It is a well known fact that the pivotal challenge in today’s Arab world is how to ensure an efficient education which will be able to provide students with varied technical and intellectual skills such as critical thinking, ability to synthesize, ICT competences, entrepreneurship and, at the same time, foster an innovative culture including modern values and principles such as openness, tolerance and dialogue.
The first issue – as all education experts and concerned ministries in the Arab world are well aware of today – lies in the fact that schools can no longer afford to ignore the new information and communication technologies or continue to deal with them as they used to in the past, through traditional audio-visual means. In most situations, when students arrive to school, they are equipped with a digital and virtual culture that determines their attitudes, ways of communicating and learning modes; whereas, in the great majority of cases, schools can only offer them a traditional learning environment. As such, society is facing the serious risk of witnessing a chasm between school, as an institution, and its younger population. If we are not sufficiently careful, youth will seek inspiration elsewhere to identify their lifestyles and their identity.
Since 2011, the strong desire of freedom and justice that has characterized the societies in the Arab world has been legitimate and it could theoretically contribute to a successful reform in several fields and especially in educational systems. But that ideal is just one dimension of what it means to be Arab in the 21st century. Progress can best be achieved by a system of education based on rigor, analytical ability, openness, and critical reasoning. The real challenge is not so much to make education more democratic but to retain this democratic approach while ensuring quality of education. We have to ensure the education we provide is such that students, and future active citizens, can realize their full potential and enjoy a gainful job.
The other fundamental issue is the skills and values that schools are meant to supply to younger generations to enable them to effectively deal with our fast evolving and globalized world. How to communicate, how to access and process information, problem solving skills, reasoning and critical thought, sense of responsibility, entrepreneurship, ability to work with others, adaptability, flexibility and predisposition for lifelong learning are competencies that need to be developed. This know-how list must be combined with a how- to- behave list based on moral and civic values such as tolerance, and respect for the others, regardless of any differences of opinions or beliefs.
There are many parts of society that are ill at ease with modernity. The reconciliation with the current century can only be achieved through a quality education and a creative approach to culture. Our educated population must be well equipped to challenge extremist stances, and the Arab-Muslim world can only truly blossom by embracing a set of open-minded values and principles as a contribution to forming an Arab citizen who would be in sync – and at peace – with his time.
Aware of the challenges facing educational systems, and relying on the decisions of summits, ministers’ conferences in Damas, Tunis and Sharm al Shaykh between 2008 and 2011 and the Doha Declaration in 2010, ALECSO has made of the educational reform in the Arab countries its top priority. In 2012, we launched ARAIEQ (acronym for Arab Regional Agenda for Improving Education Quality) and we set up a fruitful cooperation with the World Bank, the Qatar Foundation and UNESCO/ Brookings (Learning Metrics Task Force). Indeed, it was a very important moment because the large reform that ARAIEQ team and the concerned ministries intended to achieve under the supervision of ALECSO was the only way for education in the Arab world to be instrumental in shaping a population of students who are rooted in their identity and able to meet the requirements posed by the knowledge-based society.
The Agenda was divided up in five pillars. The common plan of those five programs could be summed up in this manner: what are schools expected to teach tomorrow and what cognitive processes should they opt for in carrying out their task and, above all, what sort of individual must they shape?
Currently, in order to make the ambitious Quality program successful, we need to change the paradigm in education: teachers should become coaches or mentors who guide the youth, teach them how to learn, to develop, to foster their abilities. This challenge cannot be taken up without improving the standards of teaching and changing methods and pedagogy. That is why one of the five pillars of ARAIEQ was devoted to Teacher Policy and Teacher Development. In this connection, Governments must not neglect the professional situation and social condition of the teaching staff and must enhance their standard of living if they want to ensure an efficient implementation of the reform regarding the modern methods, values and principles.
Nevertheless, the current situation in the Arab world is not so propitious to a successful implementation of an effective change in the education field.
The “Arab Spring” could have accelerated the education reform process. Unfortunately, the turmoil, conflicts and insecurity, in particular, the Jihadist threat do not allow Arab Governments and civil society to devote their energies to solve this vital problem.
Another crucial issue consists in the imbalance between the growing number of graduates and mediocre economic growth. Arab governments need to develop their international cooperation and attract investments. Such measures would back their efforts to improve economic activities and make the local labor markets capable of absorbing the huge number of young graduates. Unfortunately, we are so far away from sustainable growth and innovative economy.
In these conditions, we cannot achieve a sustainable policy in the field of tolerance, democracy, mutual respect and dialogue, if the level of unemployment remains desperately important. Whatever the importance of reforms in the education field, we cannot win the war against radicalism if we fail to ensure a more equitable way to share the domestic resources and the welfare for the people. Arab governments must coordinate and reinforce their efforts and act rapidly to implement a strong mutation of their educational systems, along with economic reforms.