Deliberate Course

By Mary Ann Zehr — June 14, 2005 14 min read
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Jordanian Ministry of Education officials hope to turn their education system into a model for the Middle East.

Amal Hawamdeh teaches a physics lesson at the Al-Khansa’a Comprehensive Secondary School for Girls in Jerash, about 30 miles north of Jordan’s capital city, that veers away from the “chalk and talk” teaching methods that are the staples of an education in the Middle East.

On a day in April, Hawamdeh divides her class of 28 11th graders into small groups to learn about the properties of concave and convex lenses.

Several girls, all wearing the green tunics that are part of their school uniforms and the white or cream-colored headscarves that signify their Islamic faith, head out to the school’s concrete schoolyard to experiment with how lenses capture sun rays. Another group goes to the school’s computer lab to see what the students can find about lenses on the Internet. A third experiments with candlelight and lenses.

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Soon, in authoritative tones, the girls take turns telling their classmates what they’ve learned.

It’s this kind of teaching, which encourages students to think for themselves, that is at the heart of an ambitious, five-year plan to improve public, or government, schools, here in Jordan. This small Arab country, which has remained politically stable in a region that has frequently erupted into violence, is two years into its plan. Called Education Reform for the Knowledge Economy, its goal is to prepare young people to be competitive in the Middle East’s job market.

The country’s education officials know they aren’t there yet, but have faith that their strategy to update schools will lead Jordanians to be so technologically savvy and entrepreneurial that they will be snapped up by employers in the region. After all, that might help alleviate the persistent unemployment of many university-educated Jordanians.

But Jordanian Ministry of Education officials have yet another goal: They hope to turn their education system into a model for the Middle East.

With modernization taking place in a country where most of the people are Muslim, says John Middleton, the director of the Center for Global Education at the Washington-based Academy for Educational Development, Jordan’s leaders will have to be attentive to the tension between traditional and modern Islamists. The nonprofit AED has a four-year, $14.2 million grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development to support Jordan’s school improvement agenda.

“The Jordanians, as near as I can tell,” Middleton says in an interview in Washington, “are walking a careful line between being Islamic and Arabic-based while modernizing in other ways.”

But Karim Kawar, Jordan’s ambassador to the United States, says he views Islam and Arabic as walking hand in hand with modernization.

Audio: ‘A Reporter Abroad’

Education Week‘s Mary Ann Zehr recounts her trip to Jordan, discussing the impressions the country and its people left on her. Listen to conversations on:

• The traditional dress—including headscarf—worn by most, but not all, Muslim school children. (3.02)
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• An American’s welcome, post Sept. 11, by Jordanians in the Middle East. (1.56)
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• The gender separation in Jordanian schools. (2.24)
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“One does not negate the other. When you look at Islam in its golden age in Andalucia [in Spain], when Christians, Muslims, and Jews coexisted and where the language of knowledge was Arabic,” he says, “you had Spanish and French who learned Arabic.”

Kawar adds: “Islam is a progressive religion. It is a religion of peace. Unfortunately, we struggle today with the perception that Islam is violent. A minority of people interpret the text [of the Quran] to suit their purpose.”

Jordan’s education plan is comprehensive. This fall, for instance, Jordan’s schools will see the first set of textbooks rewritten within a new curriculum framework designed as part of the country’s emerging academic-standards movement. So far, though, it’s possible to see only bits and pieces of the plan trickling down to schools. After all, the education system here—as in other Middle Eastern countries—is heavily centralized. Whole-school reform is not evident. What can be seen are pockets of change that may expand to something that represents the goals set down on paper.

Besides setting academic standards and revamping the curriculum, the plan focuses on constructing schools, putting computers and online curriculum in schools, establishing and modernizing kindergartens, and updating teaching methods.

The price tag is $380 million. The World Bank has loaned Jordan $120 million for the plan and calls it the largest education reform program in the organization’s history. Other funders include the United States, Canada, Japan, the European Union, Kuwait’s Arab Fund, and the Jeddah, Saudi Arabia-based Islamic Development Bank. The United States’ share for fiscal 2004 through 2009 will be $50 million. Abroad: A Reporter in Jordan

Editor’s Note: Education Week Assistant Editor Mary Ann Zehr reported from Jordan on the education system of this strategically located country in the Middle East. During her two-week visit, which began April 1, she filed the following Web reports:

“Interpreter Is Valued Colleague on Reporter’s Journey,” April 13, 2005.

“Top-Ranking Woman Reflects on Role in Jordan’s Education Ministry,” April 13, 2005.

“In Jordan, Days Off Are Time for Religion, Relaxation,” April 11, 2005.

“Friendly Jordanian Hotel Is Home Away From Home,” April 7, 2005.

“School-Smoking Rules Get Hazy in Jordan,” April 6, 2005.

“U.S. Education Reporter Visits Jordanian Schools,” April 5, 2005.

