Dr. Curt Rhodes
November 14, 2021

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

and facilitators.


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

social isolation.


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

Oxford, 2011).



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.

Email: [email protected]



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

Bank Group.




Pritchett, L. (2013). The rebirth of education: Schooling ain’t learning. Center for Global


UNESCO UIS. (2017). Jordan. http://uis.unesco.org/en/country/jo

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.

Curt pic1
Founder & Chief Vision Officer

Dr. Curt Rhodes

Curt Rhodes has spent close to 40 years working with, and on behalf of, marginalized communities and young people across the Middle East.

As the recipient of the 2014 Dr. Jean Mayer Global Citizenship Award, Dr. Rhodes was recognized by Tufts University for his demonstrated compassion and tenacity in creating a highly effective and determined organization dedicated to the survival and nurturing of the most vulnerable and disenfranchised.

In recognition of his work with marginalized youth in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan and in the region, Dr. Rhodes was awarded 2011 Social Entrepreneur of the Year for the Middle East and North Africa by the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship.

Dr. Rhodes began his career in the Middle East in the early 1980s, as Assistant Dean in the School of Public Health at the American University of Beirut. During the 1982 invasion of west Beirut, he volunteered in a community-based clinic alongside students and friends, doing around-the-clock triage for wounded and ill civilians. That was when the seed idea for Questscope began to take shape. Living and working with people in great suffering compelled him to find a way that he and others in the Middle East could assist the most vulnerable: participating with the voiceless ones in invisible communities.

In 1988, Questscope was founded with the goal of putting the last, first. From the beginning, Questscope worked closely with local communities, identifying their aspirations and together addressing their greatest needs.