Behind OLIVE project – Faculty and facts 

The author of this blogpost is Mia Laitinen*.
Featured image credits: Ayman A Rezeqallah, Faculty of Education, Birzeit University

*Mia is a Master’s student at the Faculty of Education, University of Helsinki. Currently she is writing her thesis. For this blogpost, Mia met online with OLIVE members from Birzeit University and discussed with them themes related to the project aims.

I was kindly introduced to three participants with undeniable impact for OLIVE project. The participants are Ahmad Aljanazrah, Assistant Vice President of Academic Affairs at Birzeit University and coordinator for the project, welcoming the discussion and ideas concerning OLIVE; Refa’ Ramahi, Dean of the Faculty of Education at Birzeit University, who’s working on planning structures of workshops and developing practicum courses; and Abdallah Bsharat, faculty member at Curriculum and Instruction department of College of Education at Birzeit. Abdallah is supporting co-operation in the school field and the upgrading of courses.  

All the participants have worked with the project from its early stages to develop the quality of teacher education in Palestine with colleagues around the world. When sending the interview questions all the way from Finland I was curious to know, what kind of roles are needed to run an international project such as OLIVE. I have come to realize that it’s very important to include the administration level in the co-operation as well as the sense of believing in the project. This engagement can be seen in participating in activities and common projects and planning, but also as an aim to reach goals that flow at an abstract level. Such goals include equality in teacher education and sensitive learning environments.  

From a Finnish perspective, I guess that, at some level, these apply to our educational system as well. In addition, during the interviews I came to realize these are issues we’re dealing with all around the world. When adding the current pandemic situation into the plot, this turns out to be a story of global teacher hood.  

“We don’t have control over the future” – but… shift in education during the Covid-19 pandemic 

OLIVE project is future-oriented, raising the discussion about using technology in teaching, so the pandemic – even when shaking the norms of teaching – may have offered some forcing power to really elaborate on how technology can be integrated into teaching.

Ahmad sees that OLIVE project came in good time, “to respond what we’re dealing with together”. The change from face-to-face to online learning has had an impact on the field of education around the world. Between the lines, the participants seem to describe this to have even become a new teaching norm. They also describe there had already been a need for change before Covid-19 came onto the stage.  In addition, Ahmad describes the digital gap between the younger generations and the ones born before the era of the internet. Moving from face to face to online teaching wasn’t self-evident for all the teachers. While some were positive toward teaching online, some others felt frustrated. This shows that emotions were already there, concerning different perspectives on teacherhood. Perhaps one of the most important findings and aims of learning online is the willingness of teachers to integrate technology into the teaching program.  

Despite the so-called digital gap, all the interviewees reflected on the importance of helping students to deal with technology more than they used to. As it happens elsewhere in the world, the transition hasn’t been easy in Palestine either. Cheating and absencehave been the downsides of online learning, experienced as shut cameras and muted microphones. Also, access to the internet during exams sets its own challenge for teachers to evaluate the learning of students. The insecurity whether the learning really happens behind the screen is shared via university teachers, but also the student teachers, running the teaching practices via different platforms. Abdallah asks important questions about how to motivate school students to participate and discuss when learning online.  

Even though the educational settings weren’t really created when the pandemic started, all the participants agree that the shift has had some positive impact. It has enabled learning in the challenging situations that Palestine is faced with.  

We can’t, of course, know what the future brings for us, but as a university student, I agree that the role of technology has enabled learning in more reflexive ways – ways that I feel can responding to the needs of the contemporary world. 

Chalk and talk! – Student-centered methods  

The goals of the teacher education program issued by the Ministry of Education in 2007-2011, focus on student-centered methods (Ministry of Education and Higher Education, 2008, p. 18, 25) and aim to add “knowledge of teaching”. I was curious to find out what participants see as the best ways to introduce student-centered learning methods, but also to understand what challenges they are faced with. Blended learning is very clearly linked to technology these days, and participants mentioned teaching combinations including online and face-to-face learning. Also, activities such as roleplaying, cooperative learning and teaching by using cases can fit in the learning field in the 21st century. Using, for example, the internet and different learning environments makes it possible to offer teaching online and/or face-to-face.  

