Rawan Barakat

Ashoka Fellow
Fellow since 2014
This description of Rawan Barakat's work was prepared when Rawan Barakat was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2014.


Rawan is working with students, teachers, families and communities to shift the traditional, rote-memorization based educational environment in the Levant region to an interactive and inductive ecosystem which enhances listening skills and imagination through interactive and dialogue-based methods.

The New Idea

Rawan is shifting the educational emphasis in a predominantly visual society to incorporate listening skills to increase interactivity, imagination, creativity, critical thinking, and empathy. Coming from her own experience as a blind person, Rawan realized that the ability to listen and learn by ear is quickly fading in a predominantly visual culture. In an age of increasing mass individualization and on-demand visual learning, oral histories and a culture of listening is losing its place in education. Rawan has, therefore, institutionalized the concept of listening classes to equip teachers with non-traditional curriculum linked to interactive and applicable teaching tools.
A classroom environment where listening is a core method for education delivery immensely contributes to shaping a culture of collaboration and community, influencing younger children’s personalities while equipping older students with dialogue, negotiation and presentation skills. Recognizing this, Rawan is influencing the education system by working with the Ministry of Education and involving teachers, students, mothers and community volunteers to offer access to education in a non-traditional environment. This creative teaching methodology is paving the path to other innovations in education, principally in teaching methodologies. Rawan’s work creates a space for more participatory interaction and creative learning and invites teachers to re-think traditional learning methodologies.
Already replicated in schools and refugee camps throughout the Levant region, Rawan has plans to spread her methodology to the rest of the Arab world.

The Problem

The 21st century’s widespread use of technology has largely changed the nature of human communications. The negative effects of technology in acquiring information, however, lie in its passive nature. Children who rely more on visual material get accustomed to being receptive of knowledge rather than imaginative and analytical. The overuse of technological advancements and one-way learning methods affects a person’s personal growth, skills development, and communication capacity. Passive learning significantly affects social skills development, particularly communication skills, as information is relayed without the need to respond or react with other people or express and discuss one’s opinion.
In our highly visual world, children learn to become dependent on visual input to stimulate their attention, barely becoming able to sit and listen, for example to an educational story, without any visual stimulation or input. However, this has a detrimental effect on their listening development, which is a vital skill necessary in the classroom. Through listening, a child gains the ability to distinguish sounds from one another, determining the direction from which a sound comes, and recalling or memorizing auditory information. This further enhances their abilities to develop expressive language and cope with academic school demands. The development of good listening skills for children allows them to gain attention skills as well, which positively affects their interaction with their peers as they learn to communicate their thoughts effectively.
The focus of education methods in the Arab Levant region that rely more on memorization and instruction, rather than analyzing and interaction, leads to children lacking essential skills such as creativity, imagination, communication and empathy. Further, Jordan’s education system is still very traditional in teaching methodologies. Teachers are not generally given the creative freedom to innovate within their classroom and try new styles of teaching and learning. Thus, most classrooms lack a participatory learning environment.

