Arabian Life Skills

So I’m here in Doha with the British Council which has been trying to launch two interesting initiatives in the past couple of months: a youth research network and a youth advocacy group. Both are fairly bold and relatively unprecedented, at least on the scale they’ve envisioned, so naturally I have to admit I find both projects intriguing. The meetings being held this week are focusing on developing the advocacy arena, and consists of a small group of young Arabs and several members of civil society, advocates and others.

Interestingly enough, these sessions and projects have got me thinking about one specific thing: education.

Most people living in this part of the world will agree that our collective educational systems require mending. A lot of it. There is that realization. There is that awareness.

The problem is, solutions are rare. Defining the specific problems can be just as rare.

We spend a minimum of 12 years of our lives in the educational system and it is probably the single-biggest influencing factor on who we end up becoming, the things we believe in, and more importantly, the way we think.

We could very well focus on changing the syllabi or offering different courses or emphasizing teacher training and increasing their standards. Those might me some of the many solutions we could offer right off the bat.

But when it comes to fields such as advocacy and research, I realize even more clearly now that what the educational system lacks, what our school environments fail to give us, are the essential life skills people tend to learn naturally within that environment.

We end up raising generations of people who cannot communicate properly, who have trouble with public speaking, who know little about knowing how to conduct effective research, who know little about critical thinking. I don’t know which is the most important factor on that list as I’m sure there’s more. I might go with critical thinking, but to be fair, they’re all essential.

Our students are taught not to challenge the system, not to challenge the teacher, not to challenge their peers and not to challenge themselves. Much like our political systems, we are dictated to, and we nod as we’ve been trained to do, much like the children in Plato’s allegory of the cave. It ensures that no one will grow up with original thoughts, or with the courage to raise their hand as either students or citizens and say “umm, no?”

Most of what’s produced from this system is a bunch of mindless drones.

I will admit right now for the sake of full disclosure that I was fortunate enough to have escaped that system, just barely, and so I do speak from a privlaged point of view and in this case, it might actually be of some benefit, perspective-wise at least.

Because in the end, what we have is a segment of elite, western-educated individuals contrasting the majority.

The relationship of students to their teachers, to their peers and to themselves, is void of any real challenge. Students are given marching orders for years and they follow them in order to “succeed”, because that’s how success is defined, unfortunately.

But if the success of our educational system is defined by dictation and memorization, is it possible to redefine it as a model of development, producing critical thinkers who have the ability to communicate and challenge? In the interest of giving the next generation something better than we received, can our educational environments be changed to induce these life skills? Would that change inevitably lead to not only a change in the actual syllabus but a whole necessary evolution of it?

I think it’s possible. I think it’s necessary. I think no matter how much you change what students learn, it will do little to change how they learn and how they develop. It’s just data. We are told what it means, but we lack the ability to process it ourselves and turn it in to relevant information. We lack the ability to challenge it and offer another perspective.

So this is mine.


  • Oh, it’s both necessary AND possible.

    But it gets scary for governments and religious leaders who depend on the old ways of education/indoctrination to keep a population content. They are happy when no one questions, criticizes or thinks out of the box. To be able to do so with respect to those in authority will make a difference.

    I will always remember your post about how KG kids in Canada learn how to cross the street properly. It is a small picture of a fundamental difference in systems at many levels.

    We have had to move our kids out of the national educational system when we see their creativity being snuffed out, or when they learn that it is more clever to cheat for the grade rather than take a lower grade and love the process of learning. Our last child is on her last year, I am afraid…and it’s only first grade.

  • kinzi: you point something key that i probably forgot to add to that list…creativity. and that’s something that comes from the ability to have some tools for critical thinking. in our part of the world creativity is shunned. we are told not to reinvent the wheel and not to think outside the box.

    we are told to conform, because that’s the only way to succeed.

    and then we wonder why there is little innovation in our part of the world.

  • “We end up raising generations of people who cannot communicate properly, who have trouble with public speaking, who know little about knowing how to conduct effective research, who know little about critical thinking. I don’t know which is the most important factor on that list as I’m sure there’s more. I might go with critical thinking, but to be fair, they’re all essential.”

    I think here you are referring to transferable skills and like you I believe they should be started at a young age. As for challenging the teachers this can open doors of horror, I am not against a pupil questioning or debating, however I do have a problem with the word challenging, because there is nothing to challenge, the teacher has the knowledge and their job is to teach and the pupil is there to learn. You missed time management and planning.

