by Kevin Stoda, Salalah, Oman
According to Alexander Astin’s work on improving student involvement and his work towards a better theory of tertiary developmental education, “If an institution commits itself to achieving maximum student involvement, counselors and other student personnel workers will probably occupy a more important role in institutional operations. Because student personnel workers frequently operate on a one-to-one basis with students, they are in a unique position to monitor the involvement of their clients in the academic process and to work with individual clients in an attempt to increase that involvement. One of the challenges confronting student personnel workers these days is to find a ‘hook’ that will stimulate students to get more involved in the college experience: taking a different array of courses, changing residential situations, joining student organizations, participating in various kinds of extracurricular activities, or finding new peer groups.”
Alas, in both paternalistic and traditional tribal societies of all kinds, the university and schools are not emphasized as places where students belong so much as a place where they simple must go to in order to obtain a diploma, which will buy them a rung in their next position in life.
TEACHING IN SUCH SOCIETIES
Since 1999, I have taught in 3 Middle Eastern countries. I have taught primarily at the tertiary level but have also taught at the primary and secondary levels. In every one of these locations—i.e., in Oman, in the UAE, and in Kuwait—one singular phenomenon has been the almost universal: This phenomenon involves problems of truancy from classes.
As a professional in the field of international development in education, I have been concerned with this matter for several reasons. On the one hand, the problem of absenteeism limits the students’ foreign language acquisition. The one main reason for this deficit is that time-on-task undertaking ever-more-difficult exercises (or activities) is considered the number one variable in second language acquisition world-wide. (Krashen, 2003)
On the other hand, the habits which one enquires in one’s youth often continue to dominate later in life. So, if I am not concerned with the short-term problems of absenteeism, the long-term results of absenteeism should be of my greatest concern. For example, absenteeism amongst Gulf nationals in Oman, Kuwait, and UAE personnel has been so high historically that foreign and national firms do not often like to hire them—and often give them jobs of few consequence because of the fear of high absenteeism and lack of commitment to being on the job when needed.
Here is a headline story from Kuwait this past winter: “Kuwait’s public sector operated with half of its staff after around 160,000 employees failed to show up for work on Tuesday following a four-day holiday. Excuses for the high-level absenteeism included trips abroad and sick leaves, local Arabic daily Al Jarida reported.”
By the way, “The highest levels of absenteeism were recorded at the ministries of education and information, followed by higher education and health.”
Interestingly, not all educational faculty, professors and administrators are equally concerned with the issues of either tardy-ism or absenteeism. Typical of these instructors is Dr. Ibrahim Inwa, head of the anatomy department at the Sultan Qaboos College of Medicine. In one recent newspaper interview, Dr. Inwa stated, “The causes of absenteeism that I usually hear included: I have overslept because I spent the whole night studying.[or ] I think I am not benefiting from the classes, or I have a problem with transportation. The most common cause I commonly hear from the student is we have an exam after the lecture and we are preparing for it.’”
Dr. Inwa continues, “Inactive classes are really a serious problem for the instructor themselves. However, students shouldn’t be forced to attend the lecture. I believe attending the lecture shouldn’t even be compulsory and attending classes is directed by the way the student likes to learn in. There are so many different ways of learning and lectures are just one. The only solution is to make the classes more interactive and enjoyable. ‘Team based learning’ makes students attend classes and this was applied for the last two semesters in the course of “introduction to anatomy’ where the attendance was almost full.’”
INSUFFICIENCY OF TEAMS WITHOUT ATTENDANCE
While I agree that team-based learning which is combined with team-work (individual and group-work) evaluations can motivate students to attend classes, and through teamwork, they can become involved more in improving their own life-long learning habits. Nonetheless, short-term absentee issues can lead to long-term absenteeism in most any setting where students do not actually learn to study better or are not motivated to take charge of their own study habits or lives in any serious manner.
