The second in a series of articles that aim to provide information and advice in context to help consultants gain an appreciation of the region and greater understanding of its culture. It is important to repeat the caveat contained in article one. The observations describe events as I have experienced them and cannot be generalised to the entire population of Muslims.
Without exception I continue to thoroughly enjoy working in the Middle East, my journey from ignorance to understanding has not been without frustration and bewilderment. I owe a huge dept of gratitude to many Arabic friends’ colleagues and acquaintances who have been very patient in providing explanations that have developed my understanding and without doubt this has led to repeat business in the region
Interaction, opinion, discussion, and activity all contribute to a healthy learning environment in the western world, but what if your experience of education and training was of an environment where you were not encouraged to ask questions because it would be disrespectful, and where learning was something that was delivered in the form of a lecture, imagine how difficult it might be to adapt to the western trainer standing before you who wants to work with you and is curious about who you are. Imagine how much of a risk it would represent for me to feel comfortable to share with you.
False Evidence Appearing Real
Western trainers will often face a much longer period of contracting, setting the tone and establishing a learning climate that they are accustomed to. When faced with this effort we can often draw the wrong conclusions, become de-motivated and disappointed. But if you understand a little about your adult learners experience of teacher and student relationships you will quickly learn to adapt and build in sufficient time and activity to slowly build an environment where people feel safe to share information and opinion.
State School Education
Although you may encounter one or two participants who have attended private schools, they are not the norm. Most will have attended state schools, in which students were encouraged to regard the teacher as an absolute authority. To question was unthinkable and answering a question incorrectly would often result in verbal abuse clearly developing a strong fear of making mistakes. Lecture and Rote memory were the predominant learning methods and further exploration through discussion, group interaction and application had no place in the class room, so opportunities to apply learning were limited. Learning was therefore a passive and non participatory experience.
Work with Me
Your interactive and engaging teaching style and your choice of icebreaker should build a sense of safety. Pre-prepare ground rules for participation; reassure people that it’s ok to admit that you don’t know, and what is said in the room stays in the room. Initially choose small group activities where people do not feel they are drawing attention to themselves or standing out from the crowd.
Very rarely and only on public courses have I experienced problems with spoken English and this has been as a result of poor selection on behalf of the employer. However it is wise to remember that English was taught in Arabic as a subject in state schools where as those who attended private schools will have been taught in the English language. Despite this choose your words and pace your delivery carefully. Remember that English is their second language and time is required for internal translation and application. Many business documents are still produced in Arabic and therefore participants may encounter difficulties with language in written form. I very carefully construct my workbooks for this region. keeping language simple but not childlike and making good use of white space on the pages so as not to overwhelm, with clutter that can confuse.
I always avoid homework unless it is a requirement of a course that delivers an accreditation. In many of the poorer regions males will have two jobs out of necessity. Females have huge extended family responsibilities. Many people will be unable to access computers and if computers are accessible certain western sites will be blocked by government censors. Also there is a sense of insecurity about producing work without explicit instruction about how to go about it, this behaviour comes from a desire to please you the teacher and the need to produce something that is how you want it. If homework forms an essential element of your training programme then it is essential to allow time enable participants to generate and share ideas about what content might be appropriate.
Learning to learn
Without doubt many of your students have never been encouraged to engage with teachers or to express their thoughts and opinions to those in authority and especially a teacher! Approximately two years ago I ran my first course in an organisation based outside of Amman in quite a rural location. The group were all male and engineers. Initially getting them to engage and make appropriate contributions was a battle, and at the end of the first course one of the participants described the experience as “Like an Inquiry”! I have subsequently delivered nine courses in this organisation without abandoning my interactive style but perhaps with a little moderation and creating an environment where people feel comfortable to make a contribution.