Abdallah brings forward that, first of all, to set the ground for a student-centered approach, believing is the key. He sees that there might be some change necessary in teaching. Changing the position and understanding what beliefs of “good teaching” are about is necessary nowadays, as the curricula require more attention to the students’ learning and the use of technology. 

Refa points out that one of the challenges is indeed beliefs concerning teaching and learning, because many teachers are still leaning on traditional methods. Students’ deeper and better learning is linked with their engagement level, so methods that are setting the students in spotlights are important to notice.  

Ahmad and I discussed how teachers can be seen as role models when using student-centered methods – the new approaches do not only depend on young students, but on the support offered by the teachers as well. To allow students to be active in the teaching process and offer them access to sound pedagogical knowledge is something Refa also points out. And, since learning should be seen as a process of transition from the teaching activity to active learning, we can’t forget it’s also a matter of students’ role shifting. The concept of change from passive to active learners may not be pleasing for all the students, so the training and encouragement are probably key to changing beliefs towards active learning.  

Community of learners 

OLIVE project and the discussions it has enabled with colleagues from other universities offer ways for reflection on one’s own teacherhood – this is also the case in Finland where I feel I get the most out of the studies when discussing with other teacher students and exchanging ideas with them regarding educational questions.  

The change, Abdallah says, can be seen in students and faculty members. The willingness to upgrade courses and the impact of looking at students from different perspectives is one of the outcomes of OLIVE. After discussing with participants, it was clear that the cooperation we have established in the project really reflects the idea they wish to also pass on to their students.  

Refa adds that the students understand the importance of collaborative learning for a “community of learners” who plan and evaluate together, and thus learn from one another. In such a “community of learners” I was also welcomed when joining this project. 

Ahmad mentions that the colleagues and students are seeing the advantage of technology in learning, and even though the digital gap exists, after talking with Ahmad I feel the collaborative work somehow bridges the gap by focusing on learning together in 2022, online and face-to-face, with other students and teachers.  

The picture of the learning environment in 2022 

One of the targets of Education in 2030 is to build and upgrade learning environments to be more sensitive considering gender, disabilities, and provide safe, non-violent spaces for learning (Ministry of Education and Higher Education: Education Sector Strategic plan 2017-2022, 2017, p.20). It seems clear that this is a shared goal and that teachers are aware of it. OLIVE project is also very much linked to these thoughts of sensitive environment, since the aim is to enhance the quality of teacher education in Palestine, like Ahmad describes.  

Concern about the ability and readiness to respond to this inclusive environment seems however present. Refa sees that the beliefs of educators affect a lot on how to create an inclusive environment. In their talk, the participants express the belief that the unstable situation with Israel no doubt affects, not only the students, but teachers as well. The internet and technology offer many tools to enhance the quality of teacher education. However, it feels like one of the reasons to avoid it, is its ability to display horrible material of the situation outside the classrooms. 

Gender responsive pedagogies are getting more attention in Palestine and Ahmad gives an example of lecture, containing tens of female students, but a relatively small number of male students. When it comes to teacher students, I feel some similarities to teacher education in Finland. Despite the fact that the number of male students is relatively small, Birzeit University is aiming to offer equal opportunities by building a sensitive atmosphere in classrooms. Ahmad highlights that “it’s our role as teachers and educators to respect and provide as inclusive an environment as possible.”  

Even with the challenges, this makes inclusive environment a responsibility, not a choice for teachers.  

So, can we see some kind of link between student-centered learning methods and the development of learning environments? Undoubtedly, the link is there. Refa mentions how student-centered learning methods are linked to several similar perspectives, such as flexible-, cooperative-, and self-regulated learning, which, being creative methods of teaching and learning, are contributing to the establishment of inclusive learning environments. Abdallah approaches the subject from a practical point of view, and, I agree, it is important to take into consideration, for example, how student-centered learning will be employed, students’ characteristics, and the challenges of creating this kind of environment.  

