I SURVIVED the Saudi educational system.
Of course, I didn’t realize that my education was in jeopardy as I went to school. And I managed to obtain my bachelor’s and master’s degrees with distinction.
When I arrived in the United Kingdom to pursue further studies I found myself reasonably prepared. Not only did the Saudi educational system not fail me, but the attitudes of my parents and brothers helped shape my global view of life.
But if 9/11 has taught us anything, it’s self-examination. And we have done plenty in the past seven or eight years to re-examine how we teach the new generation of Saudis to approach life in the 21st century.
While the Saudi educational system has been under review at times over the past few years, King Abdullah has now put the issue at the forefront with his cabinet changes that include the appointment of Noura Al-Fayez as deputy education minister for female students.
Al-Fayez is the first female cabinet appointee.Al-Fayez and her colleagues in the Ministry of Education are faced with the monumental task of bringing Saudi education to a global standard. At the moment nearly 90 percent of the students are receiving an education in Saudi Arabia’s 25,000 public schools.
Fawziah Al-Bakr, a professor of education at King Saud University reported recently that as much as 75 percent of the curriculum is studies in religion. Studies in math and science, not to mention studies of other cultures, are not a priority.
And Prince Faisal Bin Abdullah told a group of ministers recently that, “We need more efforts in strengthening Saudi Arabia’s position by building brains and investing in humans.”King Abdullah obviously believes the same as he has approved SR9 billion in funding for new education projects.
An estimated SR2.9 billion alone has been set aside just for the training and improvement of teachers.As construction continues on the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, the top minds at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have stepped in to serve as consultants.
This is all well and good. But we have seen billions of riyals spent on the Saudi education system in the past without any real progress in turning out great professionals who will take their place among the best scientists, physicians and mathematicians around the world.
An obvious step would be to put religion in its proper context in an academic environment. Without diluting the vital importance of Islam in our society, it can find a place in academia without compromising the value of science and technology, which is the key to the future of Saudi Arabia’s economic diversity and lessening our dependence on oil revenue.
But on a more basic level beyond curriculum is the relationship between teacher and student. Perhaps the greatest weakness in the Saudi classroom is that the authority of the teacher is so great that any attempt to foster intellectual curiosity of students is severely dampened.
A successful educational system demands a flourishing partnership between student and teacher.Saudi teachers have full control over questioning, Students typically are not encouraged to give their own views on subjects, demonstrate their knowledge or to seek explanations and clarifications of lessons they may have difficulty understanding.
I recall as a young girl often being reprimanded for calling my teacher’s attention to inconsistencies in texts because they were changed – as I later learned as an adult – due to cultural differences between Saudis and non-Saudis.
The contadictions in these texts were not necessarily serious, but diluted the object of the lesson, often making useless the point the teacher was trying to make.The nature of interaction inside the Saudi classroom is a one-way street that lacks the basic features of a real interaction that might take place outside the classroom.
It has also been reported that in spite of the Ministry of Education’s efforts to introduce communication-based language teaching by changing textbooks, many teachers still use the traditional teaching methods, where the process of foreign language learning is reduced to the mere mastery of grammar and vocabulary.
This has left high school graduates with a level of communicative skill that is much less than is needed for them not only to cope with communication demands outside the classroom, but also to use language as a tool for learning scientific subjects and exploring knowledge.
Saudi Arabia is undergoing tremendous social and economic challenges. Regional conflict, oil and new international trade relations have put Saudis in direct contact with non-Arabic speakers. It also has made the Saudi government face the challenges of preparing students to cope with this change.
As a result, calls have increased to exert more efforts to teach the students better communication skills to help them deal with this increasing number of non-Arabic speakers. To have any kind of success in the world outside of Saudi Arabia, the next generation will not only need the necessary communication skills to interact with non-Arabic speakers but have the analytical skills to match.
By learning a foreign language through memorization with an emphasis on testing and preventing students to engage in intellectual debates in the classroom, Saudis will always find themselves playing catch-up with the rest of the world.