I find it more than a bit cavalier in a developing land (or even in any so-called developed country) to assume that good study habits come by a sort of osmosis. It might be acceptable at the most elite colleges or school to assume that most every student comes into the classroom as sort of wind-up-machine which simply needs to be wound-up to operate properly. However, such an assumption is dangerously naïve concerning almost any other educational or developmental setting. Nonetheless, too many teachers, professors, and Middle Eastern students state through both voice-and-action that they, too, see no link between attendance and success in education.
Concerned about this very issue, I have recently written two articles: The first is called
Group Evaluations that Support and Clarify Professional Practices and Soft Skills for Students
The second simply raised this attendance question for global discussion:
How important is Classroom Attendance for University Students?
Good study habits—just like good work habits—are often time-sensitive phenomena and need to be treated like that. This is true even as we simultaneously teach or train students on a daily and a weekly basi–while attempting to encourage them to see life as a life-long learning undertaking.
When the first industrial revolution took place in the UK, clocks began to sprout up all over the place to help people to become a bit more aware of time and to see time as a commodity.
According to one article concerning architecture in India, “The clock tower was devised in the aftermath of the industrial revolution because it highlighted the importance of time. This western concept was integrated in urban planning as an architectural landmark.”
A similar phenomenon has occurred in Oman since it began its path to modernity some four decades ago. Every major road crossing has a famous clock placed at it. However, in Islam, telling time has always been important. That’s why prayer clocks had come into vogue throughout the Middle East long before clock towers had.
Nowadays, every cell phone has a clock and many Omanis have more than one cell phone. In short, being conscious of time and place is not all that new a concept to the greater Middle East.
WATCHES AND NO-WATCHES, TIME AND NO-TIME
My own brother, Ronald Paul Stoda, who has been teaching math to others for well over 25 years in both in the Navy and the United States, has not worn a watch, and he seldom consults a cell-phone—unless he makes a phone call or answers one. He has his own inner clock that he had acquired over his formative student (and early work years. This is sufficient for him to work with others—i.e. focusing on their learning and personal needs, while usually trying not to be tied to the ticking sound of any particular far-off deadline or time clock. My brother adapts to new student’s needs and expectations as the years, decades and generations roll on. This does not require strict adherence to clocks, time nor attendance, but it does require time spent teaching and learning.
Naturally, what my brother’s life illustrates for me is that becoming time-centered in one’s work or classroom does not mean one needs to be time-centered in all facets of one’s life. In a-sort-of-rebellion to our time-centeredness world and in order to divorce a positive focus on people from negative time-laden disciplines of our lives, many others of us have taken to not wearing watches nor using cell-phones for weeks, months or years at a time.
“Why should we?” we ask. We can ask other people the time when we need to, can’t we? Meanwhile we focus on what is important and life-long learning is important. In order to keep on track, we need to focus our efforts not simply on time but on quality time. Don’t you agree?
Through whatever means, an instructor or professor must enable his or her students to have a quality experience in the time they are assigned or allotted to work with students. However, if students enter the high school, the university or his work-world totally insensitive to school or workplace’s expectations of time, the need to develop and appreciate quality time should be sacrosanct. If we don’t both offer and participate in great learning moments—then we are doing everyone a disservice.
Interestingly, even in developing countries or traditional societies, there has been a growing awareness that time-lost related to absenteeism or tardy-ism is detrimental to the total human development (which most of us our seeking in 2012). Dr. Rahma Al-Mahroqi, who is a professor in the English department at Sultan Qaboos University (SQU) in Muscat notes, “Students always have the same justification for their absenteeism. I think absenteeism could be a symptom for more serious problems, so it has to be dealt with. Those students who regularly are absent are wasting not only their time, but they also waste the money that the university spends for them.”
Dr. Al-Mahroqi adds that the university administration and her department might share in the blame for continuing some instances of the lack of attendance in some classes. She says, “If it [lack of attendance] is done of our carelessness, it is a sign of disrespect for the teacher and for learning. . . .. Teachers can reduce the rate of absence in their classes simply by applying the clear SQU policies regarding absenteeism and students should be familiar with these rules. Teachers must design their classes with fun and enjoyment, so students would be motivated to attend these classes.”
