The battle for young minds

The Battle for Young Minds

An ideological battle is being fought in Jordan’s classrooms between reformers wanting to foster greater critical thinking and tolerance, and cultural conservatives alarmed by what they see as the creeping secularization of education.

There has been much debate in recent years on Jordan’s education system. Does it foster creativity, encourage critical thinking, or is it one of the reasons behind a growing tendency towards extremism among the Kingdom’s increasingly frustrated youth?

An attempt last year to overhaul the content of some Jordanian textbooks was met with widespread uproar. Some of the changes included the addition of pictures of unveiled women, the removal of certain Koranic verses, and adding texts that promoted pluralism in society.

Groups of parents took to the streets with Islamist to accuse the Ministry of Education of trying to secularize young minds and wear down the country’s cultural and religious identity. Copies of the new textbooks were set on fire and demands were made for the resignation of the Minister of Education.

While those calling for change provide a counter argument. Not only do they believe that Jordanian textbooks fail to encourage critical thinking, but they even go as far as to suggest they foster a sense of intolerance that could lead extremism.

Thogan Obeidat, Education Expert

Thogan Obeidat, Education Expert

The watershed resulted in the ministry forming a committee of former ministers and education experts to review the changes and come up with recommendations. Although it remains ambiguous whether the committee will recommend completely scrapping or keeping some of the changes, it is unlikely that the texts modified last year will make it into the Kingdom’s classrooms this autumn term.

Al Ghad columnist Thogan Obeidat has been one of the most outspoken critics of the current education system. The former teacher, who also served as Jordan’s Ambassador to UNESCO in Paris for six years, is now at the forefront of the campaign for reform. “Each citizen needs human rights, rule of law, dignity, and an education that entices critical and creative thinking,” he said. “We need to reach an agreement on how to translate these needs into curricula and schoolbooks.”

Obeidat added that Jordanian curricula did not produce good or intelligent students, citing international exams as one examples of our schools failure. Jordanian students’ performance in 2015’s TIMSS assessment took a nosedive, as Jordan dropped 23 points below its rank in eighth grade science. According to The Jordan Times, this constituted the largest drop by any of the 39 participating countries. The students’ score in eighth grade mathematics was also low, ranking 8th among nine participating Arab countries.

He believes last year’s attempt to reform Jordanian textbooks included some very positive changes, including adding more elements of local culture such as more Jordanian poets, as well as changing the way women are depicted; a woman has always been portrayed as a follower to men and not as an individual with an independent personality. “She was the mother, the wife, the sister, but never a woman.”

But Obeidat also acknowledges that with the changes there were also mistakes, which stirred controversy in the community.

Hosni Ayesh, another critic of the Kingdom’s textbooks, agrees. He further stressed that “these curricula need to be related more to our time. While reviewing them we realized that they mostly dwelled on the past.”

He also criticized the heavy religious content in Jordanian textbooks. “They’ve even put a verse from the Holy Koran at the beginning of each scientific curriculum. This means they’ve made science a subsidiary of religion although both are independent,” argued Ayesh, who along with Obeidat received death threats for demanding a separation between science and religion.

One aspect everyone Venture spoke to particularly agreed on was the urgent need to improve the public education infrastructure across the Kingdom. This includes spokesperson of the teachers syndicate, which has been an outspoken opponent of last year’s changes, Ahmad al-Hajaya.

While Ayesh stressed the need to spend more money on schools’ facilities, including more laboratories, playgrounds, and theaters to create an environment that entices children to use their hands and brains, al-Hajaya blamed part of the current situation on Syrian refugees. “Classrooms are overly crowded with 50 to 70 students. There will never be any achievements in classrooms that have this many students. This has also affected the schools’ facilities—not only the classrooms and teachers, playgrounds, laboratories—but all the elements that make up a good education system,” argued al-Hajaya.

According to the Jordan Compact, which aims to help the Kingdom deal with the Syrian refugees crisis, the Kingdom needs $1 billion to support the education sector in the next three years.

The list of reforms the education ministry needs to tackle is indeed long, but the state of the Kingdom’s teachers remains the most pressing challenge, according to most experts in the field.

Hosni Ayesh, Education Expert

Hosni Ayesh, Education Expert

Because education is mandatory until secondary school, Ayesh said, the number of students and classes is ever growing, which requires a large number of teachers who were supposed to be trained properly before giving classes.

