Sunday, February 14, 2010


Massar retrospective 1

Massar dates back to late 2002, and the wish by Syria’s First Lady, Her Excellency Asma Al Assad, to create a children’s museum in the country. However, during the process of defining in greater detail the purpose of such a museum in late 2004, it became clear that a much deeper and more powerful agenda for young people in Syria lay behind the First Lady’s proposal. This agenda reflected a central role for young people in building Syria’s future as a nation, the need in the country for a strong civil society as an essential complement to government and the private sector, and a strong commitment to create opportunities for young people from all walks of life.

Syria was a country in transition, and was looking to make change sustainable by building from within, respecting and retaining its distinctive cultural strengths, while investing in its long-term assets – its future generations and their whole approach to life’s new opportunities and challenges. Syria’s young people represented enormous untapped potential, not just as an economic resource but as standard-bearers for a new expression of self-directed, thoughtful and participative citizenship that could inspire and empower individuals and communities across the country.

Building active citizenship as a prevailing state of mind, in which young people would feel innately predisposed and able to seek out ways to contribute positively to their community and the wider world, while at the same time developing and fulfilling their own potential as individuals, thus became an early broad statement of purpose for Massar. Still with a children’s museum in its plan, the project’s vision and scope expanded significantly to embrace this wider social purpose.

In late 2004 there was no directly comparable project model elsewhere in the world from which Massar could draw at least basic empirical information for the design of its programmes. The emerging Massar strategy outlined a wide-ranging, national but non-governmental initiative, offering non-formal learning opportunities to young people between the ages of 5 and 21 (initially the upper age was 15, later extended). From these opportunities they could explore and develop their own potential, for their own individual fulfilment and success, and for the good of others. As a non-governmental organisation, Massar had no remit to intervene in the formal education system or any other aspect of government provision; its programmes would be independent but complementary. A long-term view would be taken of outcomes; some results might be seen immediately, but the embedding of changed attitudes and behaviour was expected to take years if not generations. In a Massar project initiation document from February 2005 its broad aim was captured as follows: ’At the heart of this project is the concept of building “active citizenship”, in which children’s growing understanding and appreciation of themselves and the world around them leads to greater direct individual responsibility and involvement. This responsibility and involvement might manifest itself in environmental or social activity, volunteering and pro bono public work, the forming of interest groups and knowledge communities, wider public debate on important issues, or in a broad range of creative outcomes. As a whole, it should stimulate new generations to be aware of issues, challenges and opportunities, to be concerned to tackle them, and to look for actions they can take by themselves or with others.’ A number of specific characteristics were included in the original design of Massar’s programmes, as follows:

  1. Understanding – Massar’s programmes would be strongly subject-based, encouraging young people to develop the skills for accessing and filtering information, analysis, critical enquiry, and building perspective from a base of relevant factual knowledge. Particular subjects and topics would be at the core of most Massar programmes and environments, and a variety of learning styles would be catered for in their presentation. This would place an emphasis on reading skills, media literacy, and field or on-line research.
  2. Choices and implications – Massar’s programmes would encourage young people to go beyond factual knowledge to seek out underlying issues and causes, to appreciate the implications of human action (or inaction), and to examine the choices that situations offer. With a small number of non-contentious exceptions, Massar would not promote any social agenda; the aim would be to encourage young people to reach their own conclusions.
  3. Responsibility – all Massar’s content and programmes would also aim create a direct connection between the appreciation of a situation and the recognition by participants of their personal connection with it and responsibility towards it.
  4. Engagement – Massar would work with young people to stimulate in them some form of direct response or action. Massar would not prefer any particular type of response; it might be creative, expressed in art or photography, or a collaborative group project, in the virtual or real world. Young people might help others or develop themselves, perhaps by choosing to study a subject further. What would matter was that young people had chosen to take some action.
  5. Empathy – at the highest level Massar would seek to build into its activities and experiences an awareness of and feeling for the situation of others, in Syria and the rest of the world.

The Massar discovery centre being built in Damascus has thus a very different intended character from a conventional children’s museum or science centre. It will take visitors on a hands-on critical thinking journey through six main topic areas called: Beginnings, Life, Our World, Ideas, Achievements, and You Can Do It. Beginnings shows how each individual is an active part of a larger whole, whether family, community, country or world. Life examines the complex connections within the living world, and mankind’s impact on it. Our World deals with the physical and inanimate world, and the risks in taking it for granted. Ideas looks at how we learn and form impressions, how our minds can sometimes be tricked, and how we create ideas, concepts and plans. Achievements looks widely at what constitutes an achievement, at lessons from the past, and at the law of unforeseen consequences. You Can Do It invites visitors to take on some aspect of active citizenship. Both the journey as a whole and the interactive treatment of each topic embody the sequential learning steps, with a resource library at the journey’s end providing the means for visitors immediately to start putting Engagement into practice. Though providing a great deal of subject knowledge as the basis for understanding and empathy, all the centre’s exhibits and activities pose questions, make connections, challenge preconceptions and raise issues, inviting young people and families to think, choose and act, not just in the centre itself but outside in the real world.

Massar’s regional centres – smaller spaces distributed across Syria providing exhibitions, activity programmes and resources, usually focussed on a subject theme – have a similar emphasis on encouraging young people to explore their world critically and develop their own potential. These centres can also play a direct role in the life of the local community, and they offer young people the platform on which they can develop pro-social awareness and habits, and the tools to put helping behaviour into practice. The centres encourage repeat visits, and build strong sense of ownership and responsibility for “their” centre among young users. The first regional centre opened in 2007 in Lattakia, and two more are currently in preparation, in Homs and Aleppo.

Massar’s touring activities have been running nationally since 2005, and though these are relatively brief one-off “permission” encounters, they are very catalytic. For younger age groups, a stage show about learning through our senses is followed by story-telling (stimulating the imagination) and an “archaeological dig” (practising touch, sight and analysis). For teenagers, the sessions are managed as a debate about identity, rights, and issues that the children themselves want to discuss. Working in teams, the teenagers produce a newspaper front page and a video clip about the subjects they choose. These debates have covered topics such as immigration, housing, violence, health and work. For many of the teenagers involved this is the first time they have engaged in a serious discussion and felt their views are being paid attention to. The programme’s animators and facilitators – known as the Green Team – have themselves have become positive role models for the children who attend the touring activities.

The Massar web portal is designed to encourage user-generated content and user moderation of the portal community’s behaviour. It is an on-line platform offering open-source web tools, a wiki-style knowledge base, discussion forums, display space for created work and a blogosphere. It provides “safe” space inasmuch as links to potentially harmful external websites are restricted, but what the portal’s users can do within the site is deliberately left as much as possible up to them. While Massar supervises and moderates to a degree, it is made clear to users that they all share the responsibility for protecting the site from abuse.

Relating both to the on-line and real worlds, E-Volunteers launched in 2007 and its young participants achieved, among other things, the creation of what has now become Syria’s national computer database of blood donors. Volunteer projects have also included organising charity events and teaching IT skills to the blind and the old. Collaborative Learning links Syrian students with counterparts round the world to work together on a topic, which is brought together in the form of a study website. E-Debate is being developed jointly with the Open Society Institute. Here young people are given training in formal debating techniques and brought together with others from around the world to exchange perspectives and argue points of view.

Much has changed since 2004 but as far as I know Massar remains unique as a national, non-governmental citizenship initiative.


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