The Strategy

Rawan, being visually impaired herself (100% blind), struggled throughout her life due to the lack of appropriate educational and cultural resources. Additionally, Rawan faced several hardships as her teachers were unprepared to deal with classrooms that include visually impaired children besides their sighted peers. As a result, she had to regularly depend on her mother to read lessons for her. Based on her experience, especially on her success as an actress and play director, Rawan was then possessed with the idea of bringing change to the mainstream education methodologies.
Recognizing the value of learning by ear and the need to introduce new teaching styles within Jordanian society, Rawan started implementing her idea in 2005. She produced 13 children’s audio stories in the classic Arabic language as a trial copy. The first batch of stories was released in a limited version and was a result of the volunteering contribution of time and money from actors, producers and Rawan’s assistant director. She started experimenting with this initial copy with 30 visually impaired and 120 sighted children and found out that this had an impact not only on blind but mainstream children. Consequently, Rawan was determined to spread the educational methodology of listening to all the nation’s students.
Rawan's approach is to integrate and implement audio libraries in schools that link curricula to audio stories which cater to all children. To use such audio stories, Rawan institutionalizes listening classes in national public and refugee schools in the Levant region. And to guarantee the application of these listening classes, Rawan is equipping teachers and mothers with the necessary skills needed to conduct interactive learning environments as well as monitoring and following up with their performance. Rawan complements her methodology with a training of trainers (ToTs) strategy, working with children in schools to use the audios stories and convert them into performances of drama sketches and puppet shows giving students a space for self-expression, collaboration and opportunities to improve their communication skills.
By 2009, Rawan officially registered her organization under the name of Raneen ("Raneen" being an Arabic word meaning “ringing sound”).
In her journey to integrate and implement audio libraries in schools, Rawan has produced 30 audio stories for school children, published in 7000 copies, written and performed in the classic Arabic language in order to ensure replication across all Arab countries. Her audio stories are produced for students aged 5 – 16 years and integrate elements of drama, music, and audio effect. The stories translate desirable values, behaviors and attitudes from the educational curriculum, all of which enhance children’s creativity, imagination and listening skills.
Rawan then started implementing the audio libraries, composed of audio stories and CD players to compensate the limited availability of resources, within national public and refugee schools where there are the poorest of the poor and marginalized children, managing to penetrate schools within a highly bureaucratic environment and complicated government procedures. Since the inception of her idea, Rawan has implemented and provided accessible audio libraries in 100 schools and reached over 10,000 students in different regions across Jordan and in Palestinian refugee camps. The produced stories are also publicly available in libraries and given free of charge to any visually impaired child as well as aired on radio stations.
In the 100 schools where Rawan is currently operating, listening classes are being conducted on an average of 36 classes per year. During listening classes, all children in the class start a participatory pre-discussion on the topic and title of the story with their teachers, followed by listening to Rawan's audios. Students are encouraged to close their eyes while listening to promote imagination and high concentration levels. The listening is then followed by interactive workshops facilitated by teachers or Rawan’s team where the children express their opinions on the educational content via puppet making or drama sketches. This method of conducting listening classes preceded by discussion and followed by interactive workshops enhances students' creativity, interaction levels, team work, listening and communication skills as well as imagination and creative expression.
To guarantee the sustainability of her approach, Rawan conducts capacity building workshops for teachers and mothers. For teachers, this provides them with a new, applicable, out of the box, interactive and curriculum linked educational tool. Additionally, it empowers teachers to foster a school environment where imagination and freedom of expression are encouraged—a new way of teaching in most Jordanian schools. As for the mothers, using audio stories with their children creates a home setting that allows for increased communications inside the family and more modernized tools for bringing up the children. By 2013, Rawan has conducted 25 training of trainer workshops in which she trained 450 teachers, mothers and community volunteers.
Rawan's role, along with her team, also extends to following up and carrying out regular field visits to monitor the teachers' use of audio stories and the implementation of listening activities inside the classroom. To encourage further applications from teachers, Rawan carries out an annual closing ceremony for the academic year in which she introduces and awards the most active teachers in implementing listening classes while presenting their inspirational stories.
Rawan’s wide scale outreach was also augmented by her ability to mobilize and engage a big network of private sector and multi-lateral organizations as partners. Examples of which are Queen Rania’s Madrasati initiative, Aramex, Hyundai, Injaz, Arab Bank, UNICEF and GIZ. Each partner adopts the implementation of Rawan’s approach through funding it in a number of schools for implementing the audio libraries, training and following up with the teachers and institutionalizing listening classes and interactive workshops.
As a qualitative impact of Rawan’s approach, teachers have reported increased levels of interaction between students who attend listening classes especially those who in the past did not participate in daily classroom activities and had low grades. Mothers have also reported better communication among their kids who attend listening classes in school.
Rawan will be expanding her reach to 50 schools per year across Jordan and the Levant region. She plans to achieve this through taking a fee from private schools where the audio libraries are implemented as a way of sustaining the organization. Further, to ensure the sustainability of applying listening classes within schools, Rawan will be training university undergraduates who are embarking on a teaching career.
To sustain the follow up and monitoring of teachers over a wide scale network of schools, Rawan has plans to train the Ministry of Education inspectors, who can monitor and follow up the implementation of listening classes alongside their normal inspection rounds. She is as well creating a structured impact assessment methodology and indicators for manifested results of the listening classes on children.
Additionally, Rawan is working to produce written and video manuals to be the main reference for any teacher willing to initiate listening classes inside their schools.
In the long term, Rawan is planning to collaborate with the ministries of education to institutionalize learning classes in every school in the Arab world, with an online platform that connects all Arab teachers conducting listening classes to share best practices, knowledge and experiences.

The Person

Rawan was born to a very supportive and understanding family who were always empowering her to stretch her potentials and creating opportunities for her to interact with her peers. Her mother played an influential role in her upbringing. Rawan's mother did not know how to use Braille, yet always strived to help her daughter study by reading the lessons for her every day. Rawan would learn, respond and write answers based on listening from her mother.
Initially, Rawan joined the only school in Jordan for visually impaired children until grade six. She was very active and participated in several extracurricular activities, especially ones that involved public speaking skills and presentations which allowed her to gain self-confidence and build good relationships with her teachers. She had the opportunity to be part of the children parliament in Jordan, through which she travelled to several countries and conducted interviews with many high profile individuals. This experience helped her to understand children’s’ rights and develop leadership skills.
From grade six onwards, Rawan transferred to a school for mainstream children in which some educational resources were not available in Braille and teachers were unprepared to deal with visually impaired children. At that point, Rawan experienced a different world where her peers and teachers thought she was different or required special treatment. It was Rawan's outgoing and confident character that helped her get along with her colleagues and prove to them that she wasn’t any different.
Pursing higher education, Rawan enrolled in theater school amidst several objections from people surrounding her, including the president of one of the NGOs working with visually impaired who protested that theater is not a sector for people with visual impairment. However, with unconditional support from her family Rawan was able to enroll in theater and drama studies.
It was not an easy journey for Rawan who often found herself the subject of ridicule, even by her Professors who often belittled her abilities. However, her persistence helped her complete the journey and she was the first person with a visual impairment to carry out a mono-drama performance in theater.
Following graduation, Rawan pursued a career directing and writing plays and producing documentaries, while also volunteering in several activities with the visually disabled. Rawan's journey took its most important turn when she was able to channel all of her knowledge, networks and passion towards creating an educational environment that fosters creativity, empathy, communication skills and freedom of expression among children. She founded Raneen in 2009 and has since been awarded several prizes for her professional and voluntary work like the King Abdullah Youth Innovation and Achievement award as well as the Synergos Arab Social Innovators Award.