Category Archives: Education

Kuwait 2030: Merit Pay

By | Education | 2 Comments

I think we need a way to better reward good teachers. Right now, there’s a sort of secondary market where the best teachers are getting paid really well privately tutoring wealthy students. That’s not fair because the energy and attention of the teacher is usually reserved for the evening and not during class time. I think we can come up with a better way to solve this imbalance.

There is a sweeping change going through the American public school system with many arguing that merit pay (rewarding good teachers with better pay) is the best option. The challenge is to come up with a way to quantify how good a teacher really is. Do you just look at test scores? How about differences in parent involvement and family background?  It is a very complicated issue, but its clear that treating all teachers the same and rewarding seniority has failed. We have a very similar system in Kuwait and there is no way to reward talented and creative teachers.

There is also a lack of variety in the choices of schools in Kuwait. I want to see more experimental schools and more distinctly different options that I can choose from based on my values and concerns.

Merit Pay:

  • Creative, energetic and talented teachers are handsomely rewarded without having to resort to private tutoring
  • Parents can choose from a wide variety of different schools each with their own pedagogical philosophy and structure
  • Terrible and unimaginative teachers are retrained or promptly fired

The idea is to create a competitive environment between schools to attract the best teachers. We can achieve this by slowly handing over control of public schools and turning them into ‘charter schools’. These are schools that have a charter, or an agreement with the government, which dictates what it is they’re trying to achieve and what the goals and milestones are for the school in order to remain active. As long as those rules are met, the school remains open, but the inner workings of the school is completely independent and without interference from the government. How can we achieve this?

  1. Create a large team of Teacher Auditors. This team would systematically sit in classes and quietly observe all the teachers in Kuwait and grade them based on their teaching skills. Slowly begin to install webcams inside all classrooms to observe remotely and record infringements and misbehavior (on the part of students and teachers).
  2. Renegotiate teacher contracts and reward the highest scoring teachers with hefty bonuses and fire the lowest scoring teachers.
  3. During every summer, all teachers are to attend mandatory teacher training programs and will not be allowed to resume teaching until they pass an exam at the end of the summer.
  4. Install a web based teacher evaluation program, where students can evaluate teacher effectiveness. This will be monitored by the Teacher Auditors and used to guide their audits and examinations and which classes to observe via webcam.
  5. Make it absolutely illegal with strict penalties for full time teachers to teach privately. They can work overtime at the school and be paid by the school to teach students privately, or in small groups. The students do not pay the teacher and as a result, wealthy students do not gain an unfair advantage over others.
  6. Instead of making public schools free for all, we offer vouchers to students that are valid to use as tuition for any school. This will lower the entrance fee to private schools and give an incentive for independent public schools (charter schools) to be better than the rest.
  7. Every school will be required by law to provide free tuition for a certain percentage of students based on need and merit. Poor but worthy students will be guaranteed entry into the best schools.

The idea is that by the end of this process, the line between public schools and private ones is blurred to the point where there isn’t a distinction. There would be a fierce marketplace between the schools with each of them fighting to survive and attract the best teachers and students. Failing schools will have their charters revoked and a new management will invest in and take over the school.

The free market is a powerful force for change and progress. We can use it to energize our school system. We don’t know which teachers are good and which are bad. We have to devise a way to know this information and then use that to create a marketplace that can attract the best talent in Kuwait. I want the job of a teacher to be a very financially rewarding profession. All we need is more transparency, agressive training and ruthlessness in dealing with incompetence.

Khaldiya/Adailiya Bridge

By | Education, Other | No Comments

I was recently invited at Kuwait University to see the work of a studio researching ‘sustainability’ and solar design. They were attempting to manipulate microclimates through architecture to create livable and comfortable outdoor spaces from a site they picked around Khaldiya campus. I was glad when I saw one team choose the pedestrian bridge, which we discussed in the previous post, as their site.

The shading device they came up with was a tesselated, triangular, disturbed mesh (which they insisted on calling ‘origami’, even though it has nothing to do with folding). That was a cool idea, as some triangles would face the sun directly, and they made that into a photovoltaic cell. Others, facing north, would be open to the sky. That was good enough as an idea, but they inexplicably added mini-wind turbines which edged the design too close to being a parody for my liking. Just stick with one great idea and really develop it, and they came close with their roof structure. It was a very unique project and well worth seeing. Good job, guys.

