Promoting change in Arab education: What determined foundations can achieve

Helen Abadzi[1]

August 12, 2018

In June 2018, the United Arab Emirates Ministry (UAE) of Education announced that classes in public primary schools will gradually become coeducational starting in the fall of 2018.[2]  Private schools are often co-ed, but the Arab Gulf countries separate boys and girls in schools from preschool onwards. UAE is the first country in the Gulf to make this policy decision.

Many factors enter into important policy decisions, but it is hard to overlook in this case a study about gender segregation effects on boys in the Gulf.  It was published by the Al Qasimi foundation of the Ras al Khaimah emirate of UAE.  The book documented the effects of foreign male Arab teachers in comparison to highly educated local female teachers for girls.[3]  It pointed to the worrisome learning outcomes vis-à-vis the complex decisions that Gulf countries expect from men.

The policy implications were highly relevant. It is widely known that students in the Arab countries score lower than those of other countries taking international tests.  Much has been written, but in some respects public institutions have limits on what they can explore.  Policy analysis may be more efficiently carried out by privately funded think tanks.  But what model can integrate science with culture and tradition effectively so as to have a broad effect? One example is below, narrated from a personal perspective.

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Senior foundation staff, including the executive director Natasha Ridge (2nd left).

I am a World Bank retiree and a cognitive psychologist focused on efficient learning for the poor. Governments and donors aim to promote school attendance and joyful school experiences, but they lack expertise on how to bring this about. Early-grade skills must be automatized to enable complex thinking, but this prerequisite tends to be overlooked.  Which institutions might look below the surface?

An internet search of foundations revealed a possible match in a small town in UAE.  I sent a message asking if they were open to unusual solutions from cognitive science.

The Sheikh Saud bin Saqr Al Qasimi Foundation for Policy Research was founded in 2009 by the Ruler of Ras Al Khaimah, a small Emirate situated at the northern tip of the country.   [www.alqasimifoundation.com] Its research, policy, and practice aim to contribute to the Ras Al Khaimah community, particularly with respect to education. It is rather small; it distributes about US$1.5 million of grant funding annually and has about 28 staff members, Emiratis as well as expatriates.  Initiatives start from the ground-up and range from English-language training in jails to an annual arts festival. Its research department produces credible studies, such as the effects of fatherhood on Arab cultures, health in Ras al Khaimah, and gender-segregated education.

The foundation is very savvy on dissemination.  It uses social media as well as a rigorous plan for transmitting its findings to various government sectors.  And it has broad links to the international and the Gulf educational community.  It acts as the secretariat of the Gulf Comparative Education Society, and its staff active participate in international educational research conferences.  Thus it is acquiring a reputation, and its conferences attract academics and policymakers across the globe.  This international expertise is brought to consider the various life issues of the Ras al Khaimah residents.

Because of its community orientation, this foundation supports practical field research. In April 2016, while at a conference in Kuwait, I met some foundation staff. I was soon invited to give a presentation on the neurocognitive issues and solutions about Arabic reading in greater detail to a larger audience in Ras al Khaimah in May 2016.

The discussions in the meeting quickly focused on local performance.  Did the public school students in Ras Al Khaimah have the same reading issues as other Arab countries? Let’s find out right away!  We downloaded a one-minute reading test in Arabic and within a day, two public schools had agreed to receive us. The foundation staff administered the reading tests to 12 average-performing students of various grades to measure their reading rates. Although the data were limited, they told a story. These students could read, but they read too slowly to make sense of the complex text. Moreover,  the gap between this sample and the oft-used US norm increased by grade. It was a good justification for action.

 “Come over here and pilot your ideas”, said Natasha Ridge, the Executive Director.  I received a small fellowship to cover research expenses, working space in the foundation’s building, and an apartment used by scholars.  A staff member was assigned to implement the project with my help.  She was Sahar ElAsad, an inventive and action-oriented Sudanese.

