This article was originally published in a special issue of Current Issues in Comparative Education from Columbia University, celebrating the 100th birthday of Paolo Freire. The article can be found on page 183 here
Freire’s Time: Unlocking Energy and Options for Out-of-School Youth in Jordan
Elizabeth Robinson Questscope
Curt Rhodes Questscope
Introduction: This is Freire Time
One afternoon in March 2020, the Jordanian Ministry of Education (MoE) announced the
immediate, indefinite closure of all schools in the country to prevent the spread of COVID-
19. This affected 2.7 million children and youth (UNESCO, 2017), including 3,000 youth
in a non-formal education (NFE) program jointly operated by the MoE and Questscope, a
non-governmental organization (NGO) focused on youth on the periphery of society.
Within a month, 75% of these NFE youth (2,400 teenagers!) had contacted each other and
their educational facilitators (teachers) through WhatsApp and Facebook to organize
lessons and conversations with friends and family. Among students in formal school
nationwide, only 54% had access to (though even fewer likely attended) online classes
(UNHRC et al., 2020). This contrast between NFE and formal school learners made a
lasting impression on educators, as it reflected youths’ desire to reconnect with their peers
This eagerness—this drive to stay in a learning community—is a direct result of
integrating the seminal approaches of Brazilian educationalist Paulo Freire into Jordan’s
NFE program. NFE supports individuals’ right to make their own choices and learn how
to make increasingly better-informed choices–to think critically. The teacher’s role as an
educational facilitator, and their resulting mentoring relationship with students, lays a
critical and hopeful foundation for out-of-school (OOS) youth learners to negotiate the
uncertainties of life—a challenge for which they would otherwise be unprepared and
unsupported. In this way, the pedagogical approach of Freire unlocks the energy of
voluntary learning (learners are there because they want to be, not because they have to
be) among OOS youth to explore, examine and create.
This is Freire time. In the wake of the pandemic—which affected 1.6 billion children around
the world—there has never been a more critical time to apply his pedagogy of hope.
Fostering a culture of learning with teachers as cultural workers, and making a path for
them to walk alongside students, is a vital solution to the dysfunction of youth education
and the social disconnection of these COVID-influenced days. It is a solution that can
cultivate hope for those at the margins, whom the pandemic pushed even farther towards
the edge, as well as those who accompany them.
Freirean pedagogies enable two especially important outcomes to ready young people for
the emerging world that cannot be “blueprinted” in advance:
• Critical thinking about responsibility for oneself and understanding how to
succeed in the world in which one finds oneself, i.e., self-efficacy.
Robinson & Rhodes
Current Issues in Comparative Education
• Critical consciousness, in which one is aware of what needs to be/can be changed
in the system in which one must succeed in order to make things “better.”
The following sections will explore how these approaches have been utilized as part of
the NFE program in Jordan.
Letting Go of Legacy Education Systems
The Questscope/MoE NFE program is certified by the MoE and enables 13-18 year-olds
to complete the academic requirements for 10th grade within 24 months. NFE is tailored
to OOS youth, including drop-outs and refugees, who do not have or cannot access other
forms of education, including formal education. The curriculum for NFE is designed
based on the public school curriculum in Jordan and is implemented through teaching
pedagogies influenced by the ideas of Freire and adapted to the Jordan context. The
approach of Freire, practiced in NFE, offers remarkable opportunities for children and
youth to learn and secure the benefits of education that open doors that lead up and out.
The Freirean model of NFE is unique because it provides certification for basic education,
which, in Jordan, is required for students to progress academically,
vocationally/technically, or to secure regular employment. Such certification was not an
initial concern of Freire, given his focus on adult education. However, his participatory
learning approach has been very successful for young people in NFE who need
certification but cannot get it from a formal system.
NFE is organized around learners, to whom Questscope and the MoE are accountable,
and who voluntarily enroll—and stay—in NFE. When a young person leaves formal
education, they have a choice of what to pursue next, and they look for the best option
available. NGOs such as Questscope must satisfy these youth, or else they—as volunteer
learners—will leave the NFE program and find other opportunities, some of which will
likely have negative outcomes. Young people are satisfied—and will stay—if learning is
safe, appealing, and has an “off-ramp” leading to someplace they want to go. If not, they
will leave—and cannot be required to return.
NFE is highly suitable for three types of learners. First, youth who dropped out of school
after negative experiences in education because of bullying, intimidation, physical harm,
or humiliation. Second, refugee youth who found themselves suddenly cut off from their
homes, lives, communities, and friends and faced unsafe and unsupportive educational
and social environments. And third, young people disconnected by COVID-imposed
Educating OOS children and youth is both a global issue and a local issue in Jordan. In
2018, 258 million young people worldwide were not in school (UNESCO, 2020). In Jordan,
over 112,000 young people were OOS (35% Jordanian and 65% other nationalities), and
an additional 40,000 were at an increased risk of dropping out (UNICEF, 2020). These
figures have likely increased since COVID-19.
While the pandemic may be unprecedented in terms of the number of young people
globally who have had their schooling disrupted, the phenomenon of losing months or
years of education is not a new experience for vulnerable youth. Young people in lowresource
contexts constantly face competing priorities, opportunity costs, and decisions
vis-à-vis how to best prepare themselves for the future they want.
