Learning to change

Niveen Wahish , Sunday 21 Aug 2022

Decades of attempts to reform the education system have shown that good intentions are not enough.

Learning to change
Learning to change


Ministers of education seldom last long, though they usually begin with high hopes that they will be the one to successfully reform the sector. Usually, it is with the Thanaweya Amma, the final examinations that lead to the General Secondary Education Certificate and serve as the entrance qualification for universities, that they begin their attempts at reform.

“They think it is how they can make a quick win,” education expert Mohamed Habib told Al-Ahram Weekly. “But when it comes to reform you have to start at the bottom and work your way up, rather than start at the top.”

Tarek Shawki, the latest minister to meet the fate of his predecessors, is often described as a visionary. He set himself the task of changing the education system from one that for decades had depended on rote memory to a system which, making much more use of technology, was focused on learning for life.

While the Thanaweya Amma was changed, Shawki also paid attention to new entrants to the school system.

Changing in curricula, including at kindergarten level, was a sensible move, says Maha Bali, a professor at the American University in Cairo’s Centre for Learning and Teaching. “The group of experts did a good job transforming the ways the curricula work, making them more holistic and responsive.” Parents of younger children in those age groups, she added, noticed the difference.

Seconding Bali’s opinion, Habib pointed out that it is more recent changes, including last year’s introduction of a new curriculum for primary four students, that had everyone up in arms. Parents complained about the new curriculum, but they were measuring it against how they had been taught. It was the difference the parents disliked. Habib believes it was pressure from parents that led to Shawki’s removal.

Parental discontent was compounded by regular changes to the format of the Thanaweya Amma exams. Initially, Shawki wanted students to take their exams using tablets, but after spending millions of pounds on providing devices for hundreds of thousands of students, and creating a network to connect them to schools, the infrastructure proved too unstable to support final exams.

To prevent cheating — the leaking of questions ahead of the exams had been a perennial problem — multiple choice testing was introduced. While it did put an end to cheating, says Habib, it was not a system with which final year students were familiar.

It is hard to make change after years of schooling, says Bali, and while it is possible to critical thinking questions by using multiple choice questions, which was one of Shawki’s goals, it is not the ideal way to do it. And regardless of any changes in the ways exams are conducted, teachers have to be trained in how to engender creativity and critical thinking. It’s not something they can pull from the air.

“It is good to have people with vision and knowledge in leadership positions. But it’s not enough for them to impose their vision on the people who work on the ground. Everyone affected, teachers, students, and parents, need to participate in the reform process.”

Teachers, says Bali, if they are to be motivated, need to feel they own the changes being made and be rewarded for implementing them. Given that what was being asked of them was a complete change of culture, a few days of additional training was never going to suffice. What was needed was an ongoing process of professional development, during which they unlearned old ways of doing things to make room for the new.

Nor was increased employment of technology in education ever going to be a silver bullet, says Bali. While there are ways technology can enhance access to learning, and support students and teachers, both require a level of digital literacy to succeed. And that takes training.

Going forward, Habib believes the ministry should retain the changes already implemented to the curricula of younger pupils. When it comes to the Thanaweya Amma, he would like to see Shawki’s reforms supplemented by the reintroduction of essay questions in some subjects since their exclusion from the exams, while it reduced the possibility of questions being leaked, had negatively impacted on students’ writing skills.  

Both Shawki and Bali support the Egyptian Knowledge Bank, which was introduced under Shawki.

According to Bali, it has created a degree of equality among Egyptian universities in terms of access to online journals.

On a broader level, ensuring public schools can function, that all eligible students enrol, and teachers are capable of doing their jobs are crucial, says Habib. He notes that while for many years there was a shortage of space in schools, that this is no longer the case is mainly due to students, especially in rural areas, dropping out of school.

According to the World Bank’s Human Capital Index, Egypt suffers from learning poverty, with 70 per cent of 10-year-olds unable to read and understand a simple text, and gross enrollment ratio in pre-primary education has stagnated at 29 per cent.

Bali argues that while more resources must be committed to the sector, the emphasis should be on teacher training and teacher salaries rather than buildings and equipment.

There needs to be more transparency and communication with parents about what is being done and why. For while many reforms have been well-intentioned and well-considered, what was lacking were concerted efforts to bring all stakeholders onboard.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 18 August, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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