An Educational Shift: Averroes Institute Challenges Paradigms

“Education is what remains after one has forgotten everything he learned in school.” The quote is brilliant but ultimately flawed; one, Einstein forgot ‘she’ and two, he failed to foresee schools like Averroes Institute.

It’s a place where students are learning how to learn all over again, but it hardly resembles a school. You won’t see ubiquitous concrete, those oh-so-familiar endless corridors, or the typical classrooms that most teenagers cringe waking into. Instead, the interior reflects plenty of light, creating a cheerful, pleasant atmosphere. The classrooms are carpeted and the walls are colored. The big white group learning tables speak for themselves: students are encouraged to come up with solutions in groups instead of tedious lectures. Averroes Institute does not tell students what to think, but how to think.

Bay Area’s first Islamic high school, Averroes Institute, founded in 2010 by a group of visionary teachers and community leaders, is extraordinary on many levels. It provides a unique high school experience consistent with Islamic values but innovative in teaching methods, challenging commonly held beliefs on secondary education.

According to Carl Rogers, an American humanistic psychologist,“the only learning which significantly influences behavior and education is self discovered,” which is the gist of student centered learning in which the teacher is more of a facilitator than a lecturer.

Says Averroes Institute Principal Reem Bilbeisi, “We teach the teachers how to have conversations rather than feeding the students with their answers.”

Averroes students are given the freedom to construct their own understanding of the material through collaboration, hands-on-activities and other distinctive learning methods. The ultimate goal is to prepare these young adults for life through self-motivation and determination.

“We try to make every aspect of the school student centered. And through that it’s a different kind of school,” says Bilbeisi.

This kind of learning is supported by the open classroom design introduced in the 1970s. This design format allows multi-grade students to be grouped according to their skill levels in a large, open space that allows more than one teacher to oversee them. This also allows them to learn and study at their own pace.

“The first thing that comes to my mind is transparency, for them to feel like they are part of something bigger and as a principal to be able to get a glimpse of what’ s going on,” says Principal Bilbeisi on the room concept.

The multi-age classroom typically requires some time to adapt for both students and teachers. However, most teachers at Averroes are working successfully using this concept and appreciate it.

Reshma Farooqui, a full-time Math and Science instructor says, “the most powerful impact of this method has been the non-distinction between freshman and sophomores. Any new person walking into our school would not know the difference between the grade levels. They are constantly interacting and taking classes together. This has played a huge role in building closer friendships amongst them.”

Huma Syed, a part-time Math teacher who has taught at other schools in the past, supports Farooqui by adding that the open-room concept gives the teachers and students “a feeling of community and openness” and seems to be functioning quite well. But one of the challenges Averroes Institute presently faces is the allocated space. While 4,000 square feet creates a family-feel for the students and staff, it can be difficult in terms of functionality. Says Syed, “the most challenging part of this set-up is that it is difficult to work in smaller groups - sharing the space and equipment among everyone can be difficult at times. I also feel the staff could do with more work space.” But, she adds, “it has more of a 'family' feel to it. The admin/staff genuinely care for the students and their success (academically and otherwise). You wouldn't find that at larger schools.”

According to Principal Bilbeisi, the school does not plan to exceed 100 students. If enrollment exceeds that number, the institute plans to open separate branches in different locations to maintain their original vision. And currently enrolled students seem to like the close relationships they are able to maintain with their peers and teachers because of the size. Summer Hadla, a10th graders, says, “The size of the school makes us all so close ... Although the school is small, the open room aspect makes it seem much bigger. And students can’t hide with their friends and leave others out.”

According to Principal Bilbeisi, they plan to expand in the near future and are working on finding a bigger place that will provide adequate space for sports activities, which is an ongoing concern at the present location.

Another change that will be effective at the start of the next school year, says Bilbeisi, is school timings. “Research has shown that the brain in the teenage years are on a different clock and their bodies don’t get tired as quickly. We want to take advantage of their natural cycles. Next year we’re going back to the later schedule. Natural rhythms are very important.”

Averroes Institute is not the only school trying to synchronize school timings with students’ biological clocks; past and ongoing research across the nation has prompted many schools to adjust start times in order to maximize academic potential. According to Director of E.P. Bradley Hospital Research Laboratory and professor in Department of Psychiatry and Human Behavior at Brown University School of Medicine Mary A. Carskadon, “Given that the primary focus of education is to maximize human potential, then a new task before us is to ensure that the conditions in which learning takes place address the very biology of our learners.”

Averroes Institute is not a Muslim school by any means, says Bilbeisi. It is founded on Islamic principles and values but Muslims do not define the institute, the ideology does. She says, “We want to promote different cultures and backgrounds but because we’re so new and so small, we figured we’d start off with our own community. Our goal is to get students from all cultures within five or six years and many of them are excited about the techniques.” She adds, “Many people don’t have a problem with a drug-free, sex-free school.”

Principal Bilbeisi makes it very clear that they do not wish to brand Averroes as an eastern school as the very name, Averroes (pronounced, A·ver·ro·ës) represents a bridge between the east and west. More commonly known as Ibn Rushd, Averroes was one of the brightest luminaries of the Middle Ages in Muslim Spain.

His contributions include medicine, philosophy, music and logic. Averroes was one of the most influential Islamic philosophers and visionaries both in the East and the West. Says Principal Bilbeisi, “When we were choosing the name, we wanted something that encompasses both the east and west. We don’t want to brand ourselves as an eastern school.”