For the past three years the Occupational Research Group at the University of Georgia (UGA) has been working with the Ministry of Education and Youth in the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) on a unique international project to improve the technical secondary education system in the U.A.E. The goals of this reform initiative are to revise and update curriculum content, improve teaching and learning, improve school management and operations, and revitalize instruction by introducing project-based teaching and learning. Initially invited to review the results of a five-year curriculum revision effort by a German consulting group based on a labor market analysis of job trends and skill training needs in the U.A.E., the UGA evaluation team recommended a plan to move the technical schools to a level of "world class" education standards, benchmarked to American vocational education and international skill training standards.
The reasons for UGA's involvement in this project were varied. Project leaders believed that now more than ever before, given the increasing U.S. involvement in Iraq and this part of the world, Americans need to know more about Arab and Islamic cultures, societies and peoples. They need to understand that all Arabs aren't terrorists, but are people like us with strong family values, generous and hospitable, who want a secure and comfortable life. Arab students in the technical schools, like ours, can learn skills to run their country and contribute to its economic development and stability, the best insurance against terrorism--which is tied to poverty, desperation, and exploitation or oppression. The UGA project is helping to improve technical education for youth in U.A.E. who have been receiving a second-rate education and who were "written off" by some as being at the bottom of the heap educationally, at high risk of failure--like many vocational students in our own country.
In addition, UGA saw opportunities for their own faculty and students (particularly those with Occupational Studies education majors) to increase their understanding of this part of the world through exchange visits, cooperative research, teacher training, and opportunities to participate in the technical education improvement project in the U.A.E. schools. This project enabled Americans to learn from the advancements being made in economic development by U.A.E. and from the norms of Islamic and Arabic cultures, while using U.S. career and technical education models and experience to improve education in the U.A.E. Many of the lessons learned by U.S. educators from School-to-Work initiatives, work-based learning, contextual teaching and learning, project-oriented learning, and competency-based education were seen by the U.A.E. Ministry of Education as a means of addressing problems of low student motivation and achievement and of upgrading their technical education system to world standards.
Introduction to the U.A.E.
Located in the Persian Gulf region, bordered by Saudi Arabia, and neighbor to Iraq and Iran, the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) is a small but modern, progressive, moderate Arab Muslim state that in the past thirty years has moved from a tribal, desert society to one of the most highly developed, cosmopolitan, high-tech countries in the Gulf Region. The U.A.E. is unique in its population because of the high number of expatriates (individuals from countries other than U.A.E.) who reside and work in the country, constituting 80-85% of the total U.A.E. population. The government is a federation of seven emirates, each with its own ruling family and Sheik, one of whom serves as president of the country (Sheik Zayed).
As a result of oil wealth, U.A.E. nationals are well provided for in a material sense, and much of the skilled and unskilled labor in the country is contracted to outside workers who enjoy higher wages and standard of living in U.A.E. than in their own countries. This predominantly expatriate labor force makes U.A.E. one of the most multicultural and open Arab Muslim societies in the.world, and creates a unique sense of what workforce preparation involves in U.A.E. in comparison to other industrialized nations.
Historically an international trading-center and now one of the major oil producing countries of the world, the U.A.E. has a global perspective on economic development and is generally more accustomed to dealing with other cultures in both business and social contexts. English has become the common language of commerce in this multicultural, multilingual, Arab-speaking country. Foreign investment also has grown in the past decade and many large international high technology companies now have established their global or Middle Eastern headquarters in U.A.E., particularly in Dubai. Contracting with expatriates for goods and services is the way U.A.E. operates their country. This same approach has been used in developing the technical education schools in U.A.E. Outside contractor groups of Western educational experts have been hired over the years to develop and revise curriculum programs and materials for the technical schools in U.A.E.
Technical Education in the U.A.E.
