Arab states have consistently rated extremely low in TIMSS global math and science test, and the latest results released for 2011 are no exception.
TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study) is a standardised test for young pupils to measure how good education is in each country. Unfortunately, Arab states remain well below the average mark, a reflection of the poor and aging education systems in most of the countries of the region.
While Qatari and Emirati students have made some good progress, most of the other countries remain stagnant, making the end of the list. In fact, in fourth-grade math, the 10 lowest-performing states were all Arab ones (keeping in mind that there are only 10 Arab states on the test in the first place.)
In a feature published earlier this month in Gulf News, Nidhal Guessoum, associate dean at the American University of Sharjah, UAE, argues for the need to update the science and mathematics curricula of Arab states – and to do that these countries will need to look East, rather than the tradition approach of looking West. Singapore, which has consistently scored very highly in TIMSS, may be the best option to look at. Even the US is currently studying the educational system there to overhaul its own, under-performing system.
Education in many of the Arab states relies on rote learning and memorization of as much information as possible. Turning to the Singaporean example, Guessoum suggests a shift to focusing on fewer topics, but exploring those extensively and in various ways through experiments, hands-on approaches, and graphical representations.
To solve the underlying problems, Guessoum says that “educators need to stress the relevance of science to a host of societal issues, such as the environment, economics, etc.; we also need to re-train the teachers, especially by integrating today’s digital resources; and we need to lighten the curriculum and make it more cross-disciplinary.”
Last week, the US State Department and the Arab League Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organization (ALESCO) launched a new initiative to translate open-access educational material to Arabic and make it available freely across the region, will a focus mainly on science and technology.
In late November 2012, Taghreedat, a major Arabic e-content community initiative, partnered with the open source Khan Academy which produces educational science and technology videos to make them available in Arabic.
Hopefully, these initiatives might be the start of a serious, much needed shift in the educational paradigm in the region. However, they must be coupled with a real change inside the classrooms (and outside) as Guessoum argues in his feature.