“Practice, practice, practice” isn’t the most fashionable approach to education in the world today. But when you drill down to look at the way people process information, there’s a question mark over whether modern innovations in educational approaches really work for everyone.
The Arab Gulf countries have invested heavily in education, and parents and authorities alike might reasonably expect great achievements for their students as a result. So why is it that when Arab countries take part in international comparative assessments, their students score near the bottom of the list in reading, math, and science? Observations from classrooms in Arab countries might offer some clues.
From Qatar to Kuwait, schools in the Arab Gulf countries offer children the very best care. The buildings are well maintained and brightly painted. The classrooms have plenty of materials and the latest technology. The teachers are highly educated, well trained, and supportive. And, as in many countries, the focus is on innovation, with fun, dynamic, and child-centered activities to engage the students.
Take the example of a first-grade girls’ Arabic reading class in a Gulf city. The teacher has dressed one girl with paper cutouts to make her look like a tree. Other pieces of paper have been cut into the shape of leaves and have words written on them. The teacher hands them out to the children, and they get up one by one and pin the leaf words on the dress of the tree girl. The process takes about 15 minutes, during which time the students are attentive and happy. But aside from reading one word, they are not engaged in a specific learning task.
A similar scene unfolds in a first-grade classroom of another Gulf country. The teacher flashes words on a multimedia projector, to be matched with letters they contain. One by one, children walk to the front and complete the matching task or write the words with a stylus. The responses appear on the screen. The process takes about 10 minutes, during which the other students clap when their classmates succeed, but get no more practice. Then the teacher shows them a sentence, which the children repeat aloud several times. Subsequently the students copy the sentence while the class computer plays a song. Then the teacher puts sand in a basin, and invites students to take little balls and drop them on specific words. The setup and execution of the activity also takes up about 15 minutes. Then the class ends.
Meanwhile, when asked individually to read from the official first-grade textbook, students stumble. They can repeat the sentences that were presented to them earlier, but they are slow to identify other words or sentences in their book. And this was in April, just two months before the end of the school year. Average first graders in countries such as Romania and Albania could already read entire pages of their textbooks, even if they did so haltingly. But the ministry’s curriculum supervisor in that Gulf country said that the goal was only the ability to read single sentences.
Will the students of these excellent schools catch up in second grade or later? A visit to an Arabic fourth-grade class raised further doubts. The curricula required definitions of grammatical forms, a common practice in the Arab world. Students recited the definitions and then read aloud sentences written by the teacher. The words were unvoweled, and students read hesitantly. They all had textbooks, but they seemed little used. Samples of students like these had participated in the PIRLS (Progress in International Reading and Literacy Study) international assessment. Worldwide, the task requires reading passages of 800-1000 words and answering questions. But evaluation specialists stated that fourth graders in some Gulf countries could only read passages of 50-100 words.
The road to reading and math for Arab students is long. Voweled Arabic is simple to acquire, just like the Latin script in Turkish or Albanian, but multi-part letters slow down reading. And progress is not linear; eventually vowels are removed, and students temporarily drop by two grade levels. All countries use standard Arabic, but this is not spoken in any home. Students must learn its logical but complex grammar and do this systematically in order to make sense even of first-grade texts. Math also depends on fast and effortless language knowledge. This means that Arab students must study and practice intensely in first grade in order to compete with other countries effectively by the time they get to fourth grade.
Which activities bring this about? Over 100 years of research on skills acquisition point the way. In brief, students must be taught reading through individual letters, and these must be practiced in combinations for many hours. Practice in all subjects speeds up processing, until the performance is fluent and automatic. This frees up mental resources that can be utilized to understand text, engage in mathematical thinking, and deliberate critically about various subjects. Instructional time should therefore be used to maximize practice and speed up performance.
However, educational practices worldwide are at odds with learning essentials. Colleges of education rarely teach cognitive science, so speed and automaticity are poorly understood and neglected. Innovative activities like throwing balls at words seem more appealing than traditional reading or math drills. But drills have been traditionally used because over the centuries the teachers realized the value of practice. Learning is biologically determined, and its rules do not change on demand.
Innovative and fun activities certainly have a place in skills development. In fact, research suggests greater retention and generation of ideas when children are exposed to unusual events, such as toys crawling on a wall. But such activities gobble up time right when it is needed most. And curricula become constrained in order to make room for them. With limited practice, students have to move on to more complex content in their studies while they are still reading or calculating too slowly. Eventually they may reach higher education with reading rates approximating those of Spanish junior high school students. Some professors at the Arab Open University, for example, express concern about their students’ ability to get through and understand volumes of text.
Caught in the trap of innovation?
This situation affects countries all around the world. Millions of students underperform in international tests, probably for the same reasons. But prosperous Gulf countries may be particularly vulnerable to the “trap” of innovation. Countries that can afford the best are likely to hire prominent consultants, usually from English-speaking countries. Such specialists may not know a word of Arabic, but they confidently recommend strategies more suitable for grammatically simpler languages, such as English.
The international test results shine a sharp beam on the Arabic reading problem. Without early and intensive training, Arab students may be unable to process as much information as students of other languages and scripts. These results should help focus efforts to examine how time is used and to optimize it. It is futile to look for sociological or economic explanations for the poor performance of Arab students until first and second grades are reconfigured to maximize practice to the point where reading skills are automatic.
How to focus on practice? Teachers could invite each child to the blackboard, but at the same time give the classmates texts to decode, and offer them encouragement for completing their tasks. Activities that require time to set up and execute could be limited to perhaps once a week. After students are able to perform basic skills automatically, they will have more mental resources available to engage in more complex and creative thinking. So paradoxically, early engagement in drills and practice—while it may seem old-fashioned—could pay big dividends in innovation and critical thinking later on.
Arab parents are often very stressed. They may feel they have to hire tutors or put their children into English-language schools in the hope that they will acquire more knowledge. Some may see their children labeled as learning-disabled, when all they really need is extra practice. One way for parents to take action early on is to monitor reading speed. Middle-class children should, at the very least, be reading voweled Arabic fluently by the end of first grade. A watch can be used to measure words per minute, and the goal should be to reach 45 words per minute by the end of first grade. Comprehension is a slightly different challenge; students need to understand the standard Arabic forms quickly and precisely, and an easy way for the brain to achieve this is to learn them systematically. If results are still unsatisfactory, parents could talk with teachers about how best to take action.
Many Internet articles extol the virtues of innovation, but few offer scientific evidence that innovation per se benefits students. Perhaps the most important innovation is to implement the findings of learning research. To deserve classroom time, activities should be proven to be effective—or at the very least do no harm. And at present, that doesn’t seem to be the case in Arab education.
* Helen Abadzi is a Greek psychologist who speaks many languages. She retired from the World Bank after 27 years of service and is currently a research faculty member at the University of Texas at Arlington College of Education. She regularly monitors the emerging research in cognitive science and synthesizes relevant findings to explain and predict likely outcomes from various interventions. Her work has helped early-grade reading fluency become an international priority.