Debate is growing over the acute need for educational reform in the Arab world. The problem goes beyond a lack of educational systems capable of preparing young people for a changing world. Current curriculums, based on rote memorization and avoiding critical thinking or consideration of opposing opinions, are failing to nurture free and creative learning of the kind that pushes societies forward.

International rankings show that Arab students are falling behind globally, despite the considerable resources being pumped into education across the region. An objective assessment cannot fail to conclude that the problem is that the region’s educational systems neglect to impart skills and values that students need.

Conservative forces, secular and religious, have long resisted educational reform for fear that it could undermine tradition and threaten long-held values. But these arguments no longer have credibility given the decline of Arab education and the region’s inability to keep pace with global academic and technological progress.

In 2018, a report by the Carnegie Middle East Center argued that education needed to shift “from teaching to learning” in order to meet the needs of pluralistic societies and educate citizens capable of dealing with life’s challenges. It also called for civic education to be placed at the heart of educational reforms. Many other studies, by international organizations including the World Bank and UNESCO, have arrived at similar conclusions.

Recently, Carnegie published another report, titled “Innovation and New Directions: Searching for Novel Paths in Arab Education Reform,” which built on the first one. It will soon appear in Arabic. The report aims to go beyond identifying problems and, rather, focuses on efforts being made in certain Arab countries to develop educational systems despite the challenges. It doesn’t focus on government-led reforms, which tend to follow a top-down approach dominated by authoritarian thinking, while ignoring the importance of critical thinking. Rather, the report mainly examines several bottom-up initiatives in the region—not necessarily to promote them as examples to be replicated exactly, but to show that, despite many challenges and failures, successful examples of grassroots reform do exist.

The report looks specifically at four initiatives. These include educational reforms in Qatar, Jordan, and Egypt, as well as the Tamam initiative for “school-based reform,” which is backed by the Arab Thought Foundation* and the American University of Beirut and operates in eight Arab countries. The projects show that even though educational reform is not taken seriously on the national level, creative solutions are being implemented locally. Our hope is that by highlighting these projects, others will be encouraged to show similar initiative.

Why do Arab governments need to reform their education systems, and how? Our report argues that it is time to move beyond simply building schools and integrating pupils into them. Instead, education must become a continual, life-long process; it has to be viewed as a social responsibility, and it must build a basis for stable and prosperous societies. After all, education will help to shape our collective future.

We need to have a wider conversation to seriously reevaluate education in our increasingly complex world. It has become clear that we need not only prepare young people to enter the workplace, but also to arm them with the skills to deal with ongoing and accelerating change throughout their lives. Current educational systems in the Arab world are manifestly not up to the task. It is vital to ensure that these shortcomings do not create generations of frustrated young people, whose shortcomings would only heighten social unrest.

There has also been an evident regression in the quality of education due to political unrest and conflict in several Arab states. This has meant that millions of young people are either receiving a substandard education or none at all. This problem cannot be resolved by implementing traditional methods of teaching. There is an urgent need today for new and serious social-educational contracts on both the national and regional levels.

Another challenge will be to work with Arab governments and show them that modern educational methods are not a threat to religious beliefs and social traditions. Instead, they are an asset that can help to bring stability and prosperity to society, building on successful examples like the ones mentioned earlier.

Our report reaches a number of conclusions, most importantly that there is no ready-made plan for an ideal education system. At best, we can hope for suggestions that education planners can examine and selectively implement in their own specific contexts.

Reform of education is vital and cannot be achieved through verbal support from Arab officials. Instead, it requires well-thought-out budgets and plans that guide a transformation away from educational systems that are no longer adequate for today’s world. The goal should be to put in place systems of civic education that encourage creativity, openness to others, and acceptance of multiple points of view.

It is possible to make a success of educational reform by starting on the local level then working upward to the national and regional levels. Many national, top-down approaches, in contrast, have failed to have a positive impact locally. The educational reform process has not been given the priority it deserves, yet there are great risks for the region’s future if the current situation is allowed to continue. We hope that Carnegie’s latest report can help to better determine the kinds of valuable alternatives the region can offer on this front.

* The name was changed as the correct name is the Arab Thought Foundation, not the Arab Thought Forum.