    I think your point is made when you touched upon teacher training. Changing the syllabus is useless because they will still use the same technique of delivering the information which is where the problem is. Teacher training should include how to incorporate “transferable skills” directly into their teaching methods and indirectly into the existing syllabus.

    I have lived in the UK all my life and I remember when my father once visited the principle at my secondary school and told him that if I was misbehaving to punish me severely, from that day I realised the difference between me and most British kids at school. I learnt obedience, discipline, manners, to work hard, raise questions (within limits), and be ambitious and opinioned.

    There is a big difference between “my opinion is …….” and “it is …../you are ……” for example you can easily stand in front of teacher and say “I think you are wrong” however actually saying “you are wrong” might get you into trouble. You might think there is no difference, but there is; the first being my opinion and the second is stating a fact. So basically there are some fundamental issues the young must learn before we can give them the opportunity to challenge their teachers.

    I believe if you measure the IQ of an average Jordanian kid with an average British kid then the Jordanian will be higher.

  • in addition I feel that the parents have a a very big role to play in the childrens education. So all the blame cant be focussed on the teaching system some of it has to lie with the parents.


  • It’s not just about lacking critical thinking skills, creativity, and research skills. it’s much worse than that a generation that lacks the curiosity to learn about anything, the decent work ethic to earn their paychecks, and the morals to do the right thing when no one is watching.

    i used to blame the system i blame the people

  • I know plenty of people here in Jordan who have the potential to do great things, however here the oppurtunities are few and far between. The work ethic that Maha mentioned has got to be initiated and maintained from a young age, again it has a lot do with the up bringing of a child and the teaching methods that are utilised throughout the childs academia experience. the moto “work hard, play hard” should be stamped into their heads also “2l harakeh Barakeh” should always be used. In Jordan a majority would rather wait to be given a job instead of searching for their career.

  • Getting into AUC after going to school in four different Arab countries was a disaster. I did not know what an outline was and had no clue what a “Paper” meant and that there was some thing called plagiarism! Critical thinking! What’s that? So imagine what happened to me the first time I held a mic in the face of Queen Noor in front of a rolling camera?

  • The first time to hold a mic in front of any Royalty, head of state or any celebrity is a daunting task. I don’t believe that has anything to do with schooling and more to do with personality traits.

  • I know this may seem a little tangential,

    But it is just an amazing coincidence to see three (maybe four) people who are unconditionally committed to the concept of nobility and righteousness of the country’s leadership call for critical thinking, questioning authority and ahemm “challenging the system”.

    As for the education bit, you have probably heard about the “Madrasati” initiative . Brilliant website.
    One of the guys from Queen Rania office prominently involved in it failed Tawjihi four times (Fact).

  • That was very confusing to read, because it seems as if you talk about things and then contradict yourself. You talk about communication, creativity and challenge and you propose education as a tool to change an existing reality of mindsets and cultures….
    “We spend a minimum of 12 years of our lives in the educational system and it is probably the single-biggest influencing factor on who we end up becoming, the things we believe in, and more importantly, the way we think. ”
    Well, I think that the most scary part! If teaching in its traditional / existent means is the biggest influencing factor I would blame civil society, cultures & family. The education I received didn’t make me who I am, or what I believe in… all the things I did after school or the extra curriculum activities I participated in are what formed who I ended up becoming…. Education will never create humans with the needed “life skills”, but humans can certainly create means of learning that are far from education and much more enriching…
    “essential life skills people tend to learn naturally within that environment” exactly, the essential things should be leant for the environment, from life… not from educational systems… that was never the case with our parents and the older generation…. My dad has all the essential life skills because he was never corrupted with educational systems… he barely went to school…
    If we keep blaming the educational system which will never change ( Unless an American grant wants that for a specific reason) nothing will change…
    What we really need is a culture that challenges innovation, research and creativity…. We need an active civil society which provides a space for actual learning opportunities & experiences and not teaching…
    By the way, It never stops astonishing me how you keep mentioning the western-educated individuals and call them elites , privileged, or fortunate!! I find it very pathetic, that you can’t see the richness in the eastern-educated individuals!!! Or the eastern non educated individuals who I see the utmost wisdom in!!

  • Yazan: You make a valid point, however, IQ tests are usually not a measure of intelligence but rather a measure of one’s ability to retain facts. Jordanian kids might score higher, but by lacking those other life skills they’ll end up programming software that british kids end up designing or dreaming up. that’s the difference.

    Maha: curiosity should be added to that list!

