Engaging Society to Reform Arab Education: From Schooling to Learning

Nathan J. Brown and Marwan Muasher, editors

Arab educational systems need to serve the needs of pluralistic societies and foster the development of active, responsible citizens who are empowered to deal with complexity and advance constructive change. Current systems focus on quantitative indices rather than quality and therefore fail to meet this goal. This is leading to increasingly strong criticism. The 2016 Arab Human Development Report stated simply and starkly: “Overall, the quality of education is poor.”1

Shelves of international reports connect shortcomings in the region’s school systems with unemployment and lack of preparation for looming economic challenges. But this understanding of the problem—focused on how schools need to prepare students for the economy—while accurate, is far too narrow. Reform should focus not only on schools but also on the way that societies engage education. It is not merely economic progress and the workplace that are at stake (though they are), but also political stability and social peace.

However, a broader understanding of the extent of the problem does not lead to despair. In fact, when taking a holistic approach to reform, there is much room for imaginative, constructive, and hopeful suggestions. Reform should not just involve making a set of specific changes in existing school curricula to meet the needs of today’s labor market. Instead, the focus must be on an effort to move society at all levels—political leadership, public officials, teachers, students, and parents and communities—to develop visions for education in their own societies. Such visions need to be based less on what material should be taught in schools and more on how to foster a learning process that integrates what takes place in the classroom, outside of the classroom, in the workplace, in leisure, and long after graduation.

Marwan Muasher
Muasher is vice president for studies at Carnegie, where he oversees research in Washington and Beirut on the Middle East.
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Failing to move from a narrow focus on schooling to a broader and society-wide process of learning will result in generations of unproductive citizens. And concentrating on the first part of that phrase (emphasizing the economic contribution of education) while forgetting the second part (stressing citizenship or the broad societal contributions of education) is both morally troubling and ultimately self-defeating.  

Even when just considering the all-too-narrow goal of educating or instilling knowledge of specific material for participation in today’s workforce, it is clear that systems, for the most part, perform inadequately. Youth unemployment and the resulting alienation remain major problems throughout the region. Pockets of excellence exist, but the quality of education varies so greatly that it reinforces rather than overcomes inequalities. Teachers receive little of the support and continuing training that they need. And the stress on the workforce and economic factors, while understandable, cannot obscure that the systems neglect all other aspects of growth related to engaged learning, individual empowerment, and especially social participation and active citizenship (including values connected to democracy and human rights).

With such profound challenges, technocratic solutions will fall far short. Educational experts can identify clear problems, drawing on international and regional knowledge. This helps with diagnosis but does not point to easy solutions. Often, there is a need to explore educational fields in areas where mechanical copying of curricula and material from other regions does not help. There may not be uniquely Iraqi physics or chemistry (though even in such subjects, simple reproduction of material developed for different societies serves education poorly), but there are Iraqi histories, societies, and cultures. Recommendations for reform must therefore combine general guidelines and proposals with suggestions for specific initiatives that might vary in their details even within the same region.

To be fair, Arab states have realized some real successes in building school systems that have encompassed much of their societies. But they have done so according to an implicit contract in which states provide services and citizens reciprocate with quiescence. That makes it possible to defend the existing school systems on several grounds, but generally only by citing indices of quantity rather than quality of learning. In most countries, educational systems have been expanded out from cities to serve villages, rural areas, and refugee camps; they have taught basic literacy to most of the population (raising youth literacy rates above 90 percent in most Arab states and largely closing a long-standing gender gap in that area).2 Millions of students have graduated each year with a variety of skills that have allowed them to populate various bureaucratic structures, professions, and other activities. The gender gap is closing in areas beyond basic literacy as well. In most states, women outnumber men in pursuing university degrees.3

Nathan J. Brown
Brown, a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, is a distinguished scholar and author of six well-received books on Arab politics.

