The Virtue of Stopping

Towards Learning Journeys That Build Bridges Rather Than Schooling in Bubbles

By Alia Mossallam

On the first day of school after the lockdown, my second-grade daughter was beside herself with excitement. She was up at 4am, dressed and ready to go. We had 6 hours to kill. She re-read a volume of “Lotta-Leben”, changed her outfit twice, her hairstyle several times, we went out for breakfast and cycled around until she could finally go to school.

She met her colorfully masked classmates and equally excited (and masked) teachers in the schoolyard. They were to start with a game. Each child was given their favorite color of chalk to draw around them a circle of 1.5 meters radius – their own bubble. This was their new personal space, a fragile but beautiful existence they were to hold and interact through, without popping.

While decorating their bubbles, my daughter and the friend next to her had a brilliant idea – to draw a bridge between their bubbles. Each child started to draw a line that stretched from one bubble to the next, until it caught their teacher’s attention. She asked them to stop – building bridges was the exact thing we could not afford to do now.

I could imagine the teacher’s concern – the children could have touched each other while drawing the bridge, breaching the most important condition for school reopening – in the first hour, and under her supervision. I could imagine the magnitude of responsibility she, and many other teachers felt to make sure that they did not jeopardize the current achievements of containing the virus.

But I could also see what my daughter was trying to do. She was asking the very question we all asked ourselves at the beginning of this crisis, that even Chancellor Merkel brought up in her unforgettable speech on March 18: How can we be physically apart at the time we needed each other most? How can we learn to find ways to be together, despite the necessary distance? How can we continue to be a community?

The opportunity to hear my daughter, and the many questions that plagued the children’s heads was lost in an effort to make sure the fragile balance we had achieved, the fragile system we were in could be maintained. This is not a time to ask questions, or evaluate the situation – we can only move forward, with caution.

Illustration: Taya Shawkat.

Right to Bildung, Right to Reflection

Since the beginning of this crisis the default for children has been ‘to move forward’, and ‘not to fall behind’. School teachers worked in various ways to support parents and children with “home-schooling”. The Senate of Berlin announced that summer schools will be available to bring children to speed. Moving forward however, and fearing falling backwards, assumes a linear learning journey with lots of hypothetical stations. We work hard to reach where we ‘should have been by now’ if everything had remained constant. This is not possible, because we are not where we were in March and we will never be where we could have been in July. Simply because we are somewhere else entirely, for better or for worse.

Where are we, then? That is the question we should be asking.

If we see ourselves as a community that has succeeded in surviving a Pandemic, then we have somehow been given a new life – what would we do differently? How can we move on in ways that are more meaningful and more relevant to the psychological state of being and the emotional wealth or stress that we have experienced.

As adults we have allowed ourselves to ask the necessary questions – we question our vocations, life decisions, our relationship with the environment, and revise the way we do things – planning for life post-Corona. Why do we not grant the children – the real post-corona population – the same courtesy? Why has moving forward without revising the curriculum or the effect of the lock down on our children or questioning the forms of education they need ‘post-corona’ been raised?

Learning Driven by Inquiry

Like many other parents during the lockdown, our greatest challenge was having to teach, parent and befriend our children at once. And of course to totally forget our own work. After struggling significantly, I tried to think of myself less as a ‘substitute’ for my daughter’s teachers and ask myself what of the world I could offer my own children. If the objective was for her to ‘learn and grow’, and not just ‘study under unfavorable circumstances’ – what was I capable of teaching her?

When we weren’t struggling to meet the homeschooling tasks, the lockdown became an experimental learning journey. My second grader is the eldest of three children, and I made an effort to incorporate her schooling into themes that my younger children could enjoy as well. The lockdown coincided with the most miraculous time of year – so for two weeks we explored spring. We experimented with planting food, observing the unfolding of buds in our neighborhood daily, we dried the first flowers visited by the first bees and delved into the unravelling of life around us. For another week we focused on birds. We saw them return one at a time, tried to record their different voices and find their different names in Arabic and German. We drew them, we imitated them and we learnt about them. For another week we did ancient Egyptian history. A week of myths and stories of Gods and goddesses, digging for artefacts and learning about hieroglyphics. A week where they could learn more about where they came from.

My children’s heads were full of questions – how many muscles do we have in our mouths? Why were all the Prophets men? Why do caterpillars want to turn into butterflies? Can they not accept what they are, or is it because they want to be like their parents? These are not just children’s questions. They are science, they are philosophy. It was like they finally had the opportunity to learn all the things they wanted to know, to interact with the world at their leisure.

