Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 8 December 2019

Isn’t it time we flipped this country’s education system?

Maryam Ismail suggests some changes to the classroom that could benefit the nation
Can the education system be improved?  Jaime Puebla / The National
Can the education system be improved? Jaime Puebla / The National

Andreas Schleicher, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s director for education and skills, declared that “teachers have to teach for an unseen future” at a recent education and skills conference in Dubai. Geoffrey Canada, an American educator, replied that “there is no way you can predict what skills will be needed in the future”. It was too much for me to think about, so I headed towards the buffet.

As I walked past a Lego workshop, I was asked if I wanted to join them. I am glad I did. The session transformed the way I saw education.

The purpose of the workshop was to show participants how to use the bricks in the classroom and enhance specific skills for children.

“There are nine million possibilities with these little bricks,” the workshop leader told us.

It worked even better with the adults, because we opened up and talked to each other, when we would have never done so otherwise. And this gave me an idea. Why not do the same between schools across the UAE?

At the workshop, I sat between a social reformer from Spain and one of the contenders for the Varkey Foundation’s 2015 teacher prize, who was from the US.

We were assigned the task of making the world of education a better place in eight minutes or less. I was a little stuck, but my two partners were clear.

“Administrators have to get out of the picture. Teachers should be the ones who say what gets taught. We have to flip the system,” said the teacher prize nominee, referencing Flip the System: Changing Education from the Ground Up, a book by Jelmer Evers.

My Spanish teammate constructed a Lego model featuring a small group of teachers and protesters, and behind them a line of officials in headgear. If this is how educators in Spain and the US are feeling, then what about the UAE?

Hanan Hroub, winner of the Global Teacher Prize this year, said: “Teachers can change the future.” I was inspired, and came back to reality with the question: but, how?

In the UAE, there is an opportunity to build a national school system that links all the emirates and ensures that all children get the very best education. This could link private and public schools, especially since a large number of Emiratis go to private schools.

This can be done through the power of exchange of ideas, knowledge and techniques. I believe that there are some really good American teachers in the Adec system, and other teachers could benefit from their experience, manner and dedication to their practice. Teachers should be given more power. All hands should be on deck in this endeavour – from the inspectors to the teachers to the administrators to the school owners and the parents. It’s a lot, but it is possible.

Back in 2004, at a conference in Dubai, there was talk about how teachers were isolated in the classroom, but no one seemed interested. Now, everyone is listening and it is a good time to suggest change.

There could be a mentorship programme between public and private schools, between outstanding schools and those that are satisfactory and unsatisfactory. Some may think that it is about just money, but as Mr Schleicher said, this doesn’t matter: what matters most is the level and quality of teaching.

However, if any administrators are reading this and think that the answer lies with consultants, they should take the advice of Mohammad Thneibat, Jordan’s education minister: “We opened our doors to private sector curriculum developers and they used our best teachers as trainers. So what were we paying for? Teachers are those who develop curriculum, not consultants.”

You never know who is out there – in your school, apartment complex or neighbourhood – there could be a wealth of information and resources. In most cases, all you have to do is ask.

Why not let them contribute to improving education for all students. Why not flip the system and change the future and change the world, right here first?

Maryam Ismail is a sociologist and teacher who divides her time between the US and the UAE

Updated: March 21, 2016 04:00 AM

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