Enhancing competencies in the Arab world: issues to be considered

Rabab Tamish
Bethlehem University



Abstract This reflective article sheds lights on the main challenges that adult educators encounter when working in a context that has witnessed drastic political, cultural and economical changes, such as the Arab world. The main assumption of the article is based on the view that bridging the gap between theory and practice requires taking into account several elements such as the indigenous meanings of adult education and how these understandings influence the quality of services provided to learners. 

My modest experience in the field of adult education has taught me a lot about the process of developing training programmes for adult educators, especially when they are implemented in such different contexts as the very varied Arab world. I admit that at the beginning of my engagement in the field, I was naïve enough to assume that enhancing learners? skills and competences was an easy task, especially when these terms are central to the field and thus appear in every report and debate related to adult education. However, dur ing the period in which my colleagues and I conducted a number of initiatives – mostly unsuccessful – we learned a lot more about the field. In the process we began to better understand the meanings these terms take in practice in new contexts, that in turn reflect a wider picture of adult education in the Arab setting.

Let us now look at the main challenges and concerns that we have encountered during the process of contextualising progressive approaches to adult education in the Arab region. The process sheds light on issues that I believe are crucial when conducting adult education programmes. One of these concerns the gap between theory and practice. This is related to how competences are presented in the international context and how they are applied in local settings. This gap, I argue, is a result of social-historical and political factors that create diversity in practices and understandings of adult education that in turn lead to different approaches to training adults and determine how competences are presented and assessed.

The purpose of adult education

In the last decade, several countries in the Arab world have witnessed dramatic political changes influencing the quality of services provided to citizens, especially in the field of adult education. International and local reports have highlighted serious problems that the Arab world is currently experiencing, such as an increase in the rate of illiteracy (which had reached around 60 million, of which two-thirds are women), lack of employment opportunities among graduates and youth (which reached more than 60% in some countries), and political instability that limits the opportunities to live in situations where human rights and citizenship values are practiced, protected and appreciated.

This has led a number of organisations to initiate intervention plans to help governments and civil society to overcome these difficulties. Most of these efforts focus on literacy programmes, based on the thought that by enhancing literacy skills, adult learners become more engaged within their societies and play an active role in the process of development and sustainability. I strongly support this progressive view of the purpose of literacy programmes. It is a view that goes beyond enhancing basic reading and writing skills, so as to include opportunities in which adult learners enhance life competences that improve their self-image as individuals who play an active role in the process of developing their communities. This view echoes the general purpose of adult education, where intervention plans aim to enhance competencies, supporting self-fulfilment, agency, and community engagement. This aim endorses the emphasis made in many reports on the integration of high-level skills, such as critical thinking, reflection, community awareness, and communication in adult education programmes to the extent that these skills become the “terminology” that describes the work of adult educators. However, and based on my work in the field with different organisations in Palestine and the Arab world, I have seen that there are crucial, interrelated challenges standing in the way of the achievement of this objective in practice. Let us have a closer look at three of them.

International versus local terminologies

One of the challenges that adult education activists face in the Arab region is the absence of pedagogical debate about the field as it appears in the international discourse and how it is implemented in the local setting. Let me give an example. For instance, what is called “adult education” in the international discourse, mainly in the West, is still translated in Arabic as “literacy programmes”. This does not mean that the region lacks investment in other life and professional skills, it is simply that they do not fall under the category of adult education and are mostly offered by NGOs and civil society organisations. Furthermore, the term “education” in Arabic is linked to “raising children and teaching them to behave and act well.” As a result this literal translation of “adult education” into Arabic gives a negative impression about the type of intervention that adults will receive. Consequently the term “teaching adults” (literal translation) is the common term used in Arabic to refer to “adult education” (which means literacy programmes). Similar differences are noticeable in other concepts such as “learning” (as somehow equivalent to teaching), “adult educator” (as similar to school teacher), and “critical thinking” (as limited to articulating what is wrong with something).

“Adult education” in the international discourse, mainly in the West, is still translated in Arabic as “literacy programmes”.

This challenge highlights two issues that cannot be ignored. The first one is related to the influence of different understandings of these terms on practice. I argue that if adult education is limited to “literacy”, then national strategies will pay less attention to other aspects of adult education. If this is the case, what is achieved in terms of the “literacy” rate would be perceived as a successful indicator for improvement in “adult education” and moves towards “sustainability”. As a result, the official investment in other competencies will remain a minor issue left to civil society organisations.

The use of “teaching adults” as a concept is problematic because it reflects the traditional approach to adult education where the focus is on transferring knowledge from experienced “educators” to passive “learners”. This might explain why there is no official institution in the Arab world accredited to qualify literacy teachers in the field, assuming that a person who can read and write (and has basic teaching skills) is qualified to act in this role. As a result, learning is likely to be similar to school teaching without paying attention to the importance of enhancing critical dialogue, active communication and reflection. This challenge leads to different approaches to adult education.