And many school systems continue to produce large numbers of graduates even while operating in extremely difficult fiscal and political environments—difficult in some countries not only because state resources are so limited but also because some existing regimes have failed to prioritize education or betray broader governance problems that afflict many sectors, including education. But the problem is not just fiscal or political. Even government officials in well-established and wealthier states who have invested heavily in education (with some allocating one-fifth of their overall budget) show frustration with the uneven results.4

Arab educational systems do not—and indeed are not designed to—foster democratic and engaged citizenship in all of its aspects. Rather than focus on learning more broadly, most of them center more narrowly on the acquisition of defined and approved bodies of knowledge. School systems are designed to use specific academic material, and as a result, teachers are encouraged to impart lower-level cognitive skills (recall and comprehension) at the expense of higher-level ones (application, analysis, synthesis, evaluation, and critical thinking). The systems therefore produce graduates with credentials but not the range of skills necessary to deal with the political, economic, and social challenges faced by Arab societies—or even to meet the needs of the workplace, which is the purported goal of many recent reform efforts.

Indeed, for all the extensive school infrastructure built in Arab countries, overall student learning is disappointing, both by national and international standards. (See the Haichour interview for quantitative measures of Arab educational systems.)


How Does Arab Education Measure Up?

El Houcine Haichour is the chief executive officer of Thazra Learning Services and is an expert on human development, education reform, youth, and technology in the Middle East and North Africa.


And even the positive accomplishments of the past are now threatened by a tumultuous and violent regional environment with large refugee populations, state decay in some places, and fiscal pressures in others. Regimes have come to regard burgeoning youth populations throughout the region as looming threats rather than agents of a better future. Even in those societies that have escaped some of the political turmoil of recent years, senior officials in ministries of education feel that they are simply treading water at best; teachers are asked to educate students in a society that denies them adequate respect, status, and opportunities for professional improvement; and the many meaningful learning activities that take place outside of the formal system—widely recognized as a critical element of any educational system—are poorly tracked and difficult to mainstream in the Arab world.

To be sure, there are efforts at educational reform throughout the region, and positive experiences and imaginative experiments must receive attention. But many reformers complain that they are blocked by highly bureaucratized, rigid, and authoritarian organizational arrangements that mostly rely on large-scale, top-down approaches. Well-intentioned past efforts have often failed to attend to the complexities of implementation; neglected the concerns, voices, and priorities of the key stakeholders; lacked strategic vision; and been divorced from any well-articulated and substantiated pedagogical framework. Furthermore, many of these initiatives have been triggered and supported by international agencies and donor countries and are thus perceived as being driven by economic and political agendas rather than local visions.

Yet, despite these pressures, there are agents for positive change throughout existing systems: educators who care deeply about their work, officials who devise innovative solutions, and students who display imagination and have aspirations. That makes it possible to identify some promising experiments and to suggest avenues for mainstreaming them throughout the region and within education systems.

In this paper, we survey the field and the possibilities for reform, beginning with schools themselves, progressing to the official framework in which they operate, and concluding with an emphasis on the entire society.5

The School: Engaging Teachers and Students

Schools are at the center of debates about values, religion, identity, gender, and race—and states have therefore treated them as places where they must exercise their authority. They do so through closely controlling the content of curriculum. This creates two risks: that school systems will be overly centralized and therefore insulated from key stakeholders and mechanisms of accountability to society and that education will be built upon a mistaken understanding of how students learn.

In most Arab states, senior state officials and bodies determine an authoritative set of truths and a codified national and/or religious identity. The educational bureaucracy translates such authoritative determinations into the curriculum. Teachers transmit that to students, who are then examined on how well they have absorbed it. For instance, “national education” is a subject in Egypt, Jordan, and Palestine, and the texts rely on a single, official version of history and politics.6 It is not just the desire for stability and control that leads to centralization. Top-down approaches are also motivated by a desire to reform education to meet the needs of a globalized economy. And officials focus on educational content to ensure uniformity and control, so that even reform efforts are overly centralized.

The result has often left educators and learners feeling that their only choice is between becoming either blind imitators or fervent rejecters of “foreign” ideas. In both these cases, the educational system keeps graduating too many disengaged citizens, angry rebels open to destructive ideas, and potential emigrants longing to leave their society behind. Too many chase an idealized version of the “other” (associated with moral and technological superiority) rather than contribute to their own societies.  

Such approaches do not merely fail to realize their intended results in the short term; they prevent schools and teachers from helping students develop the skills that will enable them to learn outside of school and long after graduation. Current and future citizens must be able to negotiate differences and engage each other constructively. The current systems, based on the inculcation of officially endorsed knowledge, obstruct that goal.