They also added a cafe on the on the Adailiya side of the street and extended the shading device to cover that and the nearby parking spaces. I forgot there was a bus stop on the Khaldiya side, and that’s another reason to think that this can really be a great starting point for inciting pedestrian activity. I was glad that the team tried to do that in their project, but it could have been taken even further, maybe expanding the site to include the whole ‘mamsha’ as part of their design, turning into a larger scale ‘landscape urbanism’ project, with the focus of the project being a site aimed to educate people on the health benefits of exercise and proving that you can create architecture and landscapes that are comfortable even during the worst summer heat.

In general, I felt that most of the students unfortunately started the project with a defeatist mentality, thinking that there isn’t much you can do to manipulate the microclimate other than erecting some shading devices and calling it a day. I personally think that shading alone is not enough in the summer. You need to have a holistic design that includes evaporative cooling techniques, wind manipulation (pressure studies), vegetation and albedo/material analysis, but I couldn’t find a project that went beyond superficial shading devices as their solution to the heat problem. That’s not enough, but I was glad to know that they’re being taught the fundamentals of the subject. I was just hoping for a better final product at the end of the day.

Charter Schools

By | Education | 8 Comments

Why doesn’t Kuwait have any charter schools? These are independent publicly funded schools (no tuition, religious affiliation or selective student admissions), but are separated from the rules of the Ministry as long as they abide by agreed upon performance standards.

A charter school is authorized to function once it has received a charter, a statutorily defined performance contract detailing the school’s mission, program, goals, students served, methods of assessment, and ways to measure success.

The point is that they end up experimenting with better methods of teaching without being restricted by bureaucracy, while still being held accountable for student achievement. Successful examples in the US include High Tech High and Seattle Girls School.

I would love it if we had such choices in Kuwait. Most of the private schools are getting too expensive for most people and are attracting rich, spoiled kids that demand special behavior because they’re paying exorbitant fees. Students start developing an feeling of entitlement which defines their behavior throughout their lives. Public schools aren’t any better, but that’s because they lost interest and have settled on a comfortable rut that no one in power wants to change. A little competition can’t hurt.

Update: If not charter schools, then at least strictly not-for-profit private schools. It’s the profit motive that, I think, ruins most private schools.

Later Update: The reason why i’m asking for this is that education, like security and healthcare, is a right and not a privilege. Public schools have no innovation and their ability to develop well-rounded, curious and creative young men and women is weak. They teach to the test and have been stuck with the same curriculum taught in the same way for generations.

Experimenting with charter schools, or at least non-profit private schools, is simply a way to disrupt this stagnation. It will show that there are alternatives to the way we teach. If I was in charge of a school, i’d make these changes:

  1. Have a much later starting bell than usual, in the region of 9am. The school opens as early as 6:30, and parents would be free to drop their kids in anytime they want. Breakfast would be served in school for those that don’t have time at home. Kids that are there early can work on their projects or just socialize with their friends.
  2. Mandatory 15 minute exercise for students and faculty first thing in the morning.
  3. School would end much later than normal, somewhere around 4 or 5pm. They wouldn’t be expected to do any homework, all work is done in school. That means that they don’t carry their books home. Most kids don’t have good work spaces at home, and some have loud or disruptive home environments.
  4. Lots of extra-curricular activities (teachers would be encouraged to each start something in a field that they’re passionate about, for example astronomy, chess, wrestling, dance, gardening, cycling, etc) Every student would have to pick two or three activities as part of their schedule.
  5. Students would be served lunch in school at around noon, a healthy, nutritious lunch that’s made specifically for each student (there would be a nutrition specialist on staff that would ‘design’ each child’s menu for the year, based on clinical tests and physical exams. And no, I don’t think that’s crazy)
  6. Major emphasis on creativity and self-empowerment. There’s a test at the end of the year, but the weight of the test would be much less than usual. Team projects will be a main tool of education. The aim is teach kids how to learn.
  7. Much smaller classes than usual, depending on the subject and students.
  8. Troublemakers would be weeded out of the normal classes and put together with each other. They would be taught through tough, discipline oriented methods. They would have a second chance to go back to Gen-Pop, but only if they behave and work hard. This idea is from Season 4 of The Wire.
  9. No useless technology. Sometimes schools think that simply having technology will replace the act of teaching. Technology is a tool, and using it in the wrong way wastes time and money. Only stuff that works and is proven effective will be used.
  10. Community awareness. The kids would be constantly involved in local initiatives, cleaning up the park for example, or proposing and enacting changes to things they decided needed to change. Basic acts of micro-democracy and showing how when people organize and get involved, they can make stuff happen.
  11. Students will be constantly encouraged to make things. The school should have a pervasive and contagious feeling of creativity and experimentation. Students are taught not to say what they’re going to do, but what they did. Wet labs, wood shop, photography studio and dark room, art space, a theater. There’s always something happening.

