Stanford's Program on Islam Aims to Address the Culture’s Complexities

Stanford's Program on Islam Aims to Address the Culture’s Complexities

During the spring of 2017, Stanford hosted a five-week program on Islam--one of the world’s largest but most misunderstood religions--in order to better educate its participants on the subject. The catch? It was for teachers.

Originally conceived by Robert Crews, associate professor of history and the program’s former director, the course--a collaboration of Stanford Global Studies, the Center to Support Excellence in Teaching, and the Abbasi Program in Islamic Studies--was created to address the nuanced nature of Islam. Currently, Islam is required to be taught in California secondary schools, and is covered in some community college courses. However, what many general educational programs on Islam fail to consider is whether the way in which the subject is taught only reinforces the current stereotypes about the religion that have developed post 9-11.

The goal of the Stanford Institute on Islam is to take into account modern issues such as terrorism and the Islamic State Group, but to also place the religion in context with historical, political, and cultural factors that are essential to fully understanding the subject. Rather than focusing on a broader overview of the religion, lecturers in the program chose to separate Islam out into various sub-fields.

The institute described the program’s primary objective as equipping educators with the strategies to enhance students’ appreciation of “the diversity of Muslim societies and cultures.” Classes were held once a week on Saturdays, and the participants were a diverse range of teachers from all over the Bay Area.

According to Nicole Lusiani Elliott, professional development associate and instructional coach at the Center to Support Excellence in Teaching (CSET), the Islam program at Stanford offered a multifaceted view on not just the religion, but also its intricacies. Fundamental topics included Islam’s key tenets, refugees and immigration, arts and culture, and politics.

“We weren’t teaching the religion so much as we were trying to expand teachers’ notions of what is included when they hear the word Islam and they see they have to teach it to their kids,” Elliott said, “it’s not just the history of the religion and how it began and how it’s being manipulated to reform terrorism. There’s all this other stuff, and so our aim was to give teachers a wider view.”

Teaching such a complex subject is always difficult, but what Elliott hopes that participants will be able to take away from the program is the ability to learn. Through an inquiry process, participants were asked to consciously reflect on and analyze developments in how the religion has been viewed over the years. The program is structured to give educators basic background information on these topics, allow them time to ask questions, and then provide them with the resources to answer those questions for themselves.

Incorporated throughout the lectures are film clips, multimedia sites, and virtual experiences through refugee camps. What defines this program, however, is the reliance on a different approach. This unique way of teaching the subject is a defining factor of the program’s objectives.

“We paired  [the program] with this conversation on how to best teach and teaching practices, so it wasn’t just about ‘here, let me tell you about this religion.’ It was ‘let’s talk about a few of the huge different aspects of this faith, and then let’s talk about how to teach it’, whereas I think other courses may give just the basics of the faith and stop there. We took a more diverse approach to the faith and then also added this part about how to teach,” Elliott said.

An aspect that Elliott and the other moderators of the course wanted to focus on was the idea of actively engaging the educators, as opposed to simply lecturing. Learning is not a passive process, and lifting up the participants’ voices in discussion was important to bridging the gap of cultural understanding. One of the program’s main focuses was teaching educators how to encourage individual student participation and create opportunities for children--especially those who are more introverted in a classroom setting--to engage in conversation.

The combination of inquiry and non-typical resources allowed educators to become fully immersed in the subject, and to consider their students as well by bringing those modern, technological tools back to a traditional classroom setting.

Yet the criticisms that come with tackling such a complex subject have proven to be challenging as well. While the Stanford Institute on Islam does not aim to “convert” anyone to the religion or coerce individuals into practicing it, some have viewed it as such.

According to Elliott, one of the difficulties she personally encountered while facilitating the program was the preconceived notions about what a course on Islam was.

“This is not a religion course. This is a teacher course. And I think some people are super defensive and see it as a debate, when really there’s nothing to debate. We’re just talking about exploring culture and faith. We’re not taking a position on that culture and faith. Some folks are quick to make assumptions about what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, and what that impact is on students,” said Elliott.

That said, as history is a collection of stories, there must be mindfulness when exposing students to a variety of perspectives. What the Stanford Institute on Islam seeks to redefine are the complexities of the subject.

For educators seeking to effectively integrate the teachings of Islam into their classrooms, this factor is key. According to Elliott, only by learning about Islam can teachers learn to teach it. With so many misconstrued beliefs about the subject, open-mindedness is a significant element.

“It’s a very varied and vast culture, and there’s over a billion people who practice this faith,” she said, “the biggest takeaway I hope that people got was that history is complicated, and that’s okay.”

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