Saudi education sector on the right track
The Saudi capital Riyadh played host to the sixth annual International Exhibition and Forum for Education, Taleem 2018, for three days last week. This year’s theme was the importance of early childhood education. The conference was an eye-opening and, in many ways, heartening experience that makes me feel even more optimistic about the Kingdom’s future.
The highlight of the conference for me was attending several of the dozens of workshops that covered a host of subjects, including what new research says about the importance of early childhood education for future academic success.
As I listened to these educators speak, a few things became very clear to me. They all cared deeply for the wellbeing of children and considered helping them achieve their full potential the key to the future of any society. There was also a great deal of mutual respect between the lecturers and the people attending the workshops, all of whom were either educators or administrators. It was obvious that, although they presented in different languages, these educators — most of whom were university professors — had respect for each other’s expertise, were there to learn from each other, and were united by their passion for education.
Eye-opening and heartening Taleem 2018 increases optimism for the future of Saudi Arabia and its education sector.
As a Saudi who did not attend university in the Kingdom, it was an opportunity to observe the teaching methods employed by Saudi professors of both genders. In fact, most of the workshops I attended were presided over by female lecturers. For three full days, Saudi men and women shared their experiences and insights, not to mention the same lecture rooms. While most of the attendees were women, there was a significant presence of men, all of whom showed deference to the female presenters, even though it is likely that some of them would have never had a woman teacher before.
The demand for the workshops was so overwhelming that people often stood in lines for half an hour or more to attend. On multiple occasions, both women and men expressed their displeasure over not being able to attend a specific workshop after being told the room was full.
Education reform is arguably a never-ending process. Advances in technology and new findings about pedagogy and brain development, among many other subjects, means there is a steady stream of new information that could potentially improve the way students learn and the way teachers teach. One would be hard pressed to find an education official anywhere in the world who would profess that their schools do not need a few more technological tools, their students test scores could not be higher, or that their own teaching skills do not need refining or improvement.
Over the past 50 years or so, the Saudi education system has undergone a remarkable transformation. For a while, the focus was on increasing the rate of literacy — and now it is among the highest in the world. Another phase revolved around the establishment and building of schools, colleges and universities to accommodate the Saudi population that increased from an estimated five million people in 1970 to more than 32 million today. Just as much effort is now being exerted into ensuring that Saudi students, both boys and girls, are given every chance to excel and to compete with their counterparts around the world. They are being equipped with the tools to help them contribute to the betterment of the human condition. There is no doubt that the Kingdom’s education sector is on the right track.
• Fahad Nazer is a political consultant to the Embassy of Saudi Arabia in Washington and an International Fellow at the National Council on US Arab Relations. He does not represent or speak on behalf of either organization. Twitter: @fanazer