Un blog sur l'éducation dans les pays du Sud – A blog on education in the developing countries

13 août 2018

Promoting change in Arab education: What determined foundations can achieve

Filed under: Uncategorized — Étiquettes : , , , , , — education_south @ 13 h 25 min

Helen Abadzi[1]

August 12, 2018

In June 2018, the United Arab Emirates Ministry (UAE) of Education announced that classes in public primary schools will gradually become coeducational starting in the fall of 2018.[2]  Private schools are often co-ed, but the Arab Gulf countries separate boys and girls in schools from preschool onwards. UAE is the first country in the Gulf to make this policy decision.

Many factors enter into important policy decisions, but it is hard to overlook in this case a study about gender segregation effects on boys in the Gulf.  It was published by the Al Qasimi foundation of the Ras al Khaimah emirate of UAE.  The book documented the effects of foreign male Arab teachers in comparison to highly educated local female teachers for girls.[3]  It pointed to the worrisome learning outcomes vis-à-vis the complex decisions that Gulf countries expect from men.

The policy implications were highly relevant. It is widely known that students in the Arab countries score lower than those of other countries taking international tests.  Much has been written, but in some respects public institutions have limits on what they can explore.  Policy analysis may be more efficiently carried out by privately funded think tanks.  But what model can integrate science with culture and tradition effectively so as to have a broad effect? One example is below, narrated from a personal perspective.


Senior foundation staff, including the executive director Natasha Ridge (2nd left).

I am a World Bank retiree and a cognitive psychologist focused on efficient learning for the poor. Governments and donors aim to promote school attendance and joyful school experiences, but they lack expertise on how to bring this about. Early-grade skills must be automatized to enable complex thinking, but this prerequisite tends to be overlooked.  Which institutions might look below the surface?

An internet search of foundations revealed a possible match in a small town in UAE.  I sent a message asking if they were open to unusual solutions from cognitive science.

The Sheikh Saud bin Saqr Al Qasimi Foundation for Policy Research was founded in 2009 by the Ruler of Ras Al Khaimah, a small Emirate situated at the northern tip of the country.   [www.alqasimifoundation.com] Its research, policy, and practice aim to contribute to the Ras Al Khaimah community, particularly with respect to education. It is rather small; it distributes about US$1.5 million of grant funding annually and has about 28 staff members, Emiratis as well as expatriates.  Initiatives start from the ground-up and range from English-language training in jails to an annual arts festival. Its research department produces credible studies, such as the effects of fatherhood on Arab cultures, health in Ras al Khaimah, and gender-segregated education.

The foundation is very savvy on dissemination.  It uses social media as well as a rigorous plan for transmitting its findings to various government sectors.  And it has broad links to the international and the Gulf educational community.  It acts as the secretariat of the Gulf Comparative Education Society, and its staff active participate in international educational research conferences.  Thus it is acquiring a reputation, and its conferences attract academics and policymakers across the globe.  This international expertise is brought to consider the various life issues of the Ras al Khaimah residents.

Because of its community orientation, this foundation supports practical field research. In April 2016, while at a conference in Kuwait, I met some foundation staff. I was soon invited to give a presentation on the neurocognitive issues and solutions about Arabic reading in greater detail to a larger audience in Ras al Khaimah in May 2016.

The discussions in the meeting quickly focused on local performance.  Did the public school students in Ras Al Khaimah have the same reading issues as other Arab countries? Let’s find out right away!  We downloaded a one-minute reading test in Arabic and within a day, two public schools had agreed to receive us. The foundation staff administered the reading tests to 12 average-performing students of various grades to measure their reading rates. Although the data were limited, they told a story. These students could read, but they read too slowly to make sense of the complex text. Moreover,  the gap between this sample and the oft-used US norm increased by grade. It was a good justification for action.

 “Come over here and pilot your ideas”, said Natasha Ridge, the Executive Director.  I received a small fellowship to cover research expenses, working space in the foundation’s building, and an apartment used by scholars.  A staff member was assigned to implement the project with my help.  She was Sahar ElAsad, an inventive and action-oriented Sudanese.

Theorizing about cognitive psychology is the easy part; producing viable classroom lessons is a completely different challenge.  Starting in January of 2017, I travelled frequently to Ras al Khaimah from Greece. In the mornings, we tried various activities at the Kharan Boys’ Public School.  In the afternoons, we drafted a textbook based on perceptual learning principles. We made videos, observed the students, and revised until we had a reasonable draft of a reading book. We also experimented with oral instruction of standard Arabic grammar. The school staff were rather intrigued by a foreigner teaching Arabic conjugations..

