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Western Education Approaches and Culture – My Year So Far with the Palestinians

Eight years a professor at the National Defense University, a year as Associate Dean at the UAE National Defense College, I am nearing completion of a year in the West Bank. A British born, American citizen, my British military career gave way to academia in 2006 through interest in security sector reform certification/accreditation. Working in Yemen, Lebanon, the UAE, Qatar, Afghanistan and now with the Palestinians, my experience is offered to help set conditions for regional academic credentialing to influence change. What I have learned is relevant to higher education professionals in the United States; there are nearly 400 million Arab speakers world-wide and the richest 22 countries are seeking advice with leader development. It is potentially big business and might help bridge some cultural gaps. Only by understanding and learning to deal with culture will the best intentions of Western academics working in the region truly be realized. This is also relevant for academics currently teaching regional students in the US and elsewhere.

In 2005 the US Secretary of State established the United States Security Coordinator (USSC), a State Department assigned (yet Department of Defense manned) international and interagency team of 50 personnel, co-located with the US Consul-General in Jerusalem, serving as national support for and commitment to the Middle East Roadmap for Peace. It is led by a military 3 star “Coordinator,” who reports to the Secretary of State in assisting the PA transform and professionalize its security institution in the West Bank, engaging the PA and Israeli governments on security initiatives and supporting the coordination of international efforts as a contributing element for a stable security environment necessary for a negotiated two-state solution. USSC has a team embedded within the West Bank and there we work closely with the Palestinian Authority Security Forces (PASF).

We have adopted an academic approach to contribute to PASF professionalization. We are setting conditions for certification and eventually local, then international accreditation focused on pan-PASF leader development. The approach will assist future Palestinian security leaders enhance their capacity to think and capability to act effectively within a most complicated, volatile and uncertain political and security environment. Actions on the ground link directly to national responses; the enduring Palestinian-Israeli conflict plays out here in plain sight daily on the streets of Jerusalem and within the Occupied Palestinian Territories. As the ultimate solution is vested in politics, understanding is everything.

Some years behind the West in certain academic development terms, the region is catching up fast, but influenced by culture. It is not about religion, although there is clearly some linkage; it is in mitigating the collision between academic development and culture where this paper can help most. I offer three cultural keystones for those intending to work successfully within the region: education, privacy and honor.

There is a deep commitment to education in the region. They are proud of their qualifications. The allure of a certificate, particularly from the West, is a most powerful change agent and it brings recognition for the individual and family. The Palestinians seek certification and accreditation; they are therefore receptive to adopt our educational methodologies and best practices. However, they also wish to retain their cultural identity. It is important therefore that they must be the change agents and we must advise not direct. If not, they will resist and maybe even ignore or actively counter the overly enthusiastic, robustly energetic (clumsy) “foreigner” who presumes to take control. Change must be led by the local nationals for it to be successful. Foreigners achieve best results in roles as advisors; local nationals must be the implementers.

Privacy is important. While Socratic seminar discussions are achievable, and open and frank discussion possible, their culture frowns upon private affairs discussed in public. They are very private people and although a good professor can draw them effectively into wide ranging discussions in class about a broad set of topics, areas including women, religion and sharing of experiences may be resisted. It is best to rehearse Socratic questioning techniques with students in advance of the first class so that they understand what is expected and become accustomed to the ideas. They will share more and more as their confidence and trust grows and as they develop relationships – which are key in this culture – with faculty. Open peer discussion of sensitive issues and sharing their experiences/knowledge easily is alien to them. Once convinced of the value, they can be as effective as any class; fundamental to any success is ensuring that they understand what is required in advance of the first class so they recognize the benefit to be gained from their involvement.

Honor includes status and saving face. Criticizing someone in a public forum is a no-no in most cultures, but in the region not only insulting but invariably neither forgiven nor forgotten. Providing less than superb grades and honest feedback presents challenges. Faculty who do not explain the underlying logic of a grade or who fail to provide adequate feedback will quickly be isolated. You can grade a local national at C like anywhere else, but they will take it very personally, particularly if the rationale is not clearly explained. Discussion in advance of grading is essential, dry runs are recommended. They must be briefed to understand the grading process and the underpinning academic rubrics, if used. Expect them to study and want to discuss the feedback they receive in detail, whether glowing or not; make time for it. If not, they will disconnect as their confidence and trust wanes.

There are many more examples of how to succeed with academic development and approaches in the region. I have focused on just three essentials. As regional countries wrestle to develop and set conditions for their national strategies moving forward, more and more they will lean on best practices for their educational development. We have already seen this occurring in the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Other countries will follow suit and therefore there is growing interest in exporting best of breed approaches. Success is not guaranteed; those involved must learn about culture to avoid the pitfalls of unthoughtful approaches. Working through an unfamiliar culture without thinking it through first, leads to significant challenges, maybe even failure. Having also worked in the US, UK and wider Europe, I remain convinced that the better faculty are distinguished by those who understand the need to work with, and not against culture. I have subsequently witnessed first hand interactive and dynamic classroom learning environments here that are on a par with or even better than those I have experienced elsewhere.