But all this is the unintended, unexpected outcome of my travels so far – I’m beginning to see the jigsaw puzzle where different people have different pieces that if we manage to bring them together there’s a chance that we will see the whole picture and change together.

 

The school motto of Eastwood College since 1973 has been “Children, Our Purpose, And Our Future“. I think this pretty much nails it within the school that I saw and the leadership, staff and students whom I met.

 

The founder and directors of the school mentioned the word “love” many times before and during my visit. Surprisingly, this wasn’t mentioned in the context of “love of teaching” in what has become a modern cliche use by almost anyone who talks about the teaching profession – does anyone ever publicly admit to hating teaching or hating children? Although I’m pretty confident there are a lot of teachers & policy makers who secretly do. No, the context in which the Khoury’s meant it was the creation of a loving, family environment within the school itself and I can honestly say that is what it felt like in the school. Its pretty hard to fake that sort of thing during an all day visit and I left thinking that the Khoury’s had indeed created something special and that the school would certainly be worth visiting in the future to see how their transformation programme has progressed.

 

Of course, you’ll have to wait for the Learning {RE}imagined book to come out in 2014 to find out more!