Around the world, primary and secondary education curriculums are becoming increasingly narrow, geared towards standardized tests that purportedly measure student achievement. In Jordan, the situation isn’t any different. Teachers are trained in critical thinking skills, but the parents and students don’t want it–they just want preparation for the national exam, according to Shaylyn Romney Garrett, co-founder of Think Unlimited, a nonprofit that teaches Arab youth to think creatively and critically.
For over two years, Garrett and her husband James have trained Peace Corps volunteers to run Brain Camps–six-day intensive curricula that teach students to become critical thinkers through games and skills-based teaching. The program has trained 55 volunteers, and 860 kids have gone through the program. Now Think Unlimited has committed to training 168 Jordanian public school teachers in critical thinking interventions, including a 12-week after-school course called Brain Builders that teaches kids reasoning, strategy, decision skills, and more.
The seeds of Think Unlimited grew in 2009, when Garrett joined the Peace Corps with her husband. They were sent to Jordan to teach English, despite not knowing any Arabic. “As we were there, we started to hear a lot about critical thinking in Jordan. Our experience of being in youth centers and public schools was that we didn’t see any critical thinking happening,” she says.
The Garretts ran their first Brain Camps in 2010–first at the Salt Secondary School for Boys, then at the Khalida Al-Qurashiya Public School for Girls, also in Salt–and quickly realized they had hit a nerve. Says Garrett: “Queen Rania showed up to a camp and invited us to partner with her NGO. We were hitting that gap between what was being talked about and what was happening in village-level public schools.”
What exactly makes up a good critical thinking course? Teachers use PowerPoint presentations, activities, and games to explain eight different skills (acquiring information, organizing information, reasoning, strategy, creativity, decision making, opinion formation, perspective taking), examining what each skill is, how it could be applied in the real world, and how students can practice or improve it. The Brain Camps and Brain Builders programs are focused on 9th through 11th graders, but it goes as young as 7th grade and as old as college students.
The students are, believe it or not, excited about participating in the camps and after-school activities. “Kids in the Arab world are bored, they’re frustrated. They don’t have a lot going on, especially kids in villages,” says Garrett. “The concept of enrichment programming, the idea of doing an after-school club was so foreign in my Peace Corps village. The girls especially want to be there. There aren’t a lot of socially sanctioned ways for them to be outside the home.”
The Garretts’ programs are too young to quantify any sort of measurable difference in life achievement among participants, but there are hints that the programs are working. After participating in Brain Camp, one student developed an after-school leadership club for girls. Another student started a Facebook campaign asking people to donate blood at a local center because her friend had a rare blood disorder, and a third girl started a website to educate peers on healthy eating habits.
Garrett is sticking to Jordan for now, but she knows that the U.S. could use her help, too. “One of most common responses we get is ‘Oh my gosh, we need you to do that in America,'” she says.