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‘What is really shocking’

Jan 23,2014 - Last updated at Jan 23,2014

Many found the statements of the minister of education about “illiteracy” in schools, made a few weeks ago, shocking.

I find them shocking, but for an entirely different reason.

According to the minister, who was taking part in a seminar on the “crisis” of education in the country, 22 per cent of students in the first three grades are “unable to read” either Arabic or English.

In figures, the cited percentage translates into 100,000 students across the Kingdom.

At the said seminar, this “inability to read” was termed as “utter illiteracy”.

No details were given at the event (and if they were, they were never reported) as to what this “utter illiteracy” meant or how the conclusion was arrived at.

In the succeeding days and weeks, which witnessed a flood of comments expressing shock in the media, the ministry remained reticent, saying virtually nothing about the matter — perhaps because the minister, and by implication the ministry, received much praise for revealing such information.

Some curious journalists who dug into the matter, however, discovered that the problem was not “illiteracy” per se and not the “inability” to read the alphabet as such, as was intimated. Rather, the problem pertains to a number of students from the first three grades who were part of a study sample and who were discovered to have “difficulty” in pronouncing “some” sounds, in reading some “uncommon” words, in fluency and in comprehending some concepts.

If these journalists’ findings are correct and in the absence of data to the contrary, this changes the matter entirely.

Saying that our students are “utterly illiterate” or, even, unable to read is one thing, and saying that they are slow in reading and have some problems pronouncing or comprehending some words is quite another.

As someone who taught English at university level for some time now, I find nothing shocking about a percentage of students who have difficulty in pronunciation, fluency or comprehension.

For one thing, English is a foreign language. For another, spelling and pronunciation in English are particularly difficult — even for native speakers.

Additionally, in any learning situation, there are those who do extremely well, those who do well, and those who do not do well at all or fail.

Twenty-two per cent may be a bit high, but it is not abnormal, under the circumstances.

One could argue the same about Arabic, reminding that our students do not use classical Arabic — the language of their study — in their lives. To them — especially in the first three grades — classical Arabic is almost a foreign language.

Furthermore, the problem could also be in the texts chosen for the students to read from and comprehend.

During my experience as an academic administrator at the university who supervised, inspected and analysed several exams in English and Arabic, I found many problems with the questions or exams themselves — not least among which the problem, in both Arabic and English, of choosing vocabulary which is so uncommonly used that even adults cannot comprehend or pronounce.

I am not saying that the situation at the Ministry of Education or at our schools, with which I am amply familiar, is all milk and honey. Far from it. Much is wrong and much needs to be done. But it is not the issue at hand that is the problem.

What bothers many of us about our school education — in the first three grades and later — is not our students’ inability to know their ABC, but the ministry’s insistence on the ABC as a prime or sole objective.

Of course, I am using the ABC here as a metaphor of what our school education has become largely about, as is well-known to all by now: pronouncing, enunciating, repeating verbatim, copying, knowing by heart, memorising and, at best, “understanding”.

What many of us find shocking is not that the students do not know what is in their books because all the focus in school is on what is in these books. The shocking thing in fact is that they forget what they “know” after a very short period of time because they have learned it by heart, and that they leave school without developing the required essential skills that are much more important than the ABC: study skills, work skills or life skills.

We should be shocked because many of our students (much more than the 22 per cent that bothers the ministry) graduate from school and cannot cross the street properly, do not bother to throw litter in garbage containers, do not know how to go about making a request or voicing a complaint, are not aware of basic health principles (including those related to food), do not think scientifically and thus often swallow what is preached to them no matter how irrational or poisonous, do not have basic communication skills, do not know how to plan or manage their time, do not know how to find and process information, do not have solid opinions on a host of fundamental issues, etc.

It is shocking when, for a majority of students and not just the 22 per cent, cheating in exams becomes a habit, when plagiarism in term papers is rampant, when rudeness and violence on our campuses escalate, when emotionalism overpowers reason, when apathy in youth exceeds diligence, when cynicism triumphs over seriousness, when public space is disrespected and abused, when the environment is sabotaged, etc.

One cannot blame the students, of course. The blame lies on the environment in which they are expected to learn the good habits of body, psyche and mind — and on those in charge of those environments.

Where should good habits be learned if not in the family and at school, especially at school?

That our school seems to have entirely abandoned this fundamental educational role is what is really shocking.

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