To support the country's rapid economic and social development in the past three decades, the education system of U.A.E. has grown from 32,800 students in 74 schools throughout the seven Emirates in 1971, to a public K-12 school system enrolling 322,250 students in 747 government schools in 2001, in addition to over 400 private schools primarily for children of foreign workers (U.A.E. Yearbook, 2003). The current public school system includes eight secondary technical schools offering vocational education programs in business and industrial areas for tenth, eleventh, and twelfth grade students who are all male U.A.E. nationals (citizens). Technical secondary schools are part of the government education system under the Ministry of Education and Youth (MEY) and as such they are subject to regulations of the national system such as school year schedule, national completion exams, curriculum and teacher hiring processes. There is a separate Department of Technical Education unit of the Ministry with responsibility for the technical schools.
The secondary technical education system in the U.A.E. has a dual mission: to prepare students who can enter the workforce directly after school completion, and to prepare students to continue their education at postsecondary education institutions in the U.A.E. or abroad. School enrollment varies from 200-400 students per school. Schools operate on a five day a week, September to June schedule like in the U.S. The technical high schools teach a three-year curriculum that consists of business/commercial programs (management, office administration, computer applications, accounting), mechanical, electrical, and civil industrial technology programs (automotive, electrical wiring, electronics, machining, welding, construction, surveying, refrigeration/AC, mechatronics), and agriculture programs. Teachers in the technical schools are hired under annual contracts primarily from Egypt and other regional Arab-speaking countries. Schools are expected to use the English language: the curriculum is written in English, instruction is to be delivered in English, and students receive instruction in English language as part of their program of studies each year, provided by an outside organization contracted by the Ministry.
Similarities and Differences in U.S. and U.A.E. Career Technical Education
Many of the challenges faced by the UGA team in designing the school reforms were similar to those faced in U.S. high schools.
* Student motivation, engagement and attendance problems had to be addressed.
* Students needed to become more involved in learning and see it as meaningful and related to real life outside of school.
* The design of the curriculum, the content of instructional materials, and equipment in labs had to be updated to address new technologies for emerging jobs and high tech skills needed in the new economy.
* Instruction needed to be changed from lecture and memorization to hands-on, interactive, project-based approaches that engaged, involved, and challenged students.
* The standards and expectations of schools needed to be raised, emphasizing higher levels of skill and academic achievements by students to achieve global standards of excellence, to prepare students for post-secondary education, and to improve the image of CTE in the country.
* Teachers had to be encouraged to update their own knowledge and skills, and to learn new paradigms of teaching and working with students.
* Students needed to develop positive work attitudes and ethics to move into private industry successfully.
* Assessment of student learning had to change from paper-pencil testing at the end of the semester to ongoing, authentic assessments and student demonstration of skill and knowledge throughout the semester.
* Students needed opportunities to go out into the workplace for practical work experiences that are integrated into the curriculum and classroom learning.
* Employers needed to become more involved with updating curriculum and equipment and in creating work-based learning opportunities for students in business and industry.
In general, the system of technical education had to be brought into the 21st Century to better serve economic and workforce development of the country and to meet the growing need for citizens who were highly skilled workers in a fast changing, high-tech global business environment.
There were also marked differences between the U.S. and the U.A.E. systems of career and technical education. UGA project experts had to quickly develop an understanding of the cultural context and unique social, economic, and religious norms of U.A.E. that shaped education. One obvious difference is that only male students can enroll in technical education at the secondary level and all school personnel are also males, reflecting the Muslim tradition of separation of genders. However, postsecondary occupational education is available for women, and females now constitute the majority of enrollment in technical colleges and universities in U.A.E. Given the privileged role of male nationals in U.A.E., the concepts of "work" and "career choice" have a somewhat different focus than in many other countries. In the U.A.E. all businesses are required to have 51% ownership by a U.A.E. national partner. Therefore, the involvement of nationals in business ventures of all sorts is quite prevalent. The government also provides employment in the military and police departments for many young male citizens not going on to higher education after high school. Particularly in the larger cities like Dubai and Sharjah, many students in the technical schools come from wealthy families that provide for their material needs and ensure they will eventually end up in a position of high status in the community.
Therefore, there is often little incentive for students to prepare themselves for a job after high school or to plan to enter trades or other entry level technical fields to earn a living, since these are often lower status jobs filled by foreign workers in U.A.E.
