In Egyptian schools, a push for critical thinking

Here in the sunny corridors of King Fahd Modern Language School, primary school students sit in rows reviewing the science midterms they just took.

The finale to nine days of test-taking that covered 13 subjects, these tests will account for half their yearly grade. The year-end exams will count for the other half.

But such ordeals may soon be a thing of the past as Egypt begins reforming a pedagogy based on rote memorization and test-based grading systems. Starting this school year, exams will together make up only half of the youngest primary students' yearly grades - the other half will come from activities like drawing, music, and acting.

"The door for human development and improving competitiveness is education," says Hossam Badrawy, the education committee chair of Egypt's ruling party. "The core of tolerance and democracy is education. This is the most important way to change the life of this country."

The reform program, which began in 2001, allows boards of trustees made up of parents, teachers, and at-large community members to share in decisionmaking. It also seeks to build more schools and improve curricula, testing methods, and teacher performance. The new methods also incorporate critical-thinking skills.

The changes are intended to address the needs of a rapidly growing population of 70 million people. Due to a lack of teachers, there are as many as 70 students to a class in some public schools.

A major component of Egypt's educational reform is a pilot school program also begun in 2001 with funding and technical assistance from the United States Agency for International Development. The program has become so successful that it expanded last year to 245 schools from 30.

The idea behind the initiative is to createmodel schools for the Egyptian government to imitate. Teaching regimens in the model schools encourage debate and problem-solving, and train teachers to engage students.

Some experts say a modern education that promotes critical thinking may support democracy initiatives in the region. The UN's 2003 Arab Human Development Report argues that schools in the region breed submission rather than critical thought.

Young people who learn by rote, say some education experts, are more easily manipulated and indoctrinated. Under an improved education system, students will learn tolerance and open-mindedness, some say. But others argue that tempering religious extremism is more complicated.

"So much is involved in the problem of preventing extremism," says one foreign development agency expert, who was not authorized to speak on the record. "It's not just a question of stopping rote memorization in schools."

But regardless of the ideological gains, improving the Arab world's educational systems is likely to play a major role in the region's long-term economic development by better preparing students for the globalized marketplace.

A number of other Arab countries have also begun reforming their troubled education systems. In Qatar, more than two dozen recently opened schools will follow a more modern curriculum that encourages active learning, asking questions, and problem solving. Tunisia and Jordan are also slowly instituting reforms with an aim toward increasing enrollment and offering more information technology training.

But effecting change can be a cumbersome process. Despite the increasing involvement of boards of trustees, Egypt's highly centralized educational system is still largely run by the Ministry of Education, many experts say.

Dr. Badrawy, who helped to create the blueprint for the government's present program, urges education authorities to move faster with reform.

He is calling for 1,000 new model schools, rather than the current 245. Badrawy says Egypt will need more than 10,000 new schools in the next decade to keep up with population growth. Meanwhile, Egyptian officials ask for patience.

"Education reform won't become apparent immediately," says Ibrahim Saad, technical adviser to the Ministry of Education. "We have a very ambitious plan, but it will take one to two years for it to really show."

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