It's not a big secret that people think the Saudi public schooling system sucks. Even the Saudis complain about the system all the time. Some have called it one of the worst in the world. It's mostly bashed for being tied to rote learning and for an over-emphasis on religious studies but the criticism doesn't stop there.
Recently King Abdullah has made an effort to start improving the Saudi education system. He launched the public education development program: The King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz Project for Developing Public Education.
The project consists of four parts: developing teachers skills, developing curricula, enhancing school activities and improving school environment. The Saudis have also been looking to other countries for examples and models of effective and productive education systems.
Saudi-Arabia and Finland are now planning to work together to reform the Saudi schools.
Finland on the other hand is seen as a major international leader in education. Finnish students have topped OECD's Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) consistently for a decade now. Newsweek announced in 2010 Finland as the best country to live in the world and had a special mention for the best country for education.
So what is the secret behind the excellence of the Finnish student's performance? What could the Saudis learn from the Finnish model? There is no a simple answer to the question, one must look at all the aspects of the Finnish education system and take parts of it to integrate into the Saudi system.
Here's a few lessons for the Saudi schools:
There are huge differences in the style of learning-Saudis are taught to listen to the teacher and memorize-while Finns are encouraged to find out for themselves and work in groups. This stimulates creativity and social skills.
Naturally the curriculums are very different. The Saudis concentrating on memorizing Quran and learning Hadith, while Finns have a more balanced variety of subjects. There's a lot of science and mathematics but also physical education and arts subjects keeping the learning experience more interesting and rewarding.
I recall looking forward to the physical education classes, we had them three times a week. We would learn different sports and it would be a break from sitting on the hard wooden benches all day. Arts class once a week was also like the highlight of the day. We had to use your imagination to create what the teacher presented.
One key to Finland's success is keeping the schools relatively small and "home-like". This means that pupils will have mostly the same teachers from grades 1-6 and they sometimes stay in the same school building until 9th grade. The compulsory schooling for everyone is until 9th grade. After that they can choose to go to higher level schools-and most choose to do so. The pupils and teachers all get to know each other well and it builds a good atmosphere and sense of togetherness.
I had the same teacher for most subjects the whole time I was in elementary school. He was more like a father-figure to us and we looked up to him. When we came to school we took our shoes off at the door and hung our jackets on the wall just like at home. We had our own clothes on, no school uniforms.
A surprising fact is that while pupils around the world enter formal schooling at five or six, in Finland children enter school at seven - and then only for half days. They also have longer holidays and Finnish students have the least educational hours of any industrialized country yet they are academically among the most successful. Short hours are especially important in the early years of schooling, not to overburden little pupils to the point where they start disliking school or are too exhausted to do homework.
As a kid I had many hobbies after school. I played the piano, danced ballet, played basketball, went to cooking and sowing classes and was on a swimming team. I can't imagine having the energy to do all this after long hours of school.
The shorter time spent at schools also places greater responsibility on families. An important ingredient in Finland's high achievement in reading and writing is a strong culture of reading in the home. Parents often read to their children and there are excellent public libraries. Finland's 15-year olds were judged to have the highest standards of literacy in the world:
One of the best memories from childhood are my parents reading to me every single day before going to bed. We barely watched TV and I wasn't even that interested because of my enthusiasm to reading. I would rather spend time at the library with my friends.
All teachers in Finnish schools have Master's degrees and they are given freedom to choose their methods of teaching and books. In other words the teachers are trusted by parents and by government officials. Society views them as a valued professionals. In Saudi teachers have to strictly follow a certain curriculum and always use the same books.
I remember my high school biology teacher very fondly. He was so knowledgeable and enthusiastic about his subject that we never had a dull class. Sometimes we would go on trips to the forest, lakes or nature reserves where he would show us all the different plants and animals. These were valuable lessons that increased my love for nature.
The Finnish public schools are all free and do not pick their pupils according to grades. The performance of students from one school to another is uniform so it doesn't become necessary for parents to choose which school to send their children to. Special needs students are not sent away to separate schools and everyone is given an equal chance at succeeding.
The schools I went to were always a walking distance from my house. That didn't mean I was always on time though!
One thing I consider as equally important in the success of the system is the school meals and 1 hour lunch breaks in the canteens. Finland was the world pioneer in providing free school meals since 1948. A balanced meal gives the pupils energy to perform for the rest of the day. Lunch consists typically of fish, chicken or meat, fresh salads, vegetables, rice and potatoes, freshly baked bread and milk. The meals are tasty and nutrient rich and students thus become conscious of healthy eating habits and learn to choose the right foods.
I remember how they wouldn't let us take our own food in elementary school, but instead the kitchen lady would hand it on to your plate in the food line. That meant sometimes you got much more than asked you for! Our teacher would sit and eat with us and supervise that we ate everything. With some foods this became a problem to finish it up. I especially hated spinach-soup days!But looking back this was a good practice.
Students stay in class for 45 minutes at a time and then go for recess. Pupils will put their shoes back on because they are required to step outside for a break. Only temperatures below -20c might give the OK to stay inside for the breaks. I think this is good to get fresh air and to stay sharp in class.
One of the best memories from school are all the fun games we used to play outside, be it in the sun, the rain snow or autumn leaves. We were always outside enjoying the fresh air and getting some exercise while at it.
Another great aspect of the Finnish schools are the school healthcare nurses. Students can turn to them in confidence with health issues. These nurses also implement the national vaccination programme and act as counselors if needed. They give valuable health education to children. The schools also have enjoined dental clinics and dental hygiene thus becomes compulsory. These are all of course free of charge and available to everyone regardless of background. Some schools have a psychologist and a physician visits for check-ups.
The healthcare nurse was always a person we could turn to if we had problems at home or in school. They would always lend a listening ear. Having the dental clinic at the school was good for regular check-ups but ask any kid and they will disagree!
These are some of the components to the succes of the Finnish educations system. A school consists of many separate parts that come together to promote positive learning experiences.
What the Saudi system could change is the separation of girls and boys of younger ages. The children should be allowed to study and interact together. There is no harm to that even from the Islamic point of view. This way boys and girls would be able to learn better social and communication skills with each other and not grow up to view the other gender as "alien".
The curriculum of Saudi elementary schools consists of 31% Islamic studies. Isn't that a bit too much especially for a young child to absorb? Not everyone is going to be an Islamic scholar. Saudi-Arabia's schools have the least amount of maths and most religious studies compared to all other GCC countries. Surely religious studies could be cut down to the amount of for example Kuwait, the leading GCC country in education.
The responsibility of teaching religion should be partly shifted to homes to enable more time for other important subjects at school. The model of Finland's pupils reading at home could be copied by Saudi parents to achieve more Islamic knowledge for their children. It surely wouldn't do harm for the parent to child bonding experience either.
Applying all the above mentioned components to Saudi schools would need a lot of work, time and of course big funding. Most of them could be possible to implement. However the secret to the Finns success lies not only inside the schools but outside and in the homes too.
The question is do the Saudis really want to change their ways and would the same system work in Saudi-Arabia as well as it does in Finland?
The Saudi culture is very different from the Finnish one in many aspects.
Some change is definitely needed to keep Saudis in the competitive labor market and to transform the country into a more independently developing nation.