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In the past few years, we've heard a great deal about the religious and ethnic intolerance tainting school curricula in Middle Eastern countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia. We hear less about the growing push in countries like Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to promote tolerance in schools.
I had the privilege of speaking with His Excellency Dr. Hanif Hassan, the UAE's Education Minister, when he was in Washington about two weeks ago. (For those of you who don't know, the UAE is a small, prosperous and progressive country on the Persian Gulf, between Oman and Saudi Arabia.)
Dr. Hanif described the massive education reform project currently underway in the UAE. UAE schools currently rely too heavily on memorization and recall, he said, and most schools do not prepare students for college. In response, the education ministry is overhauling standards, curricula, assessments, teacher and principal training, instructional methods and school facilities.
In our interview, Hanif lays out a vision for an education system that will secure UAE's status as a diverse, open, modern and thriving nation. Islamic tradition and Arabic language will remain an important focus of their curriculum, but successful education practices from around the world will inform standards and instruction in even these subject areas.
Dr. Hanif's vision for education is grand: "I think we're going to promote this kind of [tolerant] culture, he concludes, "and hopefully we'll be able to maintain this kind of stability in the UAE and spread it to other parts of the world."
(Hear five minutes of interview highlights. You can download the entire recording here.)
A quick warning about our recordings of the interview: The hotel where we interviewed Dr. Hanif was piping an eternal loop of Opera's Greatest Hits through hidden loudspeakers, so the recording sounds a bit like opening night at the Met. If the music becomes too distracting, or if the tenor seems a bit off, then read the transcript below.
PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: Why did you decide to undertake [education] reforms in the first place?
HANIF: First of all, in the UAE we do enjoy a very stable economy. There is progress in all aspects of life in the UAE. And education is really important to keep this kind of progress going and to meet the expectations [of] both the leadership of the country and the community.
Currently, we are not quite satisfied with the outcome of education--because at the end of the day, after 12 years of teaching, our children... If they are not ready for university education in the UAE, [then] we do have an issue with our education system. Which means we have to look into it and compare ourselves with the very best international practices, learn from them, and try to bring them [to the UAE]. And this is what's been happening in the past two years.
We look at outcomes as a benchmark, and we look at the best international practices in all areas: preparation of teachers as a very essential part of making sure that our principals are really ready to lead their schools; [ensuring] the environment within those schools is really good; and making sure that the students are really enjoying their study.
So all those aspects have been of concern to us, and the country has really committed to make a real difference in the education system, where we can compare ourselves to ... countries which have the best education practices...
PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: One of the things you mentioned was the need to get students to enjoy their studies more, and get them more engaged in their studies. Could you address the knowledge, skills and abilities, and even the values you expect to draw out of your students in this new system?
HANIF: Yes. What was happening was that students would go to schools and ... the teachers would just lecture and lecture, and the students would memorize. They [would] go through tests and examinations, and deliver what they had memorized. So this was not an attractive or an interesting environment or atmosphere for the students, [nor] for teachers.
So we've been trying to change, so that the students would be more engaged in activities, in research. And the school environment should be really ready to accommodate them in those activities. The issue of memorization--it shouldn't exist. We need to make sure that students are independent, they think for themselves, they would think analytically...
And I think that the UAE has that potential where students not only get a good education or quality education, but [are] real participants in what's going on in terms of development, and progress--what's happening [in the country]. There are so many organizations and institutions where we can accommodate those activities.
PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: In the United States, we've been very interested in the sorts of values we draw out of our students as we have them in school, and I was wondering if that was a similar concern in the UAE.
HANIF: Values are a really important part [of education], and should be. And if you are talking about the UAE, it's such a dynamic and diverse environment and country, where people from all over the world come together to work and to be part of this huge development which is taking place over there. I think we need to prepare our students to have those values where they can share and live with other people from different backgrounds, different religions, different cultures.
And I think this is the role which the education system has to address. We have to make sure that our students are really becoming global citizens, if I may use this term--to communicate, to interact with other people, regardless of the differences which exist between them.
I think that values are really important to appreciate the world and the resources which are available to them and to appreciate the differences, rather than getting in conflict with other people. So I think this is one of the challenges ahead of us, and we have really to work hard.
PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: To get just a little more specificity on the reforms.... You mentioned among other things the need to ensure that teachers and principals have the abilities and the training they need to succeed. Are there any other major aspects of the reform that you want to highlight?