There’s no way that this school could exist as part of the Ministry. It has to be separated from the rules that govern all public schools. I don’t see it being successful as a private, for-profit school, either. The motivation there is to make money, and that drive supersedes the desire to teach honestly and enthusiastically.

It has to be independent from the rules and not driven by profit. The only options are charter schools (free, public schools that are accountable to the Ministry, but don’t follow their rules) or a non-profit private school.

An Arrogant Architect

By | Architecture, Education, Social | 9 Comments

Building on Jasem’s post a few days ago, i’d like to talk further about the responsibilities of an architect in Kuwait and the perception people have of our profession. Here are a few of the comments from that post:

“Another problem we have here (this is in regard to the client’s response …. maybe) is that our way of life and the rules we have in Kuwait encourages a conservative , practicle buildings for us to live in … since many families are jammed under one roof … you have no option but to think SPACE! … and hence the box house…. it is not that people may not appreciate the beauty and creativity of Architecture … but that it has a small room in their life …”

-mohammed

““.Who every designed those house knew what they were doing and who every wanted them liked them, they just wanted a piece of say Italy in Kuwait…””

-lolcat

In Kuwait, as with the rest of the world, there are good clients and there are bad clients. We may have far more bad ones than the rest of the world, but there’s a reason for that. Kuwait is a young and immature country. Think of it this way, when Kuwait was a baby in the 60’s it needed protective foster parents to dress it and feed it. The British. The first batch of modern homes were stunning statements of architecture that still stand proud today.

When the baby grew into a kid it started to assert itself more and began choosing what to wear. It rejected some of the ideas it was taught because they were boring and incomprehensible. They started experimenting with strange designs that really didn’t make any sense. The parents were too busy with work to care and left the kids all alone without guidance or discipline.

Today, Kuwait is a rich, awkward teenager. These are weird times. Some kids don’t care how they look and just want to eat and be entertained. You can see these obese houses everywhere, the big, boring boxes that line almost every new street. Then there are the self conscious teenagers. They don’t know who they are and are looking everywhere to find themselves, changing their look often, not really know what they’re doing. They sometimes do something profoundly stylish, usually by accident, but the experiments are mostly awkward and obscene. You can see these strange, incoherent houses here and there. Mismatched materials, spaces completely out of scale and a total mess of architectural language.

Image (and nightmares) via Z District

The good thing is that the next step, adulthood, is usually accompanied by a strong sense of self-awareness and control. Kuwait is still a young and brash teenager. We can’t expect it to settle down and explore a rich, vibrant, Kuwaiti architectural language. It still hasn’t found itself, and to do so it needs time.

As good parents we should guide the child into a happy, safe and secure adulthood by encouraging the potential and fighting the excess. A good education helps, and that’s why we need to keep on exploring architecture here in a way that everyone can easily understand. In the end, though, growing up needs time. We can’t be arrogant and demand instant change and reject ignorance as a sign of permanent failure. Everyone makes mistakes. Especially teenagers.

Boring Schools

By | Architecture, Education, Social | 13 Comments

What is a school? Is it simply a building where children go to learn about the world, or is it more important? It’s a cliche to think that our greatest natural resource is not the oil under our feet, but those kids in our schools. Even so, I think that we should be very careful in the way we design the spaces where they learn and play. Almost all of the schools in Kuwait have not been designed with kids in mind. They’re all drab, dreary, unimaginative and boring. I remember my school had a fence with barbed wire surrounding the playground. What kind of message does that send to the kids?

kidsbooks

What’s with this recent obsession with new schools being named ‘X’BS (Bilingual School), seemingly oblivious to the common use of BS in the English language? It’s not as important what kids learn, but rather that they know how to learn. Most of the schools have the same curriculum and pedagogical model, and they all even look the same, except that they’re all painted a different color.

