Going to School in the Middle East and North Africa

By Kwabena Dei Ofori-Attah | Go to book overview

Chapter 2
THE FOUNDATIONS OF MODERN
EDUCATION IN THE MIDDLE EAST
AND NORTH AFRICA

The people of North Africa and the Middle East have cherished schooling for more than two millennia now. As already pointed out, schools flourished in ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt. Their organization was, however, quite different from what we see today in our modern school system. The mode of instruction was essentially lecture and memorization. Students learned how to read, write, and compute numbers. The curriculum consisted of religion, mathematics, and reading. There were no special buildings constructed for the purpose of teaching and learning. A teacher’s home, temple, or palace served as the classroom. Very few girls had the opportunity to attend any of these schools.

The introduction of Islam in the region brought into existence new forms of traditional schools—kuttabs and madrasahs. The kuttabs were traditional schools that emphasized the teaching of religion, specifically Islam. The medium of instruction was Arabic. The method of teaching was by and large memorization (Boyle, 2006). Students were required to memorize the entire Quran before graduating. These were nongraded schools. The kuttabs offered instruction mostly to male students. The students sat on a mat on the floor with no furniture and repeated after the teacher (fqih). While memorizing the text, the students moved the upper part of their bodies back and forth, at the same time saying aloud their portion of the Quran. To the outsider, the method of instruction and classroom management were chaotic, disorganized, and unorthodox. As Starrett (1995) has argued:

The lack of furniture and the children’s occasional involvement in economic pursuit,
such as plaiting straw mats for sale, tended to upset foreigners whose understanding of
schooling required a specific interior architecture, trained and disinterested professionals,
and the full uninterrupted attention of all parties. Visitors deprecated the unkept appearance
of kuttabs and, interpreting their physical organization as the result mainly of poverty,

-8-

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