Pearls of knowledge

Education is a weapon against extremism. Teachers are busy learning about modern teaching methods to make lessons more appealing for Afghan children.

Text und Fotos: 
Marian Brehmer

An aircraft soars between the x and y axis on the graph, directly alongside the curve. Twenty teenage girls have their eyes fixed on the blackboard where their maths teacher has drawn the diagram. The lesson is about the practical application of mathematical equations. ‘Whether in aviation, architecture or mechanical engineering – lots of things we encounter in our lives are based on formulas like these,’ explains Maneela Mahdi. Then there’s a moment’s pause as she looks directly at her pupils. ‘Have you understood the principle?’ she asks quietly. ‘Let’s look at it again, this time in groups.’ Straight away, the 12th grade girls gather round the classroom tables in three groups and start solving the equations again together, while Mahdi walks around the room, looking over the girls’ shoulders. After ten minutes, she invites one girl from each group to come forward in turn and present their results. The material has been taught so well that the girls state what they have learned in their own words, without showing any shyness.

 Literature scholar Deeda Shakeb in front of a painting of the icon of Afghan poetry: the national poet Rumi.  The 29-year-old works at  the Faizabad teacher training college.

Literature scholar Deeda Shakeb in front of a painting of the icon of Afghan poetry: the national poet Rumi. The 29-year-old works at the Faizabad teacher training college.

Mahdi has been teaching maths at the girls’ school in Khairabad in Badakhshan Province, northern Afghanistan, for twelve years now. Around 1,300 pupils living in the small town and its surrounding villages currently attend the school, in year groups 1 to 12. For Mahdi herself, starting school was anything but easy. She comes from an area of Afghanistan where most people are poorly educated – both her mother and father are illiterate. ‘Even as a child I was interested in geometric shapes,’ she recalls. When she was older, she sought out neighbours and friends in her home town who knew a bit about maths and got some private tuition. She wrote down what she learned and swotted up on algebra in books. She was the first person in her family to complete school.

Armed with her school knowledge and her passion for her ‘beloved maths’, she began to teach without having a university degree or any teacher training. ‘During the first few years, I just dumped the subject matter on my pupils from the front of the class,’ Mahdi remembers. ‘I still sometimes feel guilty for doing this.’ Now, though, the 31-year-old uses group work and interactive lessons as a matter of course. ‘Since I started using more modern teaching methods, the girls have shown much more interest in the subject,’ says Mahdi. ‘Motivation has risen and the girls miss school less often.’

This quantum leap in teaching is the result of seminars which Mahdi has attended in recent years. She is one of more than 8,000 Afghan teachers who have taken part in-service training courses to improve the quality of their lessons in the four northern provinces of the country since 2009. The German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) and the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) commissioned GIZ to organise these educational support programmes. The aim is to raise the level of learning in Afghan primary and secondary schools.

‘Even though some teachers have successfully reached university entrance level,  they do not have enough practical experience or pedagogical skills,’ says GIZ’s Niazmohammad Puya, who has himself worked in teacher training as a lecturer. ‘Another big problem is lack of motivation among teaching staff. Their pay is no incentive, as it is rather low in Afghanistan. Being a teacher has to be a vocation, something close to the heart.’ This is what it is for Maneela Mahdi, who at the start of her career had to provide for her entire family with her monthly income of around 7,000 afghanis (roughly EUR 80). She used her first monthly salaries to pay for the education of her younger brothers. One of them, she recalls with tears in her eyes, became a soldier and was killed in a battle with the Taliban. The territory controlled by the insurgents begins less than ten kilometres away from the site of the girls’ school.

Education as a weapon

The best weapon against the extremism of the Taliban, though, is education – Mahdi is sure about that. She is so committed to her job that, last year, she even opted to return to work just a few weeks after giving birth, waiving her right to three months of parental leave, so that her pupils would not spend too long a period of their schooling left by themselves. Everyday challenges at the girls’ school are manifold: lack of teaching materials, overcrowded classrooms and families who cannot afford school uniforms and writing equipment, or pupils who get married young, become pregnant and then drop out of education. ‘Sometimes girls come to me with their personal problems, and naturally I try to help them,’ the maths teacher tells us after the lesson has finished.

It is now noon, and a teacher uses a stick to ring the school bell dangling from a post. The bell is actually a rusty metal cylinder that was once part of a Soviet tank – a symbol and relic of the years of war. Soon, the playground is bustling with girls of all age groups.

 Far right: When the weather is good,  lessons are held outdoors.

Maneela Mahdi has turned her love for mathematics into her profession. She teaches at the girls’ school in Khairabad, northern Afghanistan.

Group work rather than rote learning

It takes an hour to drive from the school to Faizabad, the provincial capital. The route takes you through a picture-postcard mountain landscape, with nomads and their large flocks of sheep appearing every now and again on the otherwise quiet road. Faizabad is home to the regional teacher training college. It offers trainee teachers two-year courses in one of seven different subjects, such as natural sciences, English or Islamic theology. The curriculum also includes courses on subjects such as peace education or gender and human rights.

The department for Dari, one of the official languages of Afghanistan, is headed by 29-year-old Deeda Shakeb who, after graduating with a degree in Persian literature, went on to obtain a Master’s degree in Sweden. Personal contacts with international organisations had enabled her to get a grant to gain this qualification abroad. However, this is very much the exception for Afghan citizens. The linguist exudes an air of confidence and radiates enthusiasm for education. School syllabuses and lesson plans are scattered all over her desk. Behind her is a picture of Afghanistan’s national poet Rumi, who was one of the most eminent Persian-language poets of the Middle Ages. Shakeb heads further training courses in didactics for lecturers in teacher training, partly on behalf of GIZ. ‘One of the most important attributes of a good teacher is flexibility,’ says Shakeb. ‘This means adapting methods to the situation in the classroom and the needs of the students.’

26,000 students
as well as teachers and lecturers have received training so far.
Over 40 per cent women
have been trained on these courses.

Contact: Dieter Göpfert;

In Shakeb’s Dari lessons, trainee teachers are taught on two levels simultaneously: content and method. Today, Shakeb is teaching a class of 16 young women in their third semester, explaining the differences and similarities between classical and contemporary poetry. The students work in groups, after which two overlapping circles are drawn on the board, their intersection showing the features that are common to poetry of different eras. ‘How did we arrive at this diagram from the initial issue we discussed?’ asks Shakeb. One of the students stands up and summarises the learning steps and the teaching methods used.

Shakeb’s students come from different regions of northern Afghanistan and hope to find a good teaching post soon. Fereshta Mahmudi, a 21-year-old, chose Dari as a subject because at secondary school she herself had a teacher who kindled in her a passion for literature. What was it that she liked most about this teacher? ‘She looked after all of her pupils equally, regardless of how clever they were,’ says the young woman with the bright-red headscarf. ‘That’s the kind of teacher I would like to become.’

Maneela Mahdi took that step quite some time ago. She is fully aware of how important good teachers are for Afghanistan’s future. ‘The biggest problems in Afghanistan are lack of education and the resulting unemployment,’ she says. ‘This creates a breeding ground for war and violence.’ Mahdi works to combat this every day. When the young mother starts to talk about her four-month-old daughter, her face breaks into a smile. ‘I want my child to have the opportunity to study for a Master’s degree in future. To be able to do this, she must have the chance to grow up in a peaceful environment. This is my greatest wish.


published in akzente 3/19