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Lesson for Iraqi teachers: Loosen up!

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US teacher-trainer Nadia Al Jadir hardly considers student participation a revolutionary educational concept.

But her audience of 400 Iraqi high school teachers at Al-Kharka High School for Girls look stunned when Ms. Al Jadir tells them to "listen to your students and let them express themselves."

"There will be chaos in the classroom," protests one teacher, in a pink head scarf.

Under Saddam Hussein's hidebound educational system, high school teachers lectured; students listened. Classroom debate did not exist, and students would never - ever - approach the sacrosanct blackboard. But after this week, Iraqi classrooms may never be the same.

The US-led teacher training sessions began across Iraq on Saturday, introducing 33,000 high school teachers to Western-style instruction techniques, such as group learning and peer tutoring. They watched Japanese videos in which students voiced opinions, debated the teachers' points, and even wrote on the blackboard.

Attendance was overflowing, and teachers were eager to be exposed to anything new. But like many Western organizations struggling to usher in reform, US educators are meeting with resistance from an old-school culture that prizes rigid adherence to the curriculum, the silent child, and the unquestioned authority of the teacher.

"They are used to a dictator style in which the teacher's power is unquestioned," says Hind Rassam, senior education adviser for Creative Associates Inc., of Washington, D.C., the educational company contracted to improve education in Iraq. "We tell them you can be strong, but also respect everyone and not rule by fear."

"It will take time," she adds.

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