The State Of The Lebanese Curriculum Education Essay

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On Tuesday April 18, 1996 Israeli 155mm howitzers shelled UNIFIL's Fiji BATT compound in the village of Qana few kilometers south east of Tyre in Southern Lebanon. Around 800 civilians had taken refuge at the base. The bodies of 102 Arab civilian men , women and children were shattered to pieces. Many similar accidents had occurred in the past, but this one was different. It triggered protests and demonstrations against the Israeli army which has been occupying Lebanon since March 14, 1978. During and since these events, the Lebanese acted as united and cohesive people, struggling to reach the same goal of liberation, and to enjoy its fruits - a free and unified country. Four years later, the Israeli troops moved out of the area and May 25, 2000, was declared a national holiday in celebration of resistance and liberation.

Each year, activities and visits are paid to the tombs of the Qana massacre victims, in commemoration of the 18th of April. Crowds of citizens, intellectuals and students from different areas of Lebanon visit the martyrs' cemetery in Qana on the said occasion. The intention is to provide upcoming generations with knowledge bases, beneficial for the construction of a future rich in its national didactic lessons, particularly the national struggle epic against occupation.

As a Lebanese, I truly acknowledge the role the Lebanese have always played in waging a war against the occupation of our land and resources. However, I am critical of the Lebanese curriculum which has been meaningless and not built on aspects and issues of the Lebanese reality. I am even more critical of the insensitive and unresponsive nature of the math curriculum we teach and study, at least in the schools and universities in Lebanon, which is passive and doesn't feel anything of its surroundings. There is no doubt about the extent of damage caused by many years of occupation in our education in Lebanon. Most importantly we are not able to deal with Western mathematics which is described by Bishop (1990) as "one of the most powerful weapons in the imposition of Western culture". (p. 52)

Although the "occupation" of our land is an extremely serious issue, the biggest danger we currently face is the struggle for ending the "occupation of our minds" because "The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed" (Freire, 1970, p.14). Since the development age was launched by Truman more than 50 years ago (through declaring all societies outside the Western world "underdeveloped" and, thus, in need of "assistance" to "develop" them), mathematics education, development programs, and scientific knowledge have been the main tools used in breaking the back of societies .

I was born in Beirut, Lebanon. Except for a few years when I had to go out and work, I have lived all my life in Lebanon. When I was born, the French system of Education was used because, for some time, we have been colonized by France. After 1968, the British and American syllabus became the curriculum in schools. Since 2000, and after the end of the civil war in Lebanon, a so called " Lebanese new syllabus" has been in the process of being developed.

The purpose of this paper is to shed some light on the Lebanese mathematics curriculum from a socio political perspective and to highlight some issues that defined and confined the Lebanese experience of teaching math in schools. Specifically, I would like to examine what "occupation of minds" means in mathematics curriculum and also how "occupation" is reflected in the history of mathematics education in Lebanon. My particular attraction to the notion of "occupation" lies in the fact that our minds have been controlled in Lebanon by limiting the options and alternatives in how mathematics was taught and learned in the past. I am aware of this fact because of my past experience as both a student and teacher of mathematics in Lebanese schools as well as in other schools in the Middle East. We have been directed and driven so that we are unable to see potential options and alternatives in both our teaching and learning of mathematics. The nature of mathematics teaching has been such that students are not encouraged to speak up and express their different ( and sometimes opposing) points of view and to acknowledge the right of others to choose his/her own point of view.


In Lebanon (also true in many places especially the underdeveloped or Third World Countries), we are committed to a view of mathematics as a science that is absolute and unconditional. We have considered mathematics to be a complete system representing objective, eternal truths. In his chapter, Math, Culture and Authority, Fasheh (1997) splendidly gives a vivid, thick description of how math , in Third world countries, "….is usually taught as a set of rules and formulas that students have to memorize, and a set of problems-usually nonsensical to students- that they must solve" (p.275). This is equally true for the Lebanese classroom and Lebanese curriculum which is highly compartmentalized and decontextualized. Teachers are the sole authority in the classroom as well as the major source of mathematical knowledge dictated as a set of nonnegotiable rules and procedures that challenge place and time. In short, mathematics curriculum is considered as the unquestionable hegemony which is to be followed and respected by both students and teachers.

Reflecting on the state of the field, a closer look at the history of how findings from international testing led many nations to question the substance of their school curricula and how this testing has led to divisions and wars been what the best math curriculum for the 21st century is, confirms the irrefutable view that when politics intervene in education worldwide, the good intended messages are lost. Perhaps a well known example is the California math Wars where severe decline in the amount of educational budgets made it more purposive the use of standards-based assessments as a motive for getting more funding, the source being private organizations.


