How to get the UAE to the top of the class when it comes to education has long been a major talking point.
Now a new study is offering an answer, with the help of the much-heralded Finnish school system.
Researchers from New York University Abu Dhabi and the University of Jyväskylä in Finland have gone into the classroom to observe kindergarten lessons in both countries to find out how the UAE could learn from the Nordic nation.
The small Scandinavian country of just 5.5 million people regularly tops international education league tables.
The focus was on the way in which teachers interacted with children aged about five or six and, in particular, the nature of the dialogue between them.
The researchers, who included educationalists as well as psychologists, were looking for extended educational dialogues between the teacher and the children.
By observing dozens of teachers at work in UAE public and private schools as well as schools in Finland, they were able to select lessons where they thought these extended dialogues were most likely to happen.
Recorders were set up in classrooms and transcripts were made of 13 lessons in each country that contained such extended dialogues.
“We were interested in observing teaching practices in kindergarten classrooms in the UAE and in Finland, where there is a long history of early childhood education,” said Dr Antje von Suchodoletz, an assistant professor of psychology at NYU Abu Dhabi and an author of the recent study.
The key part of the research, entitled Patterns of dialogic teaching in kindergarten classrooms of Finland and the United Arab Emirates and published in the journal Learning, Culture and Social Interaction, concerned the analysis and comparison of these transcripts.
Such dialogues were relatively rare in both countries with, instead, the teacher tending to dominate lessons. Typically, the teacher asked a question, the child gave a response, and the teacher then let them know whether they were right or wrong.
Although in both countries extended teacher-pupil dialogues were rare, they were more common in Finland than in the UAE.
Dr Heli Muhonen, a postdoctoral researcher at NYU Abu Dhabi and the lead author of the study, said that, in cases where extended dialogues took place, the teacher was “scaffolding” the learning process, resulting in shared knowledge building.
“Children were allowed to share different opinions and alternative solutions to a problem. In Finland more space was given for children's own initiatives, so there is a certain degree of flexibility in learning goals as they develop during the dialogue,” said Dr Muhonen.
In the UAE, the teachers were more likely to ask more “closed” questions that did not invite such expansive responses from pupils.
There is, say the researchers, a fundamental difference between these two approaches to teaching. In the UAE, the teaching is more focused on the end product, namely the learning or memorising of particular material. By contrast, in Finland the emphasis tends to be on the process of learning, something that involves active participation by the students.
“In my previous study, we were able to show these extended classroom dialogues, where the children can participate actively, are associated with students' higher academic performance,” said Dr Muhonen.
Such dialogues, said Dr Von Suchodoletz, also help children to develop their learning skills, not just to learn specific pieces of information.
“The benefit of extended educational dialogues is to provide children with opportunities for learning. The learning is not just focused on the learning content but processes,” she said.
“[With] the more restricted way of getting the right answer, children may have difficulty transferring that knowledge into other areas.”
Dialogic teaching methods help children to transfer learning strategies between subject areas, even those as disparate as literature and science.
“In Finland the core curriculum is on these core skills: learning how to learn. In the UAE, emphasis is placed on direct instruction of academic knowledge,” said Dr Von Suchodoletz.
The results of the study could be used to inform teacher education and professional development, Dr Von Suchodoletz said, helping to transfer the knowledge from studies like this into the classroom.
A long-term goal is to develop training programmes to help teachers incorporate more extended dialogues into their lessons.
To investigate the subject further, Dr Muhonen is looking into the thought processes of teachers in the UAE and in Finland, investigating when and how they make decisions in the classroom, in order to understand what teachers might need in order to generate more extended dialogues with pupils.
“We would like to see more of these extended discussions between teachers and children, where they build their knowledge together, not where the teacher provides the answers,” she said.
So, in future, life in the UAE classroom might be less about learning facts and more about learning how to learn.