Originally published in Wise Ed Review

“Education is life!”A quote commonly used and very rarely understood and put into practice. We live in a time where Education is a fixed form in an ever-changing world, where the student and teacher in a classroom are perceived as constants, while human beings and contexts remain an everlasting variable.

As an Egyptian who was fortunate to go to an international private school in Egypt— a very rare, high quality education opportunity compared to the kind of education the majority of the Egyptian students get access to in public school systems— I learnt that life is not just about literacy and numeracy. Self-learning and self-motivation are key to live and thrive in the future workplace. I learnt that educating the mind and the character is more important than the textbook and the homework.

I look around at our education system today, with 22 million students, the majority of which enroll into public schools. A system with more than 45 thousand schools, across 27 governorates and 1 million teachers. A system struggling to meet the needs of learners and provide them with capabilities needed to become responsible, productive citizens, accountable to one’s own self and others. On top of the many sufferings of our country; poverty, corruption, economic and political instability, education comes a main contributor to preparing generations to come and to holding them accountable to a better future.

The main challenge in education in countries like Egypt is offering good quality education at mass. How do we reach the millions of students while maintaining quality education standards that are not only achievable but also practical? A question that has been tackled by many educators and thought leaders for years, and has not one route to its answer. From my opinion, context is key, education is context. Understanding learners, their environment, their social activities, their needs, and their aspirations. How they envision their own education, what they want to learn, and how they want to learn.

After achieving my Bachelor and Master of Science degrees in Networks Engineering, working for private-sector, multinationals and academia, I quit my job and started to pave my path to work for educational development in Egypt. Just before applying to my Ph.D. I decided to join Educate Me Foundation, a non-profit, youth-led organization which I am currently on its leadership team as Operations Director.

Educate Me aspires to re-define education in Egypt, transforming the system from being content-based to being skills-based. We believe that education is about preparing learners to become self-actualized, where they have the ability to dream and mobilize themselves and their resources towards achieving their own dreams and goals. We believe that a quality education is a student’s right and that context is key. We have established a community school K-3 in an underprivileged area called Talbeya, which we so call our lab-school. We hire people from the community and train them to fully run a learner-centered model that incorporates 21st century skills along with the national standards of the Egyptian curriculum. Hiring people from the community is indeed double the challenge but is also double the impact. A core component to having both a scalable and sustainable model. Our lab-school is what helps us remain practical and contextual, as we face the day to day challenges of an underprivileged, slum area in Egypt and coming up with innovative, contextual solutions to tackle them. We currently have 230 students enrolled where we focus on their learning experience and learning environment.

We have also been running an impact study in partnership with Rise Egypt and Harvard University to be able to validate our model.

Educate Me does not scale by establishing more schools and becoming a parallel education system. Social & civil sectors would hardly ever be able to fulfill the needs gap in terms of numbers (45 thousand public schools and only 6 thousand private schools!). Therefore, working around the system is not a smart solution for mass education. Hence we rather scale by accessing the existing public schools and working from within.

While most work focuses on doing more infrastructure, curricula, and student programs, the scene lacks activities with the teachers themselves. Teachers act as role models for us in our early stages for years.  Reminding teachers of their core mission to impact hundreds of kids and lead by example is the simple secret key.

Educate Me reaches out to public school teachers and educators to empower to become innovators, and agents of change within their schools and districts. Using a humanistic approach, we work with them to develop the best practices from our lab-school and integrate 21st century skills in their classrooms. We have operated in 170 schools, in 7 governorates across the country, reaching 5000 educators to date. We also connect them together in a network, with both online and offline components. The network enables them to share resources, get access to mentors, meet policy-makers and have actual conversations around the education system.

After all, student and teacher in a classroom are not the sole parameters of the equation. Context determines needs, potentials and aspirations. What works in one place might not necessarily work in another. Hence, educators and thought leaders should focus more on the need for contextual education that emphasizes best-practices and evidence- based-approaches to forge the path for future education leaders and ensure innovation.

Christine Safwat

Christine Safwat, an Egyptian, 10 years of experience in Academia & Education Management. She received her bachelor and Master of Science degrees in Networks Engineering from the German University in Cairo. Christine previously worked as a researcher and lecturer assistant at the same university. She published her research works through various conferences in Germany, France, South Korea and Egypt, and co-chaired and organized IEEE conferences in Egypt. Christine was one of the founders of CISCO Networking Academy at the GUC. She has been involved in community service activities from a young age, and ever since then has been committed to a vision for Education in Egypt, realizing the pressing need in closing the huge education gap. Christine is on the leadership team of  Educate Me Foundation as Operations Director. She has been on the RISE Egypt fellowship 2015-2016 and was recognized as one of the top 20 young leaders in Africa in 2017. She became a member of the Harambe Entrepreneur Alliance. She has also been selected as a WISE Voice Learner for Program 2017-2018, graduate of Education in Emergencies & Forced Migration Program. Her passion for Egypt drives her dedication to the development of the country through education and offering an opportunity to those who have none.