Essence of Learning (EoL) is a child-centred and holistic approach to Education in Emergencies that addresses the specific needs of children who are growing up in crisis contexts. It links pedagogical and psycho-social components to foster children’s resilience and their ability to learn.
Some of the key findings from the EoL programmes to date are that:
• Children living in a hostile environment, who have undergone toxic stress, need support in overcoming their learning barriers. Accelerated learning programmes, which allow children to re-enter education systems, often do not sufficiently address the effects of toxic stress. These children often battle with learning difficulties such as memorization and accessing knowledge they have previously had. This is where EoL differs as an innovative approach by combining psycho-social support with accelerated learning, allowing children to catch up and re-enter the national education systems.
• Traditional teaching methods, when dealing with children who have been through war and trauma, often fall short of assisting children to acquire their own learning strategies. These children have missed significant amounts of time at regular schools, and are at high risk of falling behind or even dropping out when they enter a formal classroom setting. EoL programmes have shown that once children have the ability to create their own learning strategies, using the teaching aids facilitated by the teacher, they are much more capable of closing the learning gaps lost while out of school.
• Safe spaces are equally as important as children’s personal home environment. Through their direct inclusion in the EoL programme, parents and caregivers gain a better understanding of the psycho-social effects the environment has on their children’s well-being and learning abilities, and are empowered to provide useful assistance. EoL is particularly successful when children practice EoL activities at home, together with siblings, parents or independently to do their homework. When their innate motivational urge to learn is reinvigorated, learning becomes part of their daily life.
Millions of children are out of schools because they are on the move, or live in failed states, underserved refugee camps or slums. Therefore, to provide those children with a realistic chance for a decent life, the outreach of educational systems must be increased. Out-of-school children who have missed months or even years of school, often have troubles re-entering the formal education system as they are too old and/or have not reached academic milestones as set by national education standards. EoL has brought forth multiple examples of children that have caught up missing years of education in a short period of time, preventing cases of children who cannot re-connect, drop out of school or simply show no interest. According to Caritas Switzerland’s experience in the field of Education in Emergencies (EiE), whether children re-integrate into the formal school system depends more on their ability to remove learning barriers than on their intellectual capacity. Living in situations of toxic stress, children protect themselves by shutting down their sensory organs to avoid harm and reduce fear. Being detached from their sensory capacities blocks learning for obvious reasons: a child that is not able to hear, refuses to speak, or has memorisation difficulties, is unlikely to succeed in school. While some children in the aftermath of war or crisis are able to restore their sensory and motor skills by themselves, others do not. It is for these children, who are unable to reconnect with their sensory feelings, that EoL was created. It provides a solution for children that fall out of the appropriate class for their age (and do not meet the basic requirements of the national curriculum), through an accelerated learning approach that addresses their root psycho-social challenges to learning. EoL starts teaching these children at a lower level than is indicated by their age, in an innovative manner using everyday recyclable materials, that engages their interest in the content being taught and accelerates the pace to get them to their age appropriate level, in a minimal amount of time.
Problem statement Children that live under permanent toxic stress, in many cases, suffer from learning and memory difficulties, as well as following a set curriculum. In Gaza children have reported problems retaining what teachers are telling them, and making sense of what is written in textbooks. “It was like numbers would just fall out of my head, I could not solve even first grade calculations,” reported 9-year-old Rawan. Furthermore, bad marks increase pressure at home and in school, resulting in additional stress and occasionally physical punishments which further inhibits learning. Children under toxic stress are at a high risk of failing in formal education and missing out on key educational opportunities that could lead to better employment chances. Hence, in a context like Gaza, schools play a critical role in providing normality and structure. Living a life disconnected from schools means that children are missing support in building their values, lack a sense of belonging to the society and are forfeiting chances to develop their creativity and self-reliance, which is an important prerequisite for resilience. Essence of Learning (EoL) The innovative element and key success factor of the EoL-approach is that it gives children, in a stress-free environment, the possibility and freedom to reiterate former learning and child development steps that (might) have been lost due to the harsh living conditions they are experiencing. In this way, EoL seeks to enable the children’s learning ability and to strengthen their resilience, and thereby helps them to follow their age appropriate curriculum. EoL’s practical teaching method follows the classical Early Childhood Development-steps (ECD), based on the understanding that topics and situations generally have to be experienced with sensory awareness first, followed by orientation, imitation and exploration, before the learning task can be internalised and selfreliantly adopted to new tasks. Accordingly, EoL’s teaching exercises mimic the child’s natural learning pathway in its play and drawing behaviour, which enables the child to complete identified learning gaps in a playful way (see figure 1).
Building on this principle, EoL allows children regardless of age and former level of education to “re-enter” the learning flow at the level they can master without external help, whereby the learning flow is defined as a fixed sequence of learning steps for a certain subject such as mathematics, drawing or language. Starting from where children feel comfortable, they repeat former learning steps until they have caught up and reached the level that corresponds to their age. To achieve this, EoL presents each step of a learning flow in an age appropriate way. This means it imparts learning or relearning for example of “addition from 1 to 10” in different ways according to both the ability and age of a child. It further fully integrates psycho-social and pedagogical aspects, as learning is mainly done while playing. Depending on the child’s level of psycho-social symptoms, learning difficulties and age, this process can happen quite fast or take more time.
