In a one-room schoolhouse in northern Morocco’s Rif Mountains, forty young children between the ages of three and seven sit shoulder to shoulder on floor mats, reciting the Quran from memory. As they repeat after their teacher, sometimes in unison, sometimes individually, they join a centuries-old practice of training young children to commit Islam’s holy book to memory.

To many Western observers, the practice seems archaic—a form of rote learning and indoctrination that offers little educational value. But EDC’s Helen Boyle believes the Quranic lessons provide a valuable foundation for later learning. “To describe this as simply ‘rote memorization’ misses the point of Islamic teaching,” she says.

Boyle, who spent nearly a year in a northern Moroccan village studying the village’s Quranic preschool and its role in the larger community, describes the process instead as “embodiment.”

Spiritual knowledge plays a greater role in Islam than it does in the West, she explains. “Memorizing the Quran is meant to be a precursor, not a substitute to understanding the word of God. You hold it in your mind as a child and then come the questions, the understanding of God, as you grow to understand what you have memorized. Learning is seen as a lifetime process that starts, not ends, with memorization of the Quran. The point is to embody the Quran in these children so that they have it available to them their whole lives.”

Boyle, a researcher at EDC, found that while the preschools teach the Quran traditionally, they are far from static institutions. Historically all male, their rules enforced by corporal punishment, today’s Quranic preschools have ended such punishment and opened their doors to females as both students and teachers. “That’s a fairly large change, to have the text mediated through a female,” Boyle says, and the women teachers’ status has risen accordingly. The schools also provide employment for “girls who would otherwise have a very hard time finding employment,” she adds.

Boyle’s Ph.D. thesis on her Moroccan study, “Quranic Preschools in Morocco: Agents of Preservation and Change,” was recently awarded the Gail P. Kelly Award for the Outstanding Dissertation in Comparative Education by the Comparative and International Education Society (CIES) . In a letter to the Comparative and International Education Society Board, the CIES Awards Committee praised Boyle for a thesis that is “theoretically sophisticated” and “challenges conventional wisdom:”

[Boyle’s thesis] demonstrates how such schools, viewed generally in the ‘West’ as faulty and ‘traditional,’ … can successfully blend cultural preservation and ennoblement of change, even among very young pre-school children in societies which are undergoing rapid social change.

Boyle, who lived for three years in Morocco in the late 80s while serving in the Peace Corps, says that Quranic preschools are beginning to attract attention from international organizations such as the World Bank. There may be opportunities to include teaching about early childhood health and development in the schools, she says, noting that the Green Zawiya Association for Education and Culture, a Quranic School Association that sponsors many Quranic preschools all over Morocco, has taken this question up.

“Development agencies are looking at these indigenous, grassroots schools that are supported by communities and asking, ‘can they be strengthened? Can the schools be extended, if they’re the only school in town?’ My study is a step in looking at what the schools do. Why have they maintained their relevance all these years? We need to answer those questions before we run in with other, more Western, materials.”

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