Theorizing about cognitive psychology is the easy part; producing viable classroom lessons is a completely different challenge.  Starting in January of 2017, I travelled frequently to Ras al Khaimah from Greece. In the mornings, we tried various activities at the Kharan Boys’ Public School.  In the afternoons, we drafted a textbook based on perceptual learning principles. We made videos, observed the students, and revised until we had a reasonable draft of a reading book. We also experimented with oral instruction of standard Arabic grammar. The school staff were rather intrigued by a foreigner teaching Arabic conjugations..

An opportunity arose in the school to conduct an experiment with a control group. For two periods per week, two first-grade sections did social studies, while two other sections practiced our reading book for about 4.5 months.  The reading group had lower pre-test scores than the social studies group – only reading 11 letters and 4 words per minute. Discipline issues also limited instructional time to only about 15 minutes per period. But by the end of the year, students in the reading group read 29 correct letters and 14 words per minute.  They had showed twice the progress rate of the control group and even surpassed them. The most significant finding was that the lowest performers gained the most from the pilot. The videotaped process and the results suggest that perceptual learning indeed lies at the foundation of reading. The findings were consistent with three other pilots in other languages and scripts.[4]  If students develop automaticity in reading, they will learn language in a much easier way and be set to overcome other complexities of Arabic.

Thus, the foundation did not just finance the project, it also enabled its execution at the local level. It scrutinized the ideas of an international scholar and then brought the person to work on the ground, making a connection with local beneficiaries that would have been otherwise impossible.  Based on this pilot program,  the foundation also published a policy paper as well as  two reports on its outcomes.  The staff made sustained efforts to bring the results to the attention of the UAE Ministry of Education and various NGOs to explore opportunities for scaling up the pilot. The experiment was only the first step in making Arabic instruction more efficient, but this step could not have been taken without this integrated strategy.

Watching the team up close, its effectiveness for the Arab culture became obvious. It is a think tank as well as a field organization. Private philanthropy sometimes tries to impose idiosyncratic changes on public education, as was the case of Gates Foundation in the USA. Instead the Al Qasimi Foundation uses international research. Winds blow the desert sand outside the RAK Gas building –  where the Foundation office is located – almost as easily as the staff move from details to well-reasoned policy suggestions.

So, how does the Al Qasimi Foundation fit in the greater Arab context? In  some respects the foundation is optimized for the UAE environment. The UAE government wants its residents to be happy and engaged in education and culture, and the Emirate of Ras al Khaimah promotes the same values.  Also this desert think tank has greatly benefited from Natasha Ridge, its Australian charismatic and humorous executive director. It recruits enthusiastic and hard-working people, who may thus find new ways to fulfil the foundation goals.  This is in contrast with international hiring practices of nonprofits, where the focus is on compliance and ideological alignment of staff.

Clearly, the Al Qasimi Foundation operates in a particular context. The UAE government wants its residents to be happy and engaged in education and culture.  The country has more such broad-perspective foundations, notably Dubai Cares.  The Emirate of Ras al Khaimah promotes the same values.  Also this desert think tank has greatly benefited from the leadership of of its executive director, Natasha Ridge, who recruited enthusiastic and hard-working people.  The research and applications of the institution show that it is possible to improve education while respecting the Arabic cultural values.  The Arab world needs many more local evidence-minded foundations.

[1] Helen Abadzi is a Greek cognitive psychologist and polyglot.  She teaches at the University of Texas at Arlington, USA.

[2] https://www.thenational.ae/uae/boys-and-girls-to-be-educated-together-in-major-shift-for-uae-s-public-schools-1.745934

[3] Ridge, N. (2014).  Education and the Reverse Gender Divide in the Gulf States: Embracing the Global, Ignoring the Local.  New York: Teachers College Press.

[4]  Iyengar, Radhika (2017). « Using Cognitive Neuroscience Principles to Design Efficient Reading Programs: Case Studies from India and Malawi. Submitted for publication.

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