Since independence, Tunisia has had periods of different educational policies. Faced with high rates of illiteracy, education initially focused on content. This was later replaced with an objective-based approach, and when this proved to be a failure, it was replaced by a skills-based approach. Educational innovations may have continued throughout the world, but they have ceased in Tunisia. Tunisia has not benefited from this research and has persisted with old methods for more than two decades which has caused a reduction in school success rate. This Policy Brief discusses these failures and proposes solutions to address the shortcomings of the current system.
Education occupies an important place in society because it is the driver of progress. The development of any country depends on the development of its education. This is why decision-makers are motivated to engage in educational reforms. Tunisia has experienced several stages of educational reform, the most important of which has been the “School of Tomorrow” project, from 1995 onwards at the request of President Ben Ali, where a skills-based approach replaced the objectives-based approach. For the last 25 years, the same pedagogical approach has been applied.
However, does a focus on skills constitute a complete education? Is there further research in skills-based education? If so, does that mean the skills-based approach does not need to be reformed?
The curriculum and the evaluation methods are an obstacle to the development of high-quality education
In 1997, with the support of UNICEF and the World Bank. Tunisia began to implement the skills-based approach. Does this external aid conform to the particularity of Tunisian society
A skills-based approach
It is important to clarify the difference between skills and knowledge. Skills are characterized by a degree of complexity adapted to the learner’s level of education. Therefore, it is not a single item, but a group of merged items. Knowledge is what defines the context of educational or social skills and only constitutes one component. No skill has meaning without the presence of all its elements. This is what sets a skills-based teaching approach apart from other approaches.
The concept of skill is represented in a pedagogical approach that operates according to an educational strategy that is based on the development of the skills of the pupils rather than on the learning of knowledge.
Skills-based teaching is a pedagogical approach that focuses on developing students’ skills rather than knowledge. This aims to provide students with the skills that society requires. The skills-based approach allows students to not only adapt and integrate acquired knowledge and skills to solve complex problems but also select relevant knowledge for the situation.
For example, in life and earth sciences, the student studies the animals and species to which each animal belongs, and learns their movements and eating habits. However, if he/she is asked about the food chain, he/she must deny all the teachings and keep only the lesson about food. This poses a problem and raises an important question: Is the knowledge that he/she has not used unimportant? Are the skills linked to lifelong learning, i.e. do they lead the student towards the process of self-learning?
A curriculum that clashes with Tunisia’s needs
Do the skills take into account the specificity of Tunisian society as well as that of children among themselves?
The education process o can be reduced to the acquisition of skills. Education aims to educate the child, a future Tunisian citizen, so that he/she becomes an individual who contributes to the construction of a healthy society.
The skills that have been acquired are nothing other than the strengthening of submission to external countries because each society has its needs and its culture, and any reform must start from within by expressing its shortcomings and working to fill them.
Skills are a system external to society, projected onto it, which operate on the principle of “less knowledge and more skills” because knowledge refers to the learning of concepts, principles and information related to a particular subject. Skills refer to the ability to use and apply this information in the field. In other words, knowledge refers to theory and skills refers to the successful application of that theory in practice and the achievement of desired results.
If the purpose of education is self-realization in all its dimensions: creator – producer – critic – innovator – scientist who communicates in more than one language, then the system of skills prevents self-realization because it reduces the education process to the acquisition of skills. The learner remains incapable of discovering, arguing and drawing conclusions. This means he/she hasn’t built critical thinking. Consequently, the pupil is faced with an inevitable detachment and a vast gulf between reflection and application, and between knowledge and work, thus the learner finds himself a stranger in the educational process.
The inability to account for individual differences:
Education should be based on equal opportunities. This means accounting for the different paces at which students learn. Each class is made up of different students in terms of abilities, intelligence, aptitudes, inclinations and motivation, and they come from different backgrounds.
When we offer them a unique educational situation, do we take into account their capacities and do we respect their intelligence, especially since the different education systems have favoured linguistic intelligence and Logical-mathematical intelligence to the detriment of other six types of intelligence (see graph 1). The answer is no because each child has their intelligence: “Start by knowing your students because in reality you really don’t know anything about them.” This confirms the failure of the skills system.
What an active student with a fast pace of learning accomplished in ten minutes, a less active and slower student accomplishes it in half an hour, and a third student accomplishes it in an hour or more.
The skills establish a pedagogy of success because the learner passes automatically from one year to another according to the rule of “upward movement” and not according to the acquisition of learning which allows him/her to progress. Success becomes the rule and failure the exception, but how can this child, who has succeeded without acquiring knowledge, cope with new and more complex learning.
