Education for an Unknowable Future

Many refugees will never return home. How can we prepare these children to succeed amid uncertainty?

August 23, 2017
Unknowable Future

For years, children living in refugee camps have received an education predicated on the notion that they will one day return to their countries of origin and become active citizens and leaders. Children in camps have attended schools surrounded by other displaced people and learned the language of their parents and grandparents.

But the sad truth is that most of these children will never return “home.” Of the 22.5 million refugees worldwide, more than 17 million have been displaced for multiple decades. In fact, the current average length of displacement is 25 years — three times as long as it was in the 1990s, and far longer than the duration of most children’s education.

These children need the tools to thrive across a range of uncertain contexts, including ones that they cannot yet visualize.

To support these children in valuable ways, educators must acknowledge their “unknowable futures,” according to Sarah Dryden-Peterson, an expert in refugee education. These children need the tools to participate and succeed in the countries in which they are currently living — as well as the skills to thrive across contexts, including ones that they cannot yet visualize.

The Shift to Integration

With a growing awareness of the longevity of most refugees’ displacement, policymakers have begun shifting the focus of refugee education — toward the goal of integrating students into the national schooling system of their current country.

Integration has advantages that traditional refugee education typically does not, Dryden-Peterson explains. National school systems already have buildings, trained teachers, and an established curriculum. Students who attend these schools learn the country’s primary language and the obtain skills and certificates that are valued there, preparing them to actively participate in that country as adults.

But current models of refugee integration don’t fully provide students with either short-term stability or longer-term opportunity, says Dryden-Peterson, an associate professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

How can integration models evolve to better equip refugee children for productive futures in a context of deep uncertainty? Here are some of the key needs:

Access to schooling

Like all children worldwide, refugee children need access to both primary and secondary education. In 2014, only 50 percent had access to primary school, compared to 93 percent of all children — and only 25 percent had access to secondary school, compared to 62 percent of all children.

Relationship-building with national students

Although many countries have begun sending refugee children to national schools, interactions between refugee and national students remain limited and strained. In Kenya, for instance, schools are de facto segregated by location, so refugee and national children rarely attend schools with one another. In Lebanon, all students use the same school, but in different “shifts,” with nationals attending in the morning and refugees in the afternoon. Globally, whenever students do attend the same classes, their interactions often are marked by bullying and exclusion.

Building authentic connections between these two groups is vital. For refugees to succeed academically and professionally in these countries, they must be socially accepted by their national peers. Teachers need to emphasize the importance of empathy, inclusion, and respect as they interact with both groups of students.

An understanding of their history and the conflicts that affect them

Countries hosting refugee students tend to ignore the violence these children have experienced, or else they sanitize the history of their home country. But for these children to make sense of their situation as refugees, teachers need to provide in-depth explanations of the complex international conflicts impacting them.

And if these students are to ever successfully return to their home country or relocate to a third, they must know how to solve conflicts and how to lead. Teachers need to give these students a truthful and global perspective on international affairs, rather than ignore how the past will continue to affect them.

Caring, empathetic teachers

Even though refugee students may reside in a new country for decades, they and their families likely still experience severe feelings of isolation, depression, and fear. These children need excellent teachers who can help them build the social-emotional tools they need to cope and thrive.

Realizing this goal will require us to think about highly skilled teachers as a global right that all children deserve, Dryden-Peterson notes. “Teachers who have the skills to address each student’s needs, to build welcoming communities, and to help children chart their pathways to the future, even amid uncertainty, are not only good for refugee children but for all children,” she says. “The future of inclusive, safe and productive communities may depend on them.”

The flexibility to respond to the unknown

Beyond these more specific needs, refugee children need cognitive flexibility — because in an unknowable future, it’s unclear what challenges they will face. Schools with refugee students should teach students to critically examine power, think about the nature of knowledge, and reflect on their goals for their education. These children need to be able to learn across instructional formats, to develop an intrinsic motivation for learning, and to have confidence in building a future that looks totally different from their current state.

A learner-centered education

Developing this cognitive flexibility means that schools must practice a learner-centered education. In many refugee classrooms, teachers have more than one hundred students, and learning is focused on memorization. But that approach doesn’t teach students to be critical and independent thinkers.

In another recent article, Dryden-Peterson describes the success of a teacher in Uganda who made a point of calling each of his students by name, hearing each of their voices during every lesson, and placing each student in the role of active learner. He showed how teachers can choose to empower students, even amid contexts of uncertainty. 

Given the duration of modern conflicts, she writes, refugee education is a long-term endeavor, “connected not only to the idea of return but to the ongoing nature of exile.” In such contexts, teachers of refugee students can — and should — “construct school environments that are conducive to creating futures, rather than simply inheriting them.”

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