x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Arabic move to put lesson plans within UAE teachers' reach

Teachers may soon have free access to lesson plans and educational materials from schools around the world all translated into Arabic.

Education reform could mean a shift in emphasis from rote memorisation to encouraging the development of critical thinking skills.
Education reform could mean a shift in emphasis from rote memorisation to encouraging the development of critical thinking skills.

DUBAI // Teachers may soon have free access to lesson plans and educational materials from schools around the world all translated into Arabic. Funding is being sought for an Arabic version of the website Curriki, a Wikipedia-like collaboration that encourages teachers to post lesson plans and other resources to be shared by others. Dr Barbara Kurshan, the executive director of the American non-profit foundation that operates the site, said her organisation was in talks with several UAE universities about joining the project.

She estimated it would cost $100,000 (Dh367,000) to establish an Arabic version, and said Curriki was seeking funding from local foundations and corporations. "There seems to be a lot of interest in this region because of the lack of good Arabic-language instruction materials," Dr Kurshan said. "There is a big need not only for students, but for teacher training and professional development." The foundation's mandate is to establish a comprehensive database of "open-source" materials that can be accessed free from anywhere. It is one of several sites that allow teachers to share lesson content.

Curriki's English-language site has about 100,000 members; most are teachers who use it to find material for their classrooms. Last year the site had two million visits, and 30,000 were from the UAE. Across the region, governments are pouring millions of dollars into education reform in an effort to address failings in many local schools. These have led to poor performance on international exams and difficulties in preparing students for university and the workforce.

Several countries, including the UAE, are in the process of replacing their curricula, which tend to encourage rote memorisation of facts and figures rather than the development of critical thinking skills. The federal ministry and local education councils have identified gaps in teacher quality. Studies for the Ministry of Education in 2001 and 2005 found that only 44 per cent of teachers had a degree in education and most new teachers spent only two weeks in training before starting work.

Some studies suggest that the calibre of teaching is the most important factor in student achievement. Dubai school inspections revealed serious problems with teachers of Arabic and Islamic studies working in private schools. Most of them are trained locally or in the region. School principals say it is difficult to find teachers from the region with the same level of expertise as their counterparts working in international schools.

"One of the things we know that improves teachers is for them to build their own knowledge, to get engaged in what they're teaching," Dr Kurshan said. Curriki, she said, encouraged teachers to get involved in the design and implementation of lesson plans, rather than simply presenting the content of a lesson without engaging the material. "If you can engage teachers in building their own knowledge they are going to have a significant impact on students and their students will do better.

"Teaching is one of the most isolated professions. They spend a lot of time in their classrooms behind a closed door and they don't have an ability to ask other people if what they are doing is having an impact." The Curriki project began in 2004 as part of an education programme by Sun Microsystems, a Silicon Valley computer firm. It later became a non-profit foundation based in Washington, DC. Curriki uses a platform that allows educators to collaborate in building and modifying curricula, which can be adapted to the needs of local schools or even specific students.

"It's a really good way [for teachers] to get access to a lot of materials they otherwise wouldn't have access to," said Anna Batchelder, the chief executive of Bon Education, the Curriki partner that provides professional development on the technology in the region. Last year, Ms Batchelder worked on a project in the UAE with the federal Ministry of Education, training English, maths and science teachers to use information technology in their classrooms.

If Curriki is launched in Arabic, Ms Batchelder's company will help train teachers in the technology. She said government school teachers, particularly those in rural areas who did not have access to libraries or bookstores, could benefit greatly from the site. "A platform like Curriki allows local teachers to share examples of best practices," said Ms Batchelder. She said sharing ideas and information across cultures could also improve teaching.

"If you look all these international assessments, I'm always wondering: What are people doing in Finland and Singapore that puts them at the top?" she said. "Teachers don't often get access to research that talks about that, or it's not written in language that people have the time to read. "What's useful about Curriki is you can see lessons created by people around the world. When I'm creating lessons maybe I have an idea but I'm curious about how other people are doing it, am I missing any major components. It's really useful to be able to check how other people are approaching the topics."

Clive Pierrepont, director of communications and marketing at Taaleem, the second largest private school operator in the country, said his company would encourage teachers to use the site. "Rather than small pockets of people working in isolation, if you've got a collective community working together you're going to see a rise in standards," Mr Pierrepont said. @Email:klewis@thenational.ae