Moreover, these approaches can lead to very mixed messages, as students are sometimes given a patriarchal vision of family life in one subject and an egalitarian one in another—and without the tools to probe the differences or negotiate their way in societies where many past sources of authority are crumbling. Further, curricula often sidestep significant issues, including communal tensions, religious disagreements, gender discrimination and disparities (particularly among poorer populations), and many other entrenched social problems that are deemed too sensitive for schools.

Two broad developments in the international understanding of education over the last three to four decades have helpful implications for educational reform in the Arab world, including for pedagogy, curriculum, and assessment.

First, experts have come to understand education differently—as something that emerges from, and takes place in, a social context rather than from a simple transfer of a body of knowledge to pupils. “Knowledge” is not simply a set of cold facts but something that members of a society develop collectively and argue about. Students should be seen as apprentices—being guided into becoming full and participating members of their communities—rather than receptacles. There is a change from an “acquisition of knowledge” understanding of education to a participation metaphor of learning—one that focuses on the interactive and social nature of sound education more than the simple transfer of information. 

Second, the aims of education have moved beyond the emphasis on knowledge retention and recall to assisting students to think and read critically, express themselves clearly and persuasively, and solve complex problems in science, mathematics, and other areas.

These changes are not merely philosophical; there is now a better understanding of what underlies people’s abilities to solve problems, how to enable students to use what they have learned in new settings, how cultural and social norms affect learning, how students’ prior knowledge and abilities interact with learning, and how to use technology to guide and enhance learning.

In many countries, the new demands of workplaces and active participation in a democratic society have contributed to these developments. This is based on a new understanding of the workplace. Older approaches view it as a place where a labor force with specific credentials is required. That has led to a special focus on mathematics, technology, and science—welcome, to be sure, but unfortunately understood as technical subjects to be mastered rather than as ways of thinking to be cultivated. 

Overall, the rapid growth of knowledge requires school graduates to be able to find and use information rather than simply recall it. That is, there is a need now for graduates to be autonomous learners throughout their lives. Thus, more appropriate educational systems are ones in which teachers guide students in addressing problems constructively as participants, citizens, and lifelong learners—in particular by equipping them to operate in societies characterized by differences over values.

There is another unrelated effect of the stress on technical subjects. It has distracted attention from—and even risked devaluing—the social sciences and humanities, which are precisely where the essential matters of identity, citizenship, and pluralism can be discussed directly. (See the Karami-Akkary interview for a description of the TAMAM project, a specific reform initiative, and the al-Khadra interview on the need for humanities education more broadly.) With much less focus on such subjects in the curriculum, educators have fewer resources and are required (often by the testing system) to fall back on rote learning. 


Constructive Citizenship and School-Based Reform

Rima Karami-Akkary is an associate professor of educational administration, policy, and leadership in the Department of Education at the American University in Beirut and is the director of the TAMAM initiative, funded by a grant from the Arab Thought Foundation.


The two problems—understanding science and mathematics as a set of information to be transferred and the neglect of other subjects—often stem jointly from a good-faith attempt to be current but a misplaced emphasis on what current realities suggest should receive attention.

Past reform in the Arab world has focused on the content of the curriculum and that is indeed important, but it is not the only issue. It is how such subjects are taught (pedagogy) and who teaches (teachers) them that affect much of what is learned. Indeed, this is precisely what should unite all parts of the system across the range of academic subjects from literature to chemistry.  Instead of attempting to deliver answers from the top, Arab education should allow teachers to guide students in learning how to address problems constructively as participants, citizens, and lifelong learners. They must do so even, or in particular, in societies increasingly characterized by differences over some core values. (See the Karami-Akkary interview for an attempt to grapple with the need to develop citizenship skills.) 

The best approach marries an array of necessarily related approaches in the educational experience, pursuing them simultaneously: learning to learn, learning for individual empowerment, learning to solve problems with others, and learning about values.  