Most children’s learning journeys have been expanded, encompassing a wider array of forms of knowledge, and have been enriched emotionally by spending time with their families. They have a better understanding of how viruses work, of how societies operate and what communal responsibility could mean; they have been faced with the finiteness of life. They have also spent more time indoors than they would have liked to and have been reminded over and over that they need to stop themselves from making friends in parks, forests, and playgrounds.

They came to school with two different thirsts. A desire and readiness to learn about the new world that opened up to them; and a yearning for social interaction and play. What they got was the opposite – school curricula condensed to Math and literacy (skills needed for the next class up), and the expectation to exercise more self-restraint towards their peers than any other instance.

Rather than giving them a chance to express their experiences over the last months, we are somehow dismissing them – rather than giving them the chance to realize how much they have grown, we are reinforcing what they may not know, what they may have not learnt. Rather than taking this opportunity to teach them about a world whose social, political, environmental and economic dimensions they have become curious about, we are telling them these questions do not matter right now. “It’s time to move on”, we say “by the standards of ‘pre-corona society’, we are behind”.

Despite what I perceived to have been an enriching journey for my daughter, I saw her suffer upon her return to school. She felt unprepared for the tasks that were required of her, and the disparities between the children (especially in subjects like Math) were larger than the teachers could make up for on short school days. On the days I managed to send her to school, she stressed profusely about work and social restrictions, and I felt I failed her as a mother. At the times I spared her some homework to ease the stress, I felt I failed to support her at school.

The system as it is, can only continue to serve each child in his or her bubble, based on how far they have come, individually, and what resources and capacities they have at home. To create spaces where ‘learning’ goes beyond ‘schooling’ is to create opportunities where children can engage with the world and each other; with their bodies, intellects, souls and with all their senses. This could translate to thematic learning, more time in nature, scientific experiments, philosophy, more art and movement. In interacting in this way they are measured by curiosity, interest and self-expression which exists in all children – as opposed to ‘scales of performance’ which will have been affected by a variety of reasons. Scales of performance will always highlight discrepancies whereas curiosity and the desire to learn unites all children and may have been amplified by the break.

There is more to the world (more to knowledge) than textbooks and workbooks, the children know this now. But do we? Only by creating spaces for expression and engagement can we gauge how far they’ve come, and support them in the way forward.

The Virtue of Stopping (Innehalten)

To continue as we are is to be proceeding with the experiment that asks “can children continue to learn and grow despite stress (or possibly even trauma)”, the results of this experiment we may already now. While daring to stop and reflect allows us to possibly revolutionize how we learn by operating as a community of teachers, pedagogues, and parents who trusted their children’s appetite for learning and care about their wholistic development. This will require no extra cost, just more space and time for reflection and expression. The result could be music and art drenched with the experiences of this period, scientific inquisitiveness, or an environmental consciousness based on experience and appreciation and not concerns about hypothetical futures.

Only in daring to stop will we have the chance to build bridges between the present and a safer future with more possibilities. In doing so, we are also teaching our children that there are moments in life worth stopping in awe for, worth taking a minute to breath and reconsider. To take stock of how much vaster the world is beyond our bubbles.


Alia Mossallam is a EUME Fellow of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation 2017–2020. She is working on a book on a popular history of the building of the Aswan High Dam. Alia is interested in songs that tell stories, and stories that tell of lesser known struggles behind better known events that mark World History. She has taught at the American University in Cairo, the Cairo Institute for Liberal Arts and Sciences, Freie Universität Berlin, and  held the series of history workshops “Ihky ya Tarikh” with students, activists and artists in governorates all over Egypt as an experiment in history-telling. She has tried her hand at playwriting, her first short story “Rawi” appeared with 60 Pages


Citation: Alia Mossallam, The Virtue of Stopping. Towards learning journeys that builds bridges rather than schooling in bubbles, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 24.06.2020, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/24248.


Forum Transregionale Studien

The Berlin-based Forum Transregionale Studien is a research organization that promotes the internationalization of research in the humanities and social sciences. The Forum provides scope for collaboration among researchers with different regional and disciplinary perspectives and appoints researchers from all over the world as Fellows. In cooperation with universities and research institutions in Berlin and the rest of Germany, it carries out research projects that examine other regions of the world and their relationship to Germany and Europe systematically and with new questions.

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