There is near consensus that education poses both a problem and a solution in countries that hope to catch up with the developed world. The announcement by the Saudi Ministry of Education to develop its educational system by increasing the number of school days and moving from two to three terms, as well as changes to the curriculum, is considered an encouraging move in a country that has been actively working to make radical changes within a short period of time. And although the legislative, executive, technical, economic, social, and other domains have all witnessed comprehensive transformation, education remains the core of all changes.
In my opinion, we need to accelerate this reform, as change on the ground is moving faster than educational outcomes.
In 1957, Americans were surprised by the Soviets' launch of the Sputnik rocket into space, and their ability to catch up with the United States in the scientific realm. The country that was assumed to be in the tail of the herd started making significant scientific achievements, such as launching the first intercontinental ballistic missile, sending the first dog, then the first human being and the first woman to space, building the first space station, in addition to space developments, nuclear and military achievements, and even advancements in arts and sports. The two countries engaged in a forty-year race. Despite its ideological dogmatism and the weakness of its government institutions, Moscow was able to tip the scales through developing the educational system. The Soviets desperately wanted to compete with and surpass the capitalist West, and they realized they needed to do so as quickly as possible. So, they intensified their focus on sciences and mathematics. This is how countries succeed in moving up in the ranking of the industrialized world, just like what South Korea, China and others did when they redesigned their education.
The countries of our region are struggling to develop their educational systems. This provides a great opportunity to catch up with the advanced world. We understand that we are behind, but the question remains: How can we make up lost time? It takes generations to make changes, and the span of a single generation is more than 20 years. Our educational and professional expertise taught us that being focused achieves two goals: excellence and timesaving. Focusing on certain specializations from early-stage education on STEM will produce a specialized and distinguished generation that will join the workforce in these fields of specialization. Students will start their university education having excelled in a certain field, which they will specialize in.
Previous discussions made me realize the potential challenges, such as the lack of educators, curricula, and tools. But this remains the fastest, albeit hardest, route to reach our goal. Educational development should be general and not limited to high achievers. The US experiences, among others, are distinguished by being limited to certain model schools. But the challenge here is the need for better qualification of the entire school community. In the university arena, the need for focus and excellence is equally critical. This can be achieved by assigning specific educational fields to different universities, for which they will be known. A good example of this is the King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals which specializes in science, technology and engineering.
This article was originally published in, and translated from, pan-Arab daily newspaper Asharq al-Awsat.