A key activity of EoL is to help the children create their individual “learning helpers” and “learning box” using collected materials (such as stones, seeds, plastic bottles and caps, etc.), which they can use to both solve tasks within the learning process, as well as play. They experience these activities as fun, and practice them as explored in the EoL course and at home to self-reliantly do their homework and to enhance their learning box according to their own tastes. In many cases it becomes a family affair, where siblings, friends or parents get involved in the play and learning. Key to EoL’s success is that children’s innate motivational urge to learn is reinvigorated and learning becomes part of their daily life. EoL is a low technology, low cost approach to teaching, as it uses locally accessible recycling and natural materials. This not only reduces costs, but roots learning and learning strategies into the everyday life of a child. Reconnecting children to their everyday reality, helps them to develop a realistic perception of their environment, and stimulates their sense of belonging. In addition, EoL enhances the children’s ability to observe by picking weekly topics that connects the different learning flows with their immediate surrounding and reality. In mathematics for example, the topic “transportation and market” could be taught by counting or arranging goods that are transported or are missing on a mode of transport (for younger age groups), or by going further and questioning distances and time needed to transport goods (for older age groups). Whereas for the drawing learning flow, the children might be encouraged to imagine and draw goods and containers that protect them while being transported.
There is strong evidence that EoL’s teaching materials and methods enable children to overcome their learning difficulties by reactivating their senses. In crisis, small children are especially prone to lose their sensory perception, and thus “shut down” their system to protect themselves from further negative experiences. This obviously is an obstacle to absorb new learning contents. Reactivating and developing senses and body awareness is thus the first step to reactivate learning. EoL is doing this through activityoriented lessons fostering the creativity of children through drawing and sensory and motor games. As it starts education at the level they can master, children experience success and satisfaction. This makes EoL a “non-deficit oriented approach” that is building on the existing skills and strengths of a child.
The EoL model of education as a relevant, cost efficient and effective approach still has a long way to go until it is widely accepted as an improved way for children to learn. While childcentred approaches in developed countries have become a standard in public schools, in developing countries and refugee contexts, teacher-centred learning still is the rule. The practice of memorizing and repeating predefined contents detaches children from their everyday reality, and yet is still the predominant way to educate the majority of children. Play-focussed approaches to learning still need to be recognised as promising practices amongst many educational institutions. The sustainability of the EoL approach is often questioned, especially for older age groups. While EoL is quite accepted in ECD, for older age groups it remains a challenge despite the fact that field experience has shown that EoL reaches and brings forth substantial results faster to older children.
In refugee contexts, and especially in contexts where there is no official curriculum, EoL has the potential to be a flagship of quality and holistic education. Refugee education is thus one of the opportunities to build on a solid evidence base to this approach, from where it can then be scaled to public schools. The absence of a recognised definition for ‘resilience for children’ creates a challenge in terms of monitoring and measuring improvements. EoL to a large extent follows the model of Michael Ungar that is widely used and as well recognised. In addition, EoL assumes that children in emergency contexts principally possess resilience that needs to be unlocked and built upon. The analyses of children’s drawings, which are conducted before and after each EoL course, show clear evidence and support for this thesis. However, the evaluation of children’s development in drawing is not yet accepted as a recognized evaluation tool for resilience in science or pedagogy. For this reason, EoL merely uses evaluations of drawings to underline and support classical and scientifically accepted evaluation methods. A common understanding on what practitioners in the field of EiE mean by the term ‘resilience for children’, would help to compare approaches and learnings from each other. EoL was mainly developed upon the expertise of Beatrice Rutishauser Ramm, Senior Education Advisor of Caritas Switzerland, with a focus on implementation. A process evaluation and documentation, that shall foster the scaling of EoL to other contexts and actors, is currently being developed in collaboration with the American Institute of Research (AIR), by courtesy of the Humanitarian Education Accelerator (HEA) who further engaged AIR to carry out an impact evaluation in 2017/2018. These evaluations will provide additional evidence on the effectiveness as well as key learnings of the EoL approach and its implementation. Together with its long-standing partner, University of Teacher Education Zug, Caritas will further issue two publications on EoL in the months to come. Volume 1 will locate EoL within the pedagogical and developmental psychology research and Volume 2 will address practitioners by providing EoL exercises and didacticalmethodological guidance.
Key lessons and recommendations to practitioners:
• Psycho-social and pedagogical support can be combined to allow children to simultaneously overcome learning barriers and enhance performance at school. What can be learned from EoL is that tutorial classes (that are effective for academic success), and psycho-social games and services (that are effective to relax children and enhance their wellbeing after toxic stress) can be combined without losing the positive effects of both. The key to success is the repetition of learning steps and offering of learning content in a playful way, to restore the children’s learning ability and reinvigorate their self-esteem and innate motivational urge to develop.
• Within the official curriculum, teachers in crisis settings today have neither the time nor the necessary techniques to respond to the specific needs of pupils that are dealing with various psychological problems and trauma. To be able to restore their pupil’s learning ability, teachers need to comprehend how trauma and stress is affecting the learning ability of children in general. Further they need to be able to read and interpret the current development stage of the children, to accordingly adapt their teaching methods. Several interviews with teachers showed that child-centred learning methods and contents and techniques, including aspects such as resilience and health, were not part of their studies at university – despite the promising results.
• To guarantee sustainability and a long-term effect, childcentred approaches such as EoL that link pedagogical techniques with psycho-social components need to be mainstreamed within national education and ECD programmes.
• The personal relationship between children and parents/ caregivers is equally as important as safe spaces to counter exposure to stress, and enable an environment for children to develop. While children generally enjoy their participation, it is also their parents, teachers, and educators who - through their direct inclusion and involvement in the EoL learning programme - gain a better understanding of the psycho-social effects of the environment on their children’s well-being and learning abilities, and are empowered to provide useful assistance.