More stories of science and mantle of the expert from Jericho

I am working with a team of five deeply committed science teachers in Zbeidat School for boys in Jericho area that is in fact, a long drive away from the town of Jericho itself.

Hassan, Basil, Deia, Mahmoud and Fatima have formed a community of science/MoE practitioners amongst some local schools led by Dr. Nader Wahbeh at A.M. Qattan Foundation and instructor at Birzeit University. Over a period of time we hope we will be assessing the teachers for their MoE Quality Mark Award, with the intensive support that only the Walid and Helen Kattan Science Education Project – Qattan Center for Educational Research and Development (A.M. Qattan Foundation) can achieve.

At the school, high rocky ridges and a broken community that lives on the edge of their lives surround us. These people survive by working on the massive Jordan Valley agriculture illegally confiscated by Israeli palm forest complexes and in the pathetically limited land they are allowed to have as their own. It is a small community stretched out across and along a narrow strip of land in the throws of political strife concerning ownership. The Oslo Agreement has been broken so many times, as we witness illegal homeowner occupied Settlements in near completion, just above the school on the high ridge with spectacular views across the valley itself. All this made possible by the hi-tech building technology of fabulous wealth brought in by Israeli construction firms.

Battles with text book disease

We are struggling with trying to change the way the science curriculum is actually taught in Palestine to a more inquiry based and student centered method and create a change in the system toward praxis. My good friend Dr. Nader Wahbeh, director of the programme and a man with unstinting vision whose leadership is so inspiring works alongside me. It is he who asked if I would assist the project team on advice and practice with the system known as Mantle of the Expert. Also with us is Samar Kirrish, a Senior Researcher that happens to volunteer as a translator as well. Samar works with the Jericho teachers coaching and developing science praxis on a one to one basis. Also, Rami Muhtaseb – Project IT Manager, and Shadi Baker, program coordinator, are with us to record our efforts on film. Together, we are taking the first steps in developing a cohort of teachers with the will to enter the struggle for change using mantle of the expert contexts and with some pretty steep opposition.

Our task is very challenging. We are not, however, the only ones who are convinced that change is urgent we discover. Everyone we meet is horrified by the thought of children being driven by such text book drivel from the Ministry policy level, Science Supervisors, Head teachers and teachers. One thing we all know is that the textbook culture is awful and holding back the brilliant minds of children. But another thing we also know is that the status quo is hard to change.

Reference only?

The unit in question is the one that is hard to teach. ‘Ourselves’. Who on earth conceived of such a unit anyway? It concerns all the obvious stuff. Our 5 senses, which we are, our growth as humans, what we eat to keep us alive, the importance of fitness and healthy food etc.

We must also remember that Palestinian teachers have little chance to pick up any new ways to work so their understanding about the teaching of science is very skimpy to say the least except the rare trained subject specialist science teachers of course. So the textbooks, we are assured, are for reference only. ‘It is up to the teachers to make the teaching and learning gripping’…so the story goes. But those of us who have been around in schools know the truth.

We know across the world what happens when a teacher gets hold of a textbook. Some sort of malignant power in the damned things have a grip on the teacher who seems unable to do anything other than become its slave and enslave the children too. Step by step they tread through the textbook without any looking up. So our challenge is not to burn every textbook we can get our hands on (which secretly we want to do of course). Conversely, it’s to help teachers see the potential of linking these so-called support materials aka ‘textbooks’, into experiences worthy of youngsters paying attention to.

The venue of the ‘training’ I will provide is in the school resource area where there is air conditioning, for two days between 10.00 and 2.00. Ramadan is in force so energy levels for those of us who are following the discipline can vary quite a lot and are, at times, very low. What a lesson this has been for me. I had no idea of the demands Ramadan places on Islamic ways of life, as I know many London children will be going through the same. I also hear that London this year (2013) is hotter than the Middle East and for those following the rules of the fasting, people are not permitted to drink either until after dark at 8.00 pm. All this for a month.

Our first job is to dissect the year 1-4 units of work into scientific concepts. We unpack the first set of textbooks…then decipher together what the concepts in the first unit on ‘Ourselves’ actually are? We list them on the board and recheck we have got it right. Not so many as we thought actually and many of them can be referenced in a short time but some could involve a lot of investigation. For example how come some people in the world live so long and others don’t? Much discussion, again this concept goes beyond the textbook as longevity is dealt with in year 10. The point did not need to be made by our teachers, as they fully understood that the texts books put a glass ceiling on children’s knowledge skills and understanding.

