It is no secret that Qatar has placed a major emphasis on the importance of education and has invested a great deal in providing its citizens with a quality education system; an education system that is diverse, inclusive and caters to all kinds of students of various age groups. As a result, Qatar has produced students who are knowledgeable in many different fields including Education itself. Meet Al Jawhara Hassan Al Thani, A School Culture Coordinator at Qatar Foundation who is extremely passionate about elevating Qatar’s education system for the better. Who is Al Jawhara Hassan Al Thani?
I believe that we are all product of our experiences. I do not believe that individuals are exceptional, I think that we all need each other to understand who we are; you can not identify who an individual is in isolation. I have always wanted to have a more critical lens of understanding how we define who we are but also who we are in relation to our communities. I think that is what drove my decisions regarding my education and what drew me towards specializing in Culture and Politics at Georgetown University Qatar for my Bachelor’s and to Sociology of Education at New York University for my Master’s. I really believe that education has a major influence on who we are as individuals and how we develop, even though we perceive it as something normal and benign. Education can be a radical influence on our identities and our ability to find our place in the world. So how do you think critically of something that is the norm for the majority, not only a norm but aspired to at higher and higher levels? Who are we in this process? What do we gain or lose from participating in it? Those questions and our ability to have authentic voices in the discussion surrounding them is what I hope to contribute to. Having us participate in actively designing engaging with education rather than it be something that is passively done to us.
I spent some of my childhood away from Qatar and came to Doha by the last year of Middle School and it was interesting to be sounded by people with the same name and nationality for essentially the first time. I grew up in isolation from that and my mother had the freedom to define what it meant to be a Qatari woman. But once we came back to Qatar it was interesting to see contradictions to my mother’s definition and description because I then had to try to reconcile what my understanding of that identity could be, and that it could exist in contradiction rather than uniformity.
Could you tell us more about your role at Qatar Foundation?
My position for the past year has been School Culture Coordinator where I focused on exploring the hidden curriculums in school. As the expectations around education have become more and more standardized we have lost some of the opportunities to use those valuable years in school to develop social, emotional and interpersonal skills that will play an important part in the lives of students. The development that occurs tends to be accidental. This is especially interesting because we invite a lot of people into our educational community with different experiences and background but we do not create spaces for us to share the richness of those experiences. We, to a certain degree, wipe out everything that makes people different. We assume a uniformity across our staff, students, and parents and expect that everyone will come in with the same understandings or expectations. I was trying to create spaces for dialogue through workshops and professional development for our staff and students to be able to evaluate and reassess some of our expectations from one another and intentionally build space for meaningful discussions with one another rather than assume that the curriculum will do all the work. Because that is not what education is, you cannot simply give the students a textbook and assume the work is done. Education is what happens in between classes, in parents and teachers meeting, in the hallway and everywhere else. We do not really provide the students an opportunity to understand who they are in these spaces and regain a sense of ownership over their education and find a place for themselves in school and in the world.
Have you noticed any changes coming about via the workshops and professional development training that you have conducted?
Honestly, our school network is really big so it is about individual wins rather than changing the whole system because that’s really hard to do over night but having one more person believe that this is an important conversation to have makes it worthwhile.
What inspired you to look at the “hidden curriculum”? Have you seen it done elsewhere?
Well, we know it is something that is relevant across the world right now. There is so much about the education systems that we inherit that is not authentic to context or modern day needs and as schools have developed to be more academically rigorous there seemed to be less and less time to focus on the individual. The standardization erases the individual. For example, if we look at what is happening right now in the United States and the American education system there has been a push in calling for greater equity in the education system and not viewing certain demographics through a lens of deficit. We see many schools now trying to make the learning experience more authentic to what the students already know and connecting the education with their reality. This recognizes that all students come to the table with something, we just have to give them the space to share that knowledge.
It’s unfortunate that for a long time in education that the focus and blame for lack of success was placed on the individual rather than understanding why they may not be functioning well in this space – or if that space is inclusive. We also discount certain kinds of knowledge and skills whilst elevating other kinds of knowledge. For example, students are praised when they are able to follow instructions or when they are obedient and that is not really a measure of a meaningful experience or exchange. A lot of times students come into the classrooms with specific interests, experiences or knowledge but the schools do not allow the students to explore these interests further. For example, my younger brother has been playing golf and he has learned the names of the native birds of Qatar at a young age but the school can only tell you how well he focuses in class and how he performs in examinations. If the school had taken an interest in him as an individual and constructed some space for personal learning then they could have found access points into the curriculum that would peak his interest rather than expecting all students to respond the same way to generic prompts to a set curriculum.
Is this something you felt was missing whilst you were at school?
Through my education experience, I reflected a lot on the way I responded to authority. I think I responded really well. I was always very good at following instructions but I don not think that that is true of everyone and I do not think it is fair to assume that everyone will respond in the same way or that it meant that I was more intelligent than my classmates – I was probably just more obedient. I always wanted to please the teacher because I looked at them as the gatekeepers to future advancement. I knew that I wanted to achieve so much and that education was the gateway to doing so therefore I made sure to perform my best. I learned how to use the system to my advantage but I did not realize I was being used by the system at the same time; I was erasing parts of myself to fit into the ideal student mold that they wanted. I think the power dynamic in the traditional classroom is an unfair one sometimes because it puts a lot of pressure on the teacher to be the holder of all knowledge rather than a facilitator for students. Students need to feel more ownership of their learning and success.