I see the reflection of the teacher as a very important matter, because teacherhood, in my perspective, is never finished. Therefore, when the classroom changes and the world changes, we need reflective teachers to make pedagogical moves. The tools we used to establish a collaborative creating atmosphere could have been useful but may not meet the students’ future needs. Ahmad sums up the perspectives his colleagues have pointed out. The aim is to enrich pedagogies that engage and provide an opportunity for learning. He also describes a big group of OLIVE participants as a home of different specializations of teacher educators but also students. I feel the OLIVE represents the value of everyone being heard and included, from different countries, across different languages, to come together and discuss.  

“—An important role for a teacher is to listen, and listen carefully to the children, to their suffering or to the difficulties they are going through”  

When discussing the situation outside the classroom and its effects inside the classroom, it became obvious, that the ongoing uncertainty and the war situation are damaging and concerning, not only for students but also teachers, and therefore affecting the whole learning culture. The use of technology has its side-effects with news coverage on the unstable situation. This will decrease attention to learning and increase stress, as Refa sums up. When studying on-site is not possible, the university uses resources to offer online learning. After studying two years in distance-learning at Helsinki university, I’ve come to realize that it’s not suitable on the way to a profession. Since teaching involves building up relations, university programs need to always provide opportunities for social interaction to students. And so do school curricula to pupils.  

However, I feel that the situation can’t be compared with the Palestinian context, not even close. I do feel that the stress the students have been going through, also due to the pandemic situation, is only one dimension of the challenges student-teachers in Palestine are faced with. This is why it felt important to get to know what tools have been developed to deal with stressful environment.  

I guess you could say that online learning itself and perhaps the normalization of online learning may create some safety and a new kind of daily basis on situations where face to face isn’t possible. OLIVE project has therefore, as Ahmad brings out, helped to offer collaborative environments online. He goes on discussing how important listening to students is in bringing to light the difficulties and thoughts about challenging situations. He emphasizes that it’s the role of teachers to listen carefully, but also reflect on how realistic the aim is when there are tens of students to listen at once.  

This is where collaborative learning, for example group work can be helpful, as these can offer opportunities to express feelings and opinions without fear. In her article, Anni Harmaala (2014) describes how Palestinian children were illustrating the picture of Palestine. It was clear that the presentations were divisive. On the other hand, it was described as a land surrounded by soldiers and violence. On the other hand, children were illustrating the hope and love for a better future.  

I realize this belief is a very important factor for participants, working as a faculty members when training teacher students. Refa brings forward the possibilities of learning by playing, which may decrease stress and help concentrate more on learning. This is, for sure, something to add to the teaching program, no matter what the students’ age is. What I feel is important is to make sure the students know when the play starts and when they are in their roles, also when the play stops. In this way, we can make a deal with students to really throw themselves into their roles without fear, and safely get back to reality when the play is over.  

Listening to students and being a role model for them to discuss can be seen in the feedback the teachers have got from teacher students; Ahmad and Abdallah describe how talking with the students makes concerns shared, not something teachers or students only are dealing with. This helps to strengthen their relations and can reduce uncertainty together. Toward the end of the discussion, Ahmad raises important questions that all the teachers would need to address, such as “How would it be even possible to understand problems in students’ learning without listening to them—“?  

The aim to manage stressful environment and support this change (Suomen ulkoministeriö, 2021) seems to have, at least in some ways reached even when dealing with challenging environment. 

Rounding off this blogpost, I feel it is important to point out that both looking toward the future and understanding the context are necessary to celebrate the process of teacher education development. As Abdallah points out, the expected outcomes of OLIVE including, for example, developing mentoring capabilities for practicing schoolteachers, are meant to be significant changes in Palestinian Higher Education. In this way, the project changes will have a wider impact on the schools and the wider community. As Refa sums up, capacity building goes hand in hand with professional development that requires a shift in teachers’ beliefs and attitudes towards teaching and learning. Finally, Ahmad points out the need to be aware of the different dimensions of online learning and education, if the aim is to provide safe environments for all. Inclusive learning, in this perspective, is not only a dream but a goal that can be attained. To offer deep learning opportunities, as Ahmad puts it, engagement in dialogue, discussion and collaborative methods are essential parameters.  


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