Qatar : It's Educational

The academic year has come to an end in Qatar so it's a good time to look at what bloggers have been saying about education in the country. Qatar is trying to build a “knowledge economy” in order to diversify its economy away from oil and gas. It has placed a strong focus on education and learning through Qatar Foundation which has established Education City and a Science and Technology Park. Of course, any form of educational reform will have its challenges…

Let's start with Marjorie who was attending a presentation at Carnegie-Mellon in Pittsburgh for faculty and staff who were thinking of spending some time in their satellite campus based at Qatar Foundation in Doha. She notes that most people asked the wrong questions since they don't have the experience to ask the right ones!

…A lot of it was question and answer time and, as always, I was struck by how wrong the questions were. People ask whether the students’ English is a barrier to learning, when the interesting question is really one of transitioning students from an educational system that doesn't promote critical thinking or problem-solving. People ask about how women are treated in Qatar, when really women are not the subject of most discrimination or exploitation. They're just the wrong questions, because people don't yet have the experience to ask the right questions.

Wizmotr, a lecturer at a college in Qatar writes that the ability of so many Qatari nationals to under perform academically is a source of much discussion in pedagogical circles here and provides three anecdotes about the situation:

Story 1:
Just after we finished a course unit for which we had devoted at least 12-16 hours of in class time, a student came to me about a week ago to announce that she didn't understand the concept at all. I asked her to visit me after class and bring her exercises so we could see where she was having problems (I've gotten wise to a few things by now).

She showed up at my office and we sat down. I asked to see the work that she had done. She said that she didn't have it with her. So I told her to go and get her work and come back again and I would be happy to discuss it with her but I needed to have a sense of where she was having trouble. Then she confessed, “Sir, I haven't actually done the work yet.”

“OK,” I said, “Then go and do the work and if you are still having problems, bring your work to me and we'll work it through.” She then blurted out in complete frustration, “Well Sir, I copied the work from another student but I still don't understand it!”

Story 2:
For a final exam, I used an on-line testing utility. Out of 100 points on the exam, the computer could score 68 on its own. In my cockiness, I missed one configuration setting so that the students were able to submit each question in turn, get feedback on whether their answer was correct or now (but not what the correct answer was), and then change their answer if they wanted. I noticed my mistake too late and decided to let them go ahead and write the test anyway. (My own embarrassment was too much). Out of 10 students, only 3 got the full 68 points. One scored 24 marks out of the possible 68 two others barely squeaked past 50% on these questions. So, in conclusion, even with the answer sheet in their possession, passing the exam is not a given (although my conduct was not the smartest thing I'd ever done either).

Story 3:
Two students submitted identical assignments with exactly the same errors. I gave them both a zero and told them why. The first student told me that the second student had missed class that day and that she was only sharing a copy of the assignment so the second student could see how it was done. “Not required,” I said. “The text book has all the instructions and a copy of the finished work. You didn't need to send her anything. Besides, I don't know who copied off of who.”

I talked to the second student later (she wasn't in class when I handed back the assignment). Her reason, “I did the same assignment in a class last semester so I didn't copy off of anyone.” (and by implication the first student must have copied off of her). “Too bad,” I replied, “it still isn't original work and your mark stands.” She rolled her eyes at me and left.

The other day, they came to me again. This time the second student admitted to cheating and they both asked that I give the mark to the first student. “No,” I said, “the marks still stand.”

“But Sir, that's not fair!” they pleaded. I offered that if they felt that this wasn't fair, we could write it up as an academic dishonesty issue and take it to the appropriate process. If they won, great and if they lost, then it would be recorded on their academic record and a second incident of dishonesty would have them dismissed.

Issue dropped. The pain of cheating has to flow both ways so that the person giving the help also gets hurt. Dishonour seems to be a strong motivation in this culture; for my friend to suffer because of my offense is a greater hardship than me just bearing the punishment alone.

In the end, he says that

…What completely blows me away about all this is not that students cheat, or copy, or slack off. What blows me away is that they think that their cheating, or copying or slacking off should be my fault as a teacher. If they cheat, then I'm not being fair by attaching consequences to their cheating; if they don't (or refuse) to do their homework, then it's my fault they aren't learning; if they can't pass an exam, then somehow it's because I should have made the content easier.

In the meantime, Jane in Doha was dismayed at the reason why Qatar is planning to launch an Educational TV station : To curb illegal private tutoring! She blogs:

“this has to be the worst reason to start a TV station (ever)”

I suspect, as does she that this is just a case of the local press misreporting the story. Regardless of the reason, it seems that the station will be launched within three years.

Jane also stumbled across a report from the RAND Corporation titled Education for a New Era : Design and Implementation of K–12 Education Reform in Qatar” which was commissioned by the Qatar Foundation. She quotes the report saying :

…At that time, the Qatari K–12 education system served about 100,000 students, two-thirds of whom attended schools that were government financed and operated. The RAND team found several strengths in this existing system. Many teachers were enthusiastic and wanted to deliver a solid education; some of them exhibited a real desire for change and greater autonomy. Additionally, parents appeared likely to accept new schooling options.
But the weaknesses in the existing system were extensive. There was no vision of quality education and the structures needed to support it. The curriculum in the government (and many private) schools was outmoded, under the rigid control of the Ministry of Education, and unchallenging, and it emphasized rote memorization. The system lacked performance indicators, and the scant performance information that it provided to teachers and administrators meant little to them because they had no authority to make changes in the schools. For a country with such a high per capita income, the national investment in education was small. Teachers received low pay and little professional development, many school buildings were in poor condition, and classrooms were overcrowded.

Jane also points out that the report re-enforced what many teachers already complain about: Low salaries, lack of discipline in schools and short-term contracts:

Teacher salaries in Qatar were comparatively low. Most male teachers were expatriates, and while their average salaries were higher than those of teachers in Saudi Arabia, they were 20 per cent lower than those of teachers in other GCC countries. These low wages raised questions about quality. Even if expatriate teachers were of higher quality than their salaries might indicate, they were working on a contracted basis that led to perverse incentives. Their contracts were renewed on an annual basis, fostering a continuous state of apprehension among them. And although most contracts were renewed, many expatriate teachers reported that they refrained from disciplining Qatari students for fear of offending a family with influence over hiring decisions. To supplement their low salaries, these teachers offered private tutoring outside of school, despite prohibitions against it.

The report concluded that Qatar needs to:

  • Continue to build human capacity through knowledge transfer
    and investment.
  • Continue to promote the principles of the reform.
  • Expand the supply of high-quality schools.
  • Integrate education policy with broader social policies.

But it isn't only educators, parents or students blogging about education in Qatar. The Supreme Education Council in Qatar also has a blog to interact with stakeholders. They describe the blog by saying:

Education is the responsibility of all, and educational participation is one of the principles of Qatar’s education reform initiative. All stakeholders – educators, researchers, journalists, parents are invited to browse, express their opinions. Share their experiences to enrich the debate about Education For A New Era.

Finally, to round off this post, join me in congratulating local Qatari blogger Aisha who just graduated from Qatar University. She wrote :

I just don’t get it yet! In order to be happy about it, I have to believe it !!
SO go a head already!! Make it real! Congratulate me please!!

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