Redesigned education system vital to region’s future prospects
About half of the Middle East and North Africa’s (MENA) population is under 24 years of age. This offers a prime opportunity to groom them to be future agents of positive change by empowering them with the knowledge and skills required to make a difference in their communities. Redesigning education systems in the region will ensure it graduates the necessary human capital to secure global competitiveness.
However, education in the region is currently in peril. UNICEF estimates that one in every five children does not attend school, citing that more than 3 million students were forced out of schools due to conflicts and crises. For those who do attend school, international assessments of learning outcomes have recorded that most MENA countries score below average in essential skills for reading, science and mathematics. Consequently, MENA youths (15 to 24 years) are the highest unemployed group in the world, in a region where jobs are not created quickly enough to accommodate this burgeoning segment.
That is why education systems in the region must be redesigned to adapt to modern challenges and a future likely to be fraught with uncertainty and volatility. A strong emphasis must be placed on the individual talents within each student, while a nurturing setting where they can flourish must be provided. It is advisable to introduce futuristic subjects such as coding, artificial intelligence and economics to prepare students for these fields. Teachers need to focus on grooming the important skills that will be needed for the future labor market, such as design thinking, problem-solving, critical analysis, communication, and digital literacy. Special courses on managing well-being are also important as students learn to grapple with various life challenges by equipping themselves with useful skills, such as self-awareness, resilience and visioning.
Young children are insatiably curious about the world and, though they might be limited in knowledge or experience, it is a prime time to nurture both in an early education setting. Well-established research asserts that, in the period between birth and age three, a child’s brain develops millions of neural connections, more than at any other time in their lives. As such, many experts assert that this is the prime period for laying the foundations for thinking, feeling, learning and behaving. Establishing quality early education programs would ensure children thrive in a setting where they can learn through play, develop their cognitive skills, foster positive relationships, pick up language skills, acquire positive behaviors, nurture their artistic skills, and hone their emotional intelligence.
Studies show that school libraries are strongly linked to increased graduation rates and mastery of academic subjects. Their presence is certainly game-changing. School libraries should be aesthetically designed in order to lure students in. Collections need to be regularly updated and well-suited to students according to their age, with essential titles covering subjects including the arts, history, nature, science, culture, fiction, comics, technology, classics, sports, and poetry. Librarians need to be trained to encourage students’ curiosity. Great library programs also organize regular school book fairs, author talks and reading challenges to keep students engaged throughout the year.
Teachers need to focus on grooming the important skills that will be needed for the future labor market.
Extracurricular activities are excellent avenues for discovering new interests, acquiring knowledge, raising self-esteem and enhancing social skills. With many curricula neglecting expressive subjects like art and drama, such activities and clubs provide much-needed space for self-expression. Interesting themes for clubs could include journalism, economics, design, sports, volunteering, languages, STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) subjects, film, and music.
Competent career counselors also play an influential role in shaping students’ decisions regarding their academic journeys and future careers. Students benefit from career counseling by developing their strengths, boosting their morale and carefully planning for their future. Each student must receive individual counseling, whereby their personal interests and achievements are evaluated to determine the best way forward. Career counselors also organize open days to allow university representatives or successful people to visit classrooms and talk about the nuances of pursuing different careers. University application workshops should also be on offer.
It is also necessary to establish proper channels for engaging parents with their children’s learning. Evidence points out that students with parents who are involved in their education are more likely to have better grades, enjoy better social skills, demonstrate positive behaviors and graduate from high school. Most importantly, this would curb the worrying school dropout rates in many countries. Teachers can engage parents by sharing each semester’s learning goals and keeping them updated on progress and assignments on a weekly basis. Many digital applications allow this kind of engagement, such as ClassDojo, which enables teachers to share posts, pictures, discussions and content with parents.
Teachers remain the crux of the education system, as they are the orchestrators of most student learning. Formal qualification requirements must be revised in order to recruit the very best minds with a true passion for educating. Teaching colleges must emphasize esteemed characteristics and novel teaching methods, moving away from rote learning. A universal digital platform containing training and teachers’ resources would be most useful to support continuous improvement in teachers’ skills and knowledge. Compensation must be revisited to attract and retain teachers for the long run.
A variety of scholarships need to be offered to students to expand access to higher education. Vocational education should also be on governments’ agendas, as it enables students to pursue many careers, such as in the culinary arts, industrial design, nursing, construction, retail services, agriculture, and hospitality.
By redesigning education systems, we can ensure the coming generations of students are equipped with a suite of cognitive, emotional, social and behavioral skills that will give them the best chance of success in the future labor markets. Ultimately, we wish for every bright student to be a change-maker in our world.
• Sara Al-Mulla is an Emirati civil servant with an interest in human development policy and children’s literature. She can be contacted at www.amorelicious.com.