Tunisian education is also based on two principles: free and quality. Each student benefits from free education. However, there is a significant difference between the development of theoretical and practical skills in the Tunisian educational system. The main problem plaguing education is weakness and lack of means. These two factors negatively affect learning and academic success. However, two types of schools – private and public – in Tunisia, experience these problems differently.
Private schools use their wealth to equip themselves with all the educational tools, in particular modern technologies, and therefore to offer an in-depth educational program in line with the pedagogies, in particular those which require a limited number of students, such as project pedagogy or differentiated pedagogy. Therefore, in these schools, class sizes do not exceed twenty students. The reduced number of pupils can lead to more effective teaching, an approach followed by developed countries.
In public schools, on the contrary, class sizes can reach between 30 and 40. This negatively impacts the effectiveness and quality of teaching. In addition, it hinders the application of the required pedagogy for the skills-based teaching approach namely opportunities for practical application, as previously mentioned.
The quality criterion can only be obtained with smaller class sizes and the provision of educational and technological means. Therefore, private school students have greater opportunities to develop their skills than public school students. Thus, free education is maintained at the expense of skills, which strips the state of its mechanisms related to vital sectors, as everyone will strive to enrol in private schools to obtain a “quality” education. As the number of students per class is reduced, this ensures the achievement of the desired objective and the desired goal: “better” teaching. A free education that lacks quality, or a private education whose quality is paying.
Studies confirm that skills acquisition inequalities have compounded opportunity inequalities between the working class and wealthy class students. Those who are unable to complete their education or choose an academic orientation, or even those who have obtained higher degrees and are unemployed are the children of poor families.
The failures of the examination system
It is believed that the selection determined by examinations alone will ensure the quality of teaching and preserve the value of the diplomas. This encourages teachers to pay attention to exceptional students at the expense of others, which leads to the marginalization of the latter. As they are pushed towards failure and exclusion, they consider this to be their fault, but it is the system that is letting them down.
Exam preparation processes do not account for students with different types of intelligence or students’ personal circumstances and mental health conditions. A number is not the sole criterion of excellence. The education system must focus on knowledge, not on the marks obtained.
Tunisia ranks 84th in the world and seventh in the Arab world in the ranking of the education quality index, according to 2019 statistics, out of 140 countries in the “Davos” index. This regression confirms the extent to which the Tunisian education system is not complying with international standards.
The world is undergoing profound transformations in knowledge, research, technology and communication which impact all areas of human activity. More than any other institution, the education system has the responsibility to support and train the next generation to reduce the gap between the nations that produce knowledge and those who receive it. In the same context, it is necessary to update the system of assessment and the whole system of examinations to comply with the requirements of this era.
Proposed reforms and strategies
Track global trends and follow modern education systems
The world is experiencing profound changes in the composition of societies, in the development of knowledge, in working methods and means of production, as well as the main actors in the education of all kinds, and even in partnership with parents and all local authorities must step up their efforts to establish a stable education system in the light of a constantly changing world. There is no future for a school that glorifies imitation. The issues raised by a reality that is, daily, becoming more complex requires educational monitoring and continuous reflection to renew the school’s mission and the tools for its work.
The Finnish system tops the education quality index, according to the Davos index. Also, Finland is ranked as one of the best countries for health, economy and education. The Finnish model has put education at the forefront and prepared the right conditions for its development. There are no criteria that determine the level of the child, like those adopted in the Tunisian system. Numbers are not a criterion of excellence and they do not determine the true level of intelligence.
The Finnish education system focuses on the comfort of the child because school is a place of comfort and not of misery. This is implemented in all regions of the state for the benefit of all social classes. This also means that private schools do not exist, instead, all schools are supported by the public system to guarantee equal opportunities. The entire Tunisian population should mobilize against private schools because they devalue public schools.
Account for individual differences
Teachers know that students of the same class differ because they are distinct individuals, even if they have gone through the same stages of development. Teachers should be trained in understanding child psychology to understand their students. This, however, requires individual training coupled with self-learning and research carried out by each teacher. This child psychology training should accompany the educational framework training, which is of great importance, and research in particular in educational studies, to learn about new pedagogies and how to develop the different types of intelligence.
The educational process must take into account the learning models and the different needs of the child by suggesting. For example, problem-based learning, which corresponds to their capacities and is relatable to their lives. The child at this stage has not yet reached the stage of “sensory processes” as Piaget calls it. It is not possible to assess their abilities based on an exam result.