Did you always see yourself working in education?
When I entered Georgetown, I realized how important education was to both culture and politics. Education is at the heart of ‘soft power’. It can do as much to strengthen a nation as their military. It’s a catalyst for change – or complacency. A well-constructed education system can outpace a country’s development aspirations because it will turn out incredible students who are prepared to tackle problems policy makers have not even foreseen. During my time at Georgetown I was trying to understand and analyze how we all got there and who had access.
Georgetown says it wants to graduate “Men and Women for others” but that quote in the American context differs from its Qatari context. Are we taking the time to understand how we would best serve our community? There are some professors, through their personal effort, who try to elevate the local voice and local topics, and have done an amazing job of developing their understanding of what it means to be from a certain country or religion and allow for a complicated and complex multiplicity of identity. However, others allow their stereotypes to dominate their view of their students and no matter the contradictions the rule does not change. If you do not look or act like the student there are used to you have come to the table with some sort of deficit. This complicated relationship with who we are and how we engage with each other in educational spaces just fascinated me. Who you are permitted – and not permitted – to be in the classroom? What drew me to Qatar Foundation after I completed my research was the fact that I could witness the entire educational cycle from 6 months old to postgraduate studies. There has also been a push by Qatar Foundation to be more inclusive of the type of student it welcomes into its schools. Exploring what that looks like in practicality has been very enlightening.
If you could change one thing in Qatar’s education system, whether it is in the realm of Qatar Foundation or Qatar as a whole, what would it be?
Firstly, I think that we should all work together rather than in isolation to provide Qatar with the best possible education system. Secondly, I would love to see us trust in our own capabilities to create a curriculum from scratch, which is relevant and contextualized for our students. We have so many people who are highly intelligent and capable and who are willing to promote education but they may not have the authority or access to needed to do so. We have mostly relied on borrowing or importing from outside systems but the education system cannot progress without trusting in local capabilities to push the envelope forward. This by no means suggests that we should not look for inspiration or guidance from around the world, but we should not simply copy paste what seems to be working elsewhere. We need to understand what about it made it successful in its environment and how that would translate to Qatar. Finally, we should all respect our specializations and work on developing them. Your specialization does not limit you; you should cooperate with those around you to build the bigger picture. I have seen many people who try to do it all – and that rarely works, at least not to the best possible outcome.
Outside the classrooms, do you have any other initiatives you are perusing?
I am not always in the classrooms. I do observations at the school with different focuses depending on my goals for the year. This year, part of my focus is child protection. This is also a topic that I believe we can develop at a national level. Child protection is about our responsibility in the education sphere to protect students from harm. That means making sure our environments are safe physically but that they are also emotionally supportive and nurturing environments for everyone within them. This requires education for everyone who is in our schools whether they are students, teachers, parents, volunteers or support staff. We all need to be prioritizing safe practices. This is especially important now because it is not just the physical environment but also the digital environment that students are exposed to that can expose them to risk. We have to build into our curriculum opportunities to educate students about the risks their digital footprints leave and to be careful and thoughtful with the ways they interact with the world digitally. Outside of work I also try to engage with wider conversations about education and culture. I have participated in various conferences, locally and internationally, and presented TEDx Talks. These engagements have allowed me to connect with others who are interest in similar issues and allowed me to engage with schools outside the Qatar Foundation network. One talk that I gave was about stressing the need for context to be built into our education systems. I believe if we want education to be authentic and if we want kids to actually solve the problems that are going to exist in their world then we cannot disconnect education from the environment that surrounds them. If I want to solve the problems that exist in my community I have to be able to actively bring in my community to the classroom with me. So if we want kids to understand climate change we have to be creative about the way we make it real to them. If you say that climate change is going to make the world hotter, it’s kind of a non-issue here because it’s already pretty hot anyway. We have to be creative about the ways we talk about these issues because we need there to be a sense of urgency. How can we show what the effects of deforestation has here in Qatar? How can we make the burning of forests for palm oil in Indonesia or the decimation of the rainforest in Brazil really resonate with students here and the part they can play in preventing this? It is very important to localize these global issues. Because we are a part of the world. We are not peripheral to it.
What is your advice for women in Qatar?
It is really important to respect the achievements of other women and to acknowledge that, no matter what you are doing or what you have accomplished, someone has paved the way for you to be able to do it. By erasing the success of other women we are not elevating our own. We need to make sure to make their success visible to others because we have so many incredible woman who are achieving great things silently and often without much recognition. We need to thank those women for their work and all the women in our lives to support and inspire us. We do not always give each other enough credit for the doors we have opened for each other but the only way we can get ahead and progress is by collectively working together and being a resources for one another. As more and more women graduate and enter the workforce it is my hope that we will have more women who are passionate about helping their country and supporting and celebrating their female coworkers. That way we can have people to lean on – rather than to compete with – and create safe and hospitable work environments for women.
- Interview written by Al Jawhara Al Thani.
- Interview was edited to improve readability and flow.