In an exclusive interview with the ECSSR Website, His Excellency Fayez Mohammed Al-Saudi, Minister of Education of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, said that the UAE and its wise leadership recognize the fact that education is the basis and catalyst for reform and development. He observed that the UAE is on the right track toward development in education. He also noted that the basis for educational development lies in the ability to reach out to students and get to know their inherent abilities and needs. Thus, curricula should be designed and educational policies and resolutions formulated in accordance with the needs of students, in a way that help develop their critical thinking and their skills in dealing with the developments of the age.
This interview was conducted on the sidelines of the ECSSR’s 3rd Annual Education Conference, held on 2-3 October 2012, under the title “Information Technology and the Future of Education in The United Arab Emirates”. Following is the text of the interview.
Q: What are your views on the ECSSR’s initiative to hold an annual conference on education as well as the subject of the conference this year, which relates to the role of IT and the future of education?
A: First of all, I would like to commend the ECSSR for its efforts in organizing this important conference and would like to praise His Highness General Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and the Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, for his generous sponsorship of this conference.
Undoubtedly, the ECSSR’s initiative to hold a conference for exploring ways to develop education for the third consecutive year is proof that its leadership and that of the UAE in general, and His Highness General Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan in particular, understands the fact that education is the foundation and catalyst for reform and development.
The topic of this year, which relates to IT and the future of education is very important, especially in light of the knowledge revolution and rapid technological developments we are witnessing. These are having an impact on different aspects of life, one of which is education. This necessitates research on the impact of these developments in the field of education and calls for formulation of plans to take advantage of them. This insight on the part of the ECSSR is clear proof that the UAE in general and Abu Dhabi in particular are on the right track in the field of educational development and in the building of student’s capabilities and character, as well as in providing a unique example to the Arab region in this field.
I would again like to thank all the leaders of the Center who supported this important initiative which would be a starting point for all of us toward greater development in the field of education, which takes top priority in many countries around the world, and should be accorded the same priority in our countries. However, we have to be well aware of our students and our societies, and the fact that our education system should be based on our culture and the cultural, scientific and knowledge-based developments we witness. For this reason, the building of a culture requires development, effort, clear steps, and a massive investment of time and resources to achieve desired goals and for taking advantage of the means provided by modern technology for the purpose of education.
Q: Jordan has a unique experiment at the regional level in the field of education and in its efforts to keep pace with the IT age. What are the prominent initiatives taken by the Kingdom in this regard?
A: There have been many initiatives in this field. For example, the ‘EduWave’ initiative has been implemented to forge information and the education process in a comprehensive way, i.e. from the level of the curriculums, student books, assessments, monitoring of students’ progress, as well as enhancing contacts among teachers, students and parents. Now, we are striving to put this mechanism into action. There are also other initiatives, such as development of computerized curricula, development of critical thinking and providing a computer to each student. There is also an initiative to connect all schools through the Internet. These initiatives, which have been implemented in some schools, seek to derive maximum benefits from technology in education. The Kingdom continuously strives toward developing the infrastructure of schools and equipping them with the technological means that would motivate students to learn more and meet their requirements.
Q: In recent statements, you have mentioned that the King of Jordan had asked all relevant institutions to prepare a major plan for educational development in the country and for holding a specialized national conference on educational development. What are the reasons behind these steps and what are the important objectives?
A: It all happened during a visit by His Highness to Jordan’s Ministry of Education, where we talked about the qualitative and quantitative progress the Kingdom has achieved in educational development. There, we also candidly discussed the challenges we face in this regard. One of these challenges relates to multiplicity of authorities in relation to human resources in the education sector. We stressed the importance of having one authority for human resources and that there should be an integrated and comprehensive approach for managing these resources. We also talked about infrastructure issues, shortage in the number of teachers in some areas of specialization, and the discrepancy in essential skills of students in some stages of elementary education. At the end of the visit, His Highness the King of Jordan instructed us to start preparing a comprehensive plan, in collaboration with all the concerned parties involved in the educational development of Jordan. These groups are all interested in building a knowledge-based society and believe in developing a distinguished group or team and not a few distinguished individuals. We will work toward developing that plan before holding the second education conference within three or four months.
Our governing principle in preparing this plan is to reach out to students, raise their capabilities, and develop their intellectual and personal skills so as to be able to perform a positive role in the education process. After we prepare the plan and implement it, in cooperation with all the concerned parties, we expect to have human resources capable of understanding the needs of the nation, global developments, a variety of skills and a value system that helps in taking steady steps toward developing their individual capacities and skills.
Q: One of the main problems facing education in the region is the use of curricula which emphasize memorization, instead of critical thinking. How do you tackle this challenge?
A: We have taken significant steps toward educational development to build a knowledge-based economy. This we have done by developing labs, computerized curricula, and introduction of computer studies at the early elementary levels. However, we have to take into consideration that the introduction of technology is not an end in itself but only a means to develop the capabilities of students in learning. Thus, curricula development should be a part of a comprehensive development strategy that also includes the students’ learning environment, their interactions with other students, teachers and school administration.
