Character Reform: Egypt’s Year of Education

James Aird
James is an Ed.M. student at Harvard Graduate School of Education. Before attending graduate school at Harvard, James worked in education in the Middle East, most recently at the American University of Sulaimani.

As Egypt’s ‘Year of Education’ begins, the government pushes much needed reform in pre-university education across the country. Supported by a $500 million World Bank loan, the government is accelerating efforts to train teachers, build schools, and implement tablet technology in primary and secondary education. The reforms include one ambitious project that is especially deserving of more attention: the expansion of a pilot program adapting Japanese educational techniques to the Egyptian context. At a meeting in Tokyo on February 29th, 2016, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi announced a joint partnership that sought to link Egypt to Japan through educational development, in part thanks to al Sisi’s personal admiration for Japan’s education system. As part of the joint partnership, Japanese and Egyptian administrators and policymakers set out to reshape Egyptian pedagogy. Modeled on Japan’s Tokkatsu education system, which refers to a program of “whole child development,” Egypt aims to build schools that place great emphasis on teaching students to be responsible, disciplined, and clean, as opposed to the more traditional model prioritizing higher standardized testing scores. A Tokkatsu-inspired curriculum is already being used at over forty schools that accepted more than 13,000 students in September 2018. While President al Sisi plans to personally monitor the new education system, other MENA states should also watch closely. If it successfully contributes to building Egypt’s human capital and improving students’ competitiveness, other states in the region might consider implementing similar educational policies.

 

Tokkatsu education: social learning and emotional intelligence

Tokkatsu education relies heavily on non-cognitive learning techniques. As it is applied to students in Japan, Tokkatsu builds emotional intelligence with the use of ‘special activities,’ which may include cleaning classrooms, serving lunch, team exercises, or opportunities for students to lead their peers for a day. Students are also encouraged to join student councils, clubs, and sports teams. These activities foster cooperation and empathy by giving students opportunities for personal growth alongside collaborative group work. These community-building exercises take place within a framework that also incorporates academic subjects, placing social and emotional learning alongside formal classroom instruction.

Egypt is in dire need of creative solutions to the problems in its education system. According to the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report for 2017-2018, Egypt ranked 133 out of 137 countries in quality of primary education. Egypt’s Ministry of Education (MoE) faces numerous challenges to its system that pose critical problems for students and teachers alike. Rigid pedagogical methodology, poor teacher training, uneven funding distribution, and the rampant use of corporal punishment all contribute to Egypt’s low ranking. Teachers are compelled to focus significant time on preparing students for life-altering exams that determine each student’s educational trajectory, instead of teaching students less tangible skills like critical thinking and creative problem solving. In addition, because Egypt’s education is so exam-centric, many students cheat to achieve high marks. In 2016, a cheating scandal shook Egypt’s education system after students leaked General Secondary Exam (Thanaweya Amma) questions to thousands of their peers via Facebook. Thanaweya Amma results determine what public university students will be admitted to, and the enormous influence they exercise on futures of graduating high school students forces teachers to teach to the test while also incentivizing rampant cheating. The Tokkatsu initiative in Egypt aims to address some of these challenges by introducing student-centered pedagogical reforms that promote holistic growth instead of the single-minded focus on test scores. The Tokkatsu initiative also intends to train Egyptian teachers in the Japanese-inspired education model to increase awareness of the importance of non-cognitive learning and emotional intelligence among Egyptian educators.

 

Implementation: hope, promise, and daunting challenge

As a result of bilateral talks in 2016, Japan and Egypt formulated the Egypt-Japan Education Partnership and officially agreed to bring Tokkatsu-style education to Egypt. In addition to the establishment of Tokkatsu-inspired schools, the partnership will send thousands of Egyptians to study higher education in Japan. Egypt also plans to send current teachers to Japan for pedagogical training, and will expand Japanese language programs across all levels of education. Likewise, Japan will sell and implement instructional technology in Egyptian higher education institutions. Both countries will coordinate the joint activities and closely monitor the impact of such educational reforms. The program therefore represents a significant undertaking both for student growth and for the professional development of Egyptian educational professionals.

After a 2-year delay, largely due to the lack of completed administrative facilities, Egypt opened the doors to forty Japanese schools across the country. The schools are equipped with classes with smart boards, athletic areas, and football, volleyball, and basketball courts. As of October 29th, 2018, 79 Tokkatsu-inspired schools were functioning and serving more than 30,000 students from all socioeconomic backgrounds. Egypt’s Ministry of Education plans to continue building Tokkatsu schools, and its 2019 target is 200 fully-furnished Tokkatsu-style schools. The long-term target is more ambitious, as it would constitute a full-scale overhaul of a significant portion of Egypt’s education system and establish the new schools in twenty governorates. By July 2018, the Ministry of Education had received 20,000 applications for teacher training.  According to Egypt’s MoE, the Tokkatsu initiative will train 100,000 teachers and eventually serve 2.5 million students.

If the Japanese-inspired educational reform successfully expands to serve its stated goal of 2.5 million students, this initiative will have a significant impact on Egypt’s youth. Currently, Egypt’s exam-based education does not adequately prepare students for 21st century work. As a result, there is a visible achievement gap that shows few signs of narrowing without intervention. Egyptian youth exceed twenty percent of the population, and a staggering portion of Egyptian university graduates are unemployed or underqualified for their work. The Tokkatsu-inspired system represents a chance to empower students with market-relevant skills such as discipline, creativity, and teamwork while also shifting Egyptian education away from the restrictive and ineffective exam-centric model. If Egypt can grow the current pilot program and reach its goals, it will have the opportunity to impact an entire generation.

 

Egypt and Beyond

While today the initiative serves over 30,000 students, Egypt has a long way to go. The MoE will need to work closely with the Japanese government and implement its own bureaucratic reforms if it hopes to drastically expand primary and secondary enrollment under the Tokkatsu-inspired system. If administrators are able to overcome the significant challenges facing Egyptian education and the curriculum does improve student learning outcomes, the program may help develop a generation of productive citizens. However, concerns over the Tokkatsu-inspired system’s heavy emphasis on discipline and group conformity raise justified fears of a militarized education system that encourages loyalty to the figure of Sisi more than it provides a nurturing environment for student growth. Nevertheless, if the reforms succeed at better preparing Egyptian students to face the 21st century workplace, the Tokkatsu-inspired system may prove attractive to Egypt’s neighbors, many of which experience similar challenges in educational development.

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