Do we have to touch something to know what it feels like?

I happen to ask what a scorpion might feel like and if this would be a good entry into ‘our senses’. Our five-teacher team took delight in the question, as no one in his or her right mind would ever pick up a scorpion. So I pursue the issue a little further. What might it feel like if we were to pick one up do we suppose…they were beginning to pick up the gist of the line of inquiry, yes, of course, whilst no one would dare touch one with bare hands we can IMAGINE what it might be like if we did. We speculated on the possibilities and the teachers began to construct ideas about bringing in soft-coated animals to compare the real with the imagined. I am sure there will be lots of frowns from readers, but the image of touching and really touching helps questions abound – how do we know what our fingers tell us? Is it our fingers that speak to us or is their something else? Messages perhaps? Where might they go? Where might they start? What might be happening under the skin of our fingers?

We realized that this was an important principle in the quest to get children to think and be challenged. For me I hoped to take the journey from the inquiry mode into the mantle of the expert mode….we find ways to help us by avoiding the instructions and interventions that define for the children WHAT to think rather find them contexts where they are encouraged WHEN to think so that they are challenged HOW to think. This was very a helpful set of principles to guide teaching inquiry, the teachers present tell me.

Later that week, I happened to be running a workshop after the seminars in Jericho, with their Science Supervisors, whose job is to ensure science is taught well. They began to see that the questioning and inquiries set up in such a way, could reach way beyond the text book sequences, as ‘brain working content’ learning awareness only comes in when the children are in grade (year) nine I am told.

Breeding conversations

Anyway back in Jericho, as we got discussing…

We were all genuinely excited that the simple but apparently straightforward way into the unit had so much potential. I happened to mention that I had never seen a wild scorpion in my life, which was immediately met with shock, as well as with delight. Apparently, I am told in a flurry of Arabic hard for Samar to translate in time, there are hundreds of them flitting around in the environs of Jericho and of course, the school and it will take only a minute to find one to study. We start to project our teachers mind to a class! Imagine. We invent in the now of time a teacher with a ‘safe box’ to hold the scorpion as an exhibit. Then we hear related the many stories about scorpions, their life cycle, eating and birthing habits. All punctuated by Hassan who tells us of all the experiences he has in walking the surrounding dessert in former life styles for many year before and during his time as a teacher. We also hear of the venom, the antidotes and serum as well as the snakes that abound in the area. The biodiversity in Jericho is staggering and of course there are the plagues of locusts that arrive, biblical in their ability to consume forests in an hour. The Locust Watch programme is so sophisticated now compared to the past, though people are still employed as permanent eyes on the earth to spot any of the dreaded ‘Hoppers’ which will turn into the voracious decimators known as the black locust capable of eating a countries reserves of food in a few hours when they come by their billions.

In the meantime, the excitement about scorpions gathers pace. But when we have done this discussing part of the lesson, I am asked, what then?

The breeding grounds for MoE

Those of us who use and tackle units of work through mantle of the expert, can immediately see a possible chink into an imaginary context.

‘Who might help people who have been stung by a scorpion?’ I ask.

‘You might have to go all the way to Jericho Town for a doctor and if it’s a child, the child might die on the way.’

‘Suppose we were able to set up a scorpion and snake centre to help people stung by scorpions and snakes around Zbeidat?” I ask as innocently as I can. The teachers are on to me! They know how MoE works from previous sessions.

“Well we could have a place that not only deals with stings and bites, maybe they can study them as well?”

“If we go for that then, should we draw some ideas of what it might look like?”

Hassan says this is a good idea and Basil suggests we have a team to work on the sorts of resources and tools to find them and a team to draw the scorpion centre. I ask if anyone would like to do this…stupid question as the 5 teachers immediately get on with the task supported by Nader and Samar.

It’s mid-day and the temperature is climbing fast. Then the AC goes off. The room reaches a stifling heat of 50 degrees Celsius in seconds. The electrical suppliers, who I believe are in Israel, shut off the electricity I am told at the hottest part of the day and in any case the wires are not strong enough for the current when everyone turns on their ACs.

We stop and open a few doors for air and in the process, more heat.

I was wondering who might use our centre?’ I ask.

‘Anyone who has been bitten or stung’, they tell me, ‘scientists who want to find out more about the creatures and have questions to ask, or maybe someone who wants to write a book on them or draw them’.

‘Are there any special sorts of questions they might ask?’ I reply.

