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Critical skills reach critical mass in Lebanon

HALF A year after the Israeli bombs stopped falling, life in Lebanon goes on. People go to work, they shop, see friends and discuss the best education for their children. Some are also considering the best education for their teachers, and looking to Scotland for support.

"Education is very important to people in Lebanon," says Raouf Ghusayni, director of the International College in Beirut. "Many people are willing to sacrifice much to send their children to a good school."

According to Dr Ghusayni, about two-thirds send their children to private schools. A sizeable number pay the fees for the International College, a progressive, secular school where more than 3,400 Christian and Muslim children learn side by side, from pre-school to secondary.

Unlike other schools in the fragile country, the college is moving towards an increasingly child-focused approach, encouraging enquiry and problem-solving. Its wide curriculum covers the International Baccalaureate, the College Preparatory Program, and both the French and Lebanese Baccalaureates.

Although teachers and staff at the college provide professional development workshops for several thousand teachers from other schools, Dr Ghusayni is convinced they would benefit from embracing some of the newer ideas emerging abroad. So last month he spent three days in Edinburgh on a critical skills course.

"I don't teach any more," says Dr Ghusayni, who was head of the International School in London for eight years before becoming director in Beirut. Prior to that, he was professor of education at the American University of Beirut.

"I came to Scotland to find out more about critical skills, as I felt it could be what I'm looking for to encourage an even more child-centred approach to education in our school," he says.

"We want something that encourages enquiry, but without compromising our excellent academic success. The Scottish programme would fit our model well after some adaptations."

As an international school, the college has always looked to developments from around the world, particularly the United States. To keep abreast of changes, it has joined various organisations, such as the Near East South Asia Asso-ciation of Schools and the New England Association of Schools. It was through these that Dr Ghusayni found out about critical skills and chose to sample it in Scotland.

Critical skills was developed in the States in the 1980s, following a scathing report on the woeful state of public education there. It focuses on developing students' creative thinking, problem-solving skills and organisation. It encourages them to be advocates of lifelong learning, to be self-directed, have integrity and work collaboratively. And it also engenders curiosity and wonder. All this is done through "challenges" - complex, open-ended problems that pupils work to-gether to solve.

In 1998, Colin Weatherly, a former headteacher in Scotland, brought the programme across the Atlantic, and since then more than 1,000 teachers have been trained at critical skills institutions. Its fame is spreading and local authorities are beginning to buy into the programme.

Dr Ghusayni's three-day course has left him convinced that critical skills would provide the stimulus needed to enthuse his teachers and encourage his pupils. He must now look at budgets, but if all goes well, he plans to adapt the Scottish version and transfer it to Lebanon within a few months.

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