The concepts of work ethic and career development are particularly challenging in U.A.E. technical education because of the students' belief that they do not have to work to earn a living and that they will be managers or have an easy job in government. Career guidance and counseling are not provided in the technical schools currently, and the concept of career planning and exploration for students is still alien to many. The reality, however, is that a major goal of the country is to reduce U.A.E.'s dependence on foreign workers and to increase employment for U.A.E. citizens in the private industry sector (Emiratization), because public employment can no longer absorb the growing population of youth. This requires an educated workforce and the technical schools have an important role in this vision for U.A.E.
As in the U.S., instruction in U.A.E. technical schools is provided in English. However, for these students English is not their native language and they speak and hear primarily Arabic outside of school. English instruction is not provided in the early grades, so students entering the technical high schools do not have strong skills in reading, writing, or speaking English--the language of instruction and testing at the schools. To accommodate this gap, teaching occurs in a mixture of Arabic and English, which in reality and of necessity is primarily Arabic. This raises a larger issue of language and national identity, and the controversy surrounding the development of a technical education curriculum by a non-Arab group of consultants from outside the country. Students are required to study Arabic language and Islamic studies as part of the federally mandated curriculum for all schools.
Teachers are also in an unusual position compared to U.S. public education teachers, because they are all working as contractors from a country outside of the U.A.E., mostly from Egypt or other Arab countries in the region, on annual contracts with the federal Ministry of Education and Youth. They are not citizens of U.A.E. and are recruited to staff schools because of the lack of qualified nationals to do this job. There is no job security. Teachers can be sent back home at any time, work for relatively low wages and limited benefits, and often send income to their families back in their home country. This is a significant source of employment for Arabs in the region and generates great resistance to any proposed changes in the system. In addition, school administration is highly centralized through the federal ministry of education, with little local control over curriculum or operations at the school level. Teachers have little input into what is taught and the materials used in instruction.
Structural and cultural differences include the need to schedule classes and meeting times to accommodate the Muslim "call for prayers" which occurs five times each day. Most schools are located near a mosque or have designated areas within the school where students and teachers go to pray for 15 minutes during the mid-day prayer call. There are no student athletics or sports teams connected with the technical high schools in U.A.E. In addition, there are no student clubs, organizations, or other extra-curricular activities at the technical schools. Classes are scheduled to start early in the morning and end early in the afternoon to accommodate the debilitating heat of this desert climate where many people nap in the afternoon to prepare for late evening activities when it is cooler outside. Safety issues are raised in labs for classes such as welding or automotive when students wear their traditional long, loose, white robes which make it difficult and dangerous to handle equipment and tools for practical exercises. School buildings are surrounded by a wall, and gates are locked so that students cannot enter or leave during the day. This is a major attendance control mechanism with not always successful results, as students often escape over the walls when classes become intolerably boring--a situation the project is trying to change.
UGA Project Background
During its visits to U.A.E. the UGA team conducted an evaluation of the technical school system, wrote an action plan for further improvements of tech schools, implemented limited reforms during a transition year, and then carried out full-time in-country implementation of reforms in school curriculum, instruction, administration, and operations of school. During the 2001-2002 school year the UGA team of curriculum specialists made three visits to U.A.E. schools, with each visit lasting three weeks. The team of 15-20 project experts traveled as a group to visit schools, talk with teachers, administrators, and students in the schools, observe teaching in classes and labs, conduct group in-service training for teachers, and introduce instructional methods that were more interactive and project-oriented, requiring application of knowledge and skills by students. Meetings also were held with employers and higher education institutions in U.A.E. A national Business Entrepreneurship Fair and Trades Competition were organized at the end of the school year for students from all the schools to demonstrate and receive awards for their projects and skills. In academic year 2002-2003, UGA in partnership with the Manukau Institute of Technology in New Zealand, sent a team of 20 curriculum specialists and school advisors to live in the U.A.E. and to work full-time in the schools implementing comprehensive school reforms in curriculum, instruction, and school operations on a daily basis.
