Education to Address Social and Environmental Challenges: A Critical Pedagogy Perspective on Saudi Public Education
Education plays an important role in enhancing people’s autonomy and in helping them to make well-informed decisions. Thus, the aim of the current chapter is to investigate the ability of students in the Saudi education system to build creative and critical thinking capabilities. The analysis draws on critical pedagogy to highlight key issues in learning at the school level. In general, the focus is on the process and the content of learning and on the extent to which learning considers broader social and environmental challenges. In the analysis of the current top-down approach to learning, the findings highlight that education is often in passive forms and that the curriculum is less relevant. The recommendation made in this chapter is that the learning system should provide students and teachers with better opportunities for creative learning and teaching and that the importance of social and environmental diversity is acknowledged and appreciated. This will support the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, which are aimed at preparing students to become lifelong learners.
KeywordsSaudi public education Critical pedagogy Passive learning Social and environmental challenges Human development Sustainable development
This chapter is part of a PhD project that is intended to contribute to our understanding of human development in education. The research design includes data collected from public and private schools for boys and girls in two Saudi Arabian provinces. A range of qualitative methods was used for the research, including interviews, focus groups, and field notes (see Algraini and McIntyre 2017). The research defines human development in terms of students’ ability to achieve their learning goals, as well as to maximize their potential as human beings. As part of enabling students to develop this potential, the study focuses on encouraging young people to function effectively as critical thinkers by enabling them to navigate different ways of knowing. The aim is to equip students to think socially and environmentally about the issues they will face in an increasingly globalized and challenging world. Achieving this aim will require interdisciplinary and cross-cultural thinking; thus, it is important that the process of teaching and learning is capable of supporting education for human development. To this end, the current chapter starts with a review of the literature on critical pedagogy. The section on the Saudi education system provides an overview of how formal education is being managed and the central role of the Ministry of Education in curriculum development. The results section highlights the implications of centralization on learning in schools, while the discussion section aims to link the results to policy issues and to expand on current thinking about education and how it should address social and environmental challenges.
Critical Pedagogy: How Education Can Help Students to Become Well-Informed Citizens
In the critical pedagogy approach, educational processes and practices are investigated to address the following: To what extent does education empower people to become well-informed citizens? One main contribution comes from Paulo Freire and his seminal work, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (Freire 1970). In this book, Freire discusses how education could be used as a process of development and freedom. Critical pedagogy, according to Freire (1970), allows the development of a critical consciousness that enables students to consider their views, the nature of ethics, and how problems are framed (p. 37). In this sense, critical pedagogy is not concerned merely with the teaching methods traditionally used in the classroom but also provides an alternative approach to evaluating the purpose of education (Wink 2011; Giroux 2011). One way to apply the critical view of education is to ask how it can empower people to become critical and to be active participants in the development process. In this way, the intrinsic role of education goes beyond acquiring literacy skills; it also involves the ability to reflect critically on learning. Freire (1998) notes the following:
If learning to read and write is to constitute an act of knowing, the learners must assume from the beginning the role of creative subjects. It is not a matter of memorizing and repeating given syllables, words, and phrases, but rather of reflecting critically on the process of reading and writing itself, and on the profound significance of language (p. 485).
Based on Freire’s words above, it is clear that he perceives education as a way to create and build critical consciousness. In this way, people can obtain the critical capacity needed to diagnose their problems and to challenge implicit assumptions (Kincheloe 2000: 24). Education fosters thinking in the classroom, so that students can think socially, economically, and environmentally. In this sense, it is the opposite of learning practices where students passively listen and where curriculums do not address their lived experiences.
In stressing the importance of building the consciousness of learners, critical pedagogy refutes learning practices that do not motivate the use of critical abilities, for example, memorization and passive learning. Freire (1970) uses the concept banking education to describe teaching that does not stimulate critical abilities in learners. He calls this process banking education because it is akin to the teacher making a deposit of information in students’ minds (Freire 1970: 52–54). In this case, students save and repeat information without thinking about or reflecting on what they are learning. According to McKay and Romm (1992), banking education happens when educators assume that students’ minds are empty and need to be filled with information. Based on this premise, the teacher is the only knowledgeable person in the classroom, while the student’s role is limited to perceiving this knowledge passively and without critical understanding (p. 30).
