Improving wellbeing in education: the Elham project

11 dec 2015 · door Gijs Verbeek >

Elham: a systemic effort in improving children’s wellbeing in Palestinian education

Van de redactie: Tijdens een bijeenkomst van Quality of Childhood, één van de internationale netwerken waarin NIVOZ participeert, stond het Palestijnse Elham project centraal. Eén van van de initiators en begeleiders vertelde openhartig over deze nationaal gedragen vernieuwingsgolf binnen het Palestijnse onderwijs. Mede door de twee praktijkvoorbeelden is het een te mooi en inspirerend project om niet ook dichter bij huis te delen. In dit (Engelstalige) verslag van de bijeenkomst zetten we de werkwijze, kernelementen en opbrengsten van Elham uiteen, en gaan we in op wat we er in Europa van kunnen leren.
Het mooie in dit project is dat het een unieke bottom-up/top-down benadering heeft, waarbij ideeën en plannen voor verbeteringen van onderop komen, en de facilitering van deze ideeën van ‘boven’ of uit het systeem komt. Op deze wijze is de verandering direct ook geïntegreerd ‘in het systeem’, niet in de laatste plaats omdat alle betrokkenen nadrukkelijk worden uitgenodigd vanuit hun bestaande rol betrokken te raken.
Systeembrede participatie door het vormen van partnerschappen en een focus op het lokale perspectief, het stimuleren van ‘het goede’, en aanspreken van in aanleg aanwezige talenten leggen de fundamenten voor deze breed gedragen vernieuwingsgolf.

Introduction: Quality of Childhood

Tuesday, 1 September 2015, saw the 54th session of the Working Group on the Quality of Childhood at the European Parliament (QoC). This session revolved around the Elham project, a multi-sector national partnership aimed at making Palestinian schools more conducive to their children’s wellbeing. The story and journey of Elham is characterised by a strong focus, commitment, and a system-wide, collaborative approach towards that goal. From it, a deep sense of interconnectedness emerges and the appreciation thereof may very well be at the core of its success.

The host of this session was MEP Julie Ward (Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats, UK). Keynote speaker was Dr. Marwan Awartani (Ramallah, Palestine), President of Khaduri Technical University, co-founder of the Universal Education Foundation and, together with a team of five, the driving force behind Elham’s operations in Palestine.

Central questions for this session were: What is the philosophy and approach of Elham? What positive outcomes have been achieved? In which way can we apply the same approach in a European context?

This session was organised by Alliance for childhood, in association with Learning for well-being (L4WB) and the Universal Education Foundation.IMG_0629

Turning the tide of the neoliberal infestation of different aspects of life

All participants were welcomed by Julie Ward, after which Christopher Clouder, one of the co-founders representing the Alliance for Childhood, painted the contemporary social and educational context in which the Elham story should be understood. He started with sharing his insight that the Western world could learn much from the developing world. Particularly since they are faced with multifaceted difficulties within challenging contexts, which stimulates innovative ideas fuelled by a sense of urgency almost unknown to the ‘developed West’.

He further stated that we are amidst a time of anticipation, the beginning of something new. Where previously we would tend to focus on faults, we now focus our attention to what can be done.

To illustrate this point he mentioned his appreciation for the book Elham’s Harvest (2010), in which achievements of individual teachers, students and participants of the Elham project are celebrated. The focus is on writing ideas down that ‘have worked’. It is acknowledging what can be done, and something can always be done, even in difficult situations.

This is of particular importance since the whole world at the moment is facing challenging situations, which, according to Christopher, boils down to an increasing “neoliberal infestation of different aspects of life”. The way forward out of this gridlock is cooperation and collaboration. Unfortunately, at the same time we see declining interest in teaching as a profession.

The odds seem to be against us, but we have to put a stop to this, since this neoliberal tidal wave is working against the wellbeing and proper development of children.

Before introducing to the Elham project, Christopher urged and invited us to try to take over the spirit of the project, and not just the format.

After this, Daniel Kropff, co-founder and Executive Vice-Chair of the Universal Education Foundation representing L4WB and UEF, shared with the listeners an introduction into the remarkable cooperation he has had for years with Dr. Marwan.IMG_0622

Elham: process and partnerships

Dr. Marwan started his introduction by emphasising that, more than anything else, the Elham project is a process – a holistic, integral and integrated answer, catering to the wellbeing of all children. He also stressed the importance of partnerships, extending from the level of the students on a national level, to partnerships between international partners. He furthermore underscored how having a positive perspective turned out to be helpful for the project, together with a focus on what can be done; and how this process itself has resulted in a deeper level of relationships and partnerships of the people who participated.

