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RAK Teachers Trade Lessons with Swiss Counterparts

Afshan Ahmed, The National
October 08, 2012

Teachers in Ras Al Khaimah have traded valuable lessons with their counterparts in Switzerland thanks to an exchange programme initiated by the Sheikh Saud Bin Saqr Al Qasimi Foundation for Policy Research.

Last week, a group of 19 Swiss teachers who visited the emirate said they learnt from the schools' ability to effectively adopt change in a dynamic education system. In December, when 12 state school teachers visited classrooms in Basel, Switzerland, they returned full of praise for the Swiss 'no-bells' policy.

Classes in Basel end because teachers have kept an eye on the clock, instead of an ear out for the bell. The Emirati group said the 'no-bells' policy instilled respect for time in pupils and taught teachers time management.

"We thought there was a potential for both countries to learn from each other," said Dr Natasha Ridge, Executive Director of the Al Qasimi foundation. "They are both small systems and both going through change. It was interesting for teachers here to go and find new ideas to implement in their classrooms.

"As Switzerland sees more immigrants, especially from the Arab world, the Swiss teachers' visit helped them learn more about the Arab and Muslim culture."

During the week-long visit to RAK, Swiss teachers took tours of government schools in the city and remote areas, an Applied Technology High School (ATHS) and a private school to analyse the differences in teaching methods.

Dr. Susanne Rueegg, director of the Professional Development and Resource Centre for Teachers at the Basel department of education, said the biggest difference the Swiss teachers noted was pupils being taught in single sex schools.

"There was a big difference in teaching between the boys and girls schools," said Dr. Rueegg.

"In the girls' school, we saw a lot of examples of student-centred learning."

She said the boys' schools were still lagging behind. "We saw glimpses of good practice in boys schools, but they need to move forward on that track."

For many teachers in RAK, it was the first opportunity to collaborate with teachers from another system.

Ahmad Dhamani, an Emirati Geography teacher at Al Munai School, said pupil encouragement and engagement in the Swiss classrooms was something he wanted to emulate.

"They have so much freedom and a lot of self-learning that is allowed," said Mr Dhamani.

"Pupils were also responsible for cleaning the classroom and other such work around school. This helps build character."

Muhammad Ata, who has been teaching Biology at RAK Secondary School for six years, said he'd like a more flexible curriculum so he could introduce activities like those he saw in Switzerland.

"It would be good if we were allowed to choose the activities that would support the learning and not always have to stick to the book," he said.

"Like having visits to the hospital to explain chapters pertaining to the human body."

Mohamed El Abasery, a chemistry teacher at Al Munai school said they had a lot to teach as well. "Our school is 140 kilometres away from the nearest city," he said. "That poses challenges like limited resources and less parent involvement. They found our determination to overcome that inspiring."

The RAK teachers were most enthusiastic about Switzerland's decentralised approach to education. Swiss schools are not centrally managed; the various cantons (or provinces) manage operations, but principals are given autonomy to implement the curriculum.

Dr. Ridge agreed RAK teachers could benefit from a system that allowed some decision making at the local level.

"Principals should have more say in the people they hire and budgetary control," she said.

The next step in the exchange programme will involve more specific training for local teachers, Dr. Ridge said. "We will have targeted group of teachers training in vocational education and leadership programmes - areas in which the Swiss are doing well."