‘Well they might want to know how long they live, or how many there are around here, or the different colours. The yellow is the most poisonous.’

‘Do you suppose that people who are building their houses or shelters need anything from us?’

‘Yes, they might want us to check that the scorpions are out of the way before they build anything its what we do anyway. No one likes a scorpion.’

‘So shall we start then?’ I ask, ‘just to see how it could go? How about I represent a neighbour who wants the scorpion clearance of some land?’

We do some in fiction steps, using drama strategies, teacher in and out of role, participants in role, though the teachers are keen to write down the plan then make a copy for all the teachers in the project.

It is agreed that the first experiment will be ‘running a scorpion centre’ as part of the units for Ourselves, ‘Habitats,’ ‘Local animals’, ‘Growth and growing’ including ‘Similarities and Differences’ as they could all be reasonably investigated in this context and by the method. The teachers have their cross-curricular eyes in and can see the way this will work in September when the children come in.

The AC comes on and in five minutes, goes off again. We agree that we should stop as its two o’clock anyway. In the meantime, I have also introduced the team of teachers to the Demand -Commitment tool, taught to me all those years ago, by Dr. Heathcote. What a useful set of power sharing steps this is and worthy of significant study I assert. We have also analyzed its workings through our own work in reflection, by identifying the exact tasks used by me as the teacher attempting to model the process. In all we feel we have made great progress, even in the heat. We also agree to find a scorpion tomorrow for me to see…

Next day the scorpion hunt is on!

It is hot. Ten o’clock and the temperatures have soared to 37C. There is also a mix up and a mini disaster. The keys to the school have been lost as the premises, like many in the UK, was used last night as a community centre. The last user has lost them and very sorry. We need to find the spares. Hassan we discover through a phone message to his son Deia, will not be here today either, as he has been called away by the Ministry to go to another Government science course.

Things are not looking bright as we wait in the air-conditioned taxi. I learn that everything can turn ‘on a sixpence’ as my mother would frequently tell me. So it was today. The wonderful feeling we had yesterday, of a team doing the work of gods, suddenly left us as we discovered that Basil will also be very held up. The Qattan team contemplates going back to Ramallah. But almost immediately, Basil arrives and Mamoud finds a spare key with a neighbor. Fatima who wasn’t here yesterday, smiles brightly and in English tells us ‘it will be OK!’

She is right. We make a clankingly slow start-and then I ask if anyone has found a scorpion? We have some sheepish looks when the translation is made. No one admits to finding one… ‘how about we go out and find one?’ I say. This is met with great enthusiasm and energy. Good idea it’s agreed, as well as fun, so lets go see if we can find one.

We leave the cool schoolroom into the scorching 40-degree heat and go behind the school up into the high ridge just below the Illegal Settlement, turning over stones, looking under cooler bricks and places where there is moisture. I am learning a lot about desert living. We search for 10 minutes but none of us has any luck at the back of the school. Maybe it’s too hot, the team says, for scorpions to be moving and I can believe them. Ten minutes was easily enough for me in the vicious heat. Just then Deia calls out. He has found one, and a little too close for comfort. Its in the small garden area two feet from the door we entered the school. A strange little creature not half an inch long and very dark. Even stranger still is that such a small creature could pack enough venom to make a man very ill and kill a small child. I am informed it’s best if we want to study the creature at close range by putting it in a plastic bottle. It will come to no harm and so much easier for us to observe its tail and other features.

The room is very quiet as we watch the small being move to and fro and wonder how such a creature evolved, became so feared with all the mysteries and legends it evokes. We must have watched it for around 7 minutes in almost complete silence, watching it first moving around in the box we brought it and then in great detail after Rami helped us get it into the bottle with some nifty coaxing.


Unbeknown to the teachers I had done a great deal of background reading the night before on the hotel’s Internet in Ramallah and discovered so many strange pieces of knowledge about this secretive little creature. I would rather have found other sources but I am a long way from home so could not get to any good books and manuals. I discover for example that in the UK we have 5 colonies of the African green and yellow striped scorpions based in and around the Isle of Sheppy in Kent. This for me is a great shock and even more so for the team as they have never heard of one that colour. These African species are deemed harmless in that they only pack a sting like a bee and are also very shy.

The big question of course is where on earth did they come from? The team had many interesting goes at dredging the information from me. I suppose the fact that Sheppy is on the river Medway and it was once a fantastic port in the old days of world shipping perhaps they smuggled themselves aboard a vessel and landed in the UK. I also discovered that they can cope with temperatures from minus 52C to over 60C. It’s quite a survivor, but the team tells me that it’s a creature best left alone. No wonder not much is known about the species. Revulsion and fear as well as a total hatred is heaped upon this animal notwithstanding the many myths that are believed as facts.