Taking individual differences into account requires reviewing the length of school time. As each student learns at different speeds, it takes them different amounts of time to solve a problem or complete an activity. Therefore, sufficient time should be given to the student to resolve the problem without any time constraint, but official curricula prevent this. Curricula should be flexible so that the teacher, the one who knows the particularities of his/her class and the needs of each child, can make the decision. The authorities concerned should give him complete freedom to choose the courses according to what he considers important and profound and serves the needs of the learner. In addition to providing a suitable time frame, it is also necessary to provide the right space in terms of infrastructure and the number of students in each class to apply the different pedagogy. The teacher can present the appropriate educational situations for each child to equalize the chances between the learners.
Reform the examination system
Students should be trained to analyse complex problems, interpret complex data, recognise contradictions in data, synthesise data, conduct research, create solutions, and develop innovations. However, these cannot be determined by a number in an exam script. We need to move beyond the idea that we learn to take exams and embrace a new vision where we learn to build a better society.
The current curriculum limits the teacher and the student by acting as a barrier between them. Tunisian students are burdened with exam stress. This must be stopped and the school must become a supportive and healthy environment, like the Finnish education system, which does not conduct assessments for the first nine years. Instead, students are assessed on their performance. Only at the advanced stages of education do students take assessments and the results remain confidential until requested by the National Board of Education. This request aims to improve education.
Therefore, exam assessments should be abandoned and replaced with performance improvement assessments. Exams are a judgmental process that judges if the student has succeeded or failed. Performance improvement is the collection, review and analysis of data, and the purpose of this is optimization and improvement of performance. This assessment method would instil confidence in the students by improving their self-esteem. This approach could raise our education standards to the level of developed countries.
This policy brief has revealed the failures of the Tunisian education system since it adopted the skills-based system. This failure is represented by the drop in school results, the shortness of school time (daily and weekly study hours), which prevents the application of certain pedagogies such as differentiated pedagogy, and the weakness of the opportunities and educational means to apply the skills-based approach. To solve these problems, the education system should account for individual differences and learning rhythms within the same class, replace the assessment system with improved performance indicators, and abandon the centrality of exams as a key to success and proof of intelligence.
The relevant authorities of the Ministry of Education, regional delegates and all stakeholders in the education process must:
- Abandon the skills-based education system which has proved to be a failure in the public sector due to the decline in school performance.
- Follow the educational best practices of countries with high-ranking educational systems. Such as reform the score based assessment system.
- Allow teachers and students to determine the learning areas themselves according to the specificity of the class and the needs of each child. This requires taking into account their home region, their individual differences, and their various pace of learning.
- Extend school time so that the teacher can apply different pedagogies. This enshrines the principle of equal opportunities between learners and guarantees equitable education for all and maintains of the public school system.
The New Reform of the Education System: Program for the Implementation of the “School of Tomorrow” (2002-2007) Sadik Amari Sadik (2015) Education, development and future challenges: a sociological approach, Casablanca – L’Afrique à l’Est, p.130Ait Meziane (2014) from objective-based pedagogy to the competence-based approach: migration of the concept of competence. p 144. Naouar Mbarkia (2019) Between competence and scientific knowledge… what relationship? October 20, https://www.echoroukonline.com/%D8%A8%D8%A%D8%A1%D8%D-83%D8%A7%D8%A1%D8%A9-D8%A7%D8%B9D8%B9 %D8%B9%D8%B9%D8%B9%D8%B9%D8 84%D8%A7%D8%A7%D8%A%D8%A9The Educational Bulletin is a periodical published by the Ministry of Education on December 4, 2004”The Difference Between Knowledge and Skill” by Dr. Nabiha Jaber Mouhammad, http://kenanaonline.com/users/DrNabihaGaber/posts/510000Educational Sciences Book by Dr Ahmed ChabchoubA media statement from former Education Minister Hatem bin Salem dated September 18, 2017, on the Nessma channel https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=orCWiENS_EU&t=5s.Article by Bachir El Hamdi, Tunisia, July 10, 2009Education quality index published by the Davos Economic Forum 2016.Kobla Somaya and Ghazal Nadia, Educational communication between teacher and teacher and its relation to academic successFinnish National Agency for Education. https://www.oph.fi/enThe book of multiple intelligences – Jaber Abdel HalimJamil Alhamdaoui, Differentiated pedagogy, Intellectual bookstore, 1 st edition 2015 p 7Dr Ali Zayour: Education and teaching between knowledge and development, 1st edition 2010: University Foundation for the studies, editing and dissemination of Beirut Lebanon.Ibn Mandhour Lisan Al Arab Encyclopedia