Category Archives: Conferences

School Reform – In What Form ?

School reform in the Arab region is multi-faceted. In this conference, foreign experts shed light on their countries’ experience with public school reform. UAE nationals showed indi erence then apprehension towards western ideas of school reform, of fear that these might rob locals of their cultural identity. Look for The Middle East Educator to cover major school reform projects regionally.

He had a lot to say and he tried to speak slowly and deliberately. Amid the disharmony of sounds, he cracked a joke and nobody laughed. In fact, throughout the keynote speaker’s monologue, the conference room sounded like a cocktail party, except no alcohol was being served.  The expert was Peter McWalters, Rhode Island Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education.

McWalters was speaking at a conference organized last April 17th by The College of Education at the UAE University.  The three-day symposium in Dubai entitled ‘School Reform: Challenges and Aspirations’ hosted workshops and discussions featuring a number of case studies of international scholars and researchers in the field of school reform.

What happened to McWalters came in great contrast to the inaugurating speech made by Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research and Chancellor of UAEU Sheikh Nahayan Mubarak Al Nahayan. His presence so commanded the attention of everyone that you could hear a pin drop. “We have to address this era’s challenges and proceed with important national objectives to elevate the standards of learning from KG to grade 12 levels,” Al Nahayan said.  The minister said the education ministry is working closely with universities on book and curriculum reform, teacher rehabilitation and the implementation of national studies and best practices. “We need to close the big gap between high school and higher education and reduce the exorbitant cost of having college freshmen take remedial courses,” Al Nahayan stressed. He then urged the audience to listen and learn from the experiences of the panel of experts at the conference. Indeed McWalters had some insightful information. He said that in the US, reform was something that was revisited every couple of generations. “We did not serve our children. Only 30% graduated from college with 40-50 percent of high school students not being prepared for it,” McWalters said. In 1983, a federal program entitled ‘A nation at risk’ sent the message that to support one’s family, people needed an education beyond high school with either a two-year technical diploma or a four-year university degree. “The alternative was to become a second class economy with many dropouts being prison inmates and the rest unemployed and either way it’s financially taxing,” McWalters explained. Between 1983 and 2000, all the work was done at state level but in 2000-2001, the federal government revisited with the aim of having all kids graduate. “There was no connetion between high school completion and university placement with teachers on either side not speaking the same language,” McWalters said. He said that children were not encouraged to think critically and debate knowledgably since teaching methods were based on facts with tests based on recall. “They covered who, when and where but not why,” McWalters opined adding “Change has to start at the KG level.”

The commissioner then explained that reform could not happen if the teacher, principal, commissioner and ministry each has a different understanding of leading and supporting. He asked whether UAE schools had teams of teachers who took time or were allowed to share knowledge and practices, or if they made assessment and testing decisions based on state standards. “ e answer in the UAE is here with you. It has to be wrestled with and debated. No one will do it for you,” McWalters advised.

But once McWalters was done, the audience, realizing there wasn’t any auditory input, politely applauded.  The language barrier was something that even simultaneous translation couldn’t overcome. Next up was Kati Haycock. Perhaps thinking of a new communication stratagem to break through the audience, she gingerly took her place at the podium with an uneasy smile on her face.

Being one of the leading child advocates in the field of education, Haycock speaks out for what’s right for young people, especially those who are poor or members of minority groups. She offered a number of suggestions needed to create world-class education. She said that leaving curriculum matters in the hands of teachers will give uneven and repetitive results. “Teachers need clear support as to what to teach and consistency in what teachers ask their students from school to school,” Haycock said. She said that succumbing to a salary based purely on experience means sacrificing teaching quality. “Administrators need to let bad teachers go, no matter what their experience is, and also recognize that effective teachers are not interchangeable,” Haycock pointed out. She said that teachers who get the biggest learning gains need to be studied in terms of their knowledge, practice and attitude “and this is how we prepare future teachers and drive the recruitment process.”

You could almost hear the room full of UAE public school teachers mumble their disapproval of what was being presented to them- reform of their Arab schools based on western ideas. During one of the Q&A sessions, one UAE gentleman commented: “I am not against reform per se, but rather against reform that takes away my garb, my culture, my religion and my children.” He was speaking as a teacher, parent and citizen, and echoing the words of UAEU’s vice-chancellor at the conference. “School reform cannot rely solely on the efforts of those in charge of schools, but also on the effective partnership forged by all stakeholders including educational leaders, teachers, administrators, parents, students and the community at large, said Dr Hadef bin Jouan Al-Dhahiri.


