27 April - 3 May 2000
Issue No. 479
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
A syllabus for SisyphusAs the academic year draws to an end, exams loom ahead and parents complain that young children are overloaded with difficult textbooks and hours of homework. Gihan Shahine sifts through kindergarten and elementary school curricula
Egypt Region International Economy Opinion Culture Special Features Travel Living Sports Profile People Time Out Chronicles Cartoons Letters
Six-year-old Mona is scared of school. She hates books and exams. Although still in her first elementary year at a French-language school, Mona spends four hours a day studying and doing homework with her mother. She has to write Arabic and French sentences 10 times, memorise new French words, answer science and comprehension questions and solve maths problems. Mona is fed up and wants to play but her mother cannot let her go: after all, Mona failed Arabic and maths in first-term exams and her mother doesn't want "to take any more risks."
"My daughter, like almost all elementary school pupils, is given loads of books and homework," complains Iman, Mona's mother. Mona's school day starts at 8:00am and lasts until 2:00pm, her schedule including classes in science, maths, religion, Arabic and French.
"Most of the textbooks are complicated," Iman says. "My daughter takes too much Arabic and French, and the grammar is especially complicated. In maths, children are given written problems in French when they haven't mastered the language yet, which makes it difficult for them to understand the problem, let alone solve it. It's just unfair to kids. My daughter already hates school and is always scared of exams. For her, school is a burden, and indeed, I feel her childhood is restricted. Long hours doing homework have made Mona dull."
Parents of many kindergarten students express similar complaints. Dina's son, Omar, is only five, and spends at least two hours a day doing "tedious homework." Omar is enrolled at one of the new English-language schools in Madinet Nasr. "My son hates homework because it's dull and, like all kids of his age, he wants to play and have fun," Dina says. "Four- and five-year-olds should not be given too much writing and reading. It's boring for them and it's difficult to convince them to sit and study when they have so much energy to vent in playing and exploring the world."
A BONE OF CONTENTION: The Ministry of Education has been pitted against private kindergartens and elementary schools in a battle over what should be taught to young children. The ministry bans giving any reading or writing to kindergarten-age children. It prohibits using books at the kindergarten stage and confines the curriculum to a play-and-learn activity book issued by ministry officials.
Private-school teachers and administrators, however, oppose the ban on the grounds that the first elementary syllabus already includes large amounts of reading and writing, which children must prepare for in kindergarten. Many teachers claim they are prepared to abide by the ministry's ban provided that elementary curricula are made easier.
"We would like to apply the ministry's ban, but we just can't," says Mona El-Toukhi, deputy headmistress of a girls' kindergarten at an English-language school. "First-year books are too complicated for children unless they have already been taught the basics in kindergarten. If the ban is strictly enforced, I'm afraid many children will fail. It's just illogical that the ministry prohibits teaching the alphabet in kindergarten when its books for the first elementary year start with sentences."
In almost all language schools, where a majority of middle-class families enroll their children, kindergarten students are taught numbers, reading and writing in both Arabic and a second language -- usually English or French.
"We definitely don't rely on the ministry's kindergarten activity book because it is extremely superficial and naive," says a teacher at one of the new English-language schools. "We simply cannot spend the two years of kindergarten teaching students about cats and dogs. We have our own books, and we hide them when ministry officials pay our school a visit. But we also apply modern educational techniques to make it fun for children to learn using CDs, computer games and videos."
But how do ministry officials react? "They write memos and warnings, but they know we have to violate the ban," says the same teacher, who prefers to remain anonymous. She relates that ministry officials gave a teacher a warning after they saw her writing the alphabet on the board. "It's just ridiculous," El-Toukhi agrees. "Officials don't even want children to see letters written on the board. How then do they expect those children to cope with the heavy curriculum of the elementary stage?"
The same teachers who oppose the ban, however, concede that introducing very young children to formal education and giving them homework is psychologically detrimental. They admit that many children dislike school and books when still very young, but they blame it on parents who insist their children should do homework, as well as on dull syllabi, examinations and grading systems.
"Heavy, redundant curricula deprive children of their childhood," maintains Naira Tawfiq, head of an English-language kindergarten. "Children in Egypt are frustrated, that is clear. They start to hate school when still very young and feel books are repulsive. The elementary curriculum is just disastrous."
Both teachers and parents tend to agree that the amount of information taught at the elementary level is huge and that, by the time children reach the second year of the elementary stage, they are being force-fed big textbooks. "The books are rigid, for the most part," Tawfiq adds. "They are not related to what children see in life and are not connected to a core subject."
If, for example, children are taught that the earth is round in science, Tawfiq explains, this piece of information should be consolidated in English and maths. "Photos should also be used in demonstration and activities carried out in classes to stimulate children's minds and make them like the subject. But this, unfortunately, is never the case in many schools."
Is this due to redundant textbooks or rote teaching techniques?