“It’s a major education reform initiative to put Jordan on the global education map,” says Khaled Toukan, Jordan’s minister of education. “It’s going to raise the achievement level and ability to compete nationally and internationally,” says Toukan, who has a doctorate in nuclear engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“We’ve had so many plans, but not most of them have reached inside the classroom to change the teaching and learning,” adds Muna Mu’taman, the managing director for general education and student affairs for the Education Ministry. “Now, we can see some of the changing of methodology. We need more of that.”

The high level of financial support from the United States grows out of a close relationship between the two countries. U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings led an American delegation to an education meeting last month hosted by Jordan officials for G-8 countries, the Middle East, and North Africa. First lady Laura Bush visited Jordan a few days later as part of a five-day solo tour through the region.

The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan is counting on boosting economic development through education because it has little else to invest in. Largely desert, the country has no oil. Jordanians of all walks of life like to say the people are the country’s only resource. Seventy percent of its 5.3 million people are younger than 30.

While nomadic Bedouins still tend sheep and goats and sleep in tents made of goat hair out on the desert plains in the east and in the arid valleys of the south, most Jordanians live in cities.

The Education Ministry is directing its school initiative from its offices in Amman, a city of great contrasts. Poor people cram into public buses after a day of work or school in the city to return to their villages, while the wealthy relax in coffee shops as upscale as the pastry shops of New York City’s Little Italy. In Amman, one can savor mansuf, lamb cooked in broth and served in a yogurt sauce, in a traditional restaurant or settle for fast food from Hardee’s.

Amman is a hilly city of beige-colored concrete apartment buildings and small shops, sprinkled with mosques and high-rise hotels.

Though the government is secular, most Jordanians are Muslim. The amplified call to prayer from a local mosque can be heard five times a day in almost all parts of the country.

Still, women here dress less conservatively than in some parts of the Muslim world. Some don sweaters and jeans. Most wear loose-fitting tops over slacks or long skirts, and headscarves that frame their faces.

Prevalent throughout the city, in thousands of public places, including the schools, are photos of the late King Hussein, who died of cancer in 1999, and his son, King Abdullah II, Jordan’s 43-year-old monarch.

Under the leadership of King Hussein, Jordanians made great strides in increasing access to education. Now, with the leadership of Abdullah II, they are trying to improve the quality in a public school system than enrolls 1.1 million students—the same number as New York City’s.

The modernization efforts are meant to fit with Islamic values. The plan does not, for example, try to do away with the tradition of separating girls and boys into single-sex classes or schools starting in grade 5. If the government were to make all its schools coeducational, many traditional Muslims would pull their children out, some say. The ministry has also stuck with the status quo by continuing to have Muslim students take three hours of Islamic studies each week.

In putting technology into schools, the government has also been sensitive to the culture. Most schools don’t have access to the full Internet. Instead, they use an Intranet with screened material, such as the online curriculum that is being crafted.

“We don’t want pornography in our schools,” explains Ambassador Kawar.

Some parts of the school improvement push—such as the decentralization of decisionmaking—seem to be caught up in the smoke-filled meeting rooms of the ministry. But other parts are already making a difference. Most evident are the presence of computer labs and kindergartens and the training of teachers.

The Ministry of Education has established 250 kindergartens in the past three years; previously they were extremely rare in government schools.

At the Um Abhara School on the outskirts of Amman, the kindergartners play at round blue tables and in learning centers toward the end of their school day. Several work with Lego blocks. Others move plastic animals, such as a cheetah and a giraffe, around on a tabletop. Two girls, responding to lively music on a CD player, dance on tables, swaying back and forth and twirling their tiny hands.

This fall, Jordan’s schools will see the first set of textbooks rewritten within a new curriculum framework designed as part of the country’s emerging academic-standards movement

When it’s time to work, the children are taught from a new national curriculum that was devised with the help of Queen Rania, the 35-year-old wife of King Abdullah. The children have workbooks that help them learn the alphabets of both Arabic and English. (For three years now, formal English instruction has started in 1st grade. Previously, it began in 5th grade.)

The creation of online-learning curricula is also well under way. Eighty-three schools are trying out an online mathematics curriculum.

Educators view the online curriculum as more interactive than a standard textbook, though they will continue to use texts. Third graders at the 955-student Iskan Al-Jamea Secondary Comprehensive School here in Amman laugh with delight when a little star jumps up and down on the computer screen after they correctly answer a question.

The math curriculum was written by the Jordan Education Initiative, a public-private partnership started in Jordan by the World Economic Forum, an international group of business and government leaders. The initiative is preparing several other online curricula—for information computer technology, science, Arabic, and English as a foreign language.

Students note that the installation of computers is the biggest improvement they’ve seen in their schools in the past few years.

Although 2,800 of the nation’s 3,200 government schools now have the labs, students use them mostly to learn computer skills. The connection to the Intranet is slow, and it hasn’t yet been stocked with Web links for student learning. The government promises high-speed broadband access in schools next year.