Progressive methods versus traditional approaches

Arab society is characterised as traditional and conservative, a place where cultural values emanate from religious faith and tribal norms and where individuals are expected, as a result, to follow the majority views and to inherit “common” practices and norms. Furthermore, the influence of Islamic faith creates a situation where religious sayings and texts are constantly referred to in daily life. Thinking beyond (or about) these texts is a taboo, if not a sin. These factors cannot be ignored when presenting progressive methodologies to adult education, as they have a lot to say about a) the educator’s role (as telling learners what is in the text), b) societal expectations of “learning” (as keeping norms and practices as they are), and 3) the status of “knowledge” (as static and not dynamic). Training programmes that challenge these issues will not be easily accepted or implemented, and may be rejected outright as “imported” rather than emanating from the Arab context. In other words, the integration of critical thinking skills in learning settings, for instance, seems far from the “accepted” traditions.

“In other words, the integration of critical thinking skills in learning settings, for instance, seems far from the “accepted” traditions.”

The hesitation, or even the suspicion of “external” ideas has increased in the last two decades where Arab nations have witnessed different forms of relationships (superior, oppressive and hierarchical), with the international community, mainly the US and the West. Contradictory messages from international society about corruption, violence and violation of human rights in the Arab world (where support has never really led to equity and democracy), has increased resistance to the values that the international community has produced. This has created dilemmas between how to react to external intervention (especially when there is no trust in local regimes) and how to reach progress and development. Several Arab activists describe it as the fear of ghazo’ thakafi (or cultural invasion) rather than openness to tabadol thakafi (cultural exchange). This is because the historical experience of colonialism and political oppression led people either to reject or to follow the set practices introduced by such powers. During our work in the field we tried to join the voices that call for the integration of new ideas while critically examining them and not necessarily accepting everything.

“Several Arab activists describe it as the fear of ghazo’ thakafi (or cultural invasion) rather than openness to tabadol thakafi (cultural exchange).”

Competences for empowerment versus artificial reform

We cannot ignore the fact that Arab regimes have seldom been characterised as democratic and thus most of the programmes that aim at enhancing competences for empowerment will not be easily “blessed” by the regimes, because their authority may be perceived to be threatened. As a result these regimes limit their support to progressive programmes and cooperate with organisations that “fit” their expectations. Furthermore, since funding is mostly external, it is invested in institutions that work in cooperation with governmental bodies and usually based on the assumption that it will improve the achievement of desired outcomes within a specific period of time. In these cases efforts will focus on meeting the donor’s and regime’s expectations, which in turn will result in investment in basic skills (because they are easily measured). Thus investment in advanced competencies is unlikely to be achieved due to the factors cited above but also because learners cannot master them without applying them in new and real life settings. This is something the courses do not provide. That is a pity, because what will be produced in the structured learning “rooms” without connecting to real life settings will result in poor impact. This is a challenge when democracy is not an integral part of the social life of Arabs in different countries. Some people might argue that learners will be able to challenge this gap and act for the development of democratic values within their societies. In theory this may be correct but in practice it is more complicated, because undemocratic regimes in conservative communities have only conditional support from the international community and as a result the possibility of meaningful change becomes limited.

What is needed?

There is no blueprint to overcome the difficulties that have been described above. But there have been some initiatives that have somehow proved successful, conducted by different progressive leaders in the region. One of them is the Ecumenical Popular Education Program (EPEP) that started in Lebanon in 1968 and which currently works with more than 8 Arab countries. The EPEP’s main contribution has been on contextualising the work of Paolo Freire in literacy programmes. The EPEP’s work with other networks in the Arab region has focused on developing a forum for Arab educators to share ideas and to learn from different practices, as well as to contribute to the current discourse about the field. Similar initiatives have been conducted by DVV International by creating an academy for adult education in the Arab world. Here educators from the region share experiences and contextualise new approaches to adult education that consider the challenges mentioned above. I believe that providing a space for discussion and sharing practices about such approaches and dilemmas could lead to the creation of a community of practice where progressive leaders will be able to influence the wider community.

My voice is an echo of UNESCO’s call for networking between government and civil society institutions so both take responsibility for the development process. Of course this requires a clear idea about what should be done and what should not, as well as the approaches that will best result in change.

Breaking the image of educators as “knowledge deliverers” requires training to help them challenge this image of themselves and turn towards facilitating learning rather than transfering knowledge. As long as adult educators do not internalise new images of their work and methods, they will continue acting in the ways they experienced from their teachers as young or adult learners. This requires a different approach to training adult educators. Since there is no institute in the Arab world that issues an official certificate in the field, it is a time to introduce a new “image” of the adult educator with progressive approaches. However, training pro grammes should take into consideration the historical context so educators can learn how to criticise and discuss texts and to go beyond them and develop their abilities to plan for their learning. By doing so, there is a possibility for them to play that role with adult learners.

Finally, I believe that the international and local discourses should be enriched. We need to develop more opportunities for engaging educators and strategic leaders in our globe to share experiences and challenges on issues that have not been clarified, such as how to assess different “levels” of competences. I think that the journal Adult Education and Development is one of the successful initiatives providing opportunities for educators and activists in the field to share their views, concerns, models and practices. 

About the author

Rabab Tamish is Assistant Professor at Bethlehem University in the West Bank. She has rich experiences in developing community programmes with the objective of enhancing the quality of adult learning in Palestine and the Arab world. She is the first Director of the Centre for Excellence in Teaching and Learning which aims to enhance the quality of teaching and learning at the university level.


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