Last week, Education leaders from around the globe flew to the Gulf. We were there to give a public vote of confidence to one of the world’s most ambitious programs of school system transformation at the Transforming Education Summit. The first annual Transforming Education Summit (TES) was conceived by conference host the Abu Dhabi Education Council (ADEC) under the patronage of His Highness General Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, and Chairman of ADEC. The summit’s vision is “to create a forum for effective transformation leadership and an open dialogue between the leaders of education transformation and their key stakeholders.”
Through a deep investment in teachers and technology, Abu Dhabi plans to turn its under-achieving students into world-beaters. Arab Spring governments have paid a high price for under-investing in young people. Those lessons are not lost on the UAE sheikhs.
The Abu Dhabi debate was noisy, with calls from continental Europe to halt the reforms and “give education back to the teachers”. But the real debate was between two schools of modernizers with contrasting goals and approaches.
The first (Canada, UK) wants to take best practice among the world’s top systems and export it. The idea is to improve existing education outcomes, with the emphasis on literacy and numeracy. The second (Malaysia, Argentina) wants to go further, and ensure that students become problem solvers to drive economic innovation and renewed growth.
This debate has raged for a while, but two things this week were new. One, worldwide economic instability is tipping the debate towards education for growth. And two, everyone has seen the importance of consultation in a world of social media and popular protest. The Finns, the French and the Dutch all have recipes to share for stakeholder management.
Underlying all this is an increasingly sharp discussion of how to use education technology. In Brazil and Turkey, where thousands of new tablets are being deployed every month, there are calls to integrate technology more thoughtfully into proven models of teaching and learning. In the face of budget pressures, educators want to see cloud and digital textbooks reduce costs. And among the Education for Growth movement, there’s a push to align education systems to the needs of specific economic sectors (oil and gas, aerospace), to create sustainable cities and states.
Will things change in Abu Dhabi, with the delegates gone? Well the very decision to convene a global summit represents a rare expression of doubt at the top of the UAE, and we’ll almost certainly see a shift of style, toward something more consensual.
But a change in substance seems less likely. One of the most powerful voices this week belonged to Homaid Al Shemmari, Executive Director of Mubadala Aerospace. He sees a school system failing to produce an Emirati generation of industry leaders – and is pressing ADEC to be more radical still. But a straw in the wind: last month the UAE committed a billion dollars to strengthening schools across all seven emirates, not just Abu Dhabi. Greater equity across the desert kingdom looks like a smart response to uncertain times.