Jordan has also been successful in training a large number of its 70,000 teachers and administrators in computer skills. And it has engaged World Links, a Washington-based nonprofit organization, and Intel Teach to the Future, a project of Intel Corp., to follow up with courses on new teaching methods.

The Education Ministry has provided a carrot. Teachers receive a 25 percent raise if they finish the courses for basic computer skills and modern teaching methods. In a country where teachers’ salaries are low—about $300 a month—the incentive is a big deal.

Not all Jordanians are sold on the ministry’s priorities. Ishaq Ahmad Farhan, the president of Zarqa Private University in Amman and a minister of education in the early 1970s, says the school improvement measures put too much emphasis on economic development—and thus materialism.

“Education and knowledge should be used in social development,” he asserts. “I can see the towers and high buildings in the [Persian] Gulf area. I don’t think that is really development.”

Jordan doesn’t have a free press, a teachers’ union, or a domestic nonprofit organization that monitors education.

Some Jordanians would rather see the government alleviate crowded classrooms before turning to more advanced educational goals.

“The reason I don’t send my children to government schools is they are too crowded,” says Ziad Karawi, the manager of a small hotel in Amman. “If you have 35 to 40 kids in the class, there will be five to seven intelligent ones. The teachers will take care of the five to seven.”

Many classes in Amman government schools have at least 45 students. At the 1,300-student Ahmad Toukan School in Amman, there are as many as 56.

Minister of Education Toukan says 200 new schools will be built under the five-year plan, but 500 are needed. “We have to work with other ministries to reduce the population growth,” he adds. Students at two schools, meanwhile, say they wish upgrading school restrooms were on the agenda.

Jordan doesn’t have a free press, a teachers’ union, or a domestic nonprofit organization that monitors education. But several other kinds of Jordanian entities keep tabs on what the Ministry of Education is up to. An education committee in the country’s Parliament is one of them.

Adnan Hassouneh, the head of that committee, supports many of Jordan’s education measures, including the use of education technology. But last school year, he publicly criticized new curriculum guidelines for civics that Jordan was preparing with the help of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization. Hassouneh charged that the United States was applying pressure through UNESCO for Jordanian schools to teach tolerance.

“The main goal was to normalize relations with a Zionist entity [Israel] in our curriculum,” Hassouneh charges in an interview. He is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, an influential Islamic group in Jordan.

In January 2004 news reports, Toukan said Jordan hadn’t been pressured by the United States. But the civics guidelines were never implemented.

The government also has a committee made up of top officials of the Education Ministry and their peers in other ministries to review the overall curriculum.

Mayyada Abu-Jaber, a Jordanian employed by the Academy for Educational Development to support the ministry’s plan, worked with that committee a few years ago to get a curriculum about water conservation approved. Some committee members, she recalls, reviewed the curriculum with cultural issues in mind. They required, for example, that the calf-length pants on a girl in a textbook illustration be lengthened so her clothing would appear more modest.

Members of the committee, Abu-Jaber says, are now less traditional than in the past.

She and several other Jordanians say their society is open to having textbooks changed so they no longer reflect gender stereotypes. It’s not unusual, for example, for Jordanian textbooks to portray a man working in an office and a woman, say, cooking inside the home.

UNIFEM, a United Nations development fund for women, which has an Arab regional office in Amman, has been invited to review the new online curricula to make sure they avoid such stereotypes.

Shirin Shukri, a project manager for UNIFEM, says diplomacy is crucial when recommending ways to avoid gender bias. “If you tell them, ‘one, two, three, four,’ they will tell you, ‘Madame, the door is open; we don’t want to be dictated to.’ ”

It’s still too early to tell if Jordan’s school improvements will produce a new kind of graduate who can think critically and be competitive in the Middle East’s job market. It’s also early to speculate if other Middle Eastern countries will pick up aspects of Jordan’s recent endeavors.

The public-private Jordan Education Initiative has received more attention than the more comprehensive five-year school reform plan as a possible model for the Middle East. The World Economic Forum, for instance, announced last month that it would extend the public-private partnership to the Palestinian Authority. Jordan doesn’t have a free press, a teachers’ union, or a domestic nonprofit organization that monitors education.

Minister Toukan has received a steady stream of visits from ministers of education or delegations from other Middle Eastern countries in the past couple of years, including Dr. Ala’din Alwan, the first education minister in Iraq after the U.S.-led overthrow of the regime of Saddam Hussein. Jordan also had the chance last month to showcase its progress in education at the meeting it hosted for education officials from around the world and at a World Economic Forum conference.

But the ministry must still convince some of its own people that government schools are delivering a high-quality education.

Many Jordanians send their children to private schools, which educate 15 percent of the country’s school-age children. Among them is Minister Toukan.

He says that after computer labs were installed in government schools, some parents transferred their children to government schools.

But he acknowledges that it will take the government schools another 10 years before a minister of education would send his or her children to them.

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Yasmine Mousa provided Arabic-English interpretation for interviews with students and teachers quoted in this article as well as Adnan Hassuoneh. Interviews with other sources were conducted in English.


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