Thursday, August 03, 2006

Abu Shreek: The School Education

Abu Shreek is convinced that his 12 years of school education could not be matched anywhere outside of Jordan. The tremendous curricula along with the high expectations set by the Jordanian student's teachers and family result in a valuable background of information and a diverse complilation of “common knowledge”.
Abu Shreek would like to demonstrate some examples of how rich the content of some of the subjects he studied, and share the most memorable parts of them, from sixth grade until the most brutal, ultimate “educational” experience that a human being could be subjected to: The General Secondary School Examination, known in urban legends and horror tales as (Tawjihi).

Arabic: Starting from the sixth grade textbook (yellow with a back shot picture of a boy in his blue school uniform carrying a rectangular brown book bag on his shoulder), where you can find classic poems and great moral stories like (اكلت يوم اكل الثور الابيض: “I was eaten on the same day the white bull was”) that will stick in forever. That book also featured the hated, very confusing (Differentiate in the meaning: افرق في المعنى), that features very similar words or idioms that differs in one letter or even one phonetic sound that causes a change in the meaning; (Like Birr: charity, Barr: land, Borr: wheat) ,all have the same exact spelling in Arabic. Until you end up after 12 years working on 5 books (count them 5), that you will practically need to memorize (literally) cover to cover for the Tawjihi, in addition to being able to write a perfect essay. (For Tawjihi purposes some teachers composed a template that would fit common topics predicted in the general exam.Now all you have to do is fill-in (the woman, the youth, the education, the environment, the technology…).in the template you memorized, and you have your essay !!! Not a sign of a good educational system, but at Tawjihi time, all the options are open). By the way anyone heard from (علم العروض) lately?

English: It really depended more on the school and individual effort more than curricula. The grammar was exceptional, even in the government assigned books. Before 9th grade you are familiar with tenses, passive voice, if-clauses and reported speech. Literature and conversation skills were a little behind, although starting from the sixth grade some schools covered adapted versions of Lorna Doone, The Black Tulip, The Mill on the Floss (ehh), A Tale of two Cities, and the full version of Wuthering Heights. The Tawjihi anthology for the second semester was (Animal Farm), where in a typical Tawjihi fashion, you have to dissect the thing to details and memorize full exerts. Shame on you Ministry of Education for subjecting us to such propaganda; Abu Shreek spent every English class defending the pigs and explaining excess value theories to the class.

French: From “La sorciere a casse la lune” at second grade, to an option of taking the first level of French proficiency test (Fr: Certificat) at seventh grade and the second level (Brevet) at the ninth. Magnifique. Abu Shreek owes that to a superb Algerian teacher: Mohsenn Khalifaaah.

Math: By the eighth grade you are “mathing” at the level of an American (College Algebra) class. At ninth grade you are introduced to basic trigonometry, you are dealing with complex geometry and working on “proofs”; (the “Circle” chapter alone causes traumatic experiences for ninth graders nation wide). At tenth grade you are proving theories in Descriptive Geometry that deals with a point, a line and a plane, and you memorize at least 15 trigonometric identities of the form: sin(u+v)=sin u cos v+cos u sin v! As for Tawjihi, where math counted for 240/1000 points, it is pure Calculus. It can be put this way: if you score above 237/240, you can go through the Calculus (101 and 102) classes in college without opening a book or attending a class, and end up with B’s. It was brutal.

History: Another wide range curriculum, which could have used some little more American history and some more truth. (It was not distortion of facts as much as it was ignoring them). Starts with the history of civilization from eras before the ice ages and passes by all the early civilizations in our region (Bronze era, Babylon, Phoenician, Pharaohs, Pre-Islam Arabia...brutally boring to a 12-year old). Eighth grade is the history of Europe in details: Middle ages, church, Martin Luther, The French revolution, Bismarck, The industrial revolution… a great lineup. The ninth grade featured the white book centered by the blue map of the Islamic Empire, and entitled "The Arab Islamic Civilization" (I think this is where ignoring some important facts started, but really, how can you break it to a 15-year old, that Islam went through a number of civil wars, where the prophet’s righteous companions slaughtered each other, and carried the severed heads across the lands of the empire!). Tenth grade featured the useless “Arab Jordanian Society” (the blue book not the society), and “Palestinian Cause”, in which the green book summarized the 1982 Arab-Israeli war in two sentences! But the overall background it provided was efficient.

Science: Another ridiculously advanced compilation of topics. It splits to separate subjects by the ninth grade. However by the end of 8th grade you are familiar (actually memorized) most of the elements symbols in the periodic table along with their respective ionic charges. You already studied most of the body systems (except for the reproductive of course), and you can name every vitamin in the world, its sources and the effects of its deficiencies and excess. You pass by some Geology along the way to the ultimate mission.
Tawjihi Physics falls along the same lines of the math. Get over (142/160) and you are going to pass (Physics 1, Physics 2, Circuit Analysis (first midterm), Statics (first midterm), Dynamics (first midterm)) without studying. The difference is in the nuclear physics and the quantum physics that you will not use after Tawjihi, unless you take a course in Nuclear Power Plants.
Chemistry features some Stoichiometry, Organic Chemistry, and analysis of compounds on the molecular level.
Biology instantly brings back the sad times of memorizing every Hormone in the human body, and of course the very entertaining “Genetics” and Mendel’s laws. The reason you are losing your hair is that the hair loss gene is dominant in men, recessive in women. It is also carried on sex chromosomes. So assume that your dad is bold and your mom is not but her dad was bold, that means, according to the genetics tree, that your chances of hair loss as a guy or a girl are 50/50.