Assessment techniques now in place serve to monitor and control what takes place in schools, augmenting the tendencies of systems to be top-down structures aimed at inculcating facts. The current approach misdirects teacher energies from cultivating learning to instilling specific material. Instead, testing should be reconceived to emphasize more than simple mastery of a subject material. Teachers should be trained as agents rather than intermediaries, or, even better, facilitators, in helping students learn and in identifying and overcoming challenges to the learning process. New appropriate teaching and testing approaches will have to renew the focus on quality. (See the Hashweh interview for a set of suggestions about reforms in pedagogy.)


Pedagogy for Citizenship

Maher Hashweh is a professor of education at the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at Birzeit University in Palestine.


Furthermore, the approach to improving curriculum, pedagogy, assessment, and teacher training must be holistic. Piecemeal efforts can lead to disappointing results. When strong teacher training programs are inserted into a system with a traditional tawjihi assessment (a secondary-school matriculation examination), based on a battery of subject-material tests, for instance, student success will still be based on memorization. 

For students to develop the skills of constructive citizenship, a paradigm shift is needed, placing these skills firmly at the center of education and as key constituents of an Arab graduate profile. This profile sets the framework for learning outcomes that serve as parameters to guide pedagogical interventions, while allowing for adaptation and customization of interventions to the sociocultural context.

The following general guidelines should serve as a springboard for more holistic educational reform across the Arab region:

  • Each country should develop a teacher education strategy. This strategy should be facilitated by—but not be wholly a creature of—the Ministry of Education. It should involve official bodies, teachers, the broader society, and university-based faculties of education.
  • To develop lifelong learners, teachers need to employ a metacognitive approach: students should be helped to understand how they learn, to define their learning goals, and to monitor their progress.
  • The objectives of learning and the skills students acquire through the learning experience need to combine a set of necessarily related dimensions that should be pursued simultaneously: learning to think critically and solve problems; learning for individual empowerment; learning to be effective in the workplace; and learning about values and relating to others. Experimentation with creative pedagogies needs to be encouraged.
  • To improve quality-related outcomes, students need to acquire a deeper understanding of school subjects. The knowledge should be couched in important disciplinary ideas, and it should be gained in a manner that facilitates retrieval and application. This requires studying a smaller number of topics in-depth rather than a larger number of customary topics in a shallow manner. Improving quality also requires teachers to cultivate creativity and innovation.
  • Teachings need to address the preconceptions that students bring to classrooms and deal with the heterogeneity in students’ prior knowledge and abilities. In some cases, learning needs to be customized to motivate students and foster participation.
  • The curriculum, especially in higher grades, should be less rigid. As students transition from pupils to citizens, they need to be given more freedom to explore their interests and develop practical skills. Rigid curricula, older pedagogies, and constant testing undermine such a transition.
  • Vocational education requires greater attention and integration within the curriculum.  Schools should foster, not smother, practical skills. And this should start from the early ages.
  • Technology is often seen as a discrete subject or a set of techniques to teach; it is also sometimes seen as a panacea for handling educational problems. Instead, newer information and communications technologies should be seen as complementary to older ones and as an integral part of the educational process at all levels.
  • Curriculum reforms should trigger changes in evaluations and assessments. Testing should serve education, not the other way around.

The State: Reinventing the Ministry of Education

At the center of educational systems in the Arab world stand ministries of education, hierarchical and sprawling institutions called upon to perform enormous missions. They stand alone, accountable to the top leadership. They need to be integrated into the entire society.

Ministries provide a critical service—just as critical as health and housing services—to the entire population. Even as their officials strive to cope with enormous challenges, ministries are often seen as authoritarian and insular structures. Given this conception of their role—and the enormous extent of the services they are called upon to provide—they can hardly be anything else. But the result can be stultifying, with key constituencies alienated and vested interests ensconced in official procedures and positions that block attempts at reform. (See the Egypt case study for an examination of controversies sparked by an ambitious reform-minded minister of education.)

Indeed, while the word “reform” is widely embraced, it can still sometimes seem threatening.  Comprehensive reform of curriculum and pedagogy, for example, should not aim to undermine existing systems or structures but rather help students explore positive values, engage constructively with those who do not share them, and participate as active citizens in those structures that govern social and political life. As explored above, this must be done in a manner consistent with how students actually learn.

