Many years ago, when I was in college, I was studying for a psychology exam. On the eve of the exam, I checked a few points with my mother, a psychology professor, as the textbook did not make sense to me. I was asked about one of those points in the exam the next day and I responded using my mother’s explanation versus the version in the textbook. Unfortunately, I lost the mark for that question as the instructor could only recognize the “textbook” response and no other. Fortunately, this kind of approach to learning did not happen again at my college, which adopted a liberal arts approach to learning, where thinking and debating were your ticket to graduation and the job market.
I was reminded of this story a few years ago when my niece was struggling with ratios — she must have been in grade 4 in elementary or primary school. Back then, it was the old curriculum before the education sector reforms in Egypt and there were no digital learning resources and no TV educational channels. I googled Khan Academy, the online learning tool, and found her some examples, games and quizzes. She smiled shyly and said, “this is all good fun, but if I don’t use the teacher’s method in the exam, I will lose a mark.” Naively I said, “but now you know all about ratios and in a fun way.” She said, “I really don’t care about ratios, but I do need to pass the test.”
A new school year, which starts on October 9, comes with a reminder of Egypt’s score in what is called Learning Poverty: About 70% of children aged 10 in Egypt cannot read and comprehend an age-appropriate text, compared to 53% of children in other low- and middle-income countries. For 2021/2022, the rollout of the new, student-centered curriculum to grade 4 brings some hope that a learning-driven approach, as opposed to one driven by exams and marks, will have a positive impact on children’s quality of schooling.
Realizing the future of learning requires societies to be inclusive and fair. Education systems need to equip all their children with the skills and knowledge that prepare them for life and the job market. Historically, education systems driven by rote learning helped generate bureaucrats for the public sector and are not a good match for private sector requirements. We need to develop our understanding of how children learn best and the most effective education delivery mechanisms.
Anyone who has taken a 101 course in management knows that what you cannot measure, you cannot manage. So no wonder a variety of measurements is embedded in the education sector reforms underway in Egypt to inform policymakers, in a comprehensive and systematic way, of how children are learning.
Egypt’s Ministry of Education and Technical Education (MOETE) has developed measurement tools with their initial focus on foundational learning in Kindergarten and early grades. To improve the quality of Kindergarten (KG), MOETE is conducting a diagnostics of KG teaching practices that uses interviews with teachers, principals, and parents, as well as classroom observation and student assessments, where all these tools draw on international good practices validated with the Ministry. The outcome of this exercise should feed into extra professional development modules for KG teachers. A new Quality Assurance (QA) system is also being developed to monitor the use of standards in KGs, and how they improve over time. Monitoring is due to occur regularly.
Both approaches are seen as ways to enhance the overall quality of KGs, their teaching and children’s learning. MOETE is planning a national assessment, designed to measure what grade 4 children have learned in basic literacy and numeracy skills, that is not linked to “marks and scores.” It will inform a wider understanding of how children are learning in early grades.
During focus group discussions with World Bank-funded project stakeholders and beneficiaries, I was reminded of an earlier incident from my college when the copy and paste — or rote learning textbook answer — was the only one my instructor would recognize. Now, there seems to be a realization that education sector reform is needed. That said, more needs to be done in terms of communicating this move away from rote learning to stakeholders, and what they would gain from it, as well as the need for continuous professional development for teaching and non-teaching staff, and for monitoring.
It is true that COVID-19 has exposed the weaknesses of education systems around the world, and it has underlined the urgency of acting if we want to offer children a learning experience that is not limited to school attendance, which will not equip them for the job market or for life more broadly.Through collective effort and hard work, Egyptians can fulfil their own potential, lead decent lives and contribute to the development of their country.
Back to management 101 and “what you cannot measure, you cannot manage.” Let’s work together to make the education system the best for our children and support the measurement activities planned to help us understand how children learn, how we can improve our delivery of education, and how to break free of learning poverty.