The dehumanizing of banking education and its limited results inspired Freire (1970) to suggest an alternative approach. Learning according to an alternative approach is based on what he calls problem-posing education. In effect, problem-posing education means the opposite of banking education, in that problem posing provides students with better opportunities to raise their critical consciousness than banking education does. In problem-posing practice, students learn not to hide their reality, and in this way, it recognizes the importance of linking people to their ontological world and getting students to think about the process involved. Also, problem posing helps students to become critical thinkers by getting them to think about problems and then communicate their understanding of those problems as part of a dialogue with their peers and teacher (Freire 1970: 64–65). Accordingly, it stimulates thinking and leads to a participatory approach to learning.
Dialogue is central to problem-posing education. Freire (1970) insists that dialogue is necessary to build active communication between teachers and learners (p. 60). Through communication, education becomes a participatory relationship in which a teacher and a learner exchange roles; in other words, the student can become a teacher and vice versa (p. 61). Dialogue also needs to be practiced critically, since without critical thinking, the dialogue has no meaning, according to Freire (1970: 73). For example, Bode (in Freire 1970) used Freire’s method of problem posing when teaching peasant communities in Chile. What he found was that the peasants gave full attention to learning when themes specific to their environment were being discussed. Conversely, they lacked interest and motivation to learn when the topic had no meaning for them or did not relate to their needs (p. 97).
To transform the notions of problem posing and dialogue from mere theoretical concepts to reality, students need relevant education to apply these concepts in the classroom. Freire describes this approach as generative themes. Generative themes can be derived from real-world situations, which an educator can try and utilize to understand the world of learners and to feature real examples in the classroom based on their struggles (pp. 77–78). Freire offers more examples of generative themes in his book, Education for Critical Consciousness (Freire 1974), and the book also contains illustrations of real-life situations as examples of how educators can use problem-posing practice in the classroom. For example, one illustration shows a man working in a field, surrounded by his family, with a shovel in one hand and a book in the other (Freire 1974: 59). This scenario is captured from the real lives of peasant communities. This method provides more opportunity for the teacher to link peasants to their environment and offers two ways of facilitating communication and dialogue. There are many diverse cultures in Saudi Arabia, with people around the country living in widely varying environments. The challenge for students learning in the classroom is to address these diversities, and one of the best ways teachers can do this is to link students to their real-life environment in their learning and to foster thinking and dialogue in the classroom.
In shaping education as an empowerment process, critical pedagogy asks questions that challenge the norms and beliefs of education system that models the world over (Burbules and Berk 1999). This investigation includes questions about who has control over knowledge, what normative ideas typically frame an education system (Giroux 2011: 169–172), and in particular, to what extent the education system represents student diversity and needs (Wink 2011: 69). Thus, the investigation is concerned with whether or not learning in the classroom has any relevance to a student’s identity, culture, and needs.
To allow more opportunity for dialogue and generative themes, critical pedagogy argues for less control over knowledge. For example, Kincheloe (2008) criticizes control exerted by a dominant power over knowledge. Similarly, Giroux (2011) refutes control over information in a way that limits teachers’ and students’ ability to bring knowledge, ideas, and problems from their own world to the classroom. According to Giroux (2011: 7), control over information in the classroom results in students consuming knowledge instead of taking meaning from it in a transformational way. Freire (1970) supports this view. He argues that knowledge can be achieved through human life experience by creating and recreating ideas and information and by communicating with the world (p. 5). Thus, pedagogy practice needs to incorporate an appreciation of students’ knowledge. The knowledge that students bring to the classroom is important, and teachers have the responsibility of linking pedagogy to the wider context of students’ lives and social problems (Giroux 2004: 500, 2011: 6). By emphasizing the linking of education practice to students’ lives, the goal is to raise their awareness of themselves and their situations.
Public Education in Saudi Arabia
Private schools need to follow the national curriculum that is applied in public schools. The Organising department could permit some private schools to teach extra subjects or to increase school time (Private Education Act 1975: 3).
The Central Learning System and the Challenge of “Banking Education”
As shown in the last section, the central learning policy limits learning to textbooks that are developed centrally. One implication of this restriction on learning in schools is the prevalence of passive learning. The study found that centrally developed textbooks create an environment for what Freire (1970) describes as “banking education,” where the role of teachers is limited to feeding students with information, which they write it down in order to memorize it. Students’ own words best describe the different forms of banking education they face in schools:
Akram: The teacher expounds, and my role is only to answer.
Ahmed: The teacher fills the board with writing, and we write after him.
Hamza: The same routine every day. Every day I come to school only to fill my notebook with information, and that is what makes us hate school (focus group discussion with students at a boys’ private school in Riyadh on 23 December 2013).
