Unlearning Our Lessons

Thu, Sep. 12, 2013
Without a sustainable reform of the education system, experts say there will be no foundation for a democratic future
By Nadine El Sayed
The teacher stands in the classroom citing the reasons why the 1952 military uprising — identified in history textbooks as a revolution, not a coup — was one of the greatest successes in modern Egyptian history. The 13-year-old students repeat after the teacher as he chants why a ‘revolution’ was necessary since late King Farouk was corrupt, the state of the economy and society was in decline and colonial influence was growing.Come exam time, all the class has to do is rehash the chants onto the paper. It is a simple formula for success from which they wouldn’t dare deviate. Fast-forward eight years and the students are at the age when they are entitled to be politically, economically and socially engaged in the society. But not having been armed with any tools for critical thinking and analysis (even for forming their own views), they are most likely still waiting for an authority figure to tell them what to make of any given situation. At a time where the country is attempting to move toward a true political democracy, experts believe it can never be achieved unless the notion of democracy and freedom of expression is instilled in all aspects of society. A pillar of this society is education, namely the national pre-university education. “Basic education is recognized to be a fundamental agent of democratization,” says Fatma Sayed, a development assistance specialist at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy, and an international consultant to the United Nations’ Department of Economic and Social Development. The road to democracy is built by people able to use analysis and critical thinking and embrace individual differences and diversity, and educational specialists say that unless the pre-university education system gets a makeover, the future of democracy will remain murky. Education Ministry officials say that education reform is already in progress, but many worry that instilling these values needs more than the top-down theoretical attempts made by the state to revamp education. “Democratic values and political participation are mainly achieved by changing the classroom culture and atmosphere across the curriculum and the everyday life of schools,” says Sayed. Democracy:  A Rather Long Shot While the reasons vary, education experts are unanimous in their answer when asked whether the current system is conductive to democracy: not even close. The education system, much like many other aspects of the society, is perceived as a system that discourages collective decision-making, participation and freedom of expression. “We have a social culture in schools where people don’t have room to express themselves,” says Moataz Atalla, education development specialist and founder of the Cairo Learning Directory, an online platform connecting students, teachers, instructors and trainers. “It is a very authoritarian culture between teachers and students, and very hierarchal between teachers and headmasters and local authorities.” Sayed believes the current educational system does little to shape an engaged citizen who can actively participate in a democratic society. “[The education system] has nursed blind obedience to political and religious authorities,” she says. “Rather than empower students, [it] has prepared them to be a functional part of the status quo and operators of the economic and political machines of the regime.” While the degree varies between schools, the issue goes beyond the national system of thanaweya amma (the comprehensive test that determines which public university and faculty a student can apply to) or public schools. Laila Iskandar, managing director of CID Consulting, working with community and educational development, notes the same issues with public, national, language and international school students alike. “It is criminal how much parents pay for private schools, and they aren’t getting as much as they are paying for, of course to various degrees. But parents compensate for it by other means.” Memorizing  Not Understanding For decades, Egyptians have joked about the education system’s strong focus on memorizing the curriculum rather than truly understanding it. Hafez mesh fahem (memorizing not understanding) became a cliché describing many ailments in society, including authoritarianism, bureaucracy and the rigidity of the system. While the jokes are in fact funny, the reality is far from it. Howaida El Demerdash, managing director of Nasr City educational training center Teach Right, works with students, parents and teachers to improve education techniques. She explains that students can excel in exams because they know the questions and answers by heart, but they often fail to translate abstract information they learned “Rather than empower students [the education system] has prepared them to be a functional part of the status quo and operators of the economic and political machines of the regime.” into real life situations or life skills they can use later on. “I get kids from the best schools of Egypt and when you give them any grammar sheet they will solve it and earn a full mark,” says El Demerdash. “But when you ask him or her to write an essay and express themselves, they can’t. They want you to give them the idea, […] and they don’t apply any of the grammar rules they [...] solved on the sheet.” According to El Demerdash, this level of learning is the basic stage in a six-stage pyramid of thinking skills known as Bloom’s Taxonomy, which starts with memorized knowledge and peaks with creation. Education in Egypt mostly stops at the application level, where students can apply what they learned on paper but can’t analyze, synthesize, create or evaluate. “[The level the students reach] is among the lowest order thinking skills,” says El Demerdash. “So what I see is that our kids don’t really achieve learning, it is fake.” This is the result of an approach in education where teachers dictate all the information and students serve as recipients only. Students are, for instance, always told the reasons behind historical events and rarely given the opportunity to analyze the situation, deduce their own conclusions and apply them to future events. While teachers should be focusing more on the content, novelty and thought process behind an essay for instance, says El Demerdash, they are instead fixated on grammar, spelling and vocabulary. For years, the education system has relied on students memorizing not only the information in textbooks, but also what questions may come in exams and the model answers for them. The second the exam ends and the pen is put down, all those memorized answers fly out the window. Sara, a 13-year-old in the second year of a preparatory public school in the Marg area, proudly describes how studious she is. “Before