A reminder for all of us: Lebanese learning from classroom diversity

A current study by International Alert shows that pupils from different backgrounds view each other more positively when they learn together in mixed classes compared to those studying separately. The finding is particularly relevant with regard to the stereotype reduction effect it shows which is relevant in many everyday workplace situations and for segregated education approaches that still exist.

How to cope with Unconscious Biases is one of the big questions these days. Recent research carried out in Beirut reminds us of one of the experiences many have made repeatedly in the course of their lives: The better we know people and the more we interact with them, the more we consider them as distinct individuals rather than a representative of the (social) groups they may belong to. And we are more likely to actually like them. The research setting in Lebanon emerged from the sad context in the neighbouring country, Syria. Due to the high numbers of refugees, the school days in Lebanon had to be split in morning and afternoon shifts. In the morning, Lebanese and Syrian pupils study together while the afternoon classes are only attended by Syrian children. Another difference is that the Syrian students attending the morning classes tend to have been living in Lebanon for a longer time and hence may have developed stronger social ties. The research included a total of 94 Syrian and Lebanese schoolchildren, parents and teachers, interviewed in 14 focus groups. Five additional interviews were conducted with school principals, teachers and aid workers.

Parents of the Lebanese students said they generally preferred their children to avoid Syrians. They also felt that the challenges faced by the education system were aggravated by the enrolment of Syrian children in mixed classes. Syrian parents regarded school as the only recreational activity for their children. However, they were also cautious about their children’s relations with their Lebanese peers. Parents of Syrian students enrolled in the afternoon shift in particular had less positive relationships with the school or with Lebanese parents.

The conditions in the morning shift were described as being more conducive to learning, while the afternoon shifts appeared to follow a more condensed programme of learning with fewer sport and leisure activities. Students in the morning shift said they have better relationships with their classmates, playing and talking to each other. While some students complained of bullying, they felt that the situation had improved over time. The Syrian students in the afternoon shift reported a difficult transition period when they arrive and the morning students leave. This appears to be a time when more bullying occurs. Yet even students in mixed classes reported limited relationships beyond school. These findings suggest that daily encounters and improved perceptions in the school are not enough to overcome segregation. Accordingly, the authors’ recommendations include supporting extracurricular activities that bring together Lebanese and Syrian students, in particular activities that target girls, who do not have the same opportunities outside school as boys.

The results should remind us of the many situations where learning or work teams lack diversity and therefore contribute to the perpetuation of negative views of those not included. The approach to actively check for diversity factors when creating teams or learning environments is hence confirmed to be relevant. It also puts question marks over segregated ‘solutions’ at school. In Bosnia-Hercegovina, for instance, children from the three main ethnic groups – that are also represented by three Presidents – not only attend different religious classes according to their own religion. They typically go to separate schools where also history is likely to be taught differently. It does not take a lot of imagination to envisage where this may lead to.

With regard to the sustainability of the certain activities, some participants in the Lebanese research reported that social cohesion activities did have an immediate impact on children and parents but that this effect was lost over time. Other participants noted differences across regions. The research, entitled Better Together, was conducted between May and July 2015 in the Northern Akkar region and Bourj Hammoud in the Eastern suburbs of Beirut. It was launched at an event attended by representatives from a dozen national and international organisations working on education and social cohesion in Lebanon.

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