“The High Cost of Free Thinking”; Cooperative Learning in the Arab/Muslim context

I have recently handed in my  paper to Copenhagen University on public debates on education reforms in the Gulf, soon to be publicized at ResearchGate. It explores the media debates (inside and, more importantly, outside government control) on the  shift from traditional teacher-centered learning to student centered learning (SCL). This process is worth paying a great deal of attention to, as the hyper-speeded pace of implementation may give us some idea of the potential future impact of our own cumbersome endeavors on UK society, politics and empowerment. For now, please benefit from the summary:

We have seen how the UAE government has succumbed to the twin dogma of neo-liberal globalization, democracy and openness to market forces, and the demand of both for a new citizen skill set which includes cooperation, critical thinking and openness. Government media control is used to push new curriculum and teaching methods to this end, often at the hands of private enterprises who reflect dogmas of globalization, and there is a lack of in-depth public discussion about this process. Ironically, there is a simultaneous public relations effort to position the government as a caretaker of traditional Arab/Islamic cultural values, sided with the populace.

However, previous attempts in MENA to use the public school system to achieve specific results have backfired dramatically and the assumption by governments, 30-odd years after Starrett’s seminal work, that they can socially engineer a workforce which is free-thinking, critical, tech savvy, experts in self-study and non-centralized cooperation and at the same time happily docile seems unfounded.

As for the various non-governmental stakeholders in education, we have focused on the interesting debates happening outside mainstream media, in internet forums, blogs, etc. However, none seem to fundamentally question effects of the method by which the new curriculum is being taught. Also, Islamist discourse offers little resistance to globalization dogmas; more incredulous than the idea of government social engineering is Islamist dreams that SCL alumni will accept any “limits of debate“ based on religious argument, especially as more and more alternative cosmologies to enter the Islamic world. On the contrary, SCL alumni impact on society via use of uncontrolled digital media may have an unforeseen and self-perpetuating effect in further pushing the envelope of the debate on every aspect of society, including education itself, which could threaten the foundations of the rentier states; the core group in the Arab Spring uprisings were unemployed, young, well-educated and tech-savvy[1].

For now, the only thing we can safely say is that no-one can predict the long-term consequences of implementation of SCL in the Muslim world and the author recommends further research into this area, as has been attempted in the case of China[2].

[1] Filipe R. Campante and Davin Chor, “Why was the Arab World Poised for Revolution? Schooling, Economic Opportunities, and the Arab Spring“, The Journal of Economic Perspectives, Vol. 26, No. 2 (Spring 2012), American Economic Association, p.175, http://www.jstor.org/stable/41495309 . (accessed November 8, 2013).
[2] Huiping Ning, “An Investigation of the Use of Cooperative Learning in Teaching English as a Foreign Language with Tertiary Education Learners in China: A Thesis Submitted in Partial Fulfilment of the Requirements for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy in Education in the University of Canterbury“, (University of Canterbury, November 2010), http://hdl.handle.net/10092/5188 (accessed June 2, 2013).

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