Even if this goal is unobjectionable in principle, embracing it can set off contentious debates.  First, some pious members of the public suspect that students are being encouraged to question religious faith, with education sometimes becoming a battlefield between religious and secular forces. It should not be. When education gets dragged into such conflicts, the debate is actually more political than educational. After all, historically, religious education has always incorporated critical thinking and sought to teach students not just to recite truths but also to apply the core values and practices into their own lives. Pedagogy involving the critical study of texts, for instance, has been a standard educational technique in the religious field for over a millennium.

Second, adversarial relationships have sometimes developed between reformers and teachers (especially teacher unions), where the former see the latter as an obstacle and the latter perceive calls for reform as criticism or even as dissent and insubordination. For instance, in Jordan, several ministers have clashed over the years with the Jordanian Teachers’ Association. In Egypt, the teachers union has treated current reform efforts with some suspicion and has tangled with the current reform-minded minister (see the Egypt case study). Reform should instead be understood and pursued as an opportunity to form an educational vision, raise the prestige of the teaching profession, marry pedagogical theory to the practical experience of classroom teachers, and design a full set of professional development opportunities. In that sense, teachers—and any body representing them—must be integrated as partners in reform efforts.

Case Study

Egypt Case Study: The Politics of Educational Reform in Egypt


Managing these pressures and demands requires a transformational shift. Ministries should reinvent themselves by moving away from being service providers toward being vision/standards setters and process facilitators, while maintaining their role as regulators. Specific reform efforts in recent years are worthy of broader regional study. (See the Egypt case study for a description of a ministry-led effort in Egypt, the Alzaghibi interview for the Saudi experience with a combination of top-down and bottom-up approaches, and the Craissati interview for a description of a society-wide reform process in post-uprising Tunisia.) International networks are being constructed to support and link various initiatives (for example, the Life Skills and Citizenship Education Initiative, which involves international organizations and nongovernmental organizations but influences some Arab ministries).

Instead of simply imposing curricula, writing textbooks, and testing students, ministries can lead societal dialogues about what kind of graduates schools should produce: What is the profile (or set of profiles) that the educational system is designed to foster? (See the Craissati interview for some steps taken in this direction through society-wide dialogue in Tunisia.) Answers to this question—and not a collection of textbooks—are the heart of a true curriculum.


Reforming Saudi Education

Mohammed Alzaghibi is the chief executive officer of Tatweer Company for Educational Services (T4edu), based in Riyadh.



A Tunisian Model?

Dina Craissati is an author and senior adviser on education and development; she has provided technical expertise to diverse nongovernmental organizations and institutions, including the United Nations Children's Fund and the International Development Research Center.


This approach will change the operating model: rather than having the ministry position itself as a fortress of expertise and management, it would serve as the leader of a socially engaged process. Freed from the current emphasis on monitoring fidelity to specific curricular material, ministries can instead focus on setting general policies and articulating a vision, setting general standards, and facilitating their monitoring and implementation. The point is not to undermine ministries of education but to anchor them more fully within the state and the society so that education becomes the concern of all and ministries are integrated rather than insulated.

Even as ministries shift from simply delivering material to broadly facilitating curricula design, they must set standards (and regulate these). But this should be done as part of a process of societal dialogue. 

This will require two major restructuring efforts:

A rethink and redesign of the ministries’ role within the state. Ministries that are leaders rather than bastions of authority and providers of services would function differently within the state apparatus. Specifically, they would

  • Provide support to those responsible for implementing innovative interventions. Instead of merely holding schools and teachers accountable, ministries could identify their emerging professional development needs. Rather than being an “inspection” that emphasizes deficits, evaluation and assessment could become the engine for inquiry, problem solving, and sustainable growth and innovativeness.
  • Reposition research and evaluation so that it would no longer solely be a ministry function but instead entrusted to specialists in independent commissions (for example, as has been attempted in Saudi Arabia [see the Alzaghibi interview]). Such a process can lead to identifying a series of benchmarks and performance indicators. Qualitative and quantitative assessment of these is not merely a technical task for ministries. While ministries set the vision and standards in consultation with various stakeholders, independent bodies should conduct part of the qualitative and quantitative assessments and report to senior political authorities and the general public about the state of education. This will allow authorities and the general public to hold ministries accountable to the standards they have set with society’s input.
  • Build strong links with other state entities so ministries of education are not controlling the educational system in a silo. Ministries of youth have networks of organizations (such as youth clubs) outside of the formal educational system that can help inform policy; ministries of social affairs can link schools to other governmental and communal structures; ministries of labor and economy can link schools to employers; and ministries of higher education and state universities oversee much teacher education and are vital partners in any reform efforts.