fanning

I want my future children to have every opportunity that can be provided to them. The problem is that looking around, the choices are depressingly scarce. What is a kid friendly space? The most important thing is that the physical space around them sort of gives them the permission to be free and curious. An authoritarian space drives discipline and order, but it also discourages freedom of expression. When kids feel like they can’t express themselves openly, they’ll find other ways to do so in secret, destructive ways.

kitakinda1

I’m not a defender of the flowery self-esteem movement that has practically created a generation of Americans that feel undeservedly self-entitled and content with their incompetence and ignorance. I don’t want that for Kuwait. What I want is the option to have a school that understands the importance of creativity and imagination in the development of a young child, and would do everything it can to encourage that. The first step is to build a school that is, for lack of a better word, cool. It has to challenge children to be creative, to live up to and exceed the example set by the building.

school1

Second, the curriculum needs to be flexible and geared towards the independent development cycle of each child. Every child is different and some need more guidance and supervision than others. Simply putting thirty kids in a room and demanding that they all learn at the same pace is very illogical. Similarly, tests will always be a part of the school system, but the curriculum should not revolve around what’s on the test. School has to be fun. For example, a teacher discovers that an unmotivated student in an English class is a hip hop fan; The teacher could ask that student to write a rap song as a class project. It’s not in the curriculum, but with some flexibility, that unmotivated student would be extremely interested to do something in class.

kiid

Finally, teachers should be allowed to experiment with alternative methods of teaching based on the situation they find themselves in. For example, if there are disruptive students in the class, they shouldn’t be allowed to slow down the rest of the class. They should quickly be reassigned to a special, albeit temporary, class that would include all the disruptive students. Of course, this special class would have a far more disciplined teacher and stricter penalties and a more structured environment. What I mean to say is that the environment has to be malleable enough to adapt to most situations. Every child is different, and we can’t treat them all the same.

kidsspaces(1)

Peer-Based Learning

By | Education, Other | 7 Comments
[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9u-MczVpkUA&hl=en&fs=1&rel=0]

A wonderful collection of ideas on learning and teaching by John Seely Brown. Please take the time to watch the entire ten minute video. (Youtube)

I think we can all agree that the Arab pedagogical mode, with its absolute respect and reverence for the Teacher, is damaging to our children. It is a system that snuffs out creativity and imagination.

My experience in an architectural studio was profoundly enlightening and it was very much the way it’s described in the video. The first few critiques were uncomfortable and we were all very defensive and took every word personally.

After a few weeks it became clear that there really was nothing to fear. We learned to stop being so protective of our ideas and allow other people to tinker with them and show us things we couldn’t see from our own perspective. We began to not so much ‘teach’ each other but rather challenge each other to think differently.

This is different from the notion of critical thinking. It’s not so much the Socratic method, with it’s dialectical form of inquiry, but rather a framework that allows kids to experiment and to have the freedom to be bold. Peer-based learning is a way to foster the desire to be creative. Think of it like networked brainstorming, with kids gaining confidence from each other, engaging each other and learning from each other. The teacher becomes the coordinator or the orchestrator, guiding the team and providing the anchor to validate ideas and assumptions.

How can we incorporate the peer-based learning that architecture students experience into the broader educational environment? There are schools in the United States, such as the Seattle Girls School, that have been extremely successful by doing something very similar. They teach through long, project-based exercises where the girls are encouraged to experiment with ideas and allowed learn from failed attempts. Graduates from the SGS are sought out at colleges and are given preferential admission because they know how to imagine, create and ask good questions. All good schools have to teach kids how to create. Very few schools do, and none of them are in Kuwait.

Sadly, Kuwaiti youth now define themselves by their material possessions. ‘I am what I wear and what I drive’. What if every Kuwaiti identifies themselves not by their outward image but by the ideas they generate from within?

Edit: I have to admit that for a few years now there has been a successful local experiment in collaborative and peer-based learning. It’s an annual inter-school competition in Kuwait called ‘Battle of the Best’  where high school students are encouraged to create profit making projects. It’s a very capitalist oriented way of teaching creative thinking, but it’s a start. The project is part of Injaz Kuwait.

My hope is that the schools that participate will understand the value of peer-based learning and witness the progress made by the students that competed in ‘Battle of the Best’. This can’t simply be a voluntary extra-curricular activity. It has to be the basis and framework of all teaching starting from the earliest levels. Recitation for tests and regurgitation of facts has failed us. There is a better way.

Via synthesis.