A new education study seeks to understand why some teachers appear to write off pupils that underperform in school, placing the spotlight on the need to adapt in some of the most diverse classrooms.
In the provocatively titled ‘It’s Useless. They’re Emirati,’ Moneer Moukaddem explores teachers’ perceptions of Emirati pupil attainment in private schools in particular, in an attempt to openly tackle observations discussed behind closed doors.
“This is a phrase I have heard again and again not just in schools but outside. It’s not something politically correct to say and that’s the sensitivity of my topic but it is something on the tip of professionals’ tongues,” Mr Moukaddem said about a study presented at a three-day education summit organised by the Sheikh Saud Bin Saqr Al Qasimi Foundation for Policy Research in Ras Al Khaimah on Monday.
Mr Moukaddem, a researcher with Nottingham University who also works in a senior position at an Abu Dhabi private school, is focusing on attitudes in light of more Emiratis enroling in private schools.
“I’m very passionate about Emirati students and their education. Their success is important to me," he said.
"I grapple this issue on a daily basis – why is education not working for my Emirati students? I wanted to address the problem academically.”
The study takes on a stereotype that Emirati pupils are not motivated. His findings show that making subjects culturally relevant is key to engaging students.
“Emirati students are a minority in the private school system. We need to make content culturally relevant so it meets their needs,” Mr Moukaddem said.
He cited an example of how warnings and letters to parents failed when a school attempted to ensure UAE students attended class on time.
“This was until we realised punctuality may be perceived differently in different cultures," he said.
"So we sent a message, not that 'your son was late to school' but that 'your son was absent from the national anthem, which happened to play at 7.45am'.
"Overnight we saw an explosive increase in the punctuality of students. The question is how can we create a meaningful reason.
"It is a small example of using culture in a meaningful way to help bridge the gap.”
Natasha Ridge, executive director at the Al Qasimi Foundation for Policy Research, said the study highlighted a perception that should be addressed.
“The title is designed to provoke us into thinking when we make these cultural judgments. We need to be culturally intelligent so that we can teach content in a way that students will understand and create education that makes sense to them,” she said.
“I have heard this expression a lot. It is provocative but it is actually a statement that is uttered behind the scenes over and over. I have heard the same statement from teachers in public schools. When this is brought out in to the light, we have to actually address this. It is used when people sort of give up on Emirati students, especially boys.
"But the opposite is true given the right stimulus and the right instruction. So we should think about how do you connect with Emirati boys, how do we get the most out of them?”
Experts believe the attitude is reflective of male Emirati students and not females who perform well in schools. Research conducted by USAID in 2011 point to strong enrolment ratios in the Middle East including the UAE but the challenge is to keep boys from dropping out from secondary school.
Students dropped out to support their family by working, socio economic reasons, poor academic performance, or disciplinary reasons.
Mr Moukaddem believes stereotypes can be dealt with if teachers work together, better understand society and their students.
“Research shows if teachers and schools are culturally competent then attainment can go up and behavioural outcomes can improve. These are thoughts at the back of many people’s minds but it has not been presented in an academic way. This is not new for those who work in education but I’m saying let us work on alternatives.”
Due to the sensitive subject, he declined to give details about the number of teachers and the schools covered.
The study is not representative of all private schools and relied on the convenience sampling method based on teachers accessible and available for interviews.
“I don’t want to go into specifics because of the sensitivity of the groups I interviewed. There are significant limitations to my study and it’s not a representative sample of all private schools in the UAE. It only gives a slice, a window into that world,” he said.