Akwan: The holistic education project that is doing things differently

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In this undated photo, children participate in one of Akwan's in-person projects. (Photos: Handouts from Akwan for Holistic Learning)
AMMAN — As the school year begins and children in Jordan and beyond tackle new courses, exams, and assignments, one organization is doing things differently. اضافة اعلان

Akwan for Holistic Learning, a center for children aged six to 18, aims to promote skills which are not often fostered in conventional education and to learn with its young participants along the way. Having launched in March 2020, the initiative recently completed its summer season, in which it held camps and activities for children.

In an interview with Jordan News, one of Akwan’s three founders, Kristina Kaghdo, said, “We realised there is a huge need for a space in which children can be who they are, and where they are accompanied in their own processes at their own pace of developing their social and emotional skills.”

Kaghdo described how Akwan fosters interpersonal communication and emotional intelligence, capabilities which are not often developed in mainstream education. “We think (these skills) are missing because a lot of the time this is something that happens in a therapeutic context, or when a child has a behavioural issue … but this is an integral part of the human being, and we need to know what it is and how to live with it and how to handle it.”

With a clear vision, program structure, years of educational experience between them, and all the practical arrangements in place, Akwan’s founders launched their project on March 13, 2020. Four days later, the COVID-19 lockdown was announced, and their plans were put to a halt.

Despite this, Akwan quickly adapted to meet the needs of the children it supports: “We decided, maybe it’s time to be present online, and to see how we can help parents and kids in the process of them discovering that we actually live under one roof, and we don’t have much space to escape from each other, and that was really difficult for many parents.”

In this undated photo, children participate in one of Akwan's in-person projects. (Photos: Handouts from Akwan for Holistic Learning)

Their initial online projects saw children grow in confidence and explore new interests, despite the challenges posed by remote working. This confidence was continued beyond the online sessions, with some of the children who attended the online gardening projects starting and maintaining their own small gardens at home.

As the restrictions eased, Akwan began to run camps and activities in person.

Since then, they have been holding after school activities in spring and fall, and longer, more intensive camps in the summer and winter holidays. Among the projects they run are a gardening club, philosophy club, theater camp, and scout camp, as advertised on their Facebook page.

In describing their approach to philosophy with children, the co-founder explains how the subject is much more than critical thinking alone: “It’s also the attitude that you have towards thinking and towards speech and towards others when they speak,” she said, before posing the question, “Are you able to really listen when you ask a question? Do you really ask a question to have an answer, or to hear what you want to hear?”

On how Akwan approaches the themes of their projects, Kagdho explained, “We work with a holistic approach, so if we do gardening, it’s not only about gardening, but also about working together. It’s also about managing your emotions, about finding solutions to problems that arise while working.

And it’s about learning gardening.” In this way, Akwan aims to help children connect to themselves, to each otherm and to the world around them, no matter what the project is.

Akwan’s clubs also offer a rare opportunity for children from vastly different backgrounds to interact, in a space that is “not elitist” and that “helps kids to get to know each other, regardless of the area they live in, regardless of their parent’s status and regardless of the kind of school they go to.” 

Meeting across this divide arises as a particularly pertinent aim, considering the stark wealth gap in the Kingdom. According to statistics from UNICEF, one in five of Jordan’s 3.16 million children is considered multidimensionally poor, meaning that they experience multiple disadvantages at the same time.

“We have kids who come from war zones, and we have kids who are very spoiled and have no idea where money comes from,” the co-founder said, adding that Akwan offers several subsidized places on their programs, for those who otherwise could not afford to attend.

For their part, Akwan’s founders have had to shed the idea that their project will be easy to fund. “We are not working for the money,” Kaghdo said.

“Because then we go to targets.” She explained that, while they do a lot of evaluations as part of their work, the targets proposed by grant funders do not often make sense, and working towards them would lead to a contradiction in their philosophy. “You cannot educate someone to be authentic and true if you are not authentic and true.”

Kagdho affirmed that even Akwan’s educators are “human beings in the end”, and that their capacity to make mistakes, to accept this, and to communicate it to the children, is essential to the project.

She added that this quality can also be learnt from many of the children themselves: “Kids are fantastic teachers, because they are so true.”

 “Sometimes the process tells you that the result is not what you expected,” said the co-founder. “And that’s why people usually don’t like to make mistakes because the uncertainty is a killer. But life is uncertain. And we saw with the pandemic that our constant seeking for certainty can kill us emotionally.”

Kaghdo searched for a way to elaborate and landed on an example that revealed her creativity as an educator: “It’s like trying to put a river into a bucket and carry it. You cannot do that because the river just needs to go.”

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