Sunday, October 23, 2005

The Homework Issue - In Egypt

What a wonderful morning - checking one of my favorite news blogs, Steve Gilliard's News Blog, and finding this article about homework in the US. The mother is really upset that her 7 year old has an hour of homework a night - and that it is homework in which parents are supposed to "help" (she listed a project in which you could tell the parent was going to do everything).

I laughed at the thought of 1 hour of homework being considered a bad thing for a 7 year old, because in Egypt a kid is VERY lucky at that age if he/she does not have a lot more than that. But I agree that homework should be designed so that the kid can do it with a minimum of parental supervision and difficult projects should probably wait until kids are old enough to handle them without the parents basically doing the work for them.

In Egypt, the system is very heavy on rote learning, so that young kids are routinely given dictation tests (and therefore have to do dictation exercises with their parents every night). The system also teaches math a lot faster than the system I was raised in and gives a lot of homework. Most parents who can afford it (and actually, many parents that really can't) get private tutors to help kids in math and often in Arabic language, English as a second language, and any other subjects kids may have trouble in.

The system is also heavily based on regular testing, meaning that if kids are not doing actual homework (assignments that are written down and handed in) they are studying for a test. My two kids, who are now in the final year of middle school and the first year of secondary school, put away their novels, their computer games, their chess sets, and their sports equipment for the school year, and buckle down to studying until bedtime every night. They have a math tutor and an Arabic tutor (and this is after I spent years fighting this trend - and they are the only kids in the extended family who only have tutors in 2 subjects), who come twice a week each (meaning that there are lessons 4 nights out of 5). Their only studying-free time is their weekly visit to their grandmother's house, to which they do not take any school books. There, they are able to read their novels, watch TV, play soccer in the street, or go to an Internet cafe and play games.

I wish that the structure would allow kids more time to devote to out of school activities. I also wish that there were not so many tests and that there was less pressure on the kids to get high grades and more encouragement for them to learn interesting and useful things even if they weren't in the curriculum. Yet, given that some of their teachers are all too eager to introduce things I don't want them to learn (see my past post on the Arabic teacher's religious enthusiasm), I see that incremental changes in this system would simply not work.

It is sad to see that systems in the US, a country with infinitely more resources than Egypt to devote to education, are not all that much better than what kids face here. I wonder if the next generation will be able to confront the challenges past generations have created for them, given the abysmal, rote-based education foisted upon them.

7 comments:

M. Landers said...

Dropping in from the ether to ask ... is there any kind of sanctioned homeschooling system in Egypt? I'm usually wary of it in the States simply because of the prevalence of its use to protect children (and generally therefore isolate them) from other beliefs ... but, as a former homeschool kid myself, I really appreciate the ability it provides to get away from exactly that kind of rote/industrial learning. So, wondering if that kind of education is recognised as valid there or not.

Anna in Portland (was Cairo) said...

Re homeschooling: Not that I know of. I don't believe the government would allow an Egyptian citizen to do that.

People who are opposed to the state education system, if they are lucky enough to be very rich, can opt out of it by sending their kids to extremely expensive international schools, which may offer an international baccalaureate or an American-certified high school diploma. (The British schools that offer the IB are probably the best. Not coincidentally they are also the most expensive.)

Ben Sutherland said...

Anna...

You have a great little blog, here:):)...I've bookmarked it and I'll definitely be back:):)...

I totally agree with your criticisms, here, of too much emphasis on grades and rote learning in both the Egyptian and U.S. school systems...I'm a teacher (I'm writing informally, here...so my use of punctuation, etc. is a little unconventional:):)...and I very much believe in learning that both allows for more personal interest and which nurtures the kind of interest in novels, for example, that your children have...

The most recent results from the No Child Left Behind Act, the national legislation in the U.S. that now governs testing and thus much classroom activity in the U.S., right now, has come back with better scores in reading and math for kids in grade school...but flat scores for kids in upper grades...and lower levels of voluntary reading, like your children's novel-reading...that last statistic, in particular, really concerns me...since the goal of schools should be to nurture a life-long commitment to learning...rather than a temporary commitment while kids are in school...

It's very short-sighted to think about education in these terms, I think...and something that almost all countries need to improve on, I believe...the irony is that places like the U.S. often romanticize the very kind of drill and practice that you are, I think, rightly critical of in Egypt:):)...

I very much enjoy your posts, here, Anna:):)...I'll definitely be back:):)...

teh l4m3 said...

The rote learning thing reminds me a lot of what I saw in Japan, which creates its own handicaps in the populace being educated. One of American education's biggest strengths used to be the emphasis placed on analysis and critical thinking skills. Sadly, we're losing even that -- if you pay attention, you'll notice how we're beginning to seriously lose out in the areas of science and mathematics on the global scene.

dagger aleph said...

I was an elementary school teacher in Giza, Egypt, in the mid-90s, and I was so frustrated by the fact that I had to give five-year-olds 2-hour exams. It was absurd.

Also, the headmistress, complaining that my tests were too easy, always made me increase the difficulty level/length. But then she'd come into the classroom to check out how things were going, and while she was there she would give hints to the children she favored.

(P.S. I've enjoyed your comments on other blogs for a long time; first time to check out your blog.)

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