    Sam: a very typical story i’m afraid

    Musa: you’re absolutely right. it does sound tangential. and there are a few other adjectives to describe it as well.

    hatem: i think that’s one angle of it, but i think several angles need to be working alongside it

  • Basically – what children must learn – and teachers/parents accept – is to ask the question “Why?” Pupils need to be able to challenge conventional wisdom and teachers and other authorities like parents must accept this and try to provide non-absolute answers or at least encourage the youngsters to seek their own answers.

  • I agree with Maha.. it all boils down to individuals, both teachers and students.
    When honest is lacking in the knowledge exchanging process, the whole system will rot, to say the least.

    we need a revolution of sorts in about every aspect of both our formal and informal education systems, starting with amending our ethical codes to having the courage to challenge whatever piece of knowledge we obtain from parents, teachers, religious authorities, politicians, .. etc.

    btw, was there a pun intended choosing to describe our life skills as “Arabian” not “Arab”? 😀
    your word choice made me giggle… I just couldn’t help but imagine a vast desert with Arabs riding camels and “Arabian” horses.. no schools or educational institutes fit that setting at all lloool

  • Breeding generations on stupid learning is a crime.

    Learning and enlightenment are about inquiry…the quest. Once kids grow up with the ability to ask, they begin to understand and process. No matter what content they learn thru curriculum, it’s that passion, hunger, curiosity, confidence and creative processing that will enable them to develop and be able to transform their lives, contribute, as well as be successful individuals in engaged communities.

    One of the most important things to learn in school is to learn how to learn. That should be a core objective. And for those adults and kidults, it’s time to re-learn how to learn.

    In general our home, school, street and workplace are rigid institutional environments that are holding back our kids from being amazing, remarkable individuals, independent thinkers and dreamers. These enviros are not conducive for developing their moral, cognitive and emotional skills, values, ethics, citizenship and civic engagement.

    This is changing though. In a way, the informal education one can choose to get thru the web is a great conversation evolving beautifully. Sooner than most realize, this counterculture will simply become the culture – and a useful way to learn. But it’s not enough.

    Related to this post, there’s an important evolving dialog on economist Dr. Yusuf Mansur’s networkUrdun Mubdi3</a, a growing community working at identifying some 10,000 rules towards a creative Jordan.

    You ask, can our edu system change? Yes of course it can. Getting our edu right takes a revolution though. To drive it, this requires some disruptive innovators, a few heretics, many fearless minds, some compassionate hearts, and a lot of explorers. It’s a massive feat that should aim to tackle the edu environment, the curriculum, the approach, the teachers, the parents and society at large. We need to understand that kids go to school to learn and not to be taught. Call it reform, and we will continue to dabble around with little real progress. Call it a revolution, and it might just work.

    I believe creativity and faith are needed at the core to all this. Creative thinking, analysis, and problem solving. And faith in ourselves, in the need to change, and accepting that everything does indeed change. If we embrace that, we can begin to address the work ahead.

  • Nas, one of the most significant challenges to sweeping change is that it is not enough to change today’s students. They are being taught and supported by parents and teachers who learned under the old system. For the most part, they’ve accepted what they experienced as adequate. Even with those open to other ways, it often takes someone challenging it to visualize what it could be (many family members are finally coming around to my lack of interest in ButterBean’s grades and focus on her learning). As a parent, I work VERY hard to instill creativity, an openness to imagination, and critical reasoning skills in my kids. But, it’s hard to do it knowing that it may cause them to suffer in school ;). I find it very difficult to help my nephew because I understand that what I would value as an English teacher is not valued in his educational environment (this like properly citing sources, completing the work on his own, making a rational argument with critical reasoning, etc.)…

    However, parents have a very important role to play, not only in teaching at home, but in challenging the school. I’ve talked about the experience we had in KG1 where the art teacher “fixed” the kids’ offerings because they weren’t right or weren’t good enough. As an unreasonable American with a louder voice due to wasta, I got that changed. This year, there were no modifications, fewer strictures, and less focus on the “right” way. But, wasta or not, it is my duty and repsonsibility to challenge so that my children’s education improves… That interactive, fully engaged type of relationship is uncomfortable for many here, both parents and schools. Don’t you feel sorry for those who have my kids? Teehee.

  • I think if you want to change the system, you also have to change the goal. All of these things are essential in getting the kinds of results you are talking about. Things like tawjihi will need to be re-arranged. Is the goal of school to pass tawjihi? At this point in time, the answer is yes. If the goal of teaching should be to create independent minded, critical thinking, eloquent people, then the tawjihi is never going to meet that goal as it is today.

