By Youssef Agdal
Rabat – A Moroccan teacher and Fulbright Teaching Assistant at an American university offers his perspective on how elements of the American educational style can be applied in Morocco to encourage the pursuit of academic excellence.
What makes uniquely human is their insatiable mission for improvement. Humans have a desire for problem-solving, collaborating to craft new solutions, and communicating their results. Innate within every human being is the ambition for greater efficiency, flexibility, awareness, artistry, independence, and spirituality.
Despite the fact that every individual human being comes to this world endowed with the aforementioned abilities, if not maintained and trained, the abilities may not be fully realized due to the surrounding conditions or psychological constraints. The abilities must be repeatedly stimulated, demonstrated, and boosted in order for them to play their role.
Actually, some of the best practitioners are those who find themselves obliged to think about ways to improve the Moroccan education system.
These lessons would be best served if applied to the Moroccan education system. There are some difficulties that hinder Moroccan students’ progress, and the American education system has some simple but effective educational practices that enhance the American school.
The dysfunction of the education system in Morocco has been scrutinized for decades, although it has always been considered a national priority. No one denies that remarkable progress has been made in terms of legislation, decentralization, and many other areas; however, research shows that the Moroccan education system still has serious problems, according to the Strategic Vision of Reform in Morocco (2015-2030), which was launched by the Higher Council for Education, Training and Scientific Research in 2015.
The council listed the problems in a detailed report communicated by the National Assessment Authority in 2014 on the implementation of the National Charter for Education and Training 2000-2013. The list of dysfunctions included poor levels of cohesion between different parts of the system, high drop-out rates, poor language mastery, and low involvement in technology.
Some impediments to the success of the Moroccan education system are harder to fix, including infrastructure and equipment budgets, working hours, student numbers, the length of educational programs, and misbehavior.
Educators are aware of the necessity of planning appropriately to reform and establish a healthy education system. Through my experience both in Moroccan and American educational settings, I have learned practical tips for teachers and lawmakers that are believed to enhance students’ performance.
The course syllabus
The course syllabus is one of the most important elements in education and can be crucial in preparing students for a positive outcome in the class. Every teacher should provide students with a syllabus on the first day of class.
The syllabus is a real “contract between professors and their students, designed to answer students’ questions about a course, as well as inform them about what will happen should they fail to meet course expectations.” It is also a “vehicle for expressing accountability and commitment,” according to Oxford English Dictionary.
The syllabus gives comprehensive details about the course: course objectives, student learning outcomes, course expectations and policies, assignment descriptions, evaluation processes, resources available to students, the instructor’s contact information and office hours, and the course calendar.
Undoubtedly, all Moroccan teachers know how to construct a syllabus, but this important document is rarely shared with their students at the beginning of the semester. Students with the syllabus in hand know exactly what is expected from them and share responsibility for learning.
It is essentially a contract between teacher and student as it assures that teachers and students start on the same page. In the words of Sharon Rubin, writing for the Chronicle of Higher Education, “The syllabus is a small place to start bringing students and faculty members back together.”
Another aspect that is considered pivotal in the success of the teaching-learning process in the American education system is assessment, and more precisely formative assessment.
The term “formative evaluation” was first used in 1967 by Michael Scriven, but it was American educational psychologist Benjamin Bloom who first used the term to distinguish it from the role classroom summative tests play: “Frequent formative evaluation tests pace the learning of students and help motivate them to put forth the necessary effort at the appropriate time.”
Bloom resumes: “The appropriate use of these tests helps to ensure that each set of learning tasks is thoroughly mastered before subsequent learning tasks are started.” For instance, it is the responsibility of teachers to give feedback to students during the writing process, rather than only focusing on the final product.
Being both a teaching assistant and a student in an American university opened my eyes to “real” formative assessment. This point is frequently discussed by Moroccan colleagues, and many agree that it is not fair to judge a student by the grade they get on the final exam.
Final exams are a high-stakes assessment that is summative and not formative. Rather, teachers should assess the process and the efforts students make throughout the course of the semester or year. Students should be given chances to recognize their weaknesses and work on them, and to recognize their strengths and sharpen them.
The final exam in one course at Emporia State University is only worth 15 percent of the final grade. The remaining 85 percent is divided into small percentages given to the other components of the course, such as reflections, writings, the final portfolio/project, quizzes, presentations, a mid-term exam, and preparation and class participation.
Formative assessment ensures that students are engaged and participate during the whole semester, and it allows teachers to follow students’ progress the entire way.
Pre-class preparation: reading and writing
Reading and writing as preparation for class is another key strategy as class is generally a place for discussion, sharing and inquiry. Reading and writing before class improve student learning. The effect of prior reading is greater when the syllabus includes keywords and questions to guide students’ reflection on the material, according to several studies.
On a daily or weekly basis, students should read and write reflections or online posts discussing their readings prior to class. The reflections are graded based on the previously provided rubrics and, usually, there is a due date and time.
During the classes I took as a graduate student at Emporia State University, my colleagues and I had to put forth extra effort in reading and writing before class because we knew that we would both use our reflections and notes in class discussions and also be graded on them. The accumulation of those grades made a big percentage of the final grade.
