Abu Muhammed

The Grade Factories of Education: Saudi Schools

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Source: Reuters. Image used for illustrative purposes only.

LIKE many people that come to Saudi, I found myself employed by some private grade school teaching English to a bunch of rowdy Arab children. In these situations, teachers moved from overcrowded class to overcrowded class; teaching to children who were in the same room day after day; often for five to six hour stretches with an air conditioner that didn’t quite do the job.

You’re told to follow the book (which is known to one and all as the curriculum) and everyone needed to pass the monthly, quarterly and final exams to prove your worth to the school and fulfill the national mission to teach all Saudis English—yesterday. Allah help you if you didn’t know Arabic, because it was likely more than half didn’t know enough English to say their names and they would be determined to waste their days devising ways not to learn it.

Of course, being someone who had done this before outside my school’s ‘Disney World’ version of ESL, in an attempt to be helpful, I suggested to my employers that maybe education would be best served if they gave teachers their own classrooms and had the student move about. While they stared with horrified bewilderment, I began to tell them about how that would enable the English teachers to create literature rich learning environments decked with exotic media from English speaking countries, sustained reading periods and learning centers with cross curriculum application.

‘Lowering the class size below thirty five wouldn’t hurt either,’ I might have added for good measure.

The vice principal told me in a booming authoritative tone:

“Absolutely nothing must remain on the walls. The owner doesn’t like his building damaged. With regard to the class size, we are over enrolled and it can’t be helped. The school budget won’t allow for the hiring of more teachers. ..and this thing about students changing class instead of teachers—whoever heard of such a thing. Students will be everywhere!”

“We could just walk them to the next class. That’s how we deal with it where I come from,” I said. The vice glared at me in the way people do to invoke shame for being foolish.

Besides antagonizing the administration (and the bilingual teachers who heard about it second hand saw my advice as a direct threat to getting asked back next year), I knew owners usually reacted to my suggestions in much the same way as the Japanese army when they first saw Godzilla’s mama emerge from the sea. The principal, who wanted to seem proactive, asked me to write a report and make sure what I was talking about was based on current language theory.

Instead of letting it go, I whipped together a report that night (with footnotes) and in that text book English we use when writing a university level paper and then dropped it into the principal’s box on my way to class the next morning.

Nobody likes a smart-aleck. It only took two of these experiences (Okay, three) to learn that making people feel stupid wasn’t the best way to win friends and influence people.

Eventually I figured out why no one seemed receptive to what would be common knowledge in the US and as well as something more important. The first is that most government and private schools are being run for profit. School owners try to minimize resources and salaries to increase the bottom line. Their motto is to streamline the process and show results (which most often means making it so that every student passes). Don’t confuse the consumer with a lot high tech jargon and stuff they’re not used to.

Students come to school to do well therefore that is the product (‘doing well’) rather than learning. The parent and student are happy and everyone comes back and doesn’t complain. The factory must continue production and projected profits realized.

This leads to the other reason—organization. Because schools function as factories for students to produce good grades, students must conform to the learning practices of the school rather than the other way around.

Protocols aren’t developed to solve unexpected situations with students or staff (that’s too complicated). Either the requirement is waved, or in the case of something that is so wrong it must be changed; a fall guy among the teaching or administrative staff is chosen to fall on the proverbial sword of expediency (hence one of the reasons for not being a smart aleck in these places).

It’s sort of like the way they fix traffic congestion due to a turn in the middle of the block in the City of Sharjah. They eliminate the turn and make people drive to Dubai for a u-turn (and yes, the schools in the UAE have the same problem).

Now fixing this way of thinking is another topic of conversation. Meanwhile, while we all wait for the hot part of ‘hell to freeze over,’ providing students with a literature rich environment could have a favorable impact on learning in the Arabian Peninsula.

A Literature Rich Environment to Increase Learning

Saudi schools need a more effective approach to English language teaching. Any western-trained teacher who has taught in Saudi schools can see that there is something very flawed in their English language acquisition techniques and orientations.

The most salient characteristic sign of this is the lack of a literature rich environment.

Most of us who have been part of literacy programs in the West know this is such a tremendous undertaking; it takes legions of experts and years of planning to devise a plan to just improve literacy in a western speaking country. Though the country appears to desire a bilingual society (with English as its language of choice), it seems that it perceives its route to get there is through English language training.

In order for Saudi Arabia to achieve its bilingual aspirations, it needs to strive for English literacy.

But sometimes ground breaking initiatives in societies with relatively small populations can be seeded for change if private schools begin to welcome and nourish the methodology of change. And once in a blue moon it can be the individuals that effect the greatest change in the society. There is no discipline more conducive to grassroots growth than education.

