Maybe it’s because I’m following this story so closely, but I can’t remember a foreign-policy story with as much staying power as the events in Egypt. The story has been front-page news for more than two weeks. It’s the lead story in today’s Washington Post (that’s how I knew it was Day 15):
And it’s towards the top of today’s New York Times.
It’s a big deal.
Some of my students asked me yesterday (Tuesday) what I thought would happen in Egypt. I said I was not sure — that I was learning a lot by following the story. But it just occurred to me (early Wednesday morning) that some of my students are asking that question because they want to tie Egypt into a neat little package and “understand it” so that they can move on. We need to do a better job of teaching students to be comfortable with uncertainty.
In a posting Will Richardson wrote at the start of the 2009 school year, he asked a series of questions he hopes to ask his children about school every day. Three of my favorite questions from his list include:
What unanswered questions are you struggling with?
What confuses you?
What is more complicated than it initially appeared?
Will concluded his posting from 2009, titled What Did You Create Today? like this:
And here’s the deal; I expect them [his two kids] to be talking answers to these types of questions every day. As a parent, I think I have every right to expect that my kids are immersed in spaces where learning is loved and enjoyed and shared every single day. Classrooms where they are engaged in meaningful work that makes them think, a majority of time doing stuff that can’t be measured by some impersonal state test. (I can give them software to do much of that.) Where the adults that surround them are models for that learning work themselves. Is that too much to ask?
In many ways, this whole blog is my response to Will’s blog posting from two years ago. As a teacher, I want to model — as the title of the blog suggests — what I learned today.
In a related thread, I recently read a piece that discussed “Three Trends That Will Shape the Future of Curriculum” — it concluded like this:
…it’s crucial for students to be able to navigate the digital world around them without fear. To make sense of the deluge of information online, to learn what to trust, what to dismiss, to be able to find the gold that exists in the infinite number of Google searches. To know how and what to contribute to the online global community, and how to be responsible digital citizens.
When I try to get my students to take responsibility for their own learning, I get lukewarm results at best. This should not be surprising, because they have been trained to get, remember, and spit back “the answer” (as in: the one the teacher is looking for on the test). In many students’ minds, learning may be nice to do on occasion, but what really matters — or what seems to matter to them (and their parents) — is the grade. So it makes sense that they want to be told “what will happen in Egypt” rather than explore the complexity and inter-connectedness of the Middle East and the world. And their interest goes up if they know it will be on a test or quiz — and that makes sense.
But despite the grade dynamic, there are moments when students are genuinely curious about things. Some of my students yesterday wondered whether women in ancient Sparta (we’re currently studying Greece and Rome) could vote. That led to a wondering about whether women in Egypt today can vote. Turns out they can (as of 1956) — but they can’t be judges (yet) and they also — somewhat shockingly — can’t leave the country without permission from their husband! At least that was the case as of this 1999 BBC article about women’s rights in Egypt:
The article goes on to explain that — again, as of 1999 — women in Egypt:
… can vote; they are significant part of the workforce and there are now two women in the Egyptian cabinet.
But they’re not allowed to travel abroad without the permission of their husbands; it’s hard for them to initiate divorce; and they can’t … become judges.
So as I continue to explore what’s going on in Egypt, I’ll see what I can do about getting students to ask more questions — like the question about the role of women.
Oh, and I just thought of another question, which seems particularly relevant as we flirt with a snow day on Thursday (a dusting is predicted, but this is North Carolina, so you never know when a snow day will result) — the question is: what has the effect of the protests been on schooling in Egypt? Have students been in school at all? And are they discussing current events? Or are they learning about ancient Egyptian history? And do women have the same educational opportunities as men in Egypt? And what do Egyptians learn about the United States in their schools? And will the presentation of the U.S. change in Egyptian school books
if when the government changes?
It’s not about finding “the answer.” It’s about asking questions and being curious.
However, it’s not just about asking questions and moving on. To understand what’s going on in Egypt, you have to invest some time. And there are some basic facts that you’d need to know. For instance, knowing about the U.S. involvement in the 1979 peace treaty between Israel and Egypt is pretty important. NPR had a story this morning titled:
The essence of the story is that if the U.S. backs democracy, it might jeopardize the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, because a democratically elected Egyptian leadership might not want the same alliance that Mubarak has backed for the past 30 years.
However, if the U.S. backs Mubarak (or Mubarak clones) in an effort to maintain the Egyptian-Israeli peace deal, then it risks alienating the Egyptian people.
But if you don’t know what the history of the peace treaty is — going back to at least the 1979 peace deal, and ideally much further back — you can’t really follow the argument. To participate meaningfully as a global citizen — at least on the Egypt story — you have to understand the references underlined in pink below from a screen clipping of the NPR piece I just heard:
More to come on the developing story in Egypt — and on how to inspire students to both take more initiative for their own learning and get a little more comfortable with complexity, confusion, and uncertainty.