We can move from memorization approach to other approaches which help develop the faculty of thought by knowing the needs of student and by designing curricula that address those needs. The school textbooks should contain a set of fundamental principles, so as to allow significant margin of flexibility for the teacher, so that students can benefit from the teacher’s experience and those of local communities. This would help provide a stimulating environment for learning and this is an important point which we are working to address in our comprehensive plan.
In my view, the challenge lies in reaching out to students because we—in the Arab world—have not reached out to students till now. It is important to know the actual needs and capabilities of students. Based on such needs, curricula will have to be redesigned and educational decisions and activities formulated. If we are able to reach out to students, I believe they have the ability to help themselves achieve the desired progress through self-learning, capacity-building and cooperation with people to move from individual intelligence in education to collective intelligence, which would lead to the advancement of the nation, and not just of a few individuals and institutions.
Q: You have referred to the important role of teachers in the educational process. What are the steps taken by the Ministry of Education in Jordan to develop the skills of teachers so that they perform their role effectively?
A: We face a challenge on the issue of professional development of teachers, as the number of applicants joining the teaching profession in universities is less than needed. Therefore, when we try to employ teachers, we cannot fill all the vacancies we need. The situation necessitates the need to improve the financial situation of teachers to encourage their joining the teaching profession. There is also the need to provide financial and moral incentives for teachers. In order to achieve more success in our mission, there must be professional development for teachers before they enter the classroom. Professional development means that a teacher must take training courses and gain teaching experience over how to deal with students in the classroom, for example, how to deal with students when there is a negative response from them? They should also know how to address individual differences among students in matters of skill and abilities? Moreover, vocational education should be linked to financial incentives that should be provided to teachers in the future.
Q: Many countries around the world face the issue of linking the output of the educational process with the requirements of the labor market. From your point of view, how can this challenge be addressed?
A: We face this problem in Jordan just like in the rest of the world, and we are currently preparing a comprehensive view, which seeks to pursue the best means available to achieve the desired harmony between educational output and labor market requirements.
Q: While the world seems to be racing in order to keep up with developments in information technology, particularly in the field of education, we find that the Arab world continues to suffer from age-old problems, such as high rates of illiteracy, school dropouts and poor educational output. In your opinion, what are the causes and implications of this for the future of the Arab region?
A: First, I would like to point out that there is no uniformity in the levels of education, not only among different Arab countries, but often within regions of the same country. In general, there is no Arab country free of illiteracy, and elimination of this problem requires the extensive spread of schools and a high degree of community awareness. However, the infrastructure for the establishment of schools does not exist in all places, and this leads us to the second point related to the availability of resources and capabilities. Do all countries have enough capabilities to establish infrastructure for schools to serve their citizens in all the regions of the country, including remote and underdeveloped ones? The third point is related to education itself. When a student at school has a nonresident teacher — due to poor conditions at a school or continuous movement (especially in remote areas) — it does not help the school in gaining the requisite experience. The other important point is related to the ineffectiveness of community participation in the educational process in the Arab world. The most dangerous aspect, however, is the existence of some students who attain a certain level of education and are still unable to read or write,. This is even more dangerous than the problem of the more widely known problem of general illiteracy. There are two reasons for this different kind of illiteracy. First, it shows that the school did not take into account individual differences and difficulties faced by some students due to their lack of abilities or aptitude. Therefore, they could not provide students with the quality of education which is in line with their capabilities and skills. The second reason is that education in the Arab world until now did not recognize that the teacher is the main pillar of the educational process, as the textbook was and remains the main means of education. The role of the teacher is often limited to explaining what is written in the book. The teacher's experience is extremely important and helps the student in understanding the concepts and ideas written in the book. Due to the lack of the professional education of teachers, their ability in developing students’ capabilities and skills usually remains limited. All the above mentioned factors are correlated and interconnected. To some extent all of them relate to the availability of resources, as in some Arab countries there is a problem in providing the necessary financial resources to develop school infrastructure. In others, we find the problem pertaining to the management of available resources.
As I had mentioned in my speech at the conference, the goal of learning is to help students gain the capabilities and skills that will help them in adapting to different conditions of life. We have to meet the needs of students and pay necessary attention to the issue of professional development of teachers. We also have to change our view on schools from being places for imparting education to institutions of society where the intended beneficiary is not just the student, but the family of the student as well. This can be achieved by establishing proper contact and communication with the family members of the student and through their involvement in the education process. If we succeed in all these aspects, families can help us achieve the development we desire from the educational system. But the important prerequisite here is that the family, the school and the students should interact with each other. Then, we would move from an individualistic level and individual intelligence to the stage of a collective approach and shared intelligence that will help us lead toward achieving this goal.