    It’s not impossible, but it’s also something that’s not going to happen in one or two initiatives… in some ways it’s systemic. Tawjihi is a useful tool for weeding out students when a government can’t afford to send EVERYONE to university, or employ all of its graduates. Theoretically, it’s also a way to eliminate the wasta problem– it’s much easier to evaluate a student fairly (at least it seems that way on the surface) with numbers/data than it is to do so via letters of rec, an application process, a writing sample and so on.

    And you do need teachers trained in methodologies that encourage student participation and student-centered learning. And teachers who are passionate about teaching and are motivated by decent salaries and sufficient support from their schools, governments and communities. It’s a problem that exists at all levels of education in Jordan; and it’s a problem that exists in systems throughout the world.

    But until all of those things are in working order, you might consider some youth programs in Jordan– things that deal with media, last for a summer and create the kind of learning environment you’re talking about. Something that lasts longer than a few meetings, that provides students with the opportunity to develop critical thinking skills. Your background in journalism would be a great medium for such an opportunity.

  • I agree with whoever says that education cannot be the only factor affecting how we think as there are other available sources of information than textbooks and school teachers. However, how many young Jordanians get on line willingly to search for more information on a certain topic that they learned in school? Schools are not everything but this one way pedagogy (of 12 years) divide roles for who can send or receive information. It makes students comfortable with the “facts” given to them so as not to go the extra mile especially when the goal is just to be an “average” Jordanian; one with a paying Job!

    It is not that the government does not know deficiencies of our educational system and its ramification on producing thinkers and leaders, but the question is , do they have the will of changing this reality. The government received 380 million (of which 1/3 is soft loans) for one major education initiative, the Education Reform for Knowledge Economy (ERFKE) which started in 2003 and continuing into phase 2 until 2010. The major objective of this initiative was to produce human resources that will follow the needs of the international markets: a student-centred educational system that will encourage innovation and creativity through technology and computerizing class rooms and textbooks. After 5 years of implementation, we were interviewing students and teachers in some of the targeted public schools, we got the impression that this new technology integration was more of a burden than facilitation for their education process. Students said that teachers that the only difference was that teachers were reading text books off the internet instead of the hard books. They also thought the online research part was a burden as they had to have Internet access, however, when they did, they will just copy and paste sources and claim it their work. As for teachers, they were not happy with the fact that they had to spend extra unpaid training hours to use the technology, and also sometimes pay collateral to guarantee the safety of the labs while usage. It seemed for us that the money was spent to speed the information flow process with maintaining its direction from the books to students’ minds. Which brings us back to the question if it was only a matter of miscalculation or is it the lack of the will to REALLY attempt to address education deficiencies?

  • Noam Chomsky once said ” eduction can be an imposed ignorance” , just think about that ladies and gentlemen for a moment ,
    Since I moved out of Jordan, I have learned about the history of Jordan and the Arab world than my entire time spent in Jordan’s schools, From the get go, “our” government indoctrinate us to worship the king and his “achievements”, “generocity” and “conviction” to the wellbeing of the people of Jordan
    Let us take history for example, most people in Jordan has little idea of the complexities and the secrets dealing our government has been conducting with Israel,and every time i BRING THE SUBJEJET ,JORDANIAN LABEL ME AS EITHER A PALESTANIAN OR SOMBODY THAT HATTES JORDAN WITH OUT EVEN TRYING TO DEBATE THE IDEA .

    Maha ” used to blame the system i blame the people”
    How could blame the people when the system is completely screwed up from top to bottom.

  • I have been away from Jordan for a while, but are people accusing each other of being Palestinians now?

    In any case, I would have to say that critical thinking is the most important factor because as others have said, virtually everything else stems from this ability to analyze and process information. This critical thinking used to be a lot more common in the Arab World. People who grew up in the 50s and 60s seem to have developed this skill. The younger generation does not for some reason.

    It seems that this skill is best acquired through a western education. This also means a Western outlook for the most part. Not that this is a bad thing, but it does skew the range of informed opinions out there.

    How do we change it? I don’t think it is possible – in a police state – to have critical thinking. Every policemen, soldier, teacher, politician is a figure of supreme authority and undisputed integrity. We tell them they are wrong on factual matters let alone on matters of opinion.

  • Sorry, one more thing: Is anyone else disturbed by the number of times Jordanian royalty was mentioned in the comments? It seems disproportional to the theme of the post….