Now since Abu Shreek is a half-glass-empty kind of person, the logical question is: How is this great background offered to the Jordanian student is not helping the overall picture and resulting in the “advancement” of the society? The interrelated reasons that come to mind are:
(Notice that these are the problems facing those who are fortunate enough to be put in an “ideal” situation, i.e. private schools. Those students offered the best education do not have to deal with overcrowded classrooms, unavailability of books and teachers, transportation issues, malnutrition, and other public school challenges, yet this “elite” education is not paying off locally because of… )

1. The Student: The number of school kids who “wants to learn” are continuously shrinking. Abu Shreek hates that he is sounding like his teachers, and he realizes that school can be a great place to socialize and mess around for 12 years, but to make the decision that you will go through the whole experience and remain an illiterate is just unacceptable. (The problem is that same lazy kid who though it was “cool” to be ignorant, feels a sudden urge to be “opinionated”; he starts writing (what he think is) “poetry” and he may even get his own newspaper column. With the right connections he may eventually hold decision-making position!). When a good percentage of the classmates are interested in the educational process, they challenge and push each other, elevating the level of that whole process.

2. The Teacher: The teacher is the focal point of the whole process, and his working conditions are not pleasant. He/She is usually underpaid, some times is under-qualified and has to exert the extra effort in dealing with the increasingly careless students. This causes the teacher to try to get away with the absolute minimum, and rely on a dull, mechanical and repetitive method of teaching that will alienate the students even more.
Maybe a teacher’s union could be a step in the right direction.

3. The System: The most complained about aspect is the “system” and “methods” of teaching. The school work and tasks expected from the student are very difficult, yet it does not enhance his/her ability to create, nor encourages his individual thinking. Notice how many times the word “memorize” was mentioned above, and “memorize” here means literal exact reproduction of original texts, or what is known in Arabic as (بصم: ?fingerprinting). Some teachers ask their students to memorize math problems. An Arabic teacher would interpret a verse of poetry, dictate it to the students, who are then expected to reproduce it word for word in a test; a student will be denied full credit if he/she slightly changes the original language, even if it conveyed the same ideas. Abu Shreek recalls a history test where some points were inexplicably deducted, and upon revision, the teacher (A Ph.D holder in political science from Hungary (no comment)) pulled out the textbook and pointed out that the reason was the use of a different PREPOSITION than that of the original script. (And no, it did not affect the meaning, and no it was not a verse from the Quran). The one-sided ratio between memorizing and thinking causes the student to lose interest and get frustrated. The curricula do not try to strangle creativity, but the teacher does. The student also is not free of blame (When an “innovative teacher tries a more interactive approach, students will complain and passing percentages will dip dramatically). The testing methods which require the cramming of information, other than the understanding of them, (optimized of course by the Tawjihi), need to be re-evaluated.

4. The University: Local universities are completely oblivious to the concept of research, which makes them nothing more than a bigger version of community colleges. In the process, they are failing to take advantage of the rich background the student has acquired, and hence the effect of that education on the ground remains minimal. The university conforms to the same "school formula" (High difficulty tasks based solely on hours and hours of wasted effort to memorize things, in order to pass a more complex version of the detailed school-styled testing). The capabilities of the well-prepared Jordanian students are on full display by those who choose to pursue higher education overseas. Despite the novelty of the research concept to them, even average students (according to Jordanian standards) excel significantly.

School in Jordan is no walk in the park for those who care. The reward is that you may learn a thing or two along the way, and a few years later you will be demonstrating your knowledge versatility to your “stupid” American co-workers, and bragging about how your school system is superior to theirs.


13 comments:

jameed said...

As-tu froid? Quelquefois
As-tu chaud?Quelquefois
As-tu peur du loup? Jamais...

Priceless, especially when a 100% oriental-music teacher who plays the oud puts music to it.

Khalaf said...

Great post. I would add that you are describing the scientific stream, which is known to have less emphasis on memorization than the literary stream.

I think that many people are aware about the weakness in the system, but fixing it is a daunting task. First, how can you defend making the curriculum less demanding? Remember, everybody in the ministry of education is a product of the same system (most from the literary stream).

I think that the system should be overhauled with teaching skills instead of coveying information as a top goal. Moreover, tawjihi should not be a tool to eliminate students from higher education. It should be a proficiency test that actually measures useful skills.

Rami said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Rami said...

I didn't go through the Jordanian system beyond 5th grade, so I can't quite relate. But from my experience, the best educational systems I saw were the ones that centered on teaching students the fundamentals of critical thinking: questioning axioms and formulating them, the scientific method, laws of logic and rationalizing, the workings of the human brain and its relation to the senses and how knowledge is acquired, analysed, stored, retrieved and applied...etc.