Our morning then began in earnest, with all the myths and facts we knew about the scorpion. We found huge amounts of misconceptions amongst ourselves. For example we thought they had 6 legs. When we got a chance to count them up close we discovered that they had 8 legs prompting further questions from me about 8 legged creatures. We agreed that this little creature, although the bane of many people’s lives, was in fact full of inquiry questions.

Final thoughts, until later on in the year

We do some more work on identifying the concepts in other units as well as identify the strands of planning for the Scorpion Centre.

Our drama colleague at Qattan, Malik Malawi, has worked with this five strong team on introducing drama strategies and structuring the work so that dramatic learning features very highly. I ask if they would like to finish the day with some drama that will trigger a Socratic dimension in the structure. They agree. I ask if they could agree that I represent a visitor to the centre and where I might arrive. The teachers agree and inform me of the layout of the centre.

I introduce myself in a shadowy role mode (not twilight role though) as someone who will pay $100 for every yellow scorpion found. We have a round where the teachers decide on face value whether they will accept the offer. All except Mamoud say no.

We agree that I am to be asked a series of questions about my motives all of which I refuse to answer in any detail. A huge discussion is triggered, concerning animals for cash, animals sold for the raising of cash for supporting children in need, exploitation of people by richer nations. To move the work forwards, I agree to answer their questions in the fictional mode. They discover the figure is full of guile and as his motives are unclear. As little more information is forthcoming from the figure he is asked to leave the centre post haste. Conjecturing further, Mahmoud imagines the figure might want to use the animals to sell to dubious people who in turn, might want to torture people for example. Unless we know more he has to go. Mahmoud saw through the man again advancing a theory that he is not who he says, and could be working for the secret services…

We agree that the sequence told us a lot about the values of ourselves in the mode of Centre Staff at the Scorpion centre. We also agreed that there is much to explore about ethics, morality and the place of science in the environment as well as motivations of people. All of us agreed that we had a perfect example of creating the conditions for the WHEN to think whilst discovering HOW to think as the process unfolded as well as the intervention methods used in facilitation.

Further learning’s for us all

The teachers feel that although the exercise was contrived as a last task for us, it certainly had a lot of potential for learning. They really liked the effort and excitement of doing drama together in this way. It was agreed that we needed to add a whole list of possible clients-some who may cause us challenging thinking for example, around the ethics of animal keeping for example, as well as scientific researchers, food suppliers for snakes and scorpions, toxin makers and photographic evidences for hospitals in trying to enable identification of different snakes so that anti venom can be administered in time.

Strange that from a position of hating these little creatures a change in attitude was beginning to be aroused it seemed to me.

We bade our farewells in the Arabic style and agreed the 2 days had been very fruitful for all concerned and listed the things most useful. We then went to the local factory and bought dates, a favourite food at this time of Ramadan. According to Qur’an teachings 3 dates is all you need at the 3.30 am meal after prayers. They are very nutritious the team tell me and some say the fruit of Allah.

We return with our taxi driver to Ramallah. Nader and I spend some time, whilst grinding up the wondrous Jericho basin, working out scientifically if a palm fruit is a fruit after all or something else. It has a stone like an olive so is the olive a fruit? No surely not. But later that night we hear that the palm has four phases of reproduction and seems be able to turn from vegetable to fruit…. oh dear, more uncertainty, just when I thought everything was easy to understand.

Luke Abbott

Ramallah Palestine 19th July 2013



Posted in category: Articles | 3 Comments »

3 Responses to “More stories of science and mantle of the expert from Jericho”

  1. Lisa Says:
    July 25th, 2013 at 5:34 pm

    I really enjoyed reading this – thanks Luke. Seeing the work described as encouraging when to think and therefore challenge how to think makes the intention so clear. It sounds like an amazing few days – I hope to read more soon!

  2. Dispelling some textbooks myths | Webs of Substance Says:
    November 19th, 2013 at 9:00 am

    […] have recently been reading a few pieces on the Mantle of the Expert website because this teaching programme has been the cause of some discussion in blogs that I follow. I […]

  3. Peter Says:
    November 19th, 2013 at 9:31 am

    Why do you see textbooks as being so bad? Are they bad in the hands of all teachers or is there something special in your experience that has identified such poor use?