Leave a comment

Filed under Conferences, Dubai, Issue 4, School Reform

Do You Speak English ?

The message is clear. English is the right vehicle for education and the passport for entry into a competitive global economy. Teaching it is undergoing change. Embracing change is a tough challenge. Are you up to it?

 Albert Einstein once said: “Technological change is like an axe in the hands of a pathological criminal.” So much has changed in the way learning occurs. Nowadays we can learn a new language over the Internet. Teachers could go inside a virtual world where they attend live seminars and conferences and network with their peers or other industry leaders. Children are increasingly using interactive whiteboards and tablets to communicate information with their peers and teachers. Even parents are learning about their children’s scholastic performance by accessing portals where information about grades, attendance, participation and various other indicators are systematically downloaded by teachers and administrators. But just as candles are not obsolete, it is unlikely that teachers will be sidelined. However, they will either need to harness the change or remain in the past, living a present that has no future.

The Abu Dhabi conference on “Managing Change in English Language Teaching (ELT)” held last January 27- 28 aimed at tackling, among other issues, how learning occurs, how teachers become better teachers, how students become better learners, and how to make change happen. Teachers and managers were learning together, under the same roof. These are times of change,” said Jeremy Harmer, an experienced methodology writer and the author of Practice of English Language Teaching. “How do we respond to change like that? Do we embrace it or do we stay in the comfort zone?”

The conference, a combined effort between Abu Dhabi University, The British Council and the International Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language (IATEFL) certainly sent the message that change in English language teaching is underway and unless teachers, managers and governments embrace it, they risk being left behind. “We have to start training teachers. We can’t just assume that because we have teachers, they will necessarily have the practice and correct methodology to teach students,” says Sandra Zaher, director of the English Language Institute (ELI) at Abu Dhabi University. Since 1985, Zaher has seen the UAE’s meteoric rise as a country and nation and watched education grow and develop with it. “All education systems in the world go through peaks and valleys, but this country’s leaders have put tremendous emphasis on English language learning not just with teachers but also with the administration and where it counts most, with students who are the future leaders and decision makers,” Zaher said.

But Zaher also indicated that in 2015, the majority of the world will be speaking English. Also, most will not be native speakers; so again, there is a great demand for the UAE and the region to move forward. “There is an international need to speak English proficiently and in this country that’s what it’s going to take or we will fall behind and that’s not what ADU or the government wants,” Zaher said. The conference brought together over 40 speakers who addressed how to reconstruct education, how to reconstruct English and how to make a country and its people more marketable. Zaher said that fitting in the global community isn’t just about learning English, but rather about learning, in general. “We need the same strategies across the board in Arabic, math, science and other areas,” Zaher said.

Salam Affouneh, the Curriculum Coordinator at ADU’s ELI and IATEFL’s ELT Special Interest Group (SIG) was the person behind the idea of the conference. Seeing that IATEFL had no representation in this region despite the organization’s 99 affiliates and 3500 members worldwide, Affouneh was able to convince the conference organizers of the need to hold such an event at a time when the UAE was spending close to 30% of its budget on education. “At this point we need to prepare people for the change taking place with the creation of Abu Dhabi Education Council (ADEC) and Abu Dhabi Education Zone (ADEZ), public private partnerships (PPP) and resulting restructuring of curricula and teaching methods,” Affouneh said. For those students and teachers not accustomed to modern ways, the change has, as expected, been difficult to manage. “At ADU, we get students who learned the traditional way. These students are used to memorization. Our teachers are now implementing student-centered techniques, introducing collaborative learning, problem-solving and critical thinking as a learning platform, but it’s a tough process for both teachers and students,” Affouneh remarked.

IATEFL ELT Management SIG Coordinator George Pickering said the event came about because the association’s mission is to link, develop and support teachers throughout the world. In collaboration with the British Council, IATEFL helps promote and develop English Language teachers through teacher associations. “What we found pleasing about this conference is that it does actually build a bridge between managers and teachers; a rarity since you often find that they each follow a different path towards their professional development,” Pickering said. He added that teachers have to embrace technology and have to want and be able to make changes in the way they teach, such as to make teaching as student-centered as possible. “We are all aware today that education is results-driven. We need to demonstrate that the method used by teachers is an effective one,” Pickering said. Teachers can develop professionally by attending seminars and conferences, observing their peers in the classroom and producing reflective journals and portfolios of the work they have done. The process is best monitored when schools and institutions have professional development review sessions.

