Issues “still to be addressed” in public school curriculum reform

Challenges include transforming the attitudes and approaches of teachers, expanding the scope of the curriculum content and designing appropriate assessment strategie, experts say.

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ABU DHABI // Physical education, art and music education “remain neglected” in public schools while students are being “over tested” by sitting national exams and in-class assessments.

Research recently published by the Sheikh Saud bin Saqr Al Qasimi Foundation for Policy Research found that while art and music are offered at the primary and preparatory school level, they are not available in high school.

“We wanted to emphasise the importance of art, music and PE in creating well-rounded students,” said researcher Susan Kippels, who alongside Samar Farah, worked with Dr Natasha Ridge, the foundation’s ‎executive director, to produce the paper ‘Curriculum Development in the United Arab Emirates’.

When it comes to assessments, public school pupils are “over-tested,” and have to sit three national examinations as well as other in-class tests, according to researchers.

“With growing pressure to do well on both national and international assessments, many students and teachers in the UAE have no choice but to put a stronger emphasis on tests and passive learning than on new skills and active learning,” they wrote.

“Education policymakers should work to alleviate this pressure and focus on how to help students and teachers maintain a balance between learning and assessments.”

The researchers also suggested developing a curriculum authority to oversee education reforms as opposed to relying on experts from foreign countries.

“Nowhere is national identity more clearly defined than through a country’s public school curriculum,” they wrote. “External consultants cannot grasp the needs of the UAE, its vision, its goals, and its moral foundations better than locals. If there was more local involvement in curriculum development in the future, many of these concerns could be diminished or mitigated.”

While the government has taken positive steps toward reforming the public school curriculum “there are still many issues to be addressed,” said the researchers.

“The main challenges that lie ahead include transforming the attitudes and approaches of teachers, expanding the scope of the curriculum content and designing appropriate assessment strategies. Furthermore, local capacity must be expanded to ensure sustainability and suitability of curriculum reforms,” they said.

As a follow-up to the policy brief “Challenges to Curriculum Development in the UAE,” published by the Dubai School of Government in 2009, Dr Ridge’s most recent publication traces the history of education reform in the UAE beginning in 1953, when the first Kuwaiti educational mission opened a school in Sharjah.

The Ministry of Education was formed in 1972, but “schools in the UAE continued to follow a wide assortment of different curricula with varying standards, which were mostly borrowed from neighbouring countries,” the authors wrote.

It wasn’t until 1985, with the adoption of the MoE’s national curriculum project that the country began to move toward a unified Emirati public school curriculum. English as a language of instruction for maths and science was introduced in select schools in 2007. Two years later the Abu Dhabi Education Council rolled out the bilingual education system across all of its public schools.

Since then, pace of education reform across the country intensified with the push for more science, technology, engineering and maths education.

“For anybody who’s looking at curriculum, we want them to be able to see this and reflect on what has already been done,” said Ms Kippels. “Moving forward, we can learn from lessons from the past.”

But for these reforms to be effective. According to the researchers, teachers need to be better-equipped to meet the country’s evolving education objectives.

“Moving away from a textbook-centred curriculum to a student-centred curriculum will require the MOE to provide teachers with rigorous training on the fundamentals of teaching, the scope of which must extend beyond typical pedagogical topics to enable teachers to independently develop instructional materials,” the researchers wrote.

“Unfortunately, many teachers are unlikely to substantially change their behaviour unless they are provided with appropriate incentives to do so. The current system does not yet reward student-centred teaching, and this is unlikely to change unless there is an insistence upon a change in teaching styles and in national assessments.”