This article has been published in Enabling Education Review 8
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At 10 years old, Farzaneh1 is her parents’ teacher. Just five years ago she was one of the first girls to start attending the new community school in the Moqur district of southeast Ghazni, Afghanistan. In a village where only one person was literate when the school opened, the hope for an educated future lay with children like her. After school every day, Farzaneh teaches her parents how to read, write, and what she learned in school.

The story of Farzaneh plays into a bigger and more complex one across rural schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Despite school-based interventions aiming to increase enrolment, academic performance and attendance, the question of if and how children are actually learning in the classroom remains. Poverty, child labour, disabilities, gender-based violence, parents’ negative beliefs about education, poor infrastructure, and discrimination and social exclusion all impact on learning outcomes. In Farzaneh’s province, war and violence are part of daily life. Where the Taliban has a large presence, schools or mosques are used as security outposts during active violence, and girls are threatened and forced to stop learning in schools. The Pashtunwali tradition of Purdah is deeply entrenched in Farzaneh’s community and women and girls have limited life opportunities and autonomy.

With limited access to resources, difficult economic conditions, and generations of inconsistent educational access and achievement, students lack environments conducive to learning. Yet, there is a power behind a focus on community participation.

The Education Equity and Quality in Afghanistan and Pakistan (EEQAP) project uses a method called Community-Based System Dynamics to give community members the power to define what their specific primary school experience should be, and how everyone working together with the help of partner NGOs can bring positive education outcomes that promote learning, well-being, and empowerment.

Group Model Building workshops
Across more than one-hundred schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan, local teams of facilitators conducted participatory facilitation sessions – Group Model Building workshops – with children, parents, teachers, and community elders. This has brought community members together to define the system in which their school community operates, and how more inclusive teaching methods have an impact beyond the students and their learning outcomes.

Each workshop lasts one day and is separated into four sessions, each session building on the previous. The first is a focus group discussion: the facilitator asks the participants a series of questions around the concept of inclusive education, aiming for the participants to come up with a common definition of their own.

In the second session, the participants then identify and discuss the factors that can positively or negatively impact a child’s education, such as child labour, students’ attention in class, parents’ literacy, teachers’ salaries, access to water, etc. The most important factors are voted upon.

In the third session, the facilitator uses the ‘Connection Circle’ activity to help participants tell stories about how the factors are interconnected. As the connections develop, the participants can identify loops: where a chain of connections between factors leads back to the first factor considered.

For example, children in Bahawalnagar, Pakistan, identified how their parents’ ideas of girls’ education impacts on them and their learning: more inclusion in the classroom means that parents’ negative perceptions on girls’ education will decrease, which will decrease children’s psychological issues (especially girls), which will then go back to increase inclusion in the classroom.

In the fourth session, the participants use the connections identified to decide on actions for change. For example, holding parent-teacher meetings as an action for change might increase children’s attention in class, teacher behaviour, and/or parent’s focus on their children’s education, because the accountability and recognition of common goals between the adults will help support children in their learning. These actions for change will require a collaborative approach – a partnership between the community members and partner NGOs to create positive change within the school and the community. Participants then vote on their favourite ideas, before reflecting on what they valued and learned during the workshop process.

After the Group Model Building sessions are completed, a final workshop is held with all participants together to agree on a plan of action. Children and adults are divided into groups to identify which ideas for change will be the most impactful and how to implement those ideas. Participants identify how long each idea will take as well as how much can be achieved by the community and what support is required from the partner NGOs. Everyone comes together at intervals to share their progress and come up with a consensus before moving forward again in their groups.

Young girl presents the children’s plan for change, Ghazni, Afghanistan, 2019
Young girl presents the children’s plan for change, Ghazni, Afghanistan, 2019

A green light for the future
Not too far from Moqur district, Nazira1, a young girl in Qarabagh district, stood in front of a room of her female classmates and twice as many adults in an Action Plan workshop. This was the first time these young girls had ever had their ideas heard and considered in front of their parents, teachers, and elders. After discussing and voting, adults and children agreed with the children’s plan of action of how to move forward: the young girls’ action plan was chosen unanimously. At the end of the session, parents were already talking with the teachers – whom many parents had just met for the first time – about how they can better work together to improve their children’s educational experience. They reached these insights because of the perspective shifts from the previous workshops.

By taking an inclusive and participatory approach, different community participants are encouraged to share their own stories. Being heard and seeing their ideas acted upon helps empower them. Farzaneh, Nazira and others like them, become the focal point for a new chapter of education in their communities, and this first and most difficult step will guide their communities to come together and reach a common goal.

More information about the EEQAP project can be found online.

Contributors to this article:
Alan Mozaffari, Jean-Francois Trani, Parul Bakhshi – Washington University, St Louis, USA;
Meena Safi, Abdul Wahid Hamidi, Hashim Rawab, Tariq Danishyar, Hanifa Mozafari, Ian Kaplan – Norwegian Afghanistan Committee (NAC);
Munib Sohail, Anum Sidra, Aatif Baloch, Taimoor Ali, Hira Habib, Rizwana Jameel, Numan Naseer Awan – National Rural pport Programme (NRSP) of Pakistan;
Sodaba Ataye, Fariba Yosufi, Assadullah Samim, Aliaqa Ahmadi, Khadim Fayez, Abdul Wahid Lewal – Swedish Committee of Afghanistan (SCA)

1 Names have been changed to protect anonymity.