The building of mechanisms for broader partnerships and community engagement.  Past reform efforts have generally been pushed hard from the top—the effect has been to centralize more in an effort to force educational reform. And top officials often turn over quickly, leading to ephemeral reform. For instance, Jordan has had a regular succession of ministers—some with very bold visions, who did not stay in the ministry long enough to pursue any long-term agenda. 

Another option has been not to reform the state system but to build large private alternatives (most ambitiously in Qatar).

Both approaches have brought mixed results at best. Local innovation and broad social engagement need some national and state involvement to counteract the risk that education will deepen rather than ameliorate inequalities. Disparities are currently increasing in some societies to the extent that a bifurcation is at risk of emerging: elite (often private) education for the few and an underfunded state sector for less fortunate nonelites.  

A hybrid approach—one that maintains the state role in education but builds mechanisms for broader societal partnerships and engagement at all levels—will be most effective. 

  • Schools can build cooperative education and vocational training with local organizations and enterprises; they can involve parent bodies and community groups; and they can pursue active pedagogies that move some school activities directly into the community (linking school projects with community organizations, local businesses, or municipal governments) so that education becomes more visible outside as well as inside school walls. And schools can draw on expertise within their own communities—currently, students are rarely asked to find, assess, and learn from experts.
  • At the national level, the private sector and civil society should be brought into dialogues about educational needs and vision, focusing on the curriculum very broadly defined (to include not only the material students must master but also what kind of adult citizens the society wishes to foster).

The Society: Reform Through Engagement

Perhaps the biggest unacknowledged challenge for educational reform is that schools are asked to do so much in a world in which much of the learning happens before, after, and outside of school—in the home and the broader society. Or rather, what takes place within the classroom is deeply influenced by the overall social context in which schools operate. Educational reform cannot simply be a task given to existing schools as if they are isolated places but must instead be based on rethinking the role of teachers and schools as part of a broader social fabric of education.

Acknowledging this reality will help societies redefine what they ask schools and teachers to do and assist them rather than asking them to do it alone. Arab schools cannot—and should not—be separated from family and community but instead should actively engage them so that the various influences on student learning (formal and informal) are complementary.

Actually, the challenges posed by the impact of social context are acknowledged by those who encounter them daily. They are widely known at the grassroots level; most people directly engaged in teaching students struggle constantly with the realities imposed by various economic, social, and family problems. But the challenges are rarely acknowledged at a policy level because educational systems tend to guard their expertise and autonomy, effectively treating the classroom as an island where teachers do their educational work. And societies—from parents to senior decisionmakers—reinforce the boundary between school and life by implicitly placing the entire education burden on teachers and schools. 

When societies take a utilitarian view of education—when parents look to schools solely as places that should leave their children with the ability to earn high salaries, obtain useful technical skills, and find rewarding careers and when senior officials think only in terms of producing graduates with marketable resumes—most students, parents, and officials are inevitably disappointed. 

When education is instead anchored in a vision to prepare youth to be engaged citizens and committed members to the betterment of their local society and the improvement of the global human condition—and when everyone from parents to senior officials shares this vision—they can support a set of reforms that will convert the educational apparatus from one that is asked to school children to one that turns them into learners.

And it will encourage a far more holistic sense of what schools should be focusing on. With an emphasis solely on science education, marketable skills, and testing, pedagogy and curriculum are distorted to serve utilitarian ends. Science is taught not as a process but instead as a set of truths or techniques to be mastered. Humanities and social sciences—where the most critical citizenship skills are directly addressed—can fall by the wayside.

