x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Education system should teach UAE pupils how to think

We can only be optimistic about the outcome of the changes being made to the education system, writes Ayesha Almazroui.

We see many “educated” people every day – those who graduated from schools and universities; those who earned degrees in various subjects. But many of them think alike, act alike and even read the same books, if they happen to be readers to begin with.

After a short conversation with some of them, or even by just following what they write on social media, I feel they are unwilling or unable to think for themselves, to question and to find answers even to the things that concern them. They follow the crowd. Their opinions are the popular ones and their outlook on life is what has been established in society and culture.

I have wondered about this for a long time, looking for an answer to this question: how can we judge an educated mind? And more importantly, how can we create a system that is able to produce more critical thinkers and individuals who think independently?

Since it was established, our education system has been focusing more on memorising facts than fostering critical thinking. The system we have adopted has been going through the same process over and over again: moulding and shaping young minds to fit into a narrow template to meet particular needs of society.

I’m not saying that this problem is exclusive to the UAE – it is certainly not. Societies around the world have been experiencing the same issue to different extents. How can a system of indoctrination breed truly educated minds? As Albert Einstein once said: “Education is not the learning of facts, but the training of the mind to think.”

We were all pleased last month to see the initiative by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, to engage all UAE residents in the development of education, when he called for “the country’s biggest brainstorming session” to generate ideas on how to improve the system. It is indeed the most important national issue – along with health care – that concerns many people.

More than 65,000 suggestions were received before the Cabinet retreat which was held over two days at Sir Bani Yas Island in Abu Dhabi and a few immediate decisions were made as a result. Some of the announced changes to the UAE’s education system include a new licensing system for teachers, a new assessment of educational performance at nurseries, and a new system for evaluating and ranking universities.

A couple of other commitments were made. The first was to improve teachers’ status by focusing on career progression, professional development and the provision of other incentives. The second was to develop subjects at secondary school level that match university requirements, following a decision to remove the preparatory year at university.

These will, indeed, be important steps to improve our education system if they are turned into reality and followed with constant assessment.

We can benefit from the experience of Norway, which began a series of reforms during the 1990s at every level, from kindergarten to adult education, towards the same objective: to ensure quality, coherence and continuity in the educational system. They placed critical thinking as the key goal of education and considered it a basic skill – the rest is just fodder and ornamentation.

Norway has also developed a new teacher-education system to implement all these reforms and put them into practice. The reforms introduced new competence levels for older and more experienced teachers, with comprehensive in-service training.

In a short period of time, Norway was able to transform its education system, ranking remarkably higher in international tests and evaluations.

The UAE and Norway have some things in common: both are oil-rich countries with relatively small populations. I believe that the UAE can do the same if we are fully committed to make the quality of education an urgent priority.

When crafting new strategies and reforms for the UAE’s education system, let’s not forget the importance of fostering critical thinking.

Our objective should go beyond teaching facts to training young minds how to think independently, question and come up with their own answers, rather than memorising and repeating the same paradigms.

Schools – at all levels – should promote an interactive educational experience by establishing an environment in which both parties, students and teachers, function as partners in inquiry.

Judging from the reaction to the UAE brainstorming session, we can easily tell that it was successful in generating ideas from people of different ages and various backgrounds and skills.

However, we are yet to determine whether it will be effective in taking our education system forward. We can only be optimistic.

aalmazrouei@thenational.ae

On Twitter: @AyeshaAlmazroui