COVID has added yet another disruptive factor to this ongoing negotiation and balancing
act. In the absence of (formal) education, young people have found, and will continue to
find, other alternatives that best serve their ever-shifting needs and aspirations. In this
emerging post-COVID era, it is a good time for educators to consider new questions about
the ambitions of youth themselves. This is Freire time.
Legacy—that is, established—education systems equate time spent in formal school
(“schooling”) with learning, which is often not the case (Pritchett, 2013). The Learning
Adjusted Years of Schooling (LAYS) measure, developed by the World Bank, indicates
that the average Jordanian spends 11 years in school but receives less than seven years of
quality education during that time (Filmer et al., 2018). Four (almost 40%) of the years a
young person spends in school are not productive for learning, and that “lost” time has a
high opportunity cost. Youth who live on the economic and social margins have complex
strategies for survival that do not include spending 40% of their effort on unproductive
activities that do not lead to any goal.
A New Educational Theory of Change
NFE’s theory of change is based on three key elements: adult-youth partnerships, dialectic
(not didactic) learning, and youth agency. First, learning occurs in the context of an
authentic, nurturing partnership between the youth learner and the adult facilitator. The
learner trusts the facilitator to accompany them through an immersive inquiry of their
own experiences, and the facilitator allows the learner to determine the course and content
of their own explorations. These adult-youth partnerships create an atmosphere of trust,
care, and belonging in the classroom that is essential to learning.
Second, NFE learners engage in a critical reflection of their lived experiences through a
classroom dialogue with their facilitator and peers. Content learning is based on dialogue
shaped around daily encounters and complexities that texture and inform the reality of
all young people; the facilitator cultivates curiosity in these experiences.
Third, youth get opportunities to take initiative and exercise self-direction (agency) in
what and how they learn. For example, the first assignment for every new NFE class is to
create a “class constitution,” which sets rules for behavior within the class. Learners in
one NFE class decided that smoking was not allowed, so when an inspector came to the
class and lit up, a student politely informed him that smoking was not permitted — a
corrective action that would have been unheard of in a formal classroom context.
The application of Freirean principles in this theory of change has led to a new genre of
educational facilitators who co-learn alongside students. The legacy system of education
in Jordan has a wealth of human resource potential in the form of teachers’ extensive
content knowledge, which has greatly benefitted NFE. Educational facilitators engage in
an 80-100-hour ongoing program of formation (training) in Questscope’s participatory
learning methodology, which includes an initial session followed by refresher trainings
every four months. Self-directed professional development through Communities of
Practice also provides facilitators with continuing education in Freirean philosophy and
As part of the NFE program, learners also engage in extracurricular activities that range
from trips to museums to STEM activities. Community outreach volunteers help to
broaden the interest and support of the parents/community around youth, and alliances
are built with youths’ employers (for those who abide by International Labor
Organization guidelines for safe work) to support education that is mutually beneficial
for both the youth and the employer.
In 2010, Questscope and the MoE partnered with the University of Oxford to conduct a
randomized controlled trial to evaluate the impact of NFE. The program was found to
reduce conduct problems and violent behavior among youth within four months. Youth
had statistically significantly improved outcomes related to prosocial behavior, overall
difficulties, and hyperactivity/attention. The study also revealed encouraging changes in
social and emotional outcomes in youth who had higher levels of attendance and those in
NFE centers that offered more initiatives to empower youth in their learning progress.
Significantly reducing violent behavior is critical for youth, as learning is almost
impossible in an atmosphere where they fear for their personal safety (University of
Educational preparation for the future is no longer an exercise in linear projection within
a known context, and formal systems of education are often faulted for not preparing
young people for the world in which they must succeed. The NFE program in Jordan has
shown that the pedagogies of Paulo Freire can prepare learners for this unknowable future
by cultivating the personal assets of critical thinking and critical consciousness.
The educational facilitator – the adult partner – has a key role in generating the social and
emotional connection and belonging that is critical to sustain Freire’s approach. Going
forward, this practice of educational mentoring can be combined with technology to scale
up both access to education and the quality of learning experiences.
Curt Rhodes is the Founder/International Director of Questscope, which has partnered with
marginalized communities in the Middle East since 1988 to strengthen communities. Dr. Rhodes
holds an MPH from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and MS and PhD degrees
from the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Email: [email protected]
Elizabeth Robinson is a Researcher at Questscope and an independent consultant specializing
in promoting education in low-resource contexts. After working in the Global South for six years,
Elizabeth is now pursuing a Master’s degree in Education and International Development at
University College London. She also holds a BA from Tufts University.
Filmer, D. P., Rogers, F. H., Angrist, N., & Sabarwal, S. (2018, September 27). Learningadjusted
years of schooling (LAYS): Defining a new macro measure of education. World
Pritchett, L. (2013). The rebirth of education: Schooling ain’t learning. Center for Global
UNESCO UIS. (2020). Out-of-school children and youth.
UNHCR, UNICEF, WFP. (2020). Multi-sectoral rapid needs assessment: COVID19 - Jordan.
UNICEF. (2020). Jordan country report on out-of-school children.
University of Oxford, Questscope, Jordan Ministry of Education (2011). Strengthening
youth opportunities: A pilot impact and process study of empowerment-based non-formal
education for out-of-school youth in Amman, Jordan.