By Rob L. Wagner
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fluent in English and eager to engage with instructors at the university level but overall the system remains mired in outdated teaching methods and lack of supervision of teachers.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.