Student activities inside the classroom
In addition, many teachers have also wondered about the limits of students’ freedom inside and outside of class. There is a common misconception that students need to be controlled and directed by their teachers—one that still prevails in Moroccan education.
This top-down classroom approach does more harm than good to the teachers and students alike. Such instructors endlessly gesture, advise, admonish, hover, suggest, and so on. These are relatively archaic practices that can actually be detrimental to students.
In fact, “over-management causes more misbehavior than it dissuades,” said classroom management expert Michael Linsin. This pedagogical approach suffocates students to the extent that they lose the desire to make choices, solve problems, and explore their world. Students become less motivated and learning loses its joyful and adventurous qualities.
Teachers should be courageous enough to challenge their entrenched mindsets and try new pedagogical approaches, despite things “always being done this way.” Teachers should retire the old, often useless, practices in order to establish a healthy environment for learning.
Today’s students have different tendencies and preferences, and teachers should find ways to balance the need to guide and “control” students with the students’ ambitions to bring their skills and personality to class and improve them.
In practical terms, students’ freedom will be divided into two main types: performance freedom and basic freedom. The former includes providing students with choices during class activities and also when doing homework, presentations, projects, and other activities.
Students will be more interested in participating and performing when they feel their preferences have been considered and that they have space in the class environment. It is invigorating to have choices.
To implement this skill in class, students should be allowed to complete homework and assignments by recording videos, painting, making graphs, building posters, speaking, creating cartoons, or using other “multimodal” formats.
On the other hand, the second type of classroom freedom, basic freedom, comprises the daily practices that are also “normal” and “reasonable” outside of class.
For example, some people argue that there is no reason why students are forbidden to wear hats in Moroccan classes nor do they understand why both teachers and students can not drink a beverage while discussing a lesson or taking a test.
Through my experience in American classes, both as an instructor and graduate student, I noticed that when such trivial elements were allowed in the classroom, students felt relaxed and were increasingly more engaged and productive.
Certainly, the Moroccan context is different, and many students, if given more freedom, would not respect the noble objectives of schooling.
I believe that gradually allowing such practices,, within reason, will be a positive change that will build trust between the students and school environment. Students would be more relaxed and would therefore show up with their creative and unique ways of engaging in the class.
Additionally, the use of technology is now a necessity in our classrooms. Marc Prensky, an American education consultant, names this new generation of high technology usage “digital natives,” noting that “our students today are all ‘native speakers’ of the digital language of computers, video games and the Internet.”
In addition, all people born before the beginning of the digital era are termed by Prensky as “digital immigrants.” Prensky introduced the terms in a 2001 article in which he affirmed that the contemporary decline in American education is due to the teacher’s failure to analyze and adapt to the needs of modern students, including their use and mastery of technologies.
This situation also applies to Moroccan students, of which a great majority are digital natives. Today’s students, regardless of nationality, are more engaged when lessons and discussions are supported by Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) tools.
However, a large portion of our teachers are digital immigrants, and they need to work to master integrating technology in their classes. This is an important part of continuous professional development. The Ministry of Education should assume part of the responsibility and organize training sessions for teachers who need training in using ICT in class.
Newtechnologies, as well as educational change, have always been connected to hopes for progress in teaching and learning. Once teachers learn how things work, the next step will be to use those tools the way they find appropriate depending on the subjects they teach, their tendencies, and their students’ preferences.
“Office hours” should also be adopted by both lawmakers in the Moroccan Ministry of Education and teachers in general. “Office hours” is a term used for the time professors and teaching assistants set aside outside of class to meet with students.
These office hours are held at the same day, time, and location for the duration of the semester. During these hours, students can visit their professors and teaching assistants to discuss course material presented in class or any other related interests they have. They can ask for additional clarification or help, or they can get feedback on their work.
Incorporating office hours effectively benefits both the student and the teacher in numerous ways. When teachers are available to students outside of class time, it is a wonderful opportunity for rapport-building and communication, which are important criteria in higher education evaluations.
Attending office hours is not mandatory; students are expected to decide for themselves when they need or want to meet with their teachers. Office hours are scheduled to serve students in the first place, but there is no harm if teachers use those times to design lessons, correct students’ work, or write articles if no students come to talk to the teacher.
Office hours can be held in person in the teacher’s office or even online via Skype or another method. Making office hours available to students allows them the opportunity to engage one-to-one with their teacher, to receive valuable feedback, and to have questions answered.
Modeling activities for students
Finally, adopting “modeling” as an instructional strategy can make life easy for students, showing them how things work and how a “product” is built. Bert Bredeweg and Kenneth Forbus, education researchers, argue that “qualitative modeling provides a valuable way for students to learn.”
Instructors should demonstrate the process by thinking aloud in class and dividing a more complicated task into smaller manageable segments, then start constructing their text, no matter what format it is.
Teachers should also encourage students to look at different reliable “models” by asking them to make further research, share videos in class, or organize video conferences with other professors.
These recommended strategies provide a vision for fostering Moroccan teachers and students’ performance. These ingredients will create a nurturing classroom environment for both students and teachers. Implementing them will have a positive impact and assure satisfactory outcomes in the Moroccan education system.