Lesson for Iraqi teachers: Loosen up!

US teacher-trainer Nadia Al Jadir hardly considers student participation a revolutionary educational concept.

But her audience of 400 Iraqi high school teachers at Al-Kharka High School for Girls look stunned when Ms. Al Jadir tells them to "listen to your students and let them express themselves."

"There will be chaos in the classroom," protests one teacher, in a pink head scarf.

Under Saddam Hussein's hidebound educational system, high school teachers lectured; students listened. Classroom debate did not exist, and students would never - ever - approach the sacrosanct blackboard. But after this week, Iraqi classrooms may never be the same.

The US-led teacher training sessions began across Iraq on Saturday, introducing 33,000 high school teachers to Western-style instruction techniques, such as group learning and peer tutoring. They watched Japanese videos in which students voiced opinions, debated the teachers' points, and even wrote on the blackboard.

Attendance was overflowing, and teachers were eager to be exposed to anything new. But like many Western organizations struggling to usher in reform, US educators are meeting with resistance from an old-school culture that prizes rigid adherence to the curriculum, the silent child, and the unquestioned authority of the teacher.

"They are used to a dictator style in which the teacher's power is unquestioned," says Hind Rassam, senior education adviser for Creative Associates Inc., of Washington, D.C., the educational company contracted to improve education in Iraq. "We tell them you can be strong, but also respect everyone and not rule by fear."

"It will take time," she adds.

The five-day training sessions will be run mostly by 830 Iraqi "master teachers," who have been trained by Dr. Rassam's group to run the workshops. The teacher training division of the Iraqi Ministry of Education also assisted. American presence is minimal.

In the Al-Kharka High School for Girls in the upscale Baghdad neighborhood of Al Mansoor, chalkboards and flip charts were propped against the walls. Teachers took workshops labeled "the 14 characteristics of effective teaching"; "creativity in the classroom;" and "building parent-teacher relationships."

Trainers used a microphone run by a generator due to continued power shortages, and an armed security guard stood watch outside. Teachers broke into groups to discuss and present questions such as, "What are five ways to improve Iraqi schools?"

Iraqi teacher trainer Faisa Adbul Jabbar Hussein introduced the concept of group learning and asked the teachers their opinion. Several teachers took to the microphone to say this technique diminished their role, or was impossible given the circumstances - overcrowded classrooms, scarcity of supplies, and the legacy of an oppressive regime.

"I have 50 students in my class. We have no room to break into groups, and not enough chairs," another teacher explains.

Master teacher Abdul-Ameer Jassaim recently abandoned her "lecture-listen" style for group learning in math class. At first, her older students, who were preparing to take the final exams to determine college placement, didn't like it.

"They resisted," says Ms. Jassaim. "They are so used to being passive listeners and they don't want to be challenged to think. They just want to know, 'Will this be on the exam?' "

But her younger students are excited to break from the monotony of the teacher's voice and get involved. "This way makes them think," says Jassaim.

By next fall, employees of Creative hope to train all 64,000 Iraqi high school teachers, but this will largely depend on whether their contract is renewed in May. Already, in December, USAID, the primary contractor in Iraq, cut Creative Associates' $62 million education budget by $15 million. It later restored $10 million.

Primary school teachers are receiving training from Unicef.

Before the war, the Ministry of Education's Training Institute ran occasional training sessions, but they became fewer as the budget shrank. Sessions focused on teachers' knowledge of their subjects, not on teaching methods.

At Saturday's training session, teachers heard about concepts such as the "open classroom," a 1970s idea in which students direct themselves in activities, are rarely punished, and are expected to be self-motivated. Iraqi teachers said these gave students too much freedom. By now, most Western educators have also dismissed this concept.

More fiercely debated were concepts such as "group learning" and "peer tutoring." These are used by many US teachers. However, their effectiveness over "lecture-listen" is still debated by scholars. Some Iraqi teachers said they would try it.

Almost everyone said they were thrilled to be in training and exposed to the latest techniques.

"American classrooms are very free. I see in the movies that the students challenge the teachers," said Dalel Khamel, an English-language teacher at the Baghdad High School. "Maybe we won't do everything like they do. But we want to be exposed to all the new techniques, and then we will decide what is useful to us."

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