The Tawjihi is a sincere attempt, but I sometimes wonder why dont we copy anoter well-established system rather than insist on having our indigeneous one? I dont agree to that for a logical reason, but I'd be interested to know why we are keeping a system that is clearly not the best it can be.

jameed said...

one point that was mentioned in the post is the inability of the teachers to be creative, mostly because they don't know of any other method of teaching besides what has been passed on from the days of kuttab. if teachers do not evolve their ways of presenting the material, which may be badly written in textbooks, then students will always feel the burden of learning. i believe teachers can make a difference. some did on me. i owe a lot to my 10th grade Arabic teacher; unfortunately he was finishing up his PhD and he left after he earned it.

Syllabi need to be shortened too. I sometimes can help but think that huge material to cover during the school year is a deliberate way of sticking students to one form of thinking and not allowing them to read anything outside their books. knowledge can be dangerous.

Roba said...

Great post.
I'm only familiar with the last part of the equation (university), and ahh...

Dozz said...

oh God...8|
how on earth can u remember all this??!
im traumatized by some integration problems for i cant even remember the exact curvature of the sign...and its only been 3 years...
anyway..
The parent.
parents play a big role in making their child percieve studying and education as an ugly,boring,'sometimes scary',non-rewarding process,i never faced that problem,but most of the parents i know,associate the kids' perfermance at school(measured only by his/her grades)with each and every detail of the kid's life!
so the child ends up ready to do almost anything to get it right just to stay out of trouble and be able to get on with his/her life...some even see it as 'the price they have to pay'...for getting what they want!

plus,i think the jordanian curricula lacks an introduction to some important fields students need to know about in order to have a clue on what they want to study.
so when you ask a student why did u chose this or that..their answer wont be..'heik tili3li!

Abu Shreek said...

Jameed,
I still have the medal of French excellence Miss Rogina gave at the end of second grade. And of course I can still sing the mentioned song in perfect notes.

As for the teacher, I clearly mentioned him/her being the focal point of the process. I completely agree with you that a “smart” teacher will have a HUGE influence on the student and his response to learning, no matter how hard or dull the subject is. I was very lucky to have great teachers along the way. All my math teachers (except for the idiot at 9th grade), most my science teachers, and most of my English teachers had a tremendous impact on my life.
The size of the syllabi problem has a very easy solution. The teacher does not have to teach every word in every chapter in the details of details. Emphasize the essentials, casually pass by the details, and most importantly, avoid these details when testing.

Khalaf,
I agree that the problem is with the approach more than it is with the content. The curricula can be less demanding through the teacher who will accommodate the different levels of students and avoid emphasizing the details of the details.
As for Tawjihi, you know this is a whole different post altogether (maybe even multiple ones), but I can start by saying that test itself has some problems (but remains the most feasible way for a relatively “fair” evaluation for students attempting to enroll in public universities), but I think the bigger problem is with the way the society interacts with it….

Rami,
Great point about the best approach in teaching being the building of logical and critical thinking.. what you described regarding the training of the human brain is even more vital at the university level (Professors in Jordan will preach it,, but most of the time wont act accordingly). However at the early school level, I wont mind a rational dose of “memorizing” that will build a strong information base, and help the brain learn “storage” techniques, but without (confusing the hell out of: ta3geed samawatt) the student.
As for Tawjihi please my reply to khalaf and hopefully we can all discuss the issue in more details soon.

Roba,
Unfortunately the people who can relate most to the first part of the post are those who went through their whole school education in Jordan, and especially those old-schoolers who graduated Tawjihi before 1999. The problems with the education at the university level reached comical levels. Yalla, you are almost done and hopefully you will have more fun at graduate school.

Dozz,
Unfortunately, the career path I (think) I chose keeps me in touch with Integration by parts and by the way the sine graph is the sinusoidal wave. :0)
I cant agree with you more regarding the parents, but it is not there fault because :1. it is the society that sets that kind of standards (to quote the classic jammedkast song: “Shoof 3abdoo hayoo jab gaddaish), which makes the student’s school achievement a part of his parents accomplishments. 2.More importantly, the parents love their kids and they want the best for them, and the best for them means, (Medicine or Engineering (and lately that computer stuff)),and of course that needs high grades, and since the tests are very hard and homework are so demanding, it leaves the student no choice but to study day and night. So you really do not need any school guidance to help you determine what you want to study. Can you imagine an above-average student (especially a guy) telling his parents that he wants to study journalism or even become a musician. This particular problem is very complicated. My classmate Hala got a very good Tawjihi score, but she shocked the world and decided to study business, which is reserved for those who score in the 80s. After the first semester she “came to her mind” and switched to Engineering and her excuse was: “I realized that to get good grades in business I had to study hard anyway, so I decided to invest that studying in engineering”!!!

Omernos said...

I fery match enjoyed this post!
Coming back to read better, cause I just proof-read it!

omar

Dozz said...

well,at least heik hala would be enjoying some engineering non-sense...

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