An Interview with Colin Hannaford: Thoughts About the Arab Thought Forum in Amman, Jordan

May 10, 2010 by

An Interview with Colin Hannaford: Thoughts About the Arab Thought Forum in Amman, Jordan


Michael F. Shaughnessy
Eastern New Mexico University
Portales, New Mexico
United States of America


1)   Professor Hannaford, you recently addressed a special meeting of the Arab Thought Forum in Amman, Jordan. What was the nature of this conference?

Thank you. I did not address it alone, of course. I am very grateful to have been very ably supported by my colleague Professor Dr Hani Khoury of Mercer University, in Georgia, USA.

Your readers might also first like to know a little more about the Arab Thought Forum, and why Dr Khoury and I were invited to address it.

The Arab Thought Forum – the ATF – was initiated by His Royal Highness El Hassan bin Talal of Jordan to ‘promote greater linkages between the Arab thinkers through rational thinking, democratic dialogue, and creative interaction with other civilizations of the world’.

That is its widest brief. It is currently much occupied with all major problems of the region – political, economic and cultural.  The Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the Iraqi affairs are just two of these problems

Initially I had very little knowledge of the Forum. Now I know that it is funded solely by its members’ dues, and occasionally by local and other Arab institutions. It is recognised by international agencies and foundations throughout the world, but is otherwise entirely independent. It is, in other words, about as impartial and respectable as any international organisation can be.

I first heard Prince El Hassan speak some years ago in Oxford about the tragedy of religious divisions in the Muslim world, and about the ‘industry of hate’ which fuels violence.

At that time I was organising the conference ‘Giving Peace a Voice’ in Windsor Castle funded by the Qatar Foundation, and I invited His Royal Highness.

He could not attend, but sent Dr Humam Ghassib as his personal representative. Professor Dr Ghassib is a theoretical physicist at the University of Jordan. He is also the Forum’s Secretary-General and is a Catholic Christian.

At Windsor my colleagues and I explained why it is that mathematics can only be learnt very imperfectly through the instruction by a teacher, but that it can be learnt very much more effectively when students are encouraged to discuss together the meaning of the mathematical statements of the teacher or in their textbooks. This practice can begin as soon as most can read. It also helps to improve the literacy of the weaker pupils: a fact that has been recognised and applauded in Britain by the UK National Literacy Trust.

The greater social value of this approach was known to the Athenian Greeks over two thousand years ago. They first developed the efficient style of argument that we now call mathematical. Their aim, however, was not to do mathematics, but to empower ordinary people with the confidence and competence to succeed in democratic politics. Greek democracy flourished for nine hundred years. It was natural to everyone!

Professor Ghassib was impressed. He proposed a special meeting of the Forum to hear this explanation again. He invited me. I asked Professor Khoury to support me. Dr Khoury is a Greek-Orthodox Christian of Palestinian origin, and his Arabic is still fluent.

2)      What specifically did you talk about?

Professor Khoury and I first explained our reasons for advising schools to begin improving their classroom climate by introducing learning through discussion as soon as possible. To demonstrate the effects, I later asked the distinguished members to play the part of a class of ten year-olds.

They then experienced hearing one supposed ten year-old read a single sentence aloud – several times – and then attempted, together, to explain the meaning of the words.

In this way they learnt at first hand that no computer language course – usually intended for individuals in isolation – can equal the stimulation of this practice in improving the literacy of an entire class, interacting and learning together in an open, unpredictable social environment.

I also asked the members to notice that, while the whole class is now improving its literacy and its numeracy, they are also doing so whilst respectfully listening to and helping one another. In this way the children learn to accept correction or criticism as valuable, not as ritually offensive or personally insulting. Instead they can compete with each to achieve the best explanation that will satisfy both the teacher and their class!

This is the reason why our Windsor conference was entitled ‘Giving Peace a Voice’. Mothers at home can begin greatly to benefit to their children’s education, simply by prompting them – at any age, without pressure – to explain why they are doing what they do before, or as, they do it!

A butterfly opens its wings, and the world is changed. It may be imagined that a mother at home can do so little to affect the great world outside. But this simple habit engages both essential functions of a child’s mind. To know ‘what to do’ is not the same as knowing ‘why’. By learning to ask ‘why do I do what I do?’ and then by at least trying to answer sensibly, the child acquires an extremely valuable and powerful habit. It is the basis of all knowledge. Eventually, it is the basis of peace.

Enough mothers, opening enough wings, can change the world.

When they are older, children who have this habit will be far less likely to resort to violence to express frustration. They will be able to explain instead why it is that they disagree. They will also have a better insight into the reasons why others disagree!

And they will be cleverer!

Later in the Forum I described my own original error in supposing that children who can best explain can do so because they are the most intelligent: and how, eventually, I realised that I had the real causality back to front!