Private schools (such as internationals) that have the autonomy to implement these changes can do so by taking to heart and practice the following points of knowledge and suggestions.

Education Must Be Environmentally Defined

In the West, learning has an environment definition—meaning, students learn best when the environment is conducive to it.

Literacy is a clear example of this axiom.

Current English language textbooks used in Saudi rely heavily on sight reading methodology. Though the sight reading philosophy used by the current English language texts at most primary schools are compatible to the short term, visual memory to foster rapid language training and use, its impact is hampered by the lack of a visual stimulating environment.

Sight reading is most effective in literature rich classes where verbal and written drills are reinforced by a mosaic of related printed material reflected in the learning environment.  Without a print rich environment, sight reading becomes rote learning in an ESL class. Students may be able to do book assignments, but have little to no speaking ability. Though the current text books used by Saudi students appear to offer both sight and phonic training, the phonic component lacks a systematic format. The student is forced to simply use short term retention to fulfill the text task requirements as a matter of expediency in the wake of teacher pacing. Teachers enable this stagnant learning situation by constructing test and quizzes that fail to challenge the student to demonstration any real comprehension of the material.

In America, curriculum designers under political pressure to make schools appear more successful became sight-reading enthusiast because of its ability to raise test scores. The teaching community however saw phonics training as more of an empowering and useful tool in the emergence of literacy because it gave the student a variety of auditory decoding skills that improve reading and speaking ability during productive language practice and independent work.

Although collocation (language taught because of frequency of use during a current point in time) seems to be the flavor of the current times in Saudi textbooks, the vocabulary introduced through it can confuse students (use can change due to locality and other factors) and increase the reliance on instructor input. Students need an intensive phonics course to give them the tools for a broader base to negotiate their vocabulary acquisition, independent practice (by reading as well as listening) and retention through  stepped and serialized reading texts.

With regard to a literature rich environment to reinforce literacy, research shows that learning can be increased  through repeated exposure to visual material posted in hallways and on the walls of classrooms (deemed ‘passive learning’). The first words many children say are often learned by sight reading through re-occurring visual or iconic cues.  All you have to do is look to your own children for proof (How many children can read the Toys R Us sign or McDonalds before they know the English alphabet?).

Consequently, it is commonly understood in the west that English language literacy comes from the use of both approaches to develop both auditory and visual acuity (this is called “balanced approach”).  At the primary level, we need to encourage teachers to see these language learning techniques as two sides of immersion. I therefore recommend schools wishing to improve their English learning to:

Hire real English teachers and reading specialist instead of certified language trainers—particularly ones who have experience with literacy programs. CELTA and like certificates are good to qualify people to teach short training courses, though they are no substitute for someone who did four years of education studies in college and passed a post graduate student teaching course with in the field approved observation for regular school learning and teaching. Owners should try to hire Masters level professionals—they write most of the books in field and have a working knowledge of what works. Doctorates (unless they are Ed.D.’s) focus on the theoretical and research.

Primary school classes—particularly lower levels should be given phonics training before or/and while receiving the whole language instruction.

Establish a literature rich environment to make children aware of the purposes of reading and writing (classroom walls and doors should be used to display printed media).

Displays in the classroom for student work.

Teachers should remain stationary while students are taken from class to class at the end of the period so teachers can construct and maintain the learning environment. The classroom should be a tool for the teacher to facilitate learning, not a lair for students to promote adolescent tribalism.

A program to promote English literacy and language studies (thereby inculcating a culture of literacy) should be implemented school wide and promoted like the king’s imminent return from a trip overseas. This usually means establishing a required reading list of books for all grade levels.

Develop authentic assessment techniques that require demonstration of competency rather than reliance on homemade or standardized testing to measure student ability.

Teach English literature courses to advance students.

Use learning films as a teaching aid. They provide an authentic context and can be viewed over and over by students.

The above principles of learning hold true for all subjects, not just English language instruction. If you want bilingual fluency, the Arabic language should be given the same treatment.

A Final Important Note

Lastly, get some experts in that can draft curriculum standards rather than this follow-the-book thing most of the Gulf has been doing since they started public education. The text book is not part of the divine revelation. In the West, teachers go to school and learn how to use text books as a tool to aid in learning not the other way around.

Education isn’t just some western trick we use to amuse our children so we can occupy our days with leisurely pursuits. If schools hire the right people and listen to them instead of relying on the book salesman, progress to build ‘real’ school systems in Arabian societies could become a reality one day.

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