Citizenship - Fostering debate in a fractured society

New curriculum in Lebanon will aim to 'challenge sectarianism'

They live in a country scarred by war and in close proximity to other Middle Eastern conflicts, with thousands of refugees from Syria pouring over their border each week.

But school students in Lebanon are not given sufficient opportunities to learn about their society's complex problems, researchers have found. Now the government wants to develop a citizenship curriculum to put schools at the forefront of fostering religious and cultural harmony.

The process has been instigated by the Lebanese government amid concern that classroom discussions are curtailed for fear of exacerbating political divisions.

Maha Shuayb, director of the Centre for Lebanese Studies, a research centre based in Beirut and London that has been asked to help devise the curriculum, said that students needed to learn how to "challenge sectarianism".

"Most teachers in Lebanon are reluctant to encourage debate because they are worried about children talking about their political views and political conversations in the classroom," she said. "Some citizenship teachers have been investigated by the authorities for allowing debates."

Lebanon is a majority Muslim country but also has a large Christian population. Between 1975 and 1990 it went through a prolonged civil war resulting from tensions between Christian and Muslim factions. It is also regularly embroiled in neighbouring conflicts.

The citizenship project will consult parents, students and teachers, as well as Palestinian and Syrian refugees.

Representatives from the UK-based Association for Citizenship Teaching and researchers from the University of London's Institute of Education have been asked by the Lebanese government to contribute their expertise to the initiative and have already visited the country.

Hugh Starkey, professor of education at the Institute of Education, said that young people in Lebanon wanted to learn about politics and citizenship but much of current teaching was based on textbooks and dictated notes.

"Teacher training can help teachers adapt (to) a more active method, something they've had to do in England," Professor Starkey said. "I hope we can help provide a basis for the understanding of human rights, dignity and respect for diversity. Many teachers in Lebanon are anxious about bringing up controversial issues, yet these are things young people want to talk about."

The researchers have visited 36 schools in the country, including some in refugee camps, to ask children, teachers and parents what they would like to see in the new curriculum. Their findings will inform a national action plan, which is due to be launched by Lebanon's Ministry of Education and Higher Education in September.

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