How a schoolgirl’s focus on healthy food transformed a local community

As an example, Marwan shared the following story. Although it may be a rather mundane initiative, it did illustrate the transformative power and impact of Elham throughout the community.

The story relates how a group of schoolgirls took on the school cafeteria and the junk food they served there. The girls were fed up with the narrow variety of unhealthy food options they could choose from during lunchtime at school. After reading about healthy food they started speaking with different partners within the school. They managed to change the minds of the rest of the school and in the process they also informed their parents about the importance of eating a healthy diet. The girls lead the initiative and soon after, both the mothers and aunts were brought in to cook for the school kids. While the mothers were cooking healthy, locally produced food, the girls were selling it during lunch break. This cycle created not only healthy diets for the kids during their schooldays, but at the same time also more jobs for mothers, and the local community in general, as a result of the usage of local produce. In this example, the girls became ambassadors for their parents.

Goals: improving children’s overall wellbeing

The goal with which Dr. Marwan and his colleagues have set out their venture was nothing short of the wish to transform the world and bring back hope. At first, they were thinking in terms of a universal price for education, somewhat like the Nobel tradition. ‘But, what we truly wanted’, says Marwan, ‘is Elham’, which means so much as inspiration, to inspire, and heart.

Elham: inspiration, to inspire, heart

Their focus therefore shifted towards educational reform, in the service of improving children’s wellness on all different levels that wellbeing is expressed: physical, emotional, mental and spiritual. This meant a congruent vision and plan of action from the very outset. Furthermore, they were interested in a proof of concept, instead of just theorizing about it.

Key elements Elham: system-wide participation, cooperation and capacity making

There are three elements that make up the Elham initiative:

  1. Integrating the perspective of everyone involved, first and foremost the children and young people,
  2. System-wide cooperation and
  3. The cultivation of capacity making.

First, the system adopted a Voice of Children (VoC) monitoring system. In this way, the perspectives of children and their sense of wellbeing is continuously providing input for educational reform and development.

In order to monitor the progress of the project, they needed some sort of a baseline measurement to determine outcomes. What better way to determine the outcomes, than by asking the children themselves? So, a survey was developed, and administered in three countries: Lebanon, Palestine and Jordan.

D: From an organisational perspective, what is different and essential to the success of Elham?

Dr. Marwan: It’s a unique combination of a bottom-up, and top-down approach. In Elham, everybody participated, based on their own existing responsibilities within the system. There was a shared sense of urgency, which must also not be underestimated. But in order to really make it work, it had to become adopted by the system. The people from the system truly became a community. Two principles within this community were essential, and that was that the nomination of ideas for improvement flowed from the bottom up, and recognition and facilitation of those ideas came from the top down. Alongside this, we focused on capacity building of everyone involved.

The voices of the children which spoke through the survey where discussed during local meetings in which all stakeholders were invited to participate. These meetings were dynamic in nature and characterised by consulted co-creation. The municipalities of the Gaza government were also involved in this phase. The idea was that, in order to bring about systemic change, all participants needed to learn with you.

This resulted in national partnerships around a common agenda, which provided a clear and coherent outline focused on the above stated goals, yet which also left enough space for localized fingerprints. All major systems were aboard, including the government. This has resulted in a collaborative effort in which all stakeholders were working together towards the implementation of the common agenda.

The focus within these national partnerships was to cultivate capacity making on all levels. This meant also involving all management levels of the municipalities and government as well as teacher training institutes.

Gaining momentum: passion before specifics

‘An important aspect and driving force of the whole process is the felt urgency and need to secure hope, since it is scarce within our community at the moment with the difficulties we face. So, we invited everyone to contribute to the enhancement of the school environment: teachers, students, parents, the community, everyone. People need to know and get a feeling that a Palestinian CAN make a difference’, Dr. Marwan stated. This generated a vast array of initiatives, with over 1200 applications with plans to make contributions and improvements to teaching and the wellbeing of children and young people in schools. People were invited to ‘spill their hearts’ so to speak: ‘we were less interested in the specifics of their plans, but we wanted to know how did it come about, what was the driving force behind the initiative, what passion gave rise to it’.

