Putting the Why in Arab Education Reform

01/09/2013 06:13 pm ET | Updated Mar 11, 2013

Throughout 2012 I've spent a great deal of my time with different education entrepreneurs across the Middle East and at Startup Weekend events filled with aspiring entrepreneurs immersed in one of the best forms of experiential learning I've ever seen (even if they were under 10-years-old). It's starkly clear that our education systems need to be reimagined -- so clear in fact that it has arguably become common knowledge. Nevertheless, the pace of change has been painfully slow or non-existent on a systems level. Thanks to Simon Sinek and TED we know that we need to "start with why" if we want to inspire action and create outcomes that defy the odds. It is an understatement to say that education reform in the Arab world needs to defy the odds. So, here it goes, "why education (reform) in the Arab world?"

The purpose of education can be divided into three segments as outlined by Sir Ken Robinson, in his book Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative: personal, cultural, and economic.

On the individual and personal level, reform efforts in the region should first and foremost work to create a renewed sense of agency and empowerment. To many times have I met Arab students who lacked the self-confidence to pursue their passions and dreams -- even if they already had a knack for it. Empowered individuals will be the first step in creating an "entrepreneurial society" that is able to create local and sustainable solutions. Generation after generation, people in the region have been mired with "what in psychology is known as' learned helplessness.'" This learned helplessness has been a major factor stifling social innovation and creativity in the region.

Our education systems need to develop a sense of agency and independence in students early on. We need to ensure that our students develop "growth mindsets" that give them the confidence to fail often and fail fast -- a fundamental component of any entrepreneurial and creative society.

In parallel to creating empowered individuals, it is important to create and foster a culture where citizens, not subjects, understand that information is disputable and differing opinions are necessary for the flourishing of societies. Students need not only be able to repeat knowledge, but more importantly question it, and build innovations on top of it. The democratic gains of the so-called "Arab spring" will "only thrive in a culture that accepts diversity, respects different points of view, and tolerates -- even encourages -- dissent."

Finally, the economic goals of education need to be reconsidered. Of course, education for employment has become an adage; yet according to the latest estimates by the ILO, the number of unemployed youth going forward is expected to increase at least until 2016. Education plays a big part in our struggle to create jobs after the Arab awakening and current financial crisis, yet the discussion about education should go beyond short-term labor activation policies. We should discuss the importance of creating a flexible workforce.

In A New Culture of Learning, Thomas and Brown provide a new take on the principle underlying another the famous adage, "give a man a fish and feed him for a day, teach a man to fish and feed him for a lifetime." The authors point out that the adage, assumes that "there will always be an endless supply of fish to catch and that the techniques for catching them will last a lifetime." The pitfall here is the "belief that most of what we know will remain relatively unchanged for a long enough period of time to be worth the effort of transferring it."

Finally, as we ponder the purpose of education, we need to also broaden our understanding of where it takes place. It is imperative to acknowledge that education and learning do not just happen in the classroom. Education reform is a cultural phenomenon. The value of education and educators is logically defined by the perceptions of the surrounding society. We are all constantly fluctuating from educators to learners, and as lifelong learning becomes more important, the more education becomes a societal responsibility and experience.

**Special thanks to Oubai El Kurdi, co-founder of the Arab Development Initiative, for being the inspiration and guide behind this piece.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and The World Economic Forum in recognition of the latter's Global Shapers initiative. The Global Shapers Community is a worldwide network of city-based hubs developed and led by young entrepreneurs, activists, academics, innovators, disruptors and thought leaders. Aged between 20 and 30, they are exceptional in their achievements and drive to make a positive contribution to their communities. Follow the Global Shapers on Twitter at @globalshapers or nominate a Global Shaper at http://www.globalshapers.org/apply.