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Libyan teachers get ready for education overhaul

Teachers at Nemuthajia Elementary School in Benghazi, Libya, will return Sept. 17 for the first day of classes in a new Libya. It will be the first time in 42 years they can teach the truth, they say.

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“A huge period was missing” from the history books, says history teacher Abdel Salam El Imami. "I didn't know who tried to unite all of Libya after colonization – it was the monarchy." But under Qaddafi, he couldn't teach that to students. In Arabic language lessons, the text to be studied often contained stories about the leader.

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While some teachers were hired for their loyalty to Qaddafi, others simply did what they had to out of fear. “We could not say anything,” says teacher Najat El Darreji. “If we talked about it, for sure we would go to prison. We knew it was wrong, but we couldn't say anything.” Several teachers say they sidestepped students’ questions on sensitive topics by telling the pupils they were required to memorize the material, not to understand it.

Rewriting the textbooks is a task that will fall to a new transitional government, which Libya’s leaders say they won’t appoint until all of the country is under their control. Qaddafi loyalists still hold a wide swath of central Libya from Sirte in the north to Sabha in the south, and the former leader is still believed to be at large.

“At this point we have no right to change the curricula,” says Mrs. Bugaighis. “Developing it has to be a national project.”

From indoctrination to critical thinking

For now, the priority is getting kids back to school. They will continue using the same textbooks; the NTC’s education committee went through the books and issued instructions on which parts to teach and which parts to discard.

The subject called “The People’s Society” has been thrown out entirely. And students who were forced from schooling through harsh exam standards will be invited back to school. The Ministry of Education plans to arrange a parallel system for them, so they won't have to be embarrassed by sitting in classes full of younger students, says Bougaighis.

Yet aside from the books, the buildings, and the classes, the style of teaching – and of learning – also needs revision, says Zahi Mogherbi, political science professor at Garyounis University in Benghazi. “The education system in Libya was a one-way street,” he says. “Students are not trained to discuss and question opinions or ideas. They are just taught to learn what the regime is teaching them, this propaganda and indoctrination.”

That has to change if Libya is to build a democratic political culture and society, he says. Students and teachers alike need to be trained to think critically and voice dissenting opinions, while respecting the opinions of others. “We need to have more inclusive dialogue,” he says. “What we've had for the last 42 years was a monologue.”

Changing this mentality may be the biggest hurdle that lies ahead, and teachers who have long taught through rote memorization will need training in how to encourage discussion. This was evident when the Qaddafi regime, in an aberration from its usual educational policies, dumped a new curriculum on math teachers before the uprising.

They received no training in how to teach the new curriculum, from Singapore, which emphasizes active learning and problem solving. It was working terribly, they said.

This summer the NTC’s education committee implemented an internationally funded training program for teachers focusing on active teaching and learning, and encouraging students in skills like critical thinking, problem-solving, even tolerance and negotiation. But the funding ran out after training only 280 teachers.

Getting programs like these back on track is important, but Bugaighis worries that education is often overlooked when funds are distributed. She hopes the international community, as well as Libya’s new leaders, will not neglect what she sees as an important part of Libya’s future.

“There is no development if you don't develop education,” she says.

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