  • ” .. and so I do speak from a privlaged point of view and in this case, it might actually be of some benefit, perspective-wise at least.”

    Ha! you made me laugh real hard Nas, and you’ve figured that you’re one of the “lucky ones” exactly how?

    Your article reminded me of something I saw a while ago on a stupid TV show, an analogy for how we are categorized in our community, in a nutshell: people are either robots or aliens.

    Robots are just mindless drones (just like you said in your article) that doing what there are told in order to blend in the everyday society, Aliens on the other hand are a rare breed that may achieve some sorts of free thinking/will, but in reality they are outcasts, weirdos, asocials at best, and loathed by all (robots).

    You can see examples of this behavior in the nature too, any new born animal that have strange attributes that wasn’t in his original species DNA, either it will be: 1.Killed 2.Eaten 3.Killed then eaten. 4.Left alone to die.

    Now, in order to “fix” the educational system, we must focus on “fixing” the way we think in everyday life, we must learn that being different or have a free will of our own is not a crime.

    I doubt that will happened any time soon, this kind of “behavior” (if that was the right naming for it) is hardwired in our dormant mind and in our human DNA, it will be EXTREMELY hard mission to change that.

    And that’s just my two Piasters. 🙂

  • the arab world is very orwellian in the sense that the concept of “thought crime” does exist and people have been killed for it .. and we do have “thought police” too … and i think this plays a major role in why the education system is what it is in this part of the world

  • A can of worms, this is! But a necessary can of worms.

    These educational debates are the first steps to changing this system. Yes, some may argue that the system here is antiquated, outdated, etc., and that many basic life skills are not being taught. I agree with this on some levels. I also agree (and have seen) the students who come through this system (let’s say, Tawjihi) and go off to study abroad end up doing quite well, both academically and eventually in the workplace…

    until they decide to relocate themselves/their families to Jordan. This is when I see real problems begin. I wonder why this is? Anyone?

    I’ve decided to not allow my oldest daughter to pursue Tawjihi. She’ll go another route, which is yet to be determined. I view, as both a parent and an educator, Tawjihi as a sort of educational sentence. It saddens me. I could write a book on how much it saddens me.

    Those of you who went through it unscathed, what is the secret?

    Nas, we are happy you did not go through it, went to Canada, and picked up your writing skills along the way. But this is a topic that needs to be revisited over and over until we see viable change for the youth of this country that possesses unlimited talent and potential.

  • Yazan

    I had no training what so ever while working in Jordan TV. I was a graduate in Middle East Studies and Political Science not a mass communication one!
    They handed me a mic and that was it! ZERO TRAINING! This is the whole point! By the way, my camera man was a taxi driver! No training either!

  • As a former teacher in your part of the world I feel that I ought to contribute something to the two sides to the problem. Respect for parental authority is an important factor in learning and is better than getting into serious trouble due to failure to listen. Any student’s ideas must be based on facts and not illusions. At the same time, I have long felt that our forte has been the time for all students to reflect, read, play or work during our little known system of three months summer vacation from school. Parents who insists on study during the school year regard this as free time but a child gets bored after a few days at home and begins to do his own thing. Everyone including myself remembers the summer vacations as an important time to meditate and reflect every year. Many older students choose the student job placements or create their own jobs. They read and study what motivates them. Scouting and outdoor activities are everywhere and focus on problem solving on ones own. The important aspect is that almost all parents regard this time as his time to think for himself and the children do it by instinct.

  • مقال في الكثير من الافكار التي ترحطها وخصوصاً العلم والتعليم والديمقراطية،وهل هناك علاقه بين هذه الاركان الرئيسيه في تقدم المجتمع؟؟هذا مقال من عبد الباري عطوان

    علينا أن نعترف بأننا أمة فاشلة عاجزة جفت فيها كل وسائط الابداع، بسبب أنظمة دكتاتورية غير منتخبة، ركزت طوال العقود الخمسة الماضية على ‘تجهيل’ المواطنين والجيوش، وقتل عروق الكرامة الوطنية والقومية في الاجيال السابقة والحالية، بحيث وصلنا الى حال القحط التي نعيش في ظلها.
    جامعاتنا في معظمها تحولت الى مدارس لمحو الامية، تخرج جيوشا من الجهلة، ومستشفياتنا اصبحت حقول تجارب، ومشارح للموتى، حيث تغيب المراقبة والاهتمام، ناهيك عن المحاسبة رغم ان افضل اطباء واساتذة الجامعات في اوروبا وامريكا وكندا هم من العرب.

