Rob L. Wagner روب لستر واقنر

May 15, 2016

The Struggle to Prepare for College in Saudi Arabia

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By Rob L. Wagner

The Arab Weekly

15 May 2016

Jeddah – University professors in Saudi Arabia invariably place incoming fresh­men students into two categories: students educated in private or internation­al schools and those young men and women taught in Saudi state schools.

The disparity between the two groups presents special challenges for university administrators and professors. Privately educated stu­dents generally are placed in ad­vanced streamlined classes. Fresh­men educated in state schools are often directed to remedial instruc­tion. Major weaknesses among state school graduates include Eng­lish language and critical thinking skills.

“I can hardly motivate my stu­dents who just don’t want to be in class,” complained one English language department supervisor at a Jeddah university. “They don’t even belong here.”

It is a harsh assessment and not always fair. The Saudi Ministry of Education has taken steps since 2007 to overhaul the education system. Many graduating seniors are fluent in English and eager to engage with instructors at the uni­versity level but overall the system remains mired in outdated teaching methods and lack of supervision of teachers.

The result is that students often score less than 3 when they need at least 6.5 to 7.5 on English skills tests — known by the acronyms IELTS and TOEFL — to qualify for admis­sion to Western universities.

Abdullah Murjan, an English teacher at a Jeddah secondary pub­lic school, said he is assigned to teach gifted students. His students speak English well but struggle with writing.

“Most of the teachers are not well-prepared,” Murjan said. “There is not enough knowledge with pronunciation and grammar. The whole subject is taught in Ara­bic.”

Murjan referred to the Grammar-translation method, conceived to teach Latin in the 16th century. The US military uses the technique to teach soldiers foreign languages be­fore overseas postings.

Saudi state schools use the meth­od to teach English. It streamlines explaining words and phrases and allows instructors to explain the subject in their native tongue. How­ever, the method teaches about English rather than teaching the language itself. It also prevents stu­dents from classroom participation and curbs spontaneous conversa­tion.

“There is little practice and teach­ers don’t force students to speak English,” Murjan said.

The Ministry of Education rec­ognised that students were unpre­pared for university-level courses. In 2008, a royal decree was issued to establish the Tatweer Education Holding Company to develop an education system on par with other countries.

Maryam Albilaly, a coordinator assigned to implement the Tatweer project and run the professional de­velopment programme for teachers in Medina, said it established 25 fe­male and 25 male secondary “smart schools”.

Smart schools use advanced tech­nology as teaching tools. White­boards and projectors were stand­ard equipment and each student in the programme received a laptop computer. It was a first for students in Saudi public schools but the ini­tial phase was short-lived, Albilaly said. The equipment needed regu­lar maintenance but technicians could not keep up with the demand for service. Administrators aban­doned the equipment.

The teachers’ professional de­velopment programme ran better. Tatweer was faced with reversing a culture in which schools had no coherent plan to implement cur­riculum or evaluations to assess teacher professionalism. School ad­ministrators more or less evaluated themselves without established criteria. Evaluation of students’ progress was minimal.

Tatweer developed a programme to assess schools’ progress and the role of administrators and teachers in the school’s educational mission.

“Schools don’t know how to as­sess their own situation,” Albilaly said. “Now (administrators) know they should depend on them­selves to change their schools. The programme is a model for leader­ship. They know exactly what they should do. It’s like a map for them to plan.”

The Tatweer programme has proved to be a success at the ex­perimental stage and the Educa­tion Ministry wants to copy it for other schools. The Tatweer plan has mushroomed from the initial 50 schools to about 900.

While Albilaly said changing the teaching and administrative cul­ture in public schools will lead to better education for students, she acknowledged that she has been unable to chart students’ progress.

Traditionally, Saudi public schools had focused on memorisa­tion with little interaction between student and teacher. Saudi publica­tions were the textbooks of choice, which limited students’ view of the world. Much of that has changed with the introduction of computers, access to the internet and use of in­ternational textbooks. Students are more engaged with their teachers. Laptops encourage performance tasks that can be measured by in­structors, although data on success rates continue to be elusive.

“Before, nobody was trained to deal with cooperative learning,” Albilaly said. “That has changed as students respond to teachers now.”

Educators such as Albilaly argue that a primary goal to boast student performance is to change the infra­structure of school administrations but methodology in teaching Eng­lish remains an obstacle.

English reading comprehen­sion, writing and even the ethics of learning are tough nuts to crack, ac­cording to Murjan.

“Students don’t always do the work,” he said. “I ask them to write something and they go to Google translate and then copy and paste their work.”

Once public school administra­tors have established a thorough method of reviewing teachers’ performances, Albilaly said she ex­pects student progress evaluations to follow. It will lead to better Eng­lish instruction.

“The first step is for administra­tors and teachers to learn how to evaluate themselves,” she said.

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