SEARCHING FOR ANSWERS: "The real problem with our educational system is in the way of teaching, not in the curriculum," retorts Kawthar Kuchuk, head of the Ministry of Education's Curriculum Development Centre. "Our elementary school syllabus is light when compared to what is taught abroad. We cannot go below international standards, or our students will be ignorant."
But why has the ministry banned writing and reading in kindergarten? "It's formal education that we are totally against," explains Kuchuk. "Children go to kindergarten to play and learn. They should learn through playing, and that is what the ministry's kindergarten activity book is all about. Formal education would be too dull for young children, who would normally end up hating school and books."
Kuchuk sees teachers' claims that kindergarten students should be given reading and writing in preparation for the elementary stage as unfounded. "The first term of the first elementary year should be entirely dedicated to such preparation, during which children get gradually acquainted with numbers and letters," Kuchuk explains, adding that this should always be the case since kindergarten education is absent in almost 90 per cent of all public schools. "That elementary books start with sentences does not mean the student is demanded to know the whole phrase by heart. It is just one way of teaching the alphabet in a context that makes it easier for children to grasp meanings rather than just memorise."
TAKING EDUCATION TO A HIGHER LEVEL: Banning reading and writing in kindergarten is only one part of the ministry's broader plan to upgrade the educational system in schools. The ministry has been revising and upgrading school curricula since 1993. "We have already finished with the elementary and preparatory stages and are working on secondary schoolbooks," Kuchuk says. "Today, I can say our curricula are up to international standards."
Rote learning, however, is still a problem. "Many teachers find it easier to follow formal teaching techniques, which depend on memorisation and homework. That's what makes books seem dull and uninteresting," Kuchuk adds. "A good book cannot be good without a qualified teacher. The real challenge facing our educational system is the quality of teaching, not the quantity of textbooks."
Even homework can be made interesting, Kuchuk continues. "We are not against homework as a concept, but against the abuse of that concept," she explains. "The very idea of homework breeds a sense of responsibility and commitment. But this homework should be fun. Teachers should not ask students to write a sentence 10 times, but rather think of more creative educational tools, like asking them to colour a picture that starts with the letter A, or collect photos of items that start with B."
'LET THEM PLAY': Education experts agree. "In early childhood, children have encapsulated abilities and talents that should be stimulated to an extreme," maintains veteran educationalist Hamed Ammar. "It's in that period that children start to develop their senses and language skills. Formal education would curb that development and limit their mental progress."
All work, or all play? Many education experts believe the twain can meet, if teachers are taught to make learning fun, and given the incentives to do so
photos: Khaled El-Fiqi
There is a consensus of sorts that the role of kindergarten should be complementary to that of the family. That is, children should learn through different situations. The family, for example, may act as if they are receiving guests. Through the game, the child learns to be a good host, to shake hands -- and to grasp new words. The game promotes the child's perceptions by giving them meaning, and language develops simultaneously, according to Ammar.
"Children should be taught in the same way at school," he adds. "A child may be given a pen to draw. His drawings, no matter what they are, are incarnations of hidden talents and abilities. Drawing helps develop the child's motor abilities and, while drawing, he can be easily taught letters, numbers, colours, figures and new vocabulary."
Christopher Renner, a programme consultant at the Kansas State Department of Education, concurs. Renner was recently in Cairo on an official visit, during which he exchanged views with experts at the Ministry of Education.
Renner recommends that children as young as three be exposed to the alphabet, reading texts and being read to by an adult. "Providing young learners with a learning atmosphere in which they are encouraged to explore questions and have tactical learning experiences improves their ability to comprehend complex subjects like physics and high-level maths," he maintains.
The sooner a child is exposed to a text-rich environment, Renner adds, the more success he will have in school. Teaching children to read and encouraging their reading abilities to develop, he argues, can help avoid behavioural problems in the classroom and community.
"I believe that students do need to be encouraged to study beginning early. Studying, however, should not be the memorisation of lists of facts, but should be tactical and experimental, meaning that children learn by doing things," Renner adds. Teaching at the kindergarten and elementary levels, according to him, should consist of a holistic approach. "And often, children need not know they are learning; they just need to experience the process and wonder of learning."
"That is what a kindergarten curriculum should be about: providing children with the desire to learn more, not expecting them to learn x, y, z," Renner explains. "They should have hands-on learning experiences, reinforced by textbooks; but textbooks should not be the only means of learning they have."
THE MEMORY MACHINE: But won't big textbooks make children hate school at the elementary level?
"The size of a book is not the issue here; rather, the quality of text and teaching makes the difference," Ammar argues. He insists that elementary-school children are already assigned less educational material than their peers in developed countries.
"Elementary textbooks are only big if children are asked to memorise them -- which is the case in almost all schools in Egypt," Ammar explains. Both examination and grading systems rely on the amount of information the child memorises. Any question outside the syllabus context, examining the child's comprehension of a text, for instance, could invalidate the exam.