  • That kind of self pity and blame shifting is linked to problem I am afraid…
    I spent over a decade teaching in Jordan and what I discovered is that change can only happen in people when they quit shifting the blame onto others and take personal responsibility for their life, learning, and responses. After this first step I have seen miracles happen.

  • I agree BJ. Arabs need to start believing that one person can a make a little difference. That one has to start on his or her own and make a change or impact no matter how little it is. I only learnt this when I LEFT the Arab World and I am now trying to influence my relatives! You have no idea how tough it is! Seriously, our systems have killed the spirit of initiative!

  • Sam

    I was not questioning the training or lack of training that you had, I was just stating that interviewing anyone for the first time is a daunting task, and a lot of it has to do with your personlity and knowledge.

  • Mckinsey Consulting Group researched why multinational corporations do not hire locally, and the answer came that in many developing countries the following skills are lacking in the education system:

    1. Analytical skills
    2. Communication skills
    3. Team work and flexibility

    Now ask yourself, how an economy can compete without properly trained students? It can not! Old systems of pedagogy dictated memorization of old texts and principles but never the above three traits, which are what employers really care for.

    Does Tawjihi have any of these skills? No. Does it encourage analytical thinking of relevancy of science to life? No. Does it teach communication skills and working in groups? No.

    A few years ago, as an Assistant Professor of Economics at Mu’ta University, I once asked the students of a senior economics class to form study groups and none knew what I meant. They were scared to work together; however, the experience, once finally practiced, became meaningful to them and I.

    A recent hire from a Jordanian university who graduated top of his class in English literature did not know how to reference citations or write one whole coherent paragraph.

    We spend twice as much on military and security than on education, health and infrastructure and we are one of 12 countries worldwide who do that.

    Over the past 30 years spending on education per capita has not matched the growth rate of the GDP.

    Recently, a Gulf country decided not to send their scholarship students to Jordan because of falling standards, both at public and private universities.

    Those are facts. Do not blame the people. In fact let’s not blame anyone, just suggest solutions and forge ahead. The Tawjihi should go; more funds should be allocated; smart comprehensive plans that aim to improve the competitiveness of education should emerge and our benchmarks should be the top systems.

    We need a liberal education system. Full stop!

  • Nicely said Yousef,

    The enhancement of the three traits you mentioned above can be easily incorporated into any existing system. It just needs a little planning and dedication on behalf of the teachers and parents alike.

  • Hello, Naseem!
    I am a college student in the United States and am planning on doing a research paper on educational systems in the Middle East for my Gender in the Middle East course I am enrolled in. I am particularly interested by this blog you posted that discusses education systems.
    I have noticed that in the United States critical thinking skills are strongly developed so that at the college level, students are able to challenge professors and peers. Is this not the case in the Middle East? It seems from the examples that you gave on this blog that students would not even think about challenging what they learn from their professors and that there is a stronger focus on memorization and recitation in classes. Why do you think these critical thinking skills are being overlooked (if they indeed are being overlooked) in the MIddle East?
    Do you think that if critical thinking skills in educational institutions in the Middle East were more of a focus in the curriculum that these critical thinking skills would be more accessible to males opposed to females? I am curious as to whether males would be more likely to challenge what they have been taught opposed to females if both genders were given the opportunity.
    Thank you so much for your time and I am looking forward to hearing a response from you!

    Be Well,

  • The Amman Baccalaureate School was the first national school in Jordan to break out from the traditional style of teaching and learning, whilst using the Ministry of Education curricula as their baseline. For nearly 30 years the school has consistantly turned out bi-lingual graduates (taught by a majority of Arab teachers ) who are amongst the top IB graduates worldwide, and who usually have no trouble in adapting to their university studies, and do not find themeselves at any disadvantage to their US, Canadian or British peers in the universities they attend. Yes, these are privileged students in many ways, but their biggest advantage is that they are taught by teachers who are allowed to be innovative and creative in the way they teach and adapt the curriculum. These educators therefore enjoy their jobs and also get the best out of their students. The ABS pioneered programs such as the El Hassan Award and the Model United Nations which have been adopted nationally. It would be good if more schools were encouraged and allowed to learn from their teaching practices as well.