An opportunity arose in the school to conduct an experiment with a control group. For two periods per week, two first-grade sections did social studies, while two other sections practiced our reading book for about 4.5 months.  The reading group had lower pre-test scores than the social studies group – only reading 11 letters and 4 words per minute. Discipline issues also limited instructional time to only about 15 minutes per period. But by the end of the year, students in the reading group read 29 correct letters and 14 words per minute.  They had showed twice the progress rate of the control group and even surpassed them. The most significant finding was that the lowest performers gained the most from the pilot. The videotaped process and the results suggest that perceptual learning indeed lies at the foundation of reading. The findings were consistent with three other pilots in other languages and scripts.[4]  If students develop automaticity in reading, they will learn language in a much easier way and be set to overcome other complexities of Arabic.

Thus, the foundation did not just finance the project, it also enabled its execution at the local level. It scrutinized the ideas of an international scholar and then brought the person to work on the ground, making a connection with local beneficiaries that would have been otherwise impossible.  Based on this pilot program,  the foundation also published a policy paper as well as  two reports on its outcomes.  The staff made sustained efforts to bring the results to the attention of the UAE Ministry of Education and various NGOs to explore opportunities for scaling up the pilot. The experiment was only the first step in making Arabic instruction more efficient, but this step could not have been taken without this integrated strategy.

Watching the team up close, its effectiveness for the Arab culture became obvious. It is a think tank as well as a field organization. Private philanthropy sometimes tries to impose idiosyncratic changes on public education, as was the case of Gates Foundation in the USA. Instead the Al Qasimi Foundation uses international research. Winds blow the desert sand outside the RAK Gas building –  where the Foundation office is located – almost as easily as the staff move from details to well-reasoned policy suggestions.

So, how does the Al Qasimi Foundation fit in the greater Arab context? In  some respects the foundation is optimized for the UAE environment. The UAE government wants its residents to be happy and engaged in education and culture, and the Emirate of Ras al Khaimah promotes the same values.  Also this desert think tank has greatly benefited from Natasha Ridge, its Australian charismatic and humorous executive director. It recruits enthusiastic and hard-working people, who may thus find new ways to fulfil the foundation goals.  This is in contrast with international hiring practices of nonprofits, where the focus is on compliance and ideological alignment of staff.

Clearly, the Al Qasimi Foundation operates in a particular context. The UAE government wants its residents to be happy and engaged in education and culture.  The country has more such broad-perspective foundations, notably Dubai Cares.  The Emirate of Ras al Khaimah promotes the same values.  Also this desert think tank has greatly benefited from the leadership of of its executive director, Natasha Ridge, who recruited enthusiastic and hard-working people.  The research and applications of the institution show that it is possible to improve education while respecting the Arabic cultural values.  The Arab world needs many more local evidence-minded foundations.

[1] Helen Abadzi is a Greek cognitive psychologist and polyglot.  She teaches at the University of Texas at Arlington, USA.

[2] https://www.thenational.ae/uae/boys-and-girls-to-be-educated-together-in-major-shift-for-uae-s-public-schools-1.745934

[3] Ridge, N. (2014).  Education and the Reverse Gender Divide in the Gulf States: Embracing the Global, Ignoring the Local.  New York: Teachers College Press.

[4]  Iyengar, Radhika (2017). « Using Cognitive Neuroscience Principles to Design Efficient Reading Programs: Case Studies from India and Malawi. Submitted for publication.


16 février 2010

USA-CHINA : a reaction to Hilary Clinton “google” speech

Filed under: Comparaisons internationales — Étiquettes : , , , , , , , — education_south @ 13 h 30 min


This post deals with the USA-China rivalry in education and research, taking as its starting point the attacks launched against Google and the reaction of Hilary Clinton. It asks whether the Internet is a motor or a brake to the expansion of the imperialist power of these two major countries. Are new technologies making imperative the investment in prestigious university campuses? How human capital and therefore education is a key element to those childish rivalries? What is the role of Europe in all this?

There is a “ping pong diplomacy” game between Baidu and Google and Europe is counting the points. Major countries want to be one the top of the world but we all know since Galileo that is there is simply no “top of the world”, it is round !

Following the attacks of Google from China, Hilary Clinton said: « And as the birthplace for so many of these technologies, we have a responsibility to see them used for good”.Full text here. We recall that the ancestor of the Internet, Arpanet, was to disperse critical information to respond to a nuclear attack. The purpose of sharing knowledge is not the first goal! But Hilary Clinton makes its own google “don’t be evil”.