In exams, teachers ask questions and want answers to be literally from the textbook. If I give an answer with the same meaning but with some paraphrasing, they mark it wrong. They need exactly what was written in the textbook (Munirah, a student at a girls’ public school in Riyadh, speaking during a focus group discussion on 23 February 2014).
These students’ words describe the top-down approach to learning and how it undermines their voices. They only receive information with few links to their lived experiences. In Freire’s (1970) notion of problem-posing education, students are given fewer opportunities to link their life experiences and their environment with their learning. “Our education is isolated from our reality,” notes Mubarak, a student at a public boys’ school in Riyadh, during a focus group discussion on 4 March 2014. Another student notes that they “study knowledge without practice” and that “[k]nowledge ought to be linked to real examples from life” (Akram, a student at a private boys’ school in Riyadh, during a focus group discussion on 23 December 2013). Therefore, it is clearly a major challenge for schools to make learning a relevant and essential part of building students’ critical capacity (Freire 1970; Wink 2011). Educators also recognize the issue of relevance in the material they teach, as noted below:
Schools do not provide a curriculum that serves society’s needs. All that I teach are things that do not relate to their reality (Suleiman, a teacher at a public boys’ school in Riyadh, during an interview on 30 December 2013).
As mentioned previously, the standard curriculum raises the issue of relevant education, in which critical consensus, communication, and active learning play a major part (Freire 1970; Giroux 2011; Wink 2011). In effect, the lack of relevant education highlights the issue of memorization, with students reporting that current educational methods make them passive, since they are obliged to memorize concepts and information without thinking about or reflecting on what they are learning. The following are some of the students’ views:
Ahmad: How can I understand something without seeing it? We just fill our notebooks with writing without understanding what we learn.
Akram: We need to be linked to examples from our lives (focus group discussion with students at a private boys’ school in Riyadh on 23 December 2013).
Lack of relevant education affects the way students construct knowledge and understanding. The current approach to learning tends to result in knowledge that is only temporary, with students memorizing facts despite not understanding what has been taught:
Fawaz: We memorize … memorize … memorize for the test. If you ask me about any idea or information later after the test, I can rarely remember (focus group discussion with students at a public boys’ school in the Border Province on 2 February 2014).
The gap between students’ perceptions and the material they study increases when textbooks are brought to them that reflect a different cultural context. According to the Ministry of Education (2011: 71), many of these textbooks are developed by international textbook companies such as Pearson Longman, McGraw-Hill, Oxford University Press, MM Publications, Education First, and Macmillan. Students study information and ideas they have never been exposed to in a way that affects the development of their critical capacity. “One negative aspect of the translated books is that they provide information from areas that students have not visited before,” noted Waleed (a teacher at a public boys’ school in Riyadh, interviewed on 30 December 2013). As a consequence, there are few opportunities for students to connect to their environment, which raises concerns about education’s potential to address many environmental challenges. To foster a sense of ecological citizenship (Dobson and Eckersley 2006), students’ need learning materials that will open their eyes to the many environmental challenges that exist. In other words, they need active learning and a greater connection with the natural environment. One teacher described this as follows:
The educational system does not fit with our present age. Old system. Does not fit with the progress we have and all the things that exist. There is a need for schools to be developed to become more attractive to students. Students must see in reality many of the things they study, such as mountains, valleys, and observatories. Learning needs to connect students to the environment. It’s not important that they only listen and memorize. This is not the school’s mission. The mission of the school is that it should be connected to the environment. This is important because student will be motivated to learn (Salem, a teacher at a private boys’ school in the Border Province, during a focus group discussion on 28 January 2014).
The above discussion shows the challenges facing education in terms of enhancing the world of young people and equipping them to learn the skills that will facilitate a sustainable future for them in Saudi Arabia. The current education system has a limited impact on the development of a sense of social and environmental rights and responsibilities (McIntyre-Mills 2014; Romm 2015). This is particularly important for Saudi Arabia, as it faces a number of environmental challenges. In terms of sustainable development, Saudi Arabia has a higher dependency on carbon resources, and this means increased environmental challenges. The country needs to sustain its natural resources and move toward greater dependence on renewable energy. Saudi Arabia also faces other environmental challenges besides carbon emissions. One pressing environmental issue is the increased level of urbanization, highlighted by the fact that 60% of the Saudi population currently live in major cities (Ministry of Economy and Planning and UNPD 2003: 30). This number is expected to grow in the future, with an increasing number of people likely to move to major cities. For example, the city of Riyadh’s population jumped from 4.9 million in 2009 to 5.7 million in 2012, with a migration rate of 1.2% (Riyadh Municipality 2016). This increased level of urbanization has placed even more pressure on water and food security in a country that possesses few water and farming resources. Increased levels of urbanization have also led to waste management issues and the need to sustain resources and increase the level of recycling, which is still at only around 35% (Ministry of Economy and Planning 2014: 110). Education can bring changes in sustainability, as well as better ways to maintain natural resources and our environment, because in essence, the nation state is relying on the capabilities and awareness of current and future generations to protect the environment. Thus, education has the potential to foster social and environmental capital and to transform our world for the better. The right education can open up numerous opportunities for students to relate to their community and to understand complex environmental challenges (Giroux 2011). In addition, it enables students to think environmentally by connecting them to their environment.