  • For two years, I tried to teach English in a government school in a small village near Gafgafa, and I want to make a couple observations.
    First, I want to acknowledge and agree with the comments made about critical thinking, syllabus change, and teacher training. I’m actually working on a paper that I started in grad school about the Jordanian educational system. My Arabic’s not good enough yet to analyze most of the new curricula in the government schools, but I am very familiar with the old (Petra, Amra) and new (e.g. Action Pack) English curricula, and I find the change, particularly in critical thinking skills, to be enormous and promising, though not nearly far enough. What was lacking, however, was teachers who had the will or the time to change their teaching to suit the new curricula. Perhaps if they were paid a living wage, they would take their jobs more seriously. Perhaps if teaching wasn’t the only job most village women have available to them, the system would produce more teachers who teach because they want to, not because they have to.
    I also want to extend kudos to Jordanian mothers. My village was full of mothers who did not manage to finish the eighth grade, and raised daughters with Masters degrees. Women in my and many other villages pushed their daughters extremely hard to do well in school, and gave them every opportunity to study and improve themselves and the kind of life they could build for themselves. If there were some way to empower mothers to do more of this, I would be the first to lend my support.
    But I want to suggest that academic reform is not sufficient. The single most significant barrier to reaching my students was discipline. As an American, I am morally opposed to corporal punishment, and I don’t believe that it is, in the long run, effective. But even I had to eventually resort to slapping a few girls’ palms with rulers, because years of corporal punishment at home and at school meant that they respected nothing else. I tried alternate methods, I tried to get the kids to learn out of love of learning, or love of me, or out of ambition for themselves, but in the end, only fear of the stick was effective. Until students can be freed of that fear of the stick, they will never be free to really explore critical thinking.

  • A PS to my previous post about the Amman Baccalaureate School: although the school is co-educational and has both men and women teachers, the overall Principal of the school, and the Heads of the four schools within the school, ie the IB College, the Middle School, the Junior School and the Kindergarten, are all women, three Jordanians and two expats who are married to Jordanians. Until quite recently, the College and the Kindergarten were also headed by Jordanian women.

  • Erica,
    One aspect of this could be cultural. With all its limitations (done amongst IBM employees, “Arabs” lumped together as one group etc) Hofstede’s survey showed that Power Distance (I think that’s what he called it) is quite high amongst “Arabs”… I had a memorable experience in Jordan University in my Arabic class when I dared to question whether the teacher was right. She had told the class that iDTiraab had a 4-letter root, and so I had raised my hand and suggested it was just a 3-letter root D-r-b with an infixed t that became a T because of the D. The whole class (mostly Asian & Turkish) was shocked to silence. everyone looked at me and the teacher changed colour and started to stutter – I thought she was going to explode… Eventually she said “no you are wrong, we can talk about it after class”.. She avoided me after class and later she refused to check my final exam for mistakes before I handed it in (like she did for everyone else). So that day I learnt never to question the teacher again…

    As for the exam. The Danish guys sitting next to me were 100x better than me. One of the questions was “what did ustaz Muhammad do when he got home?” They had answered very creatively with a multiline answer in pretty good Arabic. Luckily I vaguely remembered one of the first classes we had that semester( months earlier) which had a guy called ustaz Muhammad. So I wrote a pretty basic Arabic sentence of about 4-5 words based on my memory of that story. Guess who got full marks and who got NONE. That day I learnt you get zero for creativity or style…

  • OK, I just found this.
    Hofstede is a bit old-fashionee these days. The whole idea that you can lump all Arabs into one category is highly dubious. Still, I would be very interested to hear how accurate you feel this is in the Jordanian context..


    Geert Hofstedeâ„¢ Cultural Dimensions
    * Description for each of Hofstede’s Dimensions listed below

    The Geert Hofstede analysis for the Arab World, that includes the countries of Egypt, Iraq, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, demonstrates the Muslim faith plays a significant role in the people’s lives.

    Large Power Distance (PDI) (80) and Uncertainty Avoidance (UAI) (68) are predominant Hofstede Dimension characteristics for the countries in this region. These societies are more likely to follow a caste system that does not allow significant upward mobility of its citizens. They are also highly rule-oriented with laws, rules, regulations, and controls in order to reduce the amount of uncertainty, while inequalities of power and wealth have been allowed to grow within the society.

    When these two Dimensions are combined, it creates a situation where leaders have virtually ultimate power and authority, and the rules, laws and regulations developed by those in power reinforce their own leadership and control. It is not unusual for new leadership to arise from armed insurrection – the ultimate power, rather than from diplomatic or democratic change.

