Across the world—including in those countries struggling with persistent unemployment and political instability—policy makers are looking at how well their schools and universities are preparing graduates to find jobs and be good citizens.
The answer is often: Not very well.
In response, educators are striving to define what knowledge and skills graduates need to confront the challenges of the 21st century and then looking for ways to change curricula and teaching methods to produce those results.
Such reforms are seldom smooth. Education systems run along well-worn paths, using traditional content and methods familiar to teachers. Yet what was deemed the best education one or two generations ago may not produce the desired skills and knowledge today.
This is not only an issue for developing countries. For two decades, Americans have watched with alarm as elementary and middle school students in the United States lag considerably behind students in a number of East Asian and European nations in international comparisons of math and science abilities.
Added to that was the recognition that the country had a hodgepodge of educational standards set separately by each of the 50 American states. A student rated “proficient” in one state would be rated “below basic” in another. In response, educators began work on a rigorous set of standards for what all students across the United States should know and be able to do at the end of each grade in math and English.
The result was the widely debated Common Core, released in 2010. The Core does not contain the content for courses; each state chooses how teachers can try to reach the learning goals. For example, a fourth grader should be able to “provide reasons that are supported by facts and details” when writing a short essay expressing their opinion. A second grader should “understand that the three digits of a three-digit number represent amounts of hundreds, tens, and ones.”
Adoption of the Common Core is voluntary, although the Obama administration has offered financial incentives to encourage adoption and 45 of the 50 states have done so.
Yet the Common Core soon became a lightning rod for accusations, mostly from members of the opposition Republican Party, that the federal government was trying to take over local classrooms. More recently, problems with the introduction of the Core have become evident, with delays getting new textbooks that will help students reach the new goals and writing standardized tests to measure and compare student’s achievements. A growing number of education officials are now calling for a delay in the introduction of new standardized tests using the new standards.
The Common Core has been praised for promoting the use of evidence in expressing opinions. For example, where older standardized tests asked children to read a text and react to it, the new tests will ask them to point to specific passages to back up points they make.
That push is part of a growing global focus on teaching “critical thinking”—asking students to question the information and opinions they are presented and to marshal evidence to support their ideas. Educators increasingly feel this is one of the skills needed to succeed in the 21st century economy, where job descriptions can change frequently as technological progress and globalization gallop forward.
This issue is particularly relevant to the Arab countries, some experts say. “Students in the region do not learn what we call 21st century skills, like working in teams, problem solving, being innovative, risk taking,” writes Hafez Ghanem, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a think tank in Doha and Washington. “There is a problem with curriculum that is too traditional, that is too much based on rote learning.”
There is another pressing reason to change what and how students learn, according to some scholars. In the volatile period after the Arab uprisings, schools could play a key role “in the development of long-lasting democratic skills and values, such as … a respect for diversity and basic human rights,” writes Muhammad Faour, an education scholar and former deputy vice president of the American University of Beirut. (See related article: “Conversation With an Advocate of Education for Citizenship.”)
There have been few attempts at deep reform. Qatar undertook one of the most ambitious, establishing a network of “independent schools” at the primary and secondary level during the last decade in partnership with the Rand Corporation, a non-profit American public policy institute. Rand says students at the new schools perform better academically than their peers at traditional state schools and have developed critical-thinking skills. But many Qatari parents have been unhappy with the reforms and many experts are skeptical.
Educators in Qatar did a good job defining the desired goals of learning, says Adnan El-Amine, a professor of the sociology of education at the American University of Beirut. But teachers and pupils were not ready for the changes. “There is a lack of a culture of inquiry,” he says. “They rely on memorization.” (See related article: “Zig-Zagging Education Policies Leave Qatari Students Behind.”)
While educators try to adapt primary and secondary education to 21st century needs, a similar challenge is playing out in higher education. A central issue is how specialized or broad university education should be. Should students preparing to be biologists, math teachers or doctors use all their time to deepen their knowledge of their discipline? Or should they receive a broader, more “liberal education,” including classes in subjects like music, literature or physics?
Support for the latter approach appears to be growing. Over the last 15 years in Holland, most universities have established a “university college” to provide the best students with a rigorous broad education in the liberal arts and the hard sciences in addition to the discipline they choose to specialize in. Five to ten percent of universities students are enrolled in such a college.
“It’s the perfect 21st century degree because it reflects the interconnectedness and challenges of the jobs we’ll have to do,” says Louis Klamroth, who graduated last year from Amsterdam University College with a major in comparative politics.
Even a discipline as technical as engineering has been affected. In recent years, ABET, an agency that accredits engineering programs in 25 countries, modified its requirements. Engineering programs must now produce graduates who not only master engineering, but also understand environmental, sociological and other issues surrounding the discipline.
To be an effective engineer today, says Danielle Duran Baron, ABET’s spokeswoman, “It is important to be able to participate in a multi-disciplinary team, understand ethical responsibilities and communicate effectively.”
Khaled Fahmy, chair of the history department at the American University in Cairo, writes that the lack of a liberal education at most universities in the Arab World is perhaps even more serious than the political repression and lack of finances that many Arab institutions face.
Universities should produce graduates who “couple their knowledge with intellectual curiosity, critical thinking, creativity, moral courage and responsibility,” he writes. (See related article “Why I Didn’t Go to Dubai.”)
America has a strong tradition of liberal education at its colleges and universities. In recent years a number of elite Chinese universities have introduced a liberal-arts facet to their programs and Chinese educators have come to the United States to see how it is done there.
“They put it in terms of critical thinking and flexibility in the workforce,” says Philip G. Altbach, director of the Center for International Higher Education, at Boston College. He adds that in China and elsewhere, a growing number of educators feel they should no longer prepare graduates narrowly for one job, but try to teach them the skills to tackle a series of jobs in an ever evolving global market.
* This article was supported by the U.N. Democracy Fund and was prepared in preparation for a series of workshops to encourage Arab journalists to write about education.