Following the attacks of Google from China, Hilary Clinton said: « And as the birthplace for so many of these technologies, we have a responsibility to see them used for good”.Full text here. We recall that the ancestor of the Internet, Arpanet, was to disperse critical information to respond to a nuclear attack. The purpose of sharing knowledge is not the first goal! But Hilary Clinton makes its own google “don’t be evil”.

Her speech is somewhat aggressive but as a fresh new blogger I confess I like it. However some statements are very questionable. She might position again herself as a challenger to Mr Obama, who really does not look like the guy who is going to press any trigger :

In accepting the Nobel Prize, President Obama spoke about the need to build a world in which peace rests on the « inherent rights and dignity of every individual. » And in my speech on human rights at Georgetown» and then : “government censors are working furiously to erase my words from the records of history”.

Who is the boss ?

According to the Secretary of State, free access to information and circulation of ideas are the pillars of democracy and hence economic growth. “In many cases, the internet, mobile phones, and other connection technologies can do for economic growth what the green revolution did for agriculture.”

In China the Internet is controlled and although hardly measured the penetration of this medium would be 16% against 71% in the United States. However, in absolute terms, there are more Chinese then American internet users but statistics about hackers are unfortunately not available! See Journal du Net.

The curves of economy growth in China are a good reason to relativize about Mrs. Clinton speech, her statements are clearly ideological. United States have largely based their economy on the use of Internet and new technology which makes them vulnerable.
According to the computer magazine 01, « for years, the U.S. intelligence agencies warn political leaders and entrepreneurs against Chinese hackers, who have created gaps in networks and sensitive information stored for a possible conflict” . See here
For some, « China would dream of replacing America in the role of super-power technology  » and the Internet supremacy of the United States is just being undermined. The Chinese search engine Baidu has surpassed Google in China but the Internet infrastructure (routers and addressing system) is still mainly concentrated in the USA.
A memo from the CIA, written by a U.S. Air Force captain and appropriately titled Are We Our Own Worst Enemy? enlightens us further:

« Program by program, economic sector by economic sector, we have based critical functions on inadequately protected telecomputing services. In the aggregate, we have created a target-rich environment, and U.S. industry has sold globally much of the generic technology that can be used to strike these targets. DoD has to realize that the human element, not the computer, remains the true cornerstone of information warfare.  »
This soldier tells us that the human element is central and that the U.S. sold the technology to potential attacks. Having skilled hackers, soldiers digital or numeric Jedi (Film Die Hard 4), is a strategic issue, as all the training of fighter pilots or analysis of satellite images. Modern warfare thrives on research and education since the twentieth century, it is its engine. The currently popular idea of an Internet became a sort of world parliament to debate ideas and funny sites is counterbalanced by the possible return to its first love: a weapon.

The central point is to know if Chinese hackers have been trained in major American universities or self-trained in China via the Internet or in Chineese universities? The popular idea from the cinema (Wargame, 1983) of young self-trained hackers not necessarily holding any formal IT diploma can be far from reality today.

Nowadays, we use the same terminology about the Internet as the rivalries of the colonial European empires of the nineteenth century: navigation, hackers, firewalls, ports, google wave. Hackers are paid by governments become “corsaires”, we are in the middle of a knowledge naval battle but the empires do not stand in Europe anymore.

If Chinese hackers were actually trained in the USA, this great power made a bad deal. In trying to attract Chinese students, which originally received grants and had to return home, and believing that culture and the American way of life were such a factor of denial of his origin and his loyalty to the country birthplace, the U.S. faulted by naivety. An African proverb says “A wood stick can stay a longtime in the river it will never turn into a crocodile”.

However, the opening of U.S. universities to people around the world honors this great country. Of course this is far from being free! The U.S. has a long tradition of welcoming foreign students and provide statistical data since 1919, also the year of the creation of the League of Nations. This derives from their faith in liberalism (the institution that produces and analyzes these data are called « open doors ») but can also be inspired by a mason heritage to raise man by knowledge and not just a formidable lever of influence and brain drain.

The Chinese also have a long tradition of welcoming students, including from Africa. China is catching up with the creation of a consortium of universities, the C9 or China Ivy League, which could be again targeted to world dominance by the reproduction of elitist traditions inspired the American model. China is the champion in the field of piracy and counterfeiting of products, reorienting towards ideas, with the exception of human rights of course.

The Chinese trained in the U.S. appear to play a major role in the changing society of the Middle Empire, but the limitation of the Internet makes the US imperialist task more difficult. They are with the Indian students the largest in the United States. The number of Chinese scientific papers has increased fourfold since 2000 and a number of items produced in the U.S. are done by researchers of Chinese origin. In many areas, China has become the world leader : hedge funds in Europe and U.S. are investing heavily in this country which is the world’s largest holder of U.S. Treasure bills.

