Saturday, October 23, 2010

How A School In The Kingdom of Bahrain May Hold Keys To The Future

E Alana James

The world's education systems are challenged to transform themselves to meet the needs of the knowledge economy. For world economic growth their graduates need to be able to get jobs or start their own businesses. There may be validity in the idea that education needs to remain somewhat separate from the needs of business, otherwise we have schools becoming little more than factories that turn out that people required by industry. At the same time the products that education graduate are people, and people want to have jobs and employment as well as to enjoy not mere survival but also the luxuries that they see others enjoying. This is the second in a series of articles on the challenges and potential changes that face education in the 21st century.

The obvious direct approach to preparing people of all ages for new work, is to teach them that work. This has led educators to see education in two tracks: one the academic that teaches students to think, process ideas, problem solve and to be scientific. The other, alternate track was vocationally driven. This often implied a somehow "less than" status to vocational work. Students were slotted to go one way or the other. The modern world is less compartmentalized than that, and seeing vocation or academics as two separate ways of being will no longer function. The modern employee or entrepreneur is required to maintain many of the same skills as the academic. Everyone needs to research information, organize it to meet the needs of their particular context, publish it in digital and non-digital formats, and be prepared to engage in active debate on the ideas they are working with. This is as true for a group of tradespeople as it is for professors, managers, business owners. The disconnect is that while some of these skills may develop during group work or project-based learning, most of the world still learns in classrooms with rows of desks, a teacher at the front, and students madly scribbling notes preparing themselves to regurgitate the content being handed to them when it comes time to take a test.

What would a school look like if we started over? The answer to that question is being addressed in the Kingdom of Bahrain by their new Polytechnic University. This article briefly discusses those ideas in the hopes that they are interesting to others and that they start a debate about new possibilities that are can be employed to transform education.

Bahrain Polytechnic University

All good action research starts with delving into current circumstances and understanding what is needed, perhaps that is the reason I like Bahrain Polytechnic so much. They started to design a program by conducting a series of interviews with human relations department to find out what they expected from the graduates they hired. Their findings demonstrated that the current perception of employers was that 49% of college graduates did not have the soft skills they needed (i.e. teamwork communication and problem-solving), 44% did not have the requisite language, math, or vocational skills that were needed, and 42% did not have an understanding of professional conduct or were not properly motivated to do good work. This puts a heavy burden on employers because their recruiting and training process is expensive and if almost 50% of the people they hire do not have the basics, they are inclined to go out of country for their recruiting.

Using the interview process the design team for Bahrain Polytechnic then decided that they needed a curriculum that embedded these skills in the curriculum not just as an add-on or byproduct of the educational process. They concluded that traditional context and knowledge-based education must change and rapidly. This is not easy, it has a lot of things pushing against it. For instance, when you're starting something new people don't have confidence that you know what you're doing, especially if what you're doing implies that what they are doing is not good enough. Also there is a difficulty in finding staff through who will carry through on your vision, because, after all, your vision is new and likely to be misinterpreted. Finally, the facilities that you inherit from other models are, by definition, outmoded and get in the way of what you were trying to accomplish.

In spite of these challenges Bahrain Polytechnic has come up with three sets of skills, or types of growth, that will be overlaid and worked on concurrently throughout the students tenure at the University. There will of course be the academic studies, but alongside direct instruction will be employ-ability skills, and a continuously developing self-knowledge profile. In other words, these students will be continuously evaluated on their attitude, their delivery, and the coherency between those and how they see themselves. Marvelous!

Educators will say things like, "that all sounds great but how are you can measure it?" Although this is still a work in progress, Bahrain Polytechnic has made great strides in answering that question. Still two years away from their first graduating class, they see their graduates having three transcripts that they will bring to future employers. The first provides an overview of the range of achievement levels on academic content, the same as provided by universities worldwide. The second is what they call an employ-ability profile in which the student has had to demonstrate and been continually assessed by staff on what are considered the soft skills of communication, teamwork, problem solving, initiative and enterprise, planning and organization, self-management, learning and technology. Those same skills are evaluated by the students themselves in their self-knowledge profile. Then all three are graphically laid over one another in order to give the employer a visual representation of the whole person who is applying for the job.

How is this done? Through a curriculum that builds on the foundation program of strong English skills, the ability to research, use of information technology and math. The degrees offered are bachelors or diplomas in: visual design, international logistics management, information and communications technology, business, office management, web media, and engineering technology. They are just starting the process of design for the new campus, where the architecture of the buildings they inhabit will help rather than hinder their mission through wide-open spaces, easy places to meet, an atmosphere that promotes project work 24/7 etc. It was my pleasure to be able to sit in on their discussion with the architect, and that alone should dramatically increase the ability to think creatively, as the students will no longer be contained in rows of boxes. Their campus fits with the lifestyle engendered by digital natives, who jump easily between social, organizational, and project design work.

This article looked into an innovative solution to the problems addressed in previous writing about the apparent disconnect between education graduates and the needs of the employers who will hire them. Even as a start-up, this university has good management and solid backing from the Kingdom of Bahrain. At this points it looks as thought there is every likelihood that it will fulfill its mission. I said elsewhere, it is easier to start fresh in some instances such as when you are making dramatic change, then to refit existing structures. Future articles in this series will look into the ways and means in which action research can help when education and policy are faced with a "refit" rather than start over is good process.

If you are a student, a parent, an educator or any other type of concerned party who is interested in the future of education, you may want to look into the range resources available on: http://www.futureofeducationproject.net. Register and we will keep you in touch with new ideas as they develop. Dr. E. Alana James, writes on and facilitates participatory action research studies where people research their own particular dilemma is an effective way to address complex issues that otherwise can cause despair. Through PAR, local adaptations can be implemented and evaluated simultaneously. This strategy allows for a world of individuals to work together through the net to re-design education.

Other works on action research for personal and professional innovation can be found on Alana's personal site at http://www.reinventinglife.org

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