Instead of rote learning, which always means just one person talking, we need discussion. Girls will understand more when they get involved in the discussion. In this way, the student will find ideas by herself, not through the teacher. This is better education (Munirah, a student at a girls’ public school in Riyadh, in a focus group discussion on 23 February 2014).
This lack of recognition of students’ voices echoes Freire’s argument that critical learning rarely occurs when students cannot relate to what is being taught. Therefore, how can dialogue exist if the topic does not interest students or if they cannot contribute to what they are learning? Such a learning approach prevents students from sharing insights and appreciating different points of view. In addition, it fails to prepare them for dealing with the global economy and the digital world, since they have not been taught how to appreciate and understand different arguments. Critical learning cannot happen when students have no option other than memorization. Instead, they need to be able to relate to what they learn, because students learn better when they have a sense of being linked with what they are learning (Freire 1970; Giroux 2011; Wink 2011). The more students can relate to what has been taught, the more they can engage in dialogue and communication (Freire 1970). Thus, relevant education can give students more opportunities to stimulate their imagination and their critical understanding so that they can prepare for an in-depth understanding of the many issues they face.
The central learning policy also renders teachers powerless, in that they lack the autonomy to encourage students to think beyond the limits of textbooks. The central supervision system applied by the Ministry of Education limits teachers’ ability to be creative. “I cannot bring any material outside of the textbooks. Anything else is not acceptable,” noted Suleiman, a teacher at a public boys’ school in Riyadh, when interviewed on 30 December 2013. Therefore, the teacher’s role is essentially that of a “bank-clerk educator” (Freire 1970: 57), and the students’ role is only to receive. Paradoxically, this is making teachers more passive and eroding their sense of agency, as well as their creative capabilities. So even if teachers feel that textbooks are irrelevant to students, they have no choice but to teach from them, as this is the basis of their learning evaluation. However, in learning, one teaching method and one set of materials cannot fit the needs of all students (Kameenui and Carnine 1998; Stinson et al. 2012). One English teacher describes why she cannot respond to the variety of learners’ needs in her class, as follows:
Textbooks restrict teachers. For example, now I am teaching English conversation at the beginner level. Even girls who have an advanced level of English need to study these lessons. One day when I was teaching, I heard one girl laughing at the back of the classroom. I asked: “Why are you laughing?” and she said, “I taught this lesson yesterday to my brother who studies in year 2 at primary school.” I felt frustrated. Then I had to tell the girls that this was their curriculum, and we had no other choice. I cannot do anything about it (Lubna, a teacher at a girls’ private school in Riyadh, during an interview on 30 December 2013).
From teacher Lubna’s statement above, it is clear how textbooks limit a teacher’s ability to be creative. The teacher cannot respond to different needs in the classroom even though she is aware of the problem, because she is constrained by one specific material. Therefore, she tends to be passive. Class material frequently does not take account of learners’ needs.
Girls now do not use their minds. This is true to the extent that one day I asked a student how much four plus five equals. She could not answer, which made me want to cry (Aysha, a teacher at a private girls’ school in Riyadh, during the focus group discussion on 30 December 2013).
The above comments highlight the challenges Saudi Arabia faces in encouraging its citizens to be better informed. Students believe it is impossible to understand ideas and concepts directly by themselves. They are dependent learners in a way that harms the building of their critical consciousness. This is why one can imagine the challenge of achieving an education that advances students’ ability to think critically. However, this skill is an absolutely necessary part of equipping students to achieve lifelong learning and to think socially and environmentally about the issues they face. Among the social challenges currently facing us is the rise of terrorism, coupled with the spread of extreme ideas in the Middle East, as part of political and social movements. Education needs to address such concerns in a way that will help students to be critical of ideas that promote violence and hate. Environmental issues and climate change must also be emphasized. In short, education that addresses the social and environmental aspects of our lives has greater potential in terms of making a significant contribution worldwide.
