School is just weeks away from the long summer break, but already thoughts are turning to one of the most dramatic changes in the curriculum in recent years.
From the start of next term, every pupil in every school, from the age of six until they leave, must study morals and ethics.
It is a simple idea that is complex in reality; one that will challenge both teachers and their students. Moral education has the power to bring tolerance and open-mindedness, but if done poorly, become an echo chamber for prejudices and received wisdom.
Richard Pring, emeritus professor at Oxford University, where he was director of the department of education studies, and the author of a slew of books and papers on the ideas that underpin the teaching of young minds. The UAE invited him to research its moral education course.
Professor Pring made field trips to schools in both the public and private sector in Abu Dhabi, Al Ain and Dubai this month.
His visit is the final stage before the publication of a major paper on the subject in the Oxford Review of Education and what he saw has left him impressed.
"I've never seen anywhere – and I've travelled a lot – where there is quite such a coherent cross determination to develop a moral perspective across everything," he told The National.
“I think a lot of schools would say they are doing this, but it’s never quite as forcefully put and as explicitly put as it has been here. I’ve found lots of very good practices are going on in schools and I want to feed into this.”
Beyond the current practice of the UAE schools he recently observed, Prof Pring points out that there is a much older tradition of concern for moral issues in the region.
“Moral education means lots of different things to lots of different people,” he said. “But there is a tradition here, which has been shared by the excellent Arab philosophers of the past, in terms of helping people to develop themselves as humans.
“And what is distinct in being human is that we are able to live a life of virtue, and therefore it requires an understanding of what basic human virtues are and how those can be developed here, how they can be developed through school and develop the sort of moral language, the virtue language, which enables them to behave in a particular way.”
That might seem to be quite a lot to ask from a 16-year-old, let alone a six-year-old, but one of the professor’s points is that morals should permeate across the whole curriculum in ways that might not always seem explicit.
“There are particular subject areas where these moral issues are important and can be developed. One example given to me the other day by a very good science teacher was the issues about the environment, plastic, the problems being created around the world.
"Similarly, if you take literature, the teaching of English – it’s all about how do we help people become more human through drama, through plays and through the arts. All this can be seen as extending our view of what counts in being human, and how to be more so, and therefore it is a moral education.”
The country presents an interesting example of what a moral education might be, he said. “The UAE is a very mixed society with very strong secular element as well as those from other religions [than Islam], and therefore its important to develop a view of moral education that isn’t dependent on one particular religious belief.”
Prof Pring believes common values are found in most religions such as "moral values concerning care for others, treating everybody with respect, an approach to life that is meaningful, that is going to be concerned with the common good and those sorts of things”.
Grades 1 to 9 adopted the subject this academic year and it has since been expanded to include Grades 10 to 12 for 2018-2019.
"For teachers it means additional responsibilities, even beyond those who will be specifically appointed to teach moral education. Encouraging teachers to meet and share ideas on the subject is something professor sees as being of “absolute importance.”
Parents also, of course, should play a major role in their child’s moral development, but perhaps inevitably it is in the classroom where many ideas will be formed. “If you are going to get young people to engage in deliberating about the ways in which they can cope with particular moral issues and dilemmas, you've got to move them from merely expressing their view to ensuring their views are constrained by the appropriate evidence,” he said, “otherwise what you get is a mere swapping of opinions”.
“A teacher on certain issues has to be able to withhold a particular view to encourage young people to develop their own view and their capacity to listen to other people, even when they disagree with them.
“That takes a lot of learning,” Prof Pring said. “It’s [something] that very few of our politicians have ever learnt, and that teachers have to learn.”