"A common misconception in the teaching of math has been, and still is, the belief that math can be taught effectively and meaningfully without relating it to culture or to the individual student" (Fasheh, 1997,p. 281). Extensive research acknowledges the role that culture plays in influencing the way people see things and understand concepts. This, and not the difficulty of the subject, impacted the view that math is meaningless, rigid and beyond one's understanding. "Math can be used to stress one's own culture with its special and beautiful characteristics. At the same time, math can be used to make one aware of the drawbacks in one's own culture and try to overcome them". (Fasheh, 1997,p. 284).

My own experience, and the experience of many others that I knew or read about, made me increasingly believe in the sociopolitical aspect of math as a tool to suppress and dominate minorities in the world.

Mathematics has played an important part in globalization (English, 2002). First, the subject itself is a product of centuries of cultural exchange between East and West. In the mind of many, it has achieved a status of an international language independent of cultural affiliation and context of development. The similarity of many mathematics education programs around the world is partly a product of this thinking. Second, also mathematics is seen as a ticket for aspiring individuals and countries for technological, and hence economic, development. This image of mathematics promotes the copying of curricula from the economically more successful to the less successful countries.

Further, the status of mathematics in the curriculum is similar in many countries where it is given a special importance, second only, if not equal, to language education. In many countries mathematics is tied to scientific, technological, and hence to economic development. Undoubtedly, these similarities have added ammunition to the often-expressed view that mathematics is a "universal language". These similarities have given rise to the term "global curriculum" in mathematics education.

The Role of Ethnomathematics

From prehistoric ages, humans have been accumulating knowledge to respond to their drives and needs. Such responses vary from region to region, from culture to culture (Bishop, 1990). Perhaps the most important philosophical difference between a traditional and an ethnomathematical perspective is that ethnomathematics recognizes, encourages, and honors the belief that all people do mathematics within their own unique and personal context, and that this ability may take many forms(Borba, 1997). Indeed it emerges from within each individual through their individual interaction with their cultural and physical environment. It also recognizes that everyone does mathematics, therefore there is no such thing as a non-math person - ethnomathematics is closely tied to issues of access and equity(Anderson, 1997).

In his chapter, Ethnomathemtics and Education, Borba envisions "ethnoknowledge" as the starting point for the pedagogical process in which students' knowledge is "compared with the (ethno) knowledge developed by the academic disciplines in a way that this academic knowledge can also be seen as culturally bounded" (p. 269). According to Borba, this sketch can be accomplished by students and teachers discussing "the efficiency and relevance of different kinds of knowledge in different contexts" (p. 269-270).

It is becoming clear in the minds of many the fact that education has transformed knowledge and learning into commodities, and students and teachers into consumers (Kilpatrick, 2003).I still remember how my mother, sewing clothes for us and for our friends, used mathematics unknowingly in her practice. She used to routinely take rectangles of fabric and with few measurements turn them into beautiful, perfectly fitted clothing. The mathematics she was using was beyond my comprehension. Seeing her mathematics in context made me understand my mathematics in context, the context of purpose, meaning, and power. I feel that my mother was much freer than me. She learned by observing, doing, reflecting, relating, and producing. She constructed her own understanding. In contrast, I was an imitator, solving problems, most of which have been solved for a trillion times, in boring repetition in schools around the world for the past 100 years at least. While she was constantly involved in the human aspect of math, my knowledge and thinking were confined mainly to textbooks, which I studied and taught. Discovering my mother's math and knowledge helped me discover how deeply my knowledge was entrenched in textbooks during my studies, and during my teaching.

As a result of colonial education, in Lebanon and in other Third world countries as well, we come to view mathematics generally as a product of the West. The muddled curriculum transplantation -during the 1960's- from the highly industrialised nations to 'Third World' countries reinforced this image. Although, during the 1970's and 1980's, there emerged among teachers and mathematics educators in developing countries, a growing resistance against the Eurocentrism, (Powell & Frankenstein, 1997), in Lebanon this misconception is accentuated due to the unstable political climate that swayed Middle East region up-to-date.

What can be done?

In an attempt to reform our math teaching and learning, we are in the process of building a new math curriculum which highly acknowledges standards put forth by NCTM. We are now, more than ever, aware of the importance of emphasizing problem posing/problem-solving approaches to learning, curriculum negotiation and integrated curriculum planning supported by appropriate assessment strategies including non-competitive assessment. I would like to envision that in the future our pedagogy could be community - based and community focused and that it helps develop the students' skills in the defence, maintenance and further development of our intellectual heritage and culture.

The view and purpose of math curriculum is intimately linked with the different socio-political atmospheres that reign from one country to another. While we, as Lebanese, view math as an indispensable tool for liberation from the occupation of land and mind, others see it as a means to stay ahead in the struggle for political power. In Lebanon, now, we are struggling to define ourselves through reflecting on our lives, and trying to express that in as many forms as we have in our "soils of cultures," and through discussing what we do and what we are. In the final analysis, a main issue is to define ourselves or else be defined by others.