the exam, there are final revisions where the teachers give us booklets with model answers to several questions,” says Sara, whose parents asked that their family name not be used. “I study those answers and memorize them by heart, and the exam questions never deviate from this booklet.” All Is Not One Given no space to express individuality, the students are often expected to fit into one mold, with teachers often ignoring and discouraging all signs of diversity between classmates. This means that at an early age, they are taught to think there can only be one right answer, and that consequently there is one right path to success and any other path is wrong. The consequences for democratic engagement are becoming evident: El Demerdash points to the constitutional amendments referendum in March, where people were divided in two camps and each camp deemed the other wrong. “Why didn’t we say, ‘I evaluated and said ‘yes’ but I respect anybody who said ‘no’ because I can respect that he or she is a good thinker and can evaluate’?” asks El Demerdash. “Because we weren’t raised to do that.” Teachers, especially in public and national schools, are not encouraged to respect individual skills, strengths and weaknesses in their teaching methods. These methods automatically categorize students into achievers and non-achievers, without any respect to individual skills or diversity of talents. The teacher is most likely to merely rehash the information in textbooks, adding a bit of explanation if he or she really goes that extra mile. Whether the student learns better by visual aids, hands-on experiments or phonetics is luxury information that many teachers don’t deem necessary to learn. “Teachers are not adequately informed about the psychological and cognitive stages of child and adolescent development,” says psychologist Amal Sedky. “Few know anything about age-appropriate instruction methods and even fewer know anything about how the brain processes information.” Reda Mosaad, first undersecretary to the minister of education and head of the ministry’s General Education Sector, insists that schools apply differentiated learning techniques, “but because you aren’t an education expert, you think it isn’t applied.” As proof of how the “differentiated approach” to learning is applied, Mosaad explains that schools often have separate classes for high achievers and low achievers. Psychologists have often criticized the Ability Grouping approach, grouping students into two separate classes for low and high achievers. The main arguments against the approach is that it deprives low-achievers from the stimulation and motivation needed to compete with the high achievers in class. It also causes self-esteem issues and makes students set lower expectations for themselves. The National Association of School Psychologists in the US concluded, based on research, that Ability Grouping worsens the performance of low achievers. Ashraf, a nine-year-old student at a private language school in Heliopolis, says that if he tells his teachers he doesn’t understand, his teachers just repeat the information they just explained. Asked if the teacher uses pictures or experiments to explain better, Ashraf says the teacher wouldn’t, but his mother would try to hold experiments for him to explain certain science concepts he couldn’t grasp at school. “What differentiated learning?” says Ashraf’s mother, who requested that their family name not be used. “They couldn’t care less, they will just give me the results at the end of each term and this is it.” “Schools need to implement brain-based learning, multiple intelligences and know each student’s learning profile to give [each similar group] differentiated instructions,” says El Demerdash. “Each brain is different than the other and you need to cater for differentiation and respect diversity. What happens in Egypt is that we teach by masses.” Whether the student is stronger in some subjects than others, whether he or she possesses certain skills that need to be developed is more often than not ignored. The student is expected to excel at preferably all subjects, but if the parents or teachers need to choose, they often want him to excel at subjects that will give him a thanaweya amma score that allows him to become either an engineer or a doctor. Ashraf excels in drawing, something his parents have noticed and try to develop. The school, however, hasn’t yet paid attention to this skill. A Reform, Sort Of  The education system has undergone several attempts at development in the past decade. A five-year action plan was implemented in 2007 to promote more active learning, but experts believe the change has only occurred on paper. Mosaad explains the ministry has adopted thorough reform, which includes stressing the importance of active learning and extracurricular activities. He believes the medium for students to express their views is through extracurricular activities, including the school’s newspaper and morning broadcast. Asked if she takes part in these activities, Sara answers enthusiastically that she does. When questioned further for details, she says she has participated in only one play during the eight years she has attended school. It was not about a historical event they were studying or even a play they read in class: Sara and her friends acted out a scene in which a daughter chooses a gift for her mother on Mother’s Day. Despite going to a private school, Ashraf has the same tale: During his six years at school, he has only participated in one play about a children’s fairy tale. Apart from the occasional school-organized trip, Ashraf’s school doesn’t hold any extracurricular activities. So with the lack of real extracurricular activities, and the curriculum, teachers and exams dictating to the students what to think, the student is left with no room to express his views. Mosaad explains that a part of the reform plan was adopting the comprehensive assessment method, where students are assessed on their work, including research, throughout the year, not just in final exams. In reality, this doesn’t seem to be working out too well. Sara was seemingly excited that they are asked to research topics. “They asked us to write a research paper on swine flu and another on Mostafa Kamel,” recalls Sara. “I went to the internet café, and they looked it up and printed out a research and I handed it in.” The girl clarifies that she had printed out not research she had written, but one that the assistants at the café found already written online. She says she got full marks on her assignment. Blatant plagiarism often goes unnoticed by the teacher, not to mention the students who more often than not don’t understand that printing off research and presenting it as their own work is unethical and even illegal. This is mainly because the teacher will not exert any effort in checking the authenticity of the material provided. Even if the report reads too