12-year educational transformation, not reform: What the ministry’s strategy, to be applied this month, is all about

To reap the fruit of the new system and harness the first batch of “newly” educated graduates, it will take 12 years (Photo courtesy of nationalgeographic via Wikimedia Commons)

In the 2017-2018 Global Competitiveness Report by the World Bank, Egypt ranked 133 out of 137 countries in terms of quality of primary education. The ministry and government as a whole are in no denial about the problem of the country’s educational system. Ever since Minister of Education Tarek Shawki has been appointed, he has promised a complete change of the system.

At the 23rd Euromoney Egypt conference on September 4 and 5, 2018, senior advisor to the minister for assessment, examinations and curriculum Deena Boraie laid out the ministry’s plan – to be implemented this month – to transform the country’s education system.

Transformation versus reform
“We’ve been trying to fix our education system for years. We’ve been in perpetual reform for decades,” Boraie said. “We used to be the top in the region [in education] and now this has reversed. We decided to do something quite radical and very ambitious. […] This time we are on the verge of something that will work.”

According to the senior advisor, the reason behind her optimism is that the president, whose vision is rebuilding of the Egyptian citizen, and the minister, whose vision is to transform the system, are completely aligned.

“To us, transformation and reform are not synonymous. Transformation is completely changing the mindset and principles of what education is and what learning is about. […] Reform is fixing the system that [has been there] for years. This is the fundamental difference this time around,” she further explained.  

We decided to do something quite radical and very ambitious

So what is changing?
The new system is going to be rolled out starting September 22, 2018 and will take 12 years to be completed.

“Briefly, what are we doing? We’re radically changing KG1, KG2 and Grade 1,” Boraie revealed.

The first change is the curriculum. When designing the curriculum, the ministry looked at what they wanted the students to look like after Grade 12. It is not all about math and literacy this time around, but about life skills as well.

“What are the skills that students need to have in order to be lifelong learners, to think, learn, innovate, compete locally and internationally? [This includes] numeracy, which is math; literacy, which is reading; and life skills. We didn’t make this up.”

The concept relies on a framework called the Life Skills and Global Citizenship Education Initiative for the MENA region. It is based on research done by different United Nations agencies and the World Bank, and is a set of twelve core life skills using the four-dimensional learning model: “Learning to Know” (Cognitive Dimension), “Learning to Do” (Instrumental Dimension), “Learning to Be” (Individual Dimension) and “Learning to Live Together” (Social Dimension). Simply, the framework teaches children critical thinking, respect for diversity, communication, empathy, cooperation, problem solving etc.

“We integrated all of these life skills for the first time. We had experts help us weave in those life skills,” she said, adding that “the second thing is that we developed a curriculum framework for the whole system.”

This includes giving students in secondary school the choice of selecting courses like robotics, design thinking, coding and programming in order to prepare them for the future job market.

We have to solve our own problem

Is a curriculum change enough?
“No,” Boraie said. “What is the heart of any education system? The teachers. This is our main challenge. We want to develop the teachers’ mindset which is a product of the old system.”

She elaborated that the main obstacle is getting the teachers to think in the same way the curriculum was designed and deliver it in the intended way.

“If we succeed in changing 10 percent [of the teachers’ mindset] in the first year, we will be very happy. The problem is that the source, which is the faculty of education, also needs to be transformed,” she said. “Therefore, the Minister of Higher Education is working on that. Are we going to wait for the Ministry of Higher Education to reform the faculties of education? No, we have to solve our own problem because we have over a million teachers.”

How will the outcome be measured?
The ministry has participated in several international assessments, including the TIMSS which assesses math and science skills and PIRLS which assesses reading skills. In 2016, Egypt ranked 55 out of 56 countries in both math and sciences.

“Our PIRLS is very, very bad compared to international standards and our TIMSS results are not very good either. […] We will continue to participate in these international standards [tests]. We will have a baseline and then, a few years [down the line], we will be able to demonstrate that we have increased,” the senior advisor stated.  

The World Bank is currently designing a framework to measure life skills, in which the ministry is planning to participate as well.

What we did with our economy very successfully, we need to do with education

What about the Thanaweyya Amma?
Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research Khaled Abdel Ghaffar presented two charts at a recent presidential meeting which highlighted how 40 percent of students score between 95 and 100 percent in their Thanaweyya Amma exams, while 30 percent of students fail their first year in university.

“Parents start giving their children private lessons from the primary grade, preparing them for exams, not for education. These exams do not develop resilience or communication skills; it is all about memorizing a specific book. This is what we’re trying to break,” Boraie highlighted.

Hence, the ministry moved away from a one-shot exam in the final Thanaweyya Amma year and have started an online examination system. Currently, the ministry is spending “tons of money” on security for Thanaweyya Amma exams, using military airplanes to transport the exam sheets and templates to different governments. This came in an attempt to stop the recurring exam leaks that have been plaguing the system for a few years now.

“We have to start thinking out of the box and leap instead of trying to do paper-and-pencil tests which are very problematic in managing. […] Therefore, we decided to […] go directly to testing students in their classrooms, with the developments in IT as a guarantee. Through that, we can guarantee security because we’ll be using multiple test forms. With technology, this is not going to be impossible,” Boraie said.

When can we expect to reap what we’re sowing?
To reap the fruit of the new system and harness the first batch of “newly” educated graduates, it will take 12 years.

“What we did with our economy very successfully, we need to do with education. But with education, it is a little different because we are dealing with human beings, the parents and teachers, who […] we want to do something radically different. This is the difficult equation. We are setting our expectations of success pretty low so that we can be realistic,” she concluded.

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