The better explanation is that the children who can best explain what they are doing are usually the most intelligent because they can best explain what they are doing. They have simply learnt the most efficient use of both functions of their mind.

We can further this ability in the classroom.

3)      How well attended was the conference, and how well were you received?

It could have been better attended. It may have been discouraging to some that the special meeting was announced to be in English, and that it would be about the use of the ‘Socratic Methodology’, which some members may have supposed was too specialised.

The fact is, however, that nearly everyone in Jordan seems able to speak some English. When I escorted a little Jordanian girl of about 12 across a dangerous city road one day, I was surprised and delighted when we reached safety and she thanked me perfectly – in English. Perhaps some of the members feared not being as fluent.

Whatever the reason, we were not disappointed. The majority present were representatives of university departments, and the most important was a lady!

Mrs Leila Sharaf has been Jordan’s Minister of Culture and Information – from which post she resigned in protest at what she regarded as restrictions on the freedom of the press. She is the first woman appointed to the Jordanian Senate. She has been lauded by the US National Democratic Institute for her work for democracy and human rights and for the rights of women in the Arab world. She is a member of the Academic Council of the UN-mandated University for Peace, and was a member in 1990 of the Royal Commission drafting the Jordan National Charter, the main document charting the Kingdom’s process of progressive democratization.

Her Excellency Senator Sharaf was the first to appear at our conference. Before most of the others members arrived, she had already read the introductory papers. Thanks to Secretary-General Dr Ghassib, these were in English and in Arabic!

When I crossed the room to introduce myself, the Senator told me at once: “This is a revelation! No-one has ever made this connection before – between mathematics and democracy – and it could not come at a better time!”

4)      In terms of the “Arab Thought Forum “, what seems to be on the minds of the intelligentsia there?

The questions of other members were very clearly focussed on improving education, especially of mathematics. In this respect the problems for Jordan’s teachers are substantially the same as in the United States and Britain, and, indeed, almost everywhere. The weak foundations of understanding created in schools prevent later progress and cause failure in universities. One of the most poignant questions asked was: “What do you suggest we do when our students just do not want to learn?”

I could only respond that this is not just a Jordanian problem: that far too many youngsters in the West expect their universities to provide them with three years of beer and sex, together with a general lack of any responsibility. My candour was at least greeted with rueful smiles. I went on to say that this apathy can be overcome by introducing children to the pleasure – as the American Nobelist Richard Philip Feynman always called it – of ‘simply finding things out’ – and that this can be achieved long before adolescence.

Her Excellency then asked me how our approach might improve children’s conceptual understanding in mathematics. I told of my experience, over at least a ten-year period, of asking children in their first secondary school lesson with me to tell me of their understanding of the most fundamental concept in mathematics. “What,” I would ask them, “is a number?”

These children, I explained in response to Her Excellency, would have been adding, subtracting, multiplying, and even dividing, ‘numbers’ for at least five or six years. But at this fundamental question their happy smiles would invariably disappear. No-one was ever able to tell me what they had been working with all these years! “And this,” I went on, “is because they have never been asked to talk about what they are doing: to learn that a number, at their level, is just the simplest name that we can give to any group.”

I then proceeded to savage an innocent box of tissues, kindly provided by Forum, to illustrate how these numbers – these ‘names’ – are changed by addition and subtraction.

But the question that you might have asked, at this particular point, is what did Dr Khoury and I detect as being uppermost in the minds of the great majority of Jordanians we met?

The answers would then have been: refugees; unemployment; and the imminence of war.

There can be very few countries in the world that can claim to be as compassionate, merciful and courageous as Jordan. Jordanians do not boast of this fact, but in the past sixty years this small country, with virtually no natural resources, has attempted to house, treat, educate, and employ almost twice its original population.

To put this in a clearer perspective: if Britain, with a population of 60 million, had to accept refugees on this scale, it would need to find homes, schools, hospitals, and jobs for 40 million. If America, with a population of over 300 million, were to try to equal Jordan’s charity, it would have to take in 200 million.

Such figures defeat imagination. Yet this is the burden that the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan has courageously accepted, and the country groans under the weight. A social infrastructure meant originally for a million and a half is near to being overwhelmed by three million. Teachers in schools are trying to cope by working double-shifts. Many schools are attempting to work as two.

The picture is made even bleaker by the fact that the refugees are rich, qualified, unqualified, or desperately poor. The rich buy land, build homes, office and apartment blocks. They send their children to private schools or schools abroad. The qualified may be found employment. The least qualified may work as labourers. Some women support their children in any way they can, however degrading this may be.

According to the World Bank, the average Arab woman is traditionally expected to bear six children, including two sons. This does not help to stabilise Jordan’s population.