V: Could you give another example that is close to your heart?

Dr. Marwan: Yes, although it’s difficult to choose, since all examples are close to my heart. There was a group of young people who wanted to address an environmental issue in their neighbourhood. The community they were a part of, were really suffering from health issues regarding a contamination in their living area. They suffered from breathing difficulties, but also the plant life in the form of olive trees, and almond trees had been affected.

By means of research and lobbying the children involved were making the issue public. They really showed an intense and passionate effort in taking care of the space in which they live, taking account of the effects for the people, the animals and the environment in general. Again, through generating media attention we tried to extend the scale of impact, and at the same time promoting students taking issues at hand to another level.

‘The invitation to bring forth ideas was launched nationally, but we also spoke with and invited localities’, Dr. Marwam continued. This generated a wave of creative energy around the country: ‘The whole country felt a new breeze to make a change’. People were stimulated to surpass a certain passivity or lethargy and make changes themselves and to get involved in making suggestions for change and improvement.

The next step in this process was the review of all the initiatives that were put forth. What was special in our approach was that we used the process of peer review in rating and testing the initiatives. ‘We didn’t use some external body, no, we asked the local eye, “how is it working”?’IMG_0628

This local and collaborative review process was executed by so-called ‘evaluation boards’ which consisted of schoolboys and -girls, professors, teachers and ministers. That created a particular dynamism, which then served as a flywheel, propelling the collaborative efforts towards success. For the students, this meant a new kind of engagement and also an opportunity for connecting with different people and responsibilities they would normally not be likely to meet.

We contributed to this process by generating media involvement, again, from both the national and local perspectives. It gave all those involved a chance to be proud of what they were apart of and contributing to’.


C: Where does this project get its funding?

Dr. Marwan: ‘Our focus from the start was on sustainability, together with strong local assistance. That means that instead of making and keeping it separated from the system, we actively sought out to make it an integrated part of the already existing system. That means that we didn’t need extra payment, since people operating within the system do the work. It has become part of their regular jobs. Apart from that we do have symbolic gifts and dinners, but that’s really it. I have a team of five people, and together we keep the project going. Passionate involvement at the local level, brought together for instance in ‘outreach meetings’ is key within this structure. That means we can let 20,000 to 30,000 people participate on a yearly basis, divided over 50 initiatives each year. Thirty percent of the schools are involved, and it has really affected the whole society of Palestine. It’s all over the country.’

Individual feedback

After this peer review process, we made sure every participant received feedback on the plans they had submitted, since not every plan could be supported with funding. This was the project’s way of appreciating their effort and it also shows respect. Again, this is also reflected in the earlier mentioned publication ‘Harvest’, an annual publication in which accomplishments are being celebrated.

Climate of hope

The system was driven by mutual learning of all participants, towards successful implementation of the suggested improvements. And that is how it spread further.

‘Our part in that was that we generated media attention for every success. By paying attention to the efforts and accomplishments in the Elham project in newspapers, radio and TV, we created a nationwide climate of hope.’

The culmination of this was a huge celebration in a grand finale, which was given much attention, but was not too centralized, since it was accompanied with local celebrations. Important during these meetings was celebrating the good spirit that all the participants were bringing to education in their collaborations and efforts to improve upon it.

Globally, the Elham project has also generated it’s fair share of attention: ‘We’ve for instance won an important Arab innovation prize, we were rewarded with a global prize in Helsinki and so far we have been asked to give major annual presentations during the World innovation summit for Health and World innovation summit for Education.’

Sharing the wealth

Since so much of the attention in the project has been focussed on the processes, the Elham project has developed numerous platforms, tools and manuals, the majority of which have also been translated into English:

‘We would be happy to share these resources with the rest of the world, if they’re interested in similar projects. Next to this, if you would really like to get in touch with the Elham project: it is alive right here in Palestine, so you are more than welcome to visit the schools.’

F: Is there a transfer possible from the insights of this project to teacher training?

Dr. Marwan: I can almost answer that question with a definitive ‘yes’. Currently we’re meeting with the ministry to start to introduce so-called ‘learning for well-being’ modules within the teacher training program. We’ll start from there and see how it goes.

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