The project is coordinated by the Occupational Research Group in the College of Education at UGA. The more than 30 experts hired by the project over the past two years have been career/technical education teachers, vocational consultants/trainers, technical education administrators, and curriculum developers drawn from schools and community colleges, business/commercial sectors, industrial trade sectors, and agricultural fields of study. UGA's international team of curriculum and school management experts was drawn from various countries including the U.S., Australia, New Zealand, Germany, England, the Philippines, Brazil, Malaysia, Canada and Sweden. Most consultants did not know each other prior to accepting an assignment with this project. None of the experts had been to U.A.E. before their initial project assignment, though some had experience in other Arab countries. All had extensive experience as CTE teachers or administrators at either the secondary or postsecondary level.
The project addressed the problems mentioned above by having a full-time, in-country team of 14 curriculum specialists and six school management advisors present in the schools daily, working directly wi11 teachers and principals in each of the eight technical schools to change curriculum and instruction in all program areas. Revisions in the curriculum content were identified by the UGA team and updated syllabi were written for each of the commercial and industrial technology programs offered by the schools. New textbooks (in English), comparable to those used in many U.S. high schools, were ordered for all the programs to upgrade the quality of instructional materials and to provide additional resources for teachers to plan lessons. UGA experts traveled to the schools each day to spend the full day in classrooms and labs, observing and mentoring teachers, organizing labs, and discussing or demonstrating how instructional delivery needed to change. After-school in-service workshops were held for teachers to introduce new instructional methods like contextual teaching, project-based learning, and authentic assessment techniques.
Each program had student projects that integrated theory and practical application, and students were expected to complete hands-on activities in labs. Experts required that teachers take a more direct role in designing lesson plans, revising instructional content, and actually using new methods of teaching. Teachers also were required to use more English in classes to strengthen student skills in this area as well. The schedule of classes was revised to include more instructional time each day, and the semester lengthened to keep students in school long enough to complete the full curriculum. Principals received training in school management and planning strategies for administering their schools and supporting curricular changes. Because of the centralized nature of the school system, however, directives were needed from the federal education ministry. ordering the schools to carry out each of the proposed reforms initiated by the UGA project.
Obviously, there was great resistance to all of these changes, and it was only when teachers and administrators began to see that the reforms could result in a higher quality education for students was there some attempt to comply. This took some time. Learning to work within the complex social, cultural, and political dynamics of federal agency personnel and the staff in eight schools was a huge challenge for the project team. By the end of the school year, a new curriculum syllabus was being taught, new texts were being used, some labs had been updated (resources were a problem in this area), and greater emphasis was placed on student skill mastery and hands-on learning. Students seemed pleased with the class projects, but many were still not attending school every day and found learning in English to be a major barrier.
The comprehensive reforms envisioned by this project will take several years to accomplish. We have tried to be sensitive to the issues of having an outside, non-Arab, non-Muslim group of consultants instituting basic reforms in schools for the children of Arab Muslims. Additional tensions this past year were tied to strained U.S.-Arab relations resulting from the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the terrorist attacks against American interests in many regions of the world. At times we were unsure that the project could continue, however, despite security cautions, the team continued their work, were accepted and protected by teachers, and became integral to the operations of the schools by the end of the year.
We believe that opportunities will continue for U.S. and other Western technical educators to become involved with improving technical education systems in Arab countries and may even expand in the future as this part of the world opens up to American interests and involvement at many levels. Career and technical education schools and programs in the U.S. have much to offer and we all have much to learn from the hospitality, family values, and high moral standards, as well as the ambitious economic development strategies and successes of the oil rich nations in the Gulf region as they become leaders in the use of technology and innovation to build their countries.
United Arab Emirates Yearbook 2003. U.A.E. Ministry of Information and Culture. London: Trident Press.
Dorothy Harnish, Ed.D., is an Associate Research Scientist and Co-Director of the Occupational Research in the College of Education at the University of Georgia. She was the project director for the UAE project activities from 2000 to 2003, designed the evaluation and school improvement programs for the Ministry, and headed the teams of experts that carried out the school reforms In the UAE technical schools. Follow-up comments and questions about this article can be directed by e-mail to email@example.com.…