Education, Critical Thinking, and Labor Productivity in the Gulf Region

Dr. Uzma Anzar: Education, Critical Thinking, and Labor Productivity in the Gulf Region

  • 27 July 2008

The concept of higher order thinking skills was first introduced by an American educationist Benjamin Bloom in his Taxonomy of Educational Objectives (1956). Bloom developed the learning models based on a hierarchical process. He argued that the process of learning and performance at a higher level is dependent on past educational inputs that a child has received earlier in her/his life. Bloom’s model of critical thinking (or cognitive development) process is shown in the image herewith.

The leading education systems of the world, such as Finland, South Korea, Japan and Singapore, focus much on the above picture while developing the thinking and reasoning abilities of their students. In these systems, the stage for inculcating higher order thinking skills is set at the teacher training level where trainee-teachers go through a rigorous practice of personal cognitive development. They are also taught about ways and means of enhancing higher order thinking skills of their students. The result is that a large number of students in these countries are able to process information and develop new knowledge based on what they already know. In other words, allowing students to think freely and respecting their input helps in the development of a “thinking” society.

A thinking society is also a productive society. It is obvious by high labor and economic outputs of South Korea, Singapore, Japan and Finland. In these countries, despite English not being their first language or the language of instruction in schools, local labor forces are not only improving their own living standards, they are also contributing positively to the lives and leisure of the foreign people by producing and continuously improving state-of-the-art technology, means of communication, and automobiles. 

This shows that an education system that imparts higher order thinking skills to its people also reaps the benefits of thriving, sustainable, and constantly adapting labor force in the country.

Even though the GCC countries have done remarkably well in terms of education infrastructure development and providing schooling opportunities to all of their citizens, higher order thinking skills in GCC students is an area where more efforts are needed (stage 3 above).  This is especially true for boy citizens of GCC who seem to be lagging behind in school and private labor market performance.  UAE, Qatar, Kuwait and other members of the GCC have made commendable progress in education in recent years, but there is a need to consistently focus on improving the quality of education and making it relevant to the constantly changing economies of the GCC.

A large number of students in the GCC are doing well at “Remember” and “Understand” stages of cognitive development (please see the picture above).  These two are the early stages where students are required to remember and repeat the knowledge at the right time. But applying, analyzing, evaluating and generating new knowledge are areas where GCC students need more guidance and encouragement.  This is true for all stages of learning, i.e., K-12 and above. 

Problem solving involves proper analysis and application of a given piece of information and manipulation of information and ideas in a way that would result in more advanced implications and meanings.  A labor force which is equipped to do this is far more productive than workers who just follow the status quo. 

Equipping young Gulf citizens with problem solving skills is especially relevant at this point in time when fiercely competitive private sector is increasingly becoming the main provider of jobs in the region.  Despite the availability of numerous schooling and higher education opportunities and government schemes to provide employment to the locals, the young GCC citizens face challenges finding jobs in the ever bourgeoning private sector in their respective countries. 

For example, a 2006 study by Sharjah University showed that 33% of Emirati men and 48% of Emirati female college graduates were unemployed at the time of the study. According to the official UAE statistics, if the current trends continue, by 2009 UAE nationals will account for less than 8% of the private workforce, and by the 2020 UAE nationals will be less than 4% of the private labor force in the UAE.  Similarly, a 2007 news item in a leading Doha newspaper reported that Qataris account for only 12% of the total labor force and only 1% of the private job market in Qatar.

Local Qatari labor shortfall is particularly evident in professional and technical jobs.  Kuwait, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and others also face the same dilemma.

The government job sector in most GCC countries is already reaching a saturation point and cannot absorb the increasing number of local college graduates.

The problem is not that the private does not like hiring local GCC citizens. The reality is that the private sector functions in a highly competitive environment where employees are expected to show enthusiasm, demonstrate punctuality and agility, and take initiative without much guidance and oversight from the bosses. The private sector demands forward thinking and problem solving abilities in employees.  Unfortunately, most GCC school systems are not fully preparing their students to face these challenges. The result is that many GCC job seekers fail to reach the productivity standards of the private job market and either do not enter the private market or quit it after a while.

The education systems in the GCC countries must remain cognizant of the demands of the job sectors (both private and public) and tailor themselves accordingly. The Emirate of Abu Dhabi recently vowed to make Abu Dhabi the most efficient government in the world. For this goal to be realized, the UAE government sector would need not only highly educated and skilled, but also hard working and innovative local work force.  Similarly, Qatar which is striving to become the financial hub of the GCC would need brilliant local minds to ultimately run and continuously upgrade its machinery.  Same is true for other GCC countries that are going through unprecedented economic transition.

In addition to imparting basic literacy and information processing skills, the GCC school systems should implement programs that would make students progressive thinkers and innovators. Students should be made to work hard from the very beginning and their hard work should be rewarded with incremental incentives at the classroom level. This way, they will learn about the relationship between hard work and rewards.  The earlier the students are introduced to the value of hard work, the better it is.

To promote thinking skills, teachers should be trained on promoting a classroom environment which is student centered and activities filled. Teachers should learn on how to ask mediating questions during classroom sessions—questions that would prompt students to quickly think and reflect on implications of answer choices that are available before making a selection. Homework assignments where students are allowed and guided to research various options and are encouraged to make analogies (compare and contrast) result in improved sequential thinking skills which are important for top performance in any labor market.

Proper education interventions lay the foundation of lifelong learning and problem solving skills in students. Positive learning experiences, that are organized and build the evaluation and analysis skills of the students, and are reinforced at all stages of education, are important ingredients in building a healthy and productive society.  GCC nations’ growing importance in the economic and political arenas around the world makes it imperative that their local citizens are not completely reliant on foreign labor force, but they themselves are fully equipped to play leading roles in all areas of their society.