well to be presented by the young student, the teacher will often ignore this as they think of projects, research papers and anything other than tests as secondary issues of little importance except to look good on paper. Ashraf reports similar experiences. Although the student owns a computer and can search the internet to write the paper, he says that the timing of his assignment forced his father to do it for him. According to the boy, the teacher asked the class to write a paper about a historical figure only a few days before the finals, without giving any previous indication that an assignment would be given and without any prior practice during the three-month term. Ashraf’s mother explains that her son had no time to research or write, so his father just gave him an already written research off the internet to submit. On paper, the research and projects done throughout the year did indeed go toward the student’s final grade, but in reality it was merely one plagiarized research paper that the student was never even involved in googling. “They haven’t really taught them how to research a subject or get their interest in the process,” says Dalia Ibrahim, vice president of Nahdet Misr Publishing House, and the woman responsible for their educational reform initiative. “It was a great idea […], but the implementation was wrong.” Mosaad says the Ministry of Education has a strong follow-up system to ensure reform has been applied in all schools under its supervision. Hanan Kamel, a language school’s headmistress, disagrees, explaining the proposed reforms have not been uniformly applied because the ministry has left it up to schools to implement their own systems. The schools, in turn, she adds, have left it up to the teachers. This means that there isn’t a standardized system to apply differentiated learning and active learning methods and evaluate each teacher for what they are doing. “The school has to know and ask the teacher to implement these educational techniques and the right teaching strategies,” says El Demerdash. Education specialists note that the problem has been exacerbated by the fact that “I study those answers and memorize them by heart, and the exam questions never deviate from this booklet.” reform efforts were often strictly top-down and teachers weren’t included in the decision-making process. “You cannot promote democracy in Egyptian schools when the entire educational system is undemocratic,” says Sedky. “Curriculum decisions are mandated from above.” Atalla agrees, adding that there is an authoritarian issue in implementing the policies. Stakeholders, including teachers, families and students, were never included in the decision-making or truly understood why this reform is occurring, he says. “The ministry has a lot of know-how in terms of best practices in education,” says Atalla. “But the way these programs are implemented reflect an authoritarian and non-participatory political system […] you can’t just dump [policies] on the people like that.” The answer seems to be simple; teachers, parents, and the students just need to be more included. Sayed explains, “Effective and proactive participation could give a sense of ownership of reform policies and increase job satisfaction and sense of mission of schoolteachers.” Teachers Come First Although a total revamp is needed, the experts believe the development process begins first and foremost with the teacher. “The biggest issue is the teacher,” says Ibrahim. “You can have the best of curriculums, [but] if you don’t have the right teacher for it, it is nothing.” Experts believe that the issue needs to be tackled on three main aspects. First, true reform starts with qualifying teachers. Teachers graduating from the Faculty of Education, El Demerdash argues, lack the basic tools of how to implement the theories they learned. This applies to teachers holding post-graduate degrees too, she says, as they do not receive the proper training in managing classrooms and dealing with different personalities and situations. “Those theories can be applied in a big class as well. There are techniques to respect the individual differences in big classes,” says El Demerdash. “You just need to train the teachers, even those who have studied education. The curriculum and textbooks in faculties of education in Egypt are often outdated and too theoretical.” Iskandar agrees, adding that the issue also comes from the fact that teachers don’t receive any practical training before being “thrown into a classroom all of a sudden.“They don’t know how to prepare lessons, design activities, assess students’ learning on the ground, in the classroom. They have taken it all as a theoretical method,” says Iskandar. “In the US, you are under the tutoring of a practiced, experienced and dynamic teacher for a year and this is how you learn.” Because education is a complex task that deals with psychology, the subject matter, culture and other aspects, teachers need continuous development. “This requires a different way of educating teachers. Training is part of it and continuous professional development,” says Malak Zaalouk, educational expert and former United National International Children and Education Fund (UNICEF) Regional Senior Education Adviser. Without a national framework that not only respects teachers but also provide tools for their ongoing development and fulfillment, she adds, education can’t be properly reformed. Next, there needs to be a strong follow-up system that makes teachers accountable for implementing reform, with a system of reward and punishment based on meeting reform standards. Kamel explains that currently, teachers know that whether they perform well or not, their salaries and positions will remain intact. Finally, the state must address the issue of the teachers’ pay. “Unsatisfactory teachers’ qualifications are obviously linked directly with their poor remuneration and compensation as well as working conditions,” says Sayed. “Limited salary raises could never catch up with the increasing costs of living.” Sayed explains that if the state or schools do not have enough resources to finance monetary compensation, they should focus on motivation through promotions that are based on merit and not seniority as is done now. The opinions of experts vary on the subject of pay, while Iskandar and El Demerdash, on the other hand, believe improving salaries is important but should take a backseat to more pressing issues for the time being. One of the most pressing issues is preparing today’s youth. “We must educate our students in how to gather information, assess its quality, and make conclusions about its relevance,” says Sedky. “They must be prepared for life-long learning and develop their creativity and their ability to think critically and analytically.” Otherwise, he or she is unlikely to grow up an engaged citizen in a democratic country.
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