Education plays a vital role in the process of creating citizens who can make informed decisions by themselves. In fact, it is education that cultivates thinking beyond the border of textbooks. Therefore, students can logically investigate and analyze many ideas and arguments. However, the experiences of students and teachers outlined in the last section show how learning functions in a way that makes students passive instead of promoting critical thinking. This is particularly the case when students are restricted to learning from specific materials that are developed centrally and when the teacher’s role is only to pass on information from textbooks. Students typically save and repeat information without thinking about or reflecting on what they are learning. These results corroborate the findings of a great deal of previous research on Saudi education (see, e.g., Al-Issa 2009; Kampman 2011; Alabdulkareem and Alshehri 2014; Alzahrani 2016). The findings of those studies suggest that learning restricted to textbooks poses challenges for critical and collaborative learning. As Giroux (2011) argues, learning only from specific sources “celebrates rote learning [and] memorization” (p. 9).
The standard curriculum shapes boys’ and girls’ education into a very narrow form of knowing where there is less emphasis on encouraging lifelong learning and getting students interested in why certain things occur and more emphasis on simply passing exams. Accordingly, students are exposed to few opportunities for critical and creative learning. This approach to knowledge acquisition is not helpful for building the critical capacities that stimulate critical and creative thinking (Kincheloe 2008; Giroux 2011). As part of building their own critical capacity, students and young people need to be able to navigate different ways of learning across many disciplines and cultures so that they can function effectively as critical thinkers in a globalized world. In this way, education can contribute to the process of creating a learning community, connecting with people in communities that are increasingly diverse, and aligning with the natural environment. Thus, students will be better equipped to face global challenges and will have a greater ability to deal with differences that require the ability to think critically and analytically (McIntyre-Mills 2006, 2014; Borradori 2004). This will become increasingly important in avoiding narrow economic perspectives and religious fundamentalism.
I believe it is crucial for education not only to connect classroom knowledge to the experiences, histories, and resources that students bring to the classroom but also to link such knowledge to the goal of furthering their capacity to be critical agents who are responsive to the moral and political problems of their time (p. 7).
As Giroux (2011) points out, a more open approach to knowledge can help in enabling education to achieve more potential than is possible within the confines of the traditional role of schooling. If we want to empower boys and girls, we cannot simply fill their minds with information from predefined materials. As Freire (1970, 1998) argued, the traditional approach to learning and basic literacy skills is not enough. The intrinsic role of education needs to include the ability to reflect critically on learning. Students need to think about the world through the word (Freire and Macedo 1987). They need the capacity to take on roles in the community and to think strategically. However, the capacity to get students to think strategically seems far from the reach of an education system that makes them passive consumers of knowledge. Instead, they need relevant education that will empower them and give them greater potential as future citizens. Schooling practices should promote the discussion of ideas among students in two-way communication. Depriving them of dialogue or problem posing means that learning has less impact on students’ lives.
The central learning policy also reduces teachers’ capacity to work effectively across disciplines (the interdisciplinary approach), and because of this, they have limited ability to enable students to be independent learners. Teachers need to play a more active role. They need to be creative and to encourage students to think beyond some dimensions of the curriculum. They also need to enable students to think socially, economically, and environmentally about the issues they face. Well-rounded graduates are produced when learners and teachers are able to engage actively in the learning process within, but also beyond, the textbooks on the curriculum.
Conclusion and Recommendations
The findings of this study highlight that the top-down learning approach shapes learning according to a teacher-centered strategy. The impact of passive learning on critical awareness justifies Freire’s (1970) argument about the importance of active learning and of giving students more opportunity to reflect on what they have learned. In particular, there is a need for the education system to focus on building critical capacities through relevant learning that addresses social and environmental challenges. Additionally, students need to challenge concepts and ideas in order to develop critical thinking abilities. They need to be able to appreciate how an area of concern can be understood from multiple points of view. This kind of understanding is vital in terms of positioning young people in the global economy and in the digital world, so that they can appreciate and understand different arguments. It is also necessary to enable students to contribute to new knowledge (Kincheloe 2008) that will help to reconnect people to one another and to the land on which they all depend. This requires an open approach to co-creating knowledge and also involves giving teachers more power over what is taught. To overcome the limited scope of textbooks, the new design needs to include a workbook to engage the students in learning a parallel curriculum that will enable them to think critically and become more aware of social and environmental challenges, as well as their own rights and responsibilities.
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