War is expected – only to make all this much worse, not better. It is expected with a fatalism that says nothing has substantially changed in the sixty years since Al Nakba, the ethnic cleaning of Palestine, in which Zionist forces destroyed 531 Palestinian towns; in which, according to the former director of the Israeli army archives, ‘in almost every village occupied by us during the War… acts were committed which are defined as war crimes, such as murders, massacres, and rapes’, and in which, according to the authoritative Israeli military historian of the 1948 war, ‘every skirmish ended in a massacre of Arabs.’

This kind of war is expected again. The people are patient. But they are made of flesh and bone, not mud. There is a terrible patience here, but it is not forgiving.

The best that Khoury and I could offer is a solution which all nations at war might accept: but only if they want to prevent future wars. It depends on the fact that there is an even deeper spiritual reason for helping children to learn mathematics in this way.

When children are made to compete with each other to learn from instruction, they soon learn as well to envy the clever and to despise the weak. Ultimately their society will be divided. Dog eat dog, and greed is good, are the rules.

But when children are allowed to work together to try to understand the thinking and creativity produced by thousands of generations before their own – to realise, in short, that this knowledge and skill is what makes us human – then they may experience a kind of modest but nearly daily theophany: of seeing in one another the universal spirit of inquiry and creativity, the spirit, guided by intuition as well as logic, the spirit without which, entirely apart from any religion, we would have no universal moral guide at all.

5)      What seem to be the challenges of working productively with this country?

The challenge to all Arab societies in attempting to work together productively was typified by a headline in 1990 of an article in Time about the response of the 21 Arab League nations to the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq.

It read: ‘Me And My Brother Against My Cousin’.

This is an abbreviation of what is – sadly – a very well-known Arab proverb, one that is actually intended to approve the traditional values of intensely tribal societies. In full it declares: ‘Me against my brothers, me and my brothers against my cousins, me and my brother and cousins against the world’. In Arabic: أنا وأخوي على ابن عمي وأنا وابن عمي على الغريب

This hierarchy of exclusive interests is undoubtedly a source of strength at the level of the family, the clan and the tribe. Nationally it is a source of continual indecision and weakness.

Perhaps this alone may move the ATF to recommend our approach to Jordanian schools. The teachers are poorly paid. Most see their work as patriotic. Working double shifts is terminally exhausting. The ‘Socratic Methodology’ may sound like a  joke to some: but it removes the stress at once of trying to communicate knowledge from one mind to many; it is enjoyable; it is effective; it transfers the responsibility of learning to where it belongs, with each and every pupil; and – yes – once they are used to it: it is fun!

6)      Who were some of the other keynote speakers?

Sorry, Mike. Just us.      

7)      I understand that they recorded your presentation and that it is posted somewhere on the Internet. Can you share the site?

The whole of the presentation – but, be warned, it is long – can be found at As usual, the introductory speeches are somewhat tedious, but the Q and A – once you get there – produced some fireworks from us both.

8)      What were some of the main topics of the conference?

Dr Khoury asked me to describe the three divisions that I have found that people everywhere and of all ages recognize as being created in a class by instruction.

These divisions are not the teacher’s fault. They are not the pupils’ fault. They are produced inevitably when any teacher, however gifted, attempts to teach by instruction. They are due simply to the fact that pupils cannot possibly assimilate knowledge presented through instruction at the same rate and with the same understanding. Of course, a teacher can provide more explanations: but this takes more time. Inevitably the syllabus will demand that the lessons move on: leaving these divisions behind.

The first division will consist of the few who really do understand. They become increasingly selfish. The second division is likely to be the majority. They learn to obey and to copy well enough to be believed to understand. They become increasingly accustomed to being dishonest in order to appear to succeed. They will not feel responsible for their failure, as indeed they are not; but this refusal to be responsible for any failure will also become natural to them. Finally, unhappiest of all, the third division will include those pupils or those students who have never learnt to understand, obey, or copy, well enough to appear to succeed. They become increasingly frustrated, angry, and disruptive. They will be unwilling to even appear to want to learn. Ultimately they are likely to become both unemployable – and dangerous.

I have now explained in international conferences on three continents how these divisions are produced, together with the social damage and personal harm that they cause. I have never once been contradicted. I have often been thanked. Many people recognize their harm from the experience of their own education. When employed together with a full complement of teaching skills – including, whenever it is most useful, instruction – the Socratic Methodology stops them ever appearing.

9)     Where next?

The ATF will send its report to other Arab countries and to appropriate national and international organisations. In Jordan, however, Dr Khoury and I made the discovery we have already described: that what most people fear most is war.

In future, therefore, any conference which we are invited to address will not be announced as being primarily concerned with either mathematics education or with democracy. Instead we will ask that it be titled: ‘Mathematics for Peace.’

There will soon be a website with this title. Please look out for it – and join us!

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.