The result? "Rote learning can be a cause of children becoming unmotivated to learn," Renner says. "It does very little to encourage critical thinking, sometimes referred to as 'high-order thinking skill.' In our societies today, we have a greater and greater need of people who not only know that 2+2=4 -- rote memorisation -- but why 2+2=4 -- critical thinking."
The vast majority of educationalists agree that rote learning is "a terrible teaching style, if it is the only technique used." Students, Renner explains, are all individuals and as such have a variety of learning preferences. Some prefer to do things in order to learn, others prefer to watch demonstrations while yet others will need to use their senses. What is key, Renner maintains, is that memorisation is only one aspect of leaning and teaching. It has its place and can be beneficial for some; for others, it can be a crashing bore.
RICHER TEXTS, BETTER EDUCATION: "If we overcome rote memorisation problems, the elementary curriculum can be seen as small in size, because in this case children will be asked to understand," Ammar maintains. He firmly believes that confining children to one textbook curbs their mental abilities and imagination. He explains that children should be asked to read at least six to seven extra books that expose them to a variety of experiences, as is the case in Germany and Japan.
"It's a lot of effort, I admit, but this effort should be pleasurable if the text is interesting and if the teacher adopts modern techniques in teaching," Ammar concludes. "If we want to teach children letters, for example, we shouldn't choose ordinary sentences like 'my name is Kamel'; that will bore the child to death. The sentence should include intriguing words that stimulate the child's curiosity."
Renner agrees that children learn to hate school when they are presented with a dull, boring curriculum that has no concrete context and are not provided with opportunities for play.
"Learning at the elementary level is best achieved when it is part of pedagogy that stimulates the children's minds, much in the same way as games do," Renner elaborates. "Knowledge needs to be presented as a challenge, like a puzzle, in which the children work together to fit the pieces together and come to understand the whole."
But are teachers qualified, or motivated, to help them?
'MIND THE TEACHER': The experts agree that many teachers sorely need professional training. "We held training classes for a limited group of public- and private-school teachers, and the outcome was great," says Kuchuk, who concedes, however, that more training sessions are urgently necessary. Ammar suggests that the curriculum of the Faculty of Education should be upgraded to graduate qualified teachers.
For teachers, however, training is not the issue. Many are not motivated to exert extra effort and improvise in class because of the low salaries they receive. "The teacher's life is tough and his/her role is hard to ignore," Tawfiq says. "We, the teachers, mould generations to be good citizens, and yet we are the most underpaid of all professionals."
Renner agrees that "teachers' pay is terribly low. Many have to work second and third jobs to support their families, and we wonder why so many of them hate teaching," he says. "Teachers should be paid more money so they are motivated to teach."
But there are other elements involved if the educational system is to be upgraded. Many schools are still poorly equipped and overcrowded. "Research shows that elementary classrooms should have no more than 15 students in them, if we want all students to learn and achieve," Renner says. In Egypt, however, the average number of those enrolled in one class is 30, and in public schools there are often more than twice that.
Equally important is that many state-run schools still need to be equipped with basic educational facilities. "Children need to have tools to learn," Renner notes. "If they do not have the materials to create with, if there is no library, if they do not have windows, then they will hate going to school."
Renner has other suggestions for better education: "Treat children as individuals who have opinions and whose opinions are worthy of thought. Provide children with opportunities to learn in a variety of ways. Provide opportunities for parents to be involved in the life of the school in a variety of ways. Decentralise education so that teachers can approach the national curriculum in ways that are meaningful for their students. Allow free and open competition in textbook sales so that different editors can provide teachers with a variety of choices when it comes to textbook scope and sequence, content and design."
A minority of children in Egypt, however, have the opportunity to enjoy the most up-to-date educational techniques, and parents, on the whole, are satisfied with the outcome. Amal, the mother of six-year-old Nada, is a case in point. Although she pays annual tuition fees of $3,750 for her daughter at one of the new schools applying the British system in Egypt, she feels she is getting value for money.
"I know it's a lot of money, but I'm happy my daughter is receiving a good education," Amal explains. "Although she is not allowed to take books home and is never given homework, I do feel she is grasping a lot. I sense this more when we revise for exams, and of course she is now very fluent in English."
Amal is happy her daughter is learning and having fun at the same time. "Nada loves school so much that she wanted to go back during the mid-year recess," Amal says enthusiastically. The reason, she explains, is that the teachers are very friendly and the many activities offered in class make learning a real pleasure. "You cannot imagine how excited Nada feels when she puts her teddy bear in her school bag in preparation for the science class because the teacher asked students to, or when she receives written comments from her teachers like 'Wow, good job!'"
Amal is happy her daughter does not have to do any homework, which gives her the chance to develop many skills, going to art and religion classes and playing sports.
Could all Egyptian children have fun while learning in public schools one day? This, at any rate, is what Kuchuk and her colleagues hope.