The specific reforms that this shift from schooling to learning engenders will likely vary from society to society. But it is possible to advance some suggestions that should find traction throughout the region:

  • Encourage and enable teachers to interact with communities—to bring students out of the classroom into community institutions and bring community institutions into the classrooms.
  • Encourage officials to consult widely on reforms—to view societies as partners rather than obstacles to overcome in the pursuit of positive change.
  • Encourage a holistic view of the entire curriculum (social sciences and humanities, as well as science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) by involving communities in setting general goals and standards about the kinds of graduates schools should produce rather than focusing on the cultivation of specific skills needed for today’s workplace. (See the al-Khadra interview for an argument for the necessity of social science and humanities education.)
  • Integrate newer technologies into the classroom and orient teachers toward blended education, treating such innovations not as alternatives or supplements but as bridges to connect classroom learning to the broader world. Newer technologies can support faster communication, offer new testing tools, reduce printing needs, enable self-assessment and more flexibility, and provide greater access to data and information. Technology use should complement not replace traditional classroom approaches that integrate social, emotional, and artistic components. Team building, working as a group, solving problems using collective intelligence, thinking outside of set processes and protocols, and many other social aspects of learning still must take place in the classroom. (See the Hourani interview for an exploration of the ways technology can be integrated.)
  • Address issues of equity and access—but only after surveying what the real problems are.  The obstacles are often different from what is assumed. For instance, access to the internet through desktops and laptops varies considerably by region and income level, but access through cell phones has actually been very widespread for some time, even in some rural communities. Integration of technology must thus run simply to stay in place—and this requires not only staying abreast of the technologies themselves but also paying attention to (rather than assuming) what students actually do and do not have available. Access to high-quality education in remote and rural areas is more often impeded by a lack of strong teachers who are willing to live in such areas than by limited access to technology. Greater use of e-classrooms may be one way (though of course not the only way) to address this disparity.

Building a New Education Vision

Arab societies collectively are failing to prepare coming generations for the challenges they will face. This is clearly the case in the economic realm, where distress has been growing about youth unemployment, lags in productivity, and stagnation rather than social mobility for graduates.  But this is only part of the problem. It is not simply that educational systems are not producing the expected number of skilled workers, but they are not producing good learners or good citizens.


Humanities and Social Sciences in Jordan

Wafa al-Khadra is an associate professor of English and American literature at the American University of Madaba in Jordan.



Technology and Education Reform

Sami Hourani is the director of Leaders of Tomorrow and the founder and chief executive officer of Forsa for Education, based in Amman.


To that end, educational systems need to be redesigned—or rather converted from schooling to learning systems. Instead of focusing on the inculcation of material and skills defined by today’s workplace, learning systems need to base teaching approaches on how students actually learn and what skills are needed for lifelong learners in an evolving world. Ministries of education need to reinvent themselves—transforming from controlling, authoritative, and isolated structures to vision setters that are anchored in the broader society and integrated with other state bodies. And rather than operating as separate institutions, schools need to become part of a learning network with close links to local, national, and even international communities.

It is not fair to hold educational systems fully to blame for all social problems. But neither can the host of social and political problems in the region be used as an excuse for failing to address the poor quality of education. Much progress can be made even in the context of fiscal constraints and weaknesses in governance. Indeed, educational systems might help in producing a generation that can better deal with those difficulties. Rising generations can be transformed from a looming threat in the eyes of their rulers to agents of a better future.


1 United Nations Development Program, Arab Human Development Report 2016: Youth and the Prospects for Human Development in a Changing Reality (New York: UNDP, 2016), 31, http://hdr.undp.org/sites/default/files/reports/2699/ahdr2016en.pdf.

2 See World Bank, “World Development Indicators: Literacy Rate, Youth Total (% of people ages 15–24) and Gender Parity Index,” https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SE.ADT.1524.LT.ZS?locations=1A and https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SE.ADT.1524.LT.FM.ZS?locations=1A.

3 See World Bank, “World Development Indicators: School Enrollment, Tertiary (% gross),” https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SE.TER.ENRR.FE?locations=1A.

4 See World Bank, “World Development Indicators: Education Inputs,” http://wdi.worldbank.org/table/2.7.

5 The analysis and policy recommendations in this paper are largely drawn from a workshop and private correspondence with the expert authors.

6 Muhammad Faour, “A Review of Citizenship Education in Arab Nations,” Carnegie Middle East Center, May 2013, https://carnegieendowment.org/files/education_for_citizenship.pdf.