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Saudi Arabia wants its students to be happy

The whole idea of learning has turned into a rat race of memorisation.



By Omar Farooqui

Published: Mon 16 Sep 2019, 9:22 PM

Last updated: Mon 16 Sep 2019, 11:24 PM

Whenever I am in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, I always try to visit or at least pass by my school. It used to be like my second home where I spent some of the best years of my life. Like most of us, my school friends continue to be my best friends. Yet, despite having so many fond memories from my school days in my home city, I never enjoyed the process of my education. Staring at the blackboard and listening to teachers for hours was never fun. Despite being a relatively smart kid, I never topped in my class. I loved spending time with friends on the sports ground but classroom always gave me nightmares. This contradiction continued to haunt me until the time I became an educationist and realised that I was not the only one who has had such an experience.

No matter where you live, school life is all about marks, grades, and memorisation of textbooks and lectures. My school and my generation were not exceptions. In fact, for those belonging to mine and my father's generation, and even my son's generation, this obsession with marks and grades has continued. The whole idea of learning has turned into a rat race of memorisation. Unmindful of how creative Abu Ahmed, (name changed on request) my school friend, was in grade 5 he was often bullied by teachers for not earning A-plus grades in science subjects. Despite being great in soccer and leading the school team at the national level, Abu Kareem (name changed on request) was always regarded as a poor performer because of his weak mark sheet. This made most of us in school bitter about ourselves and unsure about our future.

Ironically, things continue to be somewhat the same even today. My children suffer from the same learning anxiety.

Making learning joy is a dream that hasn't yet been achieved.

Unfortunately, the industry stakeholders and policymakers, both in this region and around the world, do not realise that unless education becomes a pleasant experience, we will not be able to produce leaders. Take the example of the United States, which has one of the highest graduation rates for any developed country. Every year, over 1.2 million students drop out of high school in the United States alone. About 25 per cent of high school freshmen fail to graduate from high school on time. In Saudi Arabia, according to a report released by the General Authority of Statistics (GaStat), around 1.3 million students discontinued their education in 2017. And if we add non-Saudis then the number of dropout goes up to 2.5 million people. Nearly 21,000 Saudis dropped out after failing as per the set academic standards. But what prompts these young souls into running away from education? Along with other socio-economic reasons, a tiring and obsolete process of education system worldwide is one of the major causes that make students flee the classroom.

Education is a crucial component of the Saudi Vision 2030. My country is ready to become a hub of education. Specific goals include placing at least five local universities among the global top 200 in international rankings by 2030. The country's Ministry of Education has several targets, such as boosting the number of children in preschool from a baseline 13 per cent to 27.2 per cent by 2020. The percentage of illiterate adults will also be brought down - from 5.32 per cent to 2.5 per cent. According to the PwC education profile, by 2020 a total of 300,000 extra seats will be required in Saudi Arabia's primary sector, across both public and private schools. The same number will be needed at the intermediate level, while at the secondary level that number is 400,000. To meet this growth, an additional 70,000 seats will be required at private primary schools, 20,000 at private intermediates and 60,000 at private secondary schools, with average private school sizes of 200 at primary level, 100 at intermediate and 240 at secondary.

According to the PWC report, 350 private primary schools will be needed by 2020, along with 200 private intermediates and 250 secondary schools. But all these thousands of seats and hundreds of schools will make wonders only if the change comes from within the four walls, which is known as the classroom. We live in a world where there is an alarming rise in depression among school children. The pressure of proving that you are the best takes away all happiness of the child that he/she seeks to explore while learning. I keep telling teachers and parents and academic policymakers around the world that if the child is not happy with the way they are learning, no matter what you do, there will be little progress.

The time to reinvent education is here. It is also the time re-examine the style of teaching and most importantly the time to reevaluate the art of judging students' performance. In other words, let's make our classrooms happy.
Omar Farooqui, a Saudi national, is a founder of Coded Minds (www.coded-minds.org)


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