Three things are for sure. One is that traditional ways of teaching and learning are increasingly questioned and beginning to look very ineffective in today’s hi-tech environment. Second, people are taking more interest in learning English. “I notice tremendous changes communicating with people on the street,” said Peter Williams, BC’s Branch Manager at Abu Dhabi’s training center. He explained that people’s needs are changing from wanting to attend a traditional English class to being increasingly interested in professional writing, advancing their careers or supporting their academic careers. IELTS, the International English Language Testing System, measures one’s ability to communicate in English across all four language skills – listening, reading, writing and speaking. The test is for people who intend to study or work where English is the language of communication. “IELTS is becoming huge. People are measuring their English Language skills against international standards and doing well,” Williams asserted. Lastly, the UK will continue backing English learning initiatives as the country has a vested interest in attracting foreign students to its campuses. “The UK government is interested in foreign students studying in the country’s tertiary system of education. That’s why you see the universities there becoming more internationalist in their curriculum and more international,” Pickering said.

The British Council has also initiated a program to link UAE schools with UK schools in a joint curriculum program, particularly ELT. Ultimately, the project will link 600 schools in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, Iraq, Yemen and the UK representing a student community of 400,000 pupils. “There is a lot of expertise in the GCC countries and very similar problems, so pooling expertise makes a lot of sense; this is a sign of how serious this region is on straddling the global stage in terms of education,” Williams said.

IATEFL & the British Council-Partners in EL Learning

The International Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language (IATEFL) was founded in 1967 with a mission to link, develop and support English Language Teaching professionals throughout the world. They do this through:

• a range of regular publications including their own Voices magazine

• holding an Annual International Conference with an extensive program of talks and workshops attracting over 1,400 delegates;

• offering members the chance to join any number of 14 Special Interest Groups (SIGs);

• linking with associated organizations in other countries;

• providing help to others in forming a local teachers’ organization.

Founded in 1934, the British Council is the UK’s public diplomacy and cultural organization, working in 109 countries, in arts, education, governance, and science. Fiscal year 2005—06 achievements:

• Worked in 233 towns and cities in 109 countries;

• Employed over 2000 teachers who taught 1.1 million class hours of English to 325,000 learners in 53 countries;

• Delivered 1.3 million UK exams to 925,000 candidates worldwide;

• Supported a production of Love’s Labours Lost; the first performance of a Shakespeare play in Afghanistan for over 17 years;

• Awarded Communications and Humanity 2005 prize by the prestigious Principe de Asturias Foundation, in acknowledgement of their int’l work in communications and humanitarianism.

IATEFL & the British Council-Partners in EL learning


ADU-A legacy in the making

ADU is a forward-thinking private university that created an opportunity for English language learning to grow with the demands of the UAE. The conference which was spearheaded by ADU received the support of the university board and the go-ahead despite the sizable cost estimated at AED 450,000. “Everyone needs learning so we thought why not bring the first international conference to Abu Dhabi and we did thanks to a wonderful university leadership that looked at this and said: yes this is where we want to go!” Sandra Zaher, director of the English Language Institute (ELI) at Abu Dhabi University said. The event was originally planned to be held at ADU’s newest campus. “We have a large contract with the government for teaching English Proficiency to 1500 Department of Civil Service students and in February we host a job seekers program attracting 2000 students from the UAE, so we had to move the venue to a hotel,” said Zaher. More than 26 new English Language classrooms will be built to accommodate these studies. “By May 2007, ADU will be the largest English Language institute in the UAE; we will have 95 English Language TESOL instructors working for us,” Zaher said. When all 4 phases of the new AED 500 million campus is complete, ADU will have a capacity of 10,000 students. “One hundred years from now, people will say they remember their grandmother or grandfather as being the first graduates here and it all comes back to globalization, Emiratization and PPP initiatives,” Zaher said.


Filed under Abu Dhabi, British Council, Conferences, ELT, Hadi Khatib, Issue 3