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United We Learn

Peer Communities of Learners establish effective school-university partnerships to enhance teacher training

By Reem Abouemera

In March 2020, when Egypt’s schools and universities shifted to online  instruction, a group of teachers had  just acquired collaboration skills in Peer  Communities of Learners, which came in handy at the time. But what are PCLs? 

“PCLs rely on the principles of teachers learning collaboratively from one another’s  practices and experiences,” explained  Malak Zaalouk ’71, ’76, professor of practice, director of AUC’s Middle East Institute of Higher Education and the  project’s principal investigator. “This requires organizational skills, agency and a  strong willingness to reflect and learn while allowing teachers to own their learning.” 

In 2017, a project development team coordinated by MEIHE initiated a school university partnership to introduce the concept of collaborative institutional learning among schools and universities in Egypt with the overarching aim of improving the quality of teacher and student education and enhancing learning outcomes, explained Zaalouk. 

The initiative, School and University Partnership for Peer Communities of  Learners, was established through a consortium of eight higher education  institutions and 43 public schools in Egypt. The partnership was supported by an Erasmus+ project awarded to MEIHE. According to Zaalouk, the project was  created in a context where Egypt had shown a keen need for reform at the school and university levels and where faculties of education had acquired the reputation of operating in an “ivory tower divorced from the practical field of school improvement,” she said. 

The idea — and popularity — of school-university partnerships goes back to the 19th century when education reformer John Dewey established  the first laboratory school in the United States to train teachers based  on a model of experimental education, research, professional development  and innovation. Similarly, in 20th century Egypt, education reformer Ismail Al-Qabbani introduced the idea of experimental classes tied to the Institute of Education, where he served as dean, to train primary and secondary school teachers and enhance their skills.

“PCLs have the power to bring about dual reform at both schools and universities, empowering teachers and creating deep cultural transformations,” Zaalouk noted.

Through effective PCLs, new teachers  are able to apply theoretical concepts and  practice their teaching in a supportive  setting, veteran teachers act as mentors  and enrich their professional development,  and school and university educators  engage in research to come up with new  ways of doing things. This way, teachers  get into the habit of viewing learning as a  social process, whereby their needs are  met through collaboration and sustainable  efforts — enhancing their pedagogical  skills and content knowledge and improving  student learning, Zaalouk explained. “In  the process of collaborating within PCLs,  teachers and educators learn to make their  practice public and open to scrutiny by  their peers. Teachers become agents of  change, as they’re the only ones capable  of bringing about cultural change within  their own institutions,” she said. 

“Collaboration, as opposed to competition, became the leading mode of learning and defined all relationships.”

Through the project, more than 100 PCLs were created in Egypt. New concepts  were introduced, such as global citizenship, sustainable development, and the integration of science, technology, engineering, the arts and math. In addition, teachers were mentored and introduced to innovative pedagogies, learner centeredness, Special Education Needs, digital tools, and  technologically enhanced learning and networking.  

There were, of course, challenges along the way. Heba EL-Deghaidy, chair of the Department of Educational Studies and co-principal investigator of the project, noted that the declining social and economic status and low motivational levels for teachers were among the main difficulties they faced. “Having to understand and work with schools to build their autonomy took time as we worked our way to create rapport among all members,” she said. “The project established strong partnerships between universities and schools, where the latter are well known for their centralized operations and partnerships in general, and [collaborations] between universities  and schools are far from the norm.” 

 Through their research, Zaalouk and the team members asserted that the PCLs resulted in “deep transformations and new habits of mind,” sharing that  “collaboration, as opposed to competition, became the leading mode of learning and defined all relationships.”  

Personal and cultural transformations also became visible. “For the first time,  teachers practiced reflection and research as part of their professional development,” Zaalouk noted. “Collaboratively designing  and planning their classes resulted in feelings of autonomy, self-confidence, self-efficacy, motivation, trust and rapport among school teachers and university educators, who grew closer to one another and to the students. Innovative pedagogies were implemented, lifelong learning habits were adopted, and a sense of empowerment emerged among the teachers. This all had a positive impact on  student learning.” 

To ensure the sustainability of the outcomes, Zaalouk highlighted that a large  part of the project engaged policymakers in the dialog to guarantee that the benefits  will not only be sustained but also grow. “The dialog took many shapes and involved  various levels of policymakers, from the central authorities to the local and school based ones. The positive outcome of this project has not only been recognized by the funding agency but also at the national level, where Egypt’s Supreme Council of Universities formally acknowledged that the project needs to be mainstreamed and scaled to the national level,” she said. 

In addition to Zaalouk and EL-Deghaidy, the team for this project consisted of  researchers Lamiaa Eid (MA ’20), Lujain Ramadan ’17, Dana Sabbah (MA ’11) and  Ahmed Younis. 

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