    The high Power Distance (PDI) ranking is indicative of a high level of inequality of power and wealth within the society. These populations have an expectation and acceptance that leaders will separate themselves from the group and this condition is not necessarily subverted upon the population, but rather accepted by the society as their cultural heritage.

    The high Uncertainty Avoidance Index (UAI) ranking of 68, indicates the society’s low level of tolerance for uncertainty. In an effort to minimize or reduce this level of uncertainty, strict rules, laws, policies, and regulations are adopted and implemented. The ultimate goal of these populations is to control everything in order to eliminate or avoid the unexpected. As a result of this high Uncertainty Avoidance characteristic, the society does not readily accept change and is very risk adverse.

    The Masculinity index (MAS), the third highest Hofstede Dimension is 52, only slightly higher than the 50.2 average for all the countries included in the Hofstede MAS Dimension. This would indicate that while women in the Arab World are limited in their rights, it may be due more to Muslim religion rather than a cultural paradigm.

    The lowest Hofstede Dimension for the Arab World is the Individualism (IDV) ranking at 38, compared to a world average ranking of 64. This translates into a Collectivist society as compared to Individualist culture and is manifested in a close long-term commitment to the member ‘group’, that being a family, extended family, or extended relationships. Loyalty in a collectivist culture is paramount, and over-rides most other societal rules.

    The predominant religion for these countries is Islam, the practice of the Muslim faith.

    The combination of these two high scores (UAI) and (PDI) create societies that are highly rule-oriented with laws, rules, regulations, and controls in order to reduce the amount of uncertainty, while inequalities of power and wealth have been allowed to grow within the society. These cultures are more likely to follow a caste system that does not allow significant upward mobility of its citizens.

    When these two Dimensions are combined, it creates a situation where leaders have virtually ultimate power and authority, and the rules, laws and regulations developed by those in power, reinforce their own leadership and control. It is not unusual for new leadership to arise from armed insurrection – the ultimate power, rather than from diplomatic or democratic change.

    Your thoughts?

  • Jennie
    My beef with ABS is this (I have many friends with children enrolled there):
    While I applaud them for their groundbreaking approach to educating children, the exclusivity they boast tends to overshadow the good they do. Kids are on waiting lists, sometimes for years, to get in, mostly because of the priority that graduates’ children have for enrolling.
    Also, their tuition rates are out of sight. Fifteen thousand JD to enroll two children? That amount would pay for one year at a fine US University.
    I wish that these sorts of schools (ABS, Mashrek) could be more of the mainstream offerings for those of us who want the critical thinking approach in educating our children.

  • My grandaughter has just been asked to go to the ABS for an interview. Neither parenetis a graduate of the school, and there were some anxious moments before her parents were told that her place was secure. Although we had some worrisome days when we thought that she might not get a place I do not see what else the ABS can do ? Most reputable schools and colleges offer some sort of preferential treatment to the children of alumni, and for the rest, surely it is better to have a first come first served policy, rather than any other ? More articulate parents need to push their schools to provide the level of education they want for their children. It is not merely a matter of money, but also of attitude and committment. As Mr. Obama said, ” Yes You Can” if you so want.

    The ABS brochure is here in front of me and here is what it says :

    School Fees 2008/2009

    1) Registration & Testing Fee JD 30
    A non refundable fee, payable for all grades at the time of application including KG.

    2) Enrolment Fee JD 1000
    This is a single, non-refundable payment, payable to all new students enrolling in the school grades KG1 – 12.

    JD 1000 is not peanuts but whosoever told you that enrollment was JD 7000 per student was way off.

  • I have often heard both criticisms of the ABS, that it is near impossible to get in unless a student is a child of alumni, and also that the costs are way too high. In the first case, I also don’t know what the school can do about this problem, short of saying kids of alumni need not apply. It is a good thing that there are now several quality private schools in Amman that offer an education similar to the ABS. In the second case, the school is certainly expensive, although it is not the only one in its league. Again, what can be done if there is a need to hire quality teachers, who can certainly earn good money in the private sector doing other jobs. If there is a need to attract people who teach because they love the job, and want to teach, they will have to be given competitive salaries. Teachers have families and financial needs as well, and the best ones will not do the job unless they are recompensed adequately, however motivated they are.

  • Surely the elephant in the room is numbers. With the best will in the world, the most motivated teachers and enlightened curricula, how can a country like Jordan hope to improve its educational system, when the population increase is out of control. Look at any country where there is a good system of state education, ( Canada, Australia, Scandanavia) and you will see a country where the population is under control.

Your Two Piasters: