x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

A lesson learnt after leap in test scores

How many more "successes" in the debt crisis can Greece stand? The Greeks, and the whole eurozone, are muddling along, but it's hard to see this ending well.

It is always pleasing when a point of view is vindicated by incontrovertible fact. This newspaper has long argued that few children are born unintelligent. Therefore, when 95 per cent of Emiratis reaching university age are told they aren't smart enough to begin a degree course, but must instead spend a remedial year acquiring basic English literacy, then something has gone wrong during the previous 13 years, something that almost certainly isn't their fault.

We reported yesterday on the first measurable results from the Madares Al Ghad (Mag), or Schools of Tomorrow, programme introduced as a pilot scheme in 44 state schools teaching about 18,000 pupils in Dubai and the northern emirates. The children, tested in 2010 and again in 2011, did not change; their parents did not change; by and large their teachers did not change. What changed was how they were taught. The result: test scores rose by 11.5 per cent in science, 20 per cent in English and 32 per cent in mathematics. Few of these youngsters will need the foundation courses that drain the resources of our universities.

These remarkable results were achieved by building on the self-evident fact that children are curious and keen to learn. The new programme has less rote memorising, and more emphasis on how to think. There were more modern textbooks, and plenty of the multimedia technology with which today's youth are (often frighteningly) familiar.

Encouraging though this progress is, there is a danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. In many western countries, notably the UK, university lecturers complain that 18-year-olds are barely literate. Traditionalists who say schools have become too "soft" and "child-centric" may have a point. A classroom is not a playroom. Teachers must be able to instil mental discipline, without which learning is impossible.

The Mag programme has not enjoyed unqualified support among educators, and has had limited resources. Given its results, that is about to change. The scheme is to be expanded, and will come under the full control of the Ministry of Education, with a new executive director. The ministry may care to look at teachers' pay. The new methods demand a great deal more of teachers' time and commitment than the old techniques did. In any task, paying for results is usually an effective path to follow. And what task could be more important than educating our children?