A form of USA-China tandem is being designed an association between major Chinese and American universities would relegate European research to a minor rank. Moreover, Europe has contributed to technology transfer to China, as in the field of aeronautics and nuclear energy. Perhaps, it would have been wise just to “sell the fish” and not “train to fish”.

Europeans are struggling to develop statistics on foreign students and put in place exchange programs such as Erasmus. They do have their own pseudo-imperialism ideas : « international students are increasingly considered as human resources long term, not only as elements of a score to compare the number of university enrollment, e.g. the intellectual prestige of the major developed countries.  » See Campus France memo.

In its report, the International Center for Migration Policy Development puts in first line the « diplomacy of influence » issue for dealing with policy on foreign students.
Pure delirium!

The « soft power » has hardened and the Europeans have softened. They think they are the lights of the world, they believe themselves superior and it is precisely this idea that China wants fights. They seek to avenge the past affront colonial.

Not only education and research have become strategic issues but are also clearly a market. Most European think this is bad but despite the discourse on knowledge sharing, wiki collaboration and the myth of the “cool” researcher, we are far from the ideals of the University of the Middle Ages. Witness the prohibitive cost of access to advanced knowledge and scientific articles in many areas, beginning with education!

So another Clinton’s statement is clearly wrong : “We stand for a single internet where all of humanity has equal access to knowledge and ideas”.

In the year 2006 the world population of students was more than 2.9 million. It is anticipated that by 2025, 8 million students will continue their studies outside their country of origin. In Australia, the expenditure of students have injected some $ 15.5 billion into the economy in 2008 and education is the second largest export country. View also Brigitte Fournier’s blog.

This delayed ignition in the European debate is probably a lack of data and a very ethno-centric approach, which mainly involves comparing the enrolment capacities, sometimes included in development aid, despite the complain of OECD. While European countries fight in ingenuity for more or less restrictive visa policies and debates on quotas, our Chinese friends are clapping their hands and their students are the most numerous in western countries.

European policies were designed from the sole point of view of immigration without thinking that developing countries had developed strong policies of emigration that could be a source of inspiration. Not without pride and then pretention I was among the first to study the phenomenon of statistics on foreign students in both directions, a flows approach at the Institute of Statistics of UNESCO. This was also the insistence of someone who was working for an Australian company marketing and literally harassed us to obtain data on foreign students and graduates.
Since then, UNESCO has published very interesting thoughts on the issue of student flows in 2009 global education digest. But according to ISU: “there is no data on the country of origin for international students in some countries with higher education systems relatively large such as China “…

The measure of human capital flows from the perspective of individual residence is a bit outdated considering distance training. The statistics just don’t tell us how many businesses have been created, new ideas brought to life by self-taught men or women, having trained over the Internet drawing in foreign locations.

If the productive capacities of European countries are no longer able to compete with China on the basis of prestigious campuses, Europe is far more equipped with new technologies and the Europeans know a priori better use the Internet to learn. Another European bias you will say, old habits die hard! There are different uses of the Internet worldwide, according to a study Chinese Internet users spend 44% of their leisure time to read on the Internet, the U.S. and Europe 30%, and lose no time in exchanging photos on Facebook or Youtube videos, as they don’t’ have no access to these tools!

Read this very interesting paper by the Chineese Academy of Social Science.

Social networks and blogs (like Bondy blog in France) can channel the discontent of the population and maintain the illusion of a more « participatory » democracy, which directly involves citizens. In China, many violent riots were harshly repressed. Internet censorship in this country leads to more radical modes of protest and is no good business sense.

In Western countries, it is unclear whether the profusion of blogs and social networking is really a factor of economic growth and social cohesion, but populations are already engaged on this path.

If Europe tackles the challenge of promoting self-learning, continuing education and allows self-taught to obtain skilled jobs, well paid, she is able to hold its own game. If access to employment is mainly conditioned by the ability to survive in the formal education system, the number of years of study, creative potential is poorly used.

Finding ways of better sharing of knowledge, while providing better data security, would put Europe in the position to create education leverages and therefore impact economic growth. Any restrictive Internet policy appears to be a dead end, anti-democratic and anti-economic. No one can predict the effect of Internet on future generations skills, some think Google turns you into an idiot, other see Facebook as an educational tool, Internet being the royal or imperial road. As Mao said, you don’t not make an omelette without breaking eggs ..

Photos : Harvard campus, pong video game, C9 logo, cybercafe in China from www.emmanuel-bau.fr.

« With a little help from my friend » Google translation.

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