Yet the bodies that train teachers lack capacity, forcing the ministry to employ teachers who were not trained nor prepared to teach. “This means we have people who work in teaching but are not teachers nor do they feel like they are teachers who want to remain in the profession for long,” said Ayesh. “It was merely an opportunity that they seized and each one of them is waiting for a better opportunity.”

Al-Hajaya also blames the state of the education system on neglecting the country’s teachers and their financial and training needs. “In Jordan teachers have been sidelined and treated like any other state employee,” he said. “Due to difficult living conditions, they were forced to get other jobs to make a living.”

Although he says Jordanian teachers remain well regarded around the region, their performance has been deteriorating. “Their search for a decent livelihood has made them absent minded, which is the worst when it comes to performing any job, let alone being an educator,” said the former teacher.

He also stressed the importance of good quality training, which is almost non-existent. One example of the little training available is the following formula: The Queen Rania Teacher Academy only trains 200 teachers annually, while the number of teachers in the public sector is 130,000 teachers, and the number of new teachers who were hired through the Civil Service Bureau this year alone is 5,000 new teachers.

According to al-Hajaya, there is a budget dedicated to training in the ministry that doesn’t seem to be channeled properly. Yet he does not seem to believe there is a crisis when it comes to the teaching methods or the lack of critical thinking in our classrooms. This particular criticism, he believes, is a wave that everyone seems to ride on.

Although al-Hajaya agreed that some of the textbooks, particularly those in the scientific stream, needed change because still water rots as he puts it, the Teachers Syndicate remains one of the main opponents of last year’s alterations.

Last year, the syndicate presented the ministry with an 88-page report that included their objectives to the changes that were made. “Change should not mean distortion, it should mean that we keep abreast with the new technologies, new language, and this is particularly crucial for scientific stream. What we’ve seen last year is that they’ve unfortunately forsaken the scientific books and concentrated instead on changing the literary books like Arabic language, history, and religion, trying to remove our values,” he said.

Ahmad al-Hajaya, Spokesperson of the Teachers Syndicate

Ahmad al-Hajaya, Spokesperson of the Teachers Syndicate

Al-Hajaya is adamant that it is necessary that our books are related to our religion for he does not believe that the Arab’s current political situation is honorable. “A nation that has no links to its history has no future. We need to show what’s positive in our past, as well as the positive things from our present and how we would like our future to be.”

Furthermore, he completely denied any possible link between the textbooks and youth extremism, arguing that the country’s schools have graduated officers, doctors, and teachers. “There is no incitement to terrorism in our curricula, unless you consider the holy Quran to be terrorism or even our Prophet’s name.” He also believes that those who have been calling for change didn’t represent the Jordanian people and only represented their own beliefs.

Only established in 2011, the Teachers Syndicate’s website states that its main aim was to partner with the ministry to improve the state of teachers and the education system. To date, the syndicate’s role remains limited. Its laws are still being debated by the parliament, and the ministry remains the sole orchestrator of the Kingdom’s education system. “We have no power over the teacher. We can’t interfere in the education policies, so we are fighting for a full role and for an active syndicate,” explained al-Hajaya.

Despite the stark difference in beliefs, all parties agreed that appointing reformist and progressive thinker Omar Razzaz as a Minister of Education was a positive step. However, they all also agreed that the scope of change remains limited.

Ayesh believes that Razzaz has the will and capabilities to inflict change. He, however, is facing massive barriers. “Unfortunately most of the teachers belong to this group that resists development and change. So the minister needs support,” he said. Obeidat agrees, adding that appointing Razzaz was a result of the growing movement that’s demanding change.

And while al-Hajaya said the syndicate respected Razzaz and his credentials, they still believed what the ministry needed was a minister with an education background who understands the real challenges facing the Kingdom’s education system. He also cited the constant cabinet reshuffles as another obstacle to positive change, which leaves the policies of a whole ministry subject to the whims of one minister, soon to change after the arrival of another.

Whether under Razzaz or another minister, the fact remains that Jordan’s textbooks are in dire need for reform to bring our curricula and students on a par with international standards.

Recognizing the importance of education and the need for reform, HM King Abdullah issued a discussion paper on education in April. “We cannot allow fear of change nor reluctance to embrace modernization and scientific advancement to waste the vast potential of our tremendous human resources,” he said. “We will not tolerate miring this strategic sector and the future of Jordanians in petty politicking and narrow interests; this is an alarming path, for education must rise above all such issues if we are to continue with our reform and development endeavors to create a better present and future.”