HANIF: We've been very much involved in working on our people--administrators, the principals, teachers, the human resources. I think this is a very essential part of the whole process. If they are not ready to really lead, to make the changes which we believe should happen, then I think we're going to have a major challenge over there.
So we've been really investing a huge amount of money, resources, time and effort to upgrade their skills and to make sure that they are really in a position to learn from other practices--to change the environment of their schools, to communicate with parents and with teachers within those schools.
But I think one of the other challenges is, of course, to make sure that the facilities in the universities and schools are up to certain standards where the students can really work and enjoy their education. And at the same time, we need to make sure that the learning and social centers, libraries and the whole infrastructure is really upgraded.
The curriculum should be based on international standards and based on outcomes [so] we can measure the progress which our students have to make. And the assessment policy and systems should measure those outcomes, that they are happening and the students are really learning knowledge, skills and tools. We are confident that after 12 years, those students who will be going through this new system will be ready to go to university education without [requiring] any readiness programs.... I think that's going to be a major achievement.
And again, we are not only working on those students to prepare them for the higher education requirements in the UAE, but internationally. I think wherever they choose to go after they graduate from high school, they should be ready to get into those universities without going through any...remedial programs.
PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: As you engage in these sweeping reforms, do you find that you have strong public support for the work you're doing? Among parents, for example?
HANIF: I was reading an email yesterday indicating that with this new project which we started last year, with the "Madares Al Ghad"--the School of Future--there is a shift [occurring,] where parents want their kids to go to this group of schools rather than to regular public school.
Once the parents realize that there are advantages for their children--they are really more independent, they are enjoying their study, they are learning lots of skills and tools, and they can apply those things-I think they will really appreciate the difference or the change we are trying to make. At the end of the day, if I'm a parent, if I see this kind of thing is happening to my children, I will ... support that.
It would take some time, of course, for the community-at-large and the parents to realize this change is for their benefit and for their children's benefit.... There are some good indications. As I say, this email, which was referring to those schools as "model" schools... . There is a shift, there are parents who want to take their children to those schools. I think this is a good sign. But hopefully in the future it will expand, and more of those schools [will be] established throughout the country.
PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: You mentioned earlier that you are drawing on models from across the world, models of successful practice. Are there any special kinds of issues you have to have in mind as you adapt these to the UAE?
PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: I'm assuming you can't just take them wholesale.
HANIF: Absolutely, absolutely. You cannot just bring any model and try to get it in the UAE. You have to learn from the best international practices no matter who it comes from, but you have to make sure that it will be suitable for the UAE culture, environment, and society.
And I think that's what's been happening with Dr. Ferrandino [who is aiding the reform effort] and his colleagues. They bring in best practices to see whether or not [they] would really be suitable for the UAE's society, culture and environment.
But I would say ... we do have our own [subjects] we have to maintain, like Arabic studies. We cannot bring Arabic language from any other culture. We have to build our own capacity, our own curriculum based on certain standards. But that doesn't mean that we shouldn't learn from the way, for example, the English language is being taught in other countries, [or] the kind of standards which the English language has for native speakers.
So we can learn from those practices in applying or using--when it comes into the Arabic language--the kind of methodology, the kind of resources, using technology, using different materials to attract students, to make them really enjoy the Arabic language. ...
When it comes to the Islamic studies, again, it's the same story. We have to build our own standards and design our own curriculum, and then make sure that there are outcomes for these subjects to be met at the end of the day. ...
PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: The final question is whether there are any questions I should have asked you but didn't.
HANIF: I do believe that, in this era ..., [things] are happening between nations and different cultures that mean education has an important role to play in bringing people together to enhance the culture of tolerance and openness. It goes back to education, because the way we raise our children, the way we educate our children, would have a great impact on the way they think and they view others from other countries, other religions, other nationalities.
So far, the UAE has been a very good model. I would say this is a land of diversity, with people from all over the world, from over 190 nationalities. They live in peace and harmony, work together, and they enjoy this life. I think education has a role to play in that in this regard.
And we've been--and [this is an] active and really personal interest--establishing student exchange programs with other countries, and mainly with the United States. This past summer we had a group of students who came to participate in the [inaudible] program. They were in D.C. here, and I think they went back to the UAE with a wonderful experience. They had the opportunity to meet and work with students, [their] same age, from so many countries....
I think we're going to promote this kind of [tolerant] culture, and hopefully we'll be able to maintain this kind of stability in the UAE and spread it to other parts of the world.
PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: Thank you very much. It's really been an honor.
HANIF: Thank you so much.
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