However, many students at Sultan Qaboos University (and other Omani universities and schools) need more support and stricter application of good attendance rules from staff and administrators, i.e. students and administrators should not just simply demanding more-interesting classes. For example, one student in the college of education, Salim Al-Shuraiqi, claims, “The high rate of absence among students happens because the policy of attending classes is not strongly emphasized and sometimes doctors do not follow it. Being sick or having accidents are the main causes for students to not attend their classes. The students will exploit their doctors if they do not deal with this issue strictly and they will keep missing classes. Students should be aware that being absent will affect them negatively.”
Affecting them “Negatively” could mean the dropping of a student from a course—immediately after a few absences. Currently, the number of absences permitted in many Omani universities for students is well over 25% of all classes. No wonder attendance is not taken seriously! This contrasts with where I attended in the USA—where absenteeism of over 2, 3, or 5 percent of all classes was just not permitted.
Moreover—I should note–, I had attended a small university in the USA and it was not uncommon for a student to regularly run into one’s instructor on a regular basis outside the classroom or outside his or her office hours. So, the teacher and student had a lot more opportunity through regular contact to build rapport and respect. This building of rapport and respect is what students, themselves, are eliminating as a possibility in their academic and university careers when they maintain approximately 25% or more absences in a term—simply because the current administrative system at a particular university (or their family obligations) encourages them to do so.
Importantly, I should note that family obligations, such as “having to drive a sister to a hair salon or out shopping”, is currently enough in many Gulf State Arab societies fro administrators to forgive a student for missing several afternoon classes in a row. This reflects societal preferences of putting the family ahead of all-things or most-things educational.
One other student at Sultan Qaboos University, Mana Al-Aufi explains, “ Students usually miss classes because there will be an exam after the missing class. I think that the acceptable excuses behind being absent are mainly medical or social ones [from the administration’s perspective]. I consider students’ attendance as an issue which is primarily controlled [though] by the student’s attitude For SQU students, I think missing classes will be a time and money consumed, especially if lectures and resources were already prepared for students to attend and very little students actually attend the classes.”
Quite obviously, absences at work and at schools are not taken seriously because neither a carrot or stick is being used by society and administrators to maintain serious levels of attendance. This leads students and families to continue with a social attitude and set of behaviors that are disrespectful to the work place and the teachers who are seeking to build rapport or seeking to development motivating and interesting lessons.
Here is a concluding example of how many Middle Eastern students are not trained prior to arriving at universities to comprehend what the true costs and values of education are. Last Wednesday, I had painstakingly prepared a quiz for my two dozen students based upon a reading assigned as homework on Tuesday.
At class time on Wednesday afternoon, only two students showed up for class. These more-serious students then noted—as usual—that unnamed classroom leaders had determined that the entire class should skip that day, i.e. with the hope of persuading either the teacher or the administration not to count that class period absent. Some excuses could be concocted at a later date for the absences when-and-where needed. This occurred exactly one day after both an administrator and counselor had come to talk to them about their behavior attendance and other issues.
I tried in vain to get these two particular students to take their quiz for that day—for their own good. Moreover, I could then decide whether they had understood the material at home or not. (The quiz was a listening task that basically replicated the reading topic from the night before.) These students refused—knowing or believing that Omani group sense of respect and tribal pressures are more important than what a foreign teacher has to tell them. Finally, after it became clear that I would neither cancel the class nor cancel the quiz, these two male students said good-bye and went home.
Later, I declared my consternation to my local administrator. He simply shrugged, “You can bring a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.”
In short, the administrator had already warned that particular group of students about the importance of attendance and of the importance of keeping up with assignments, which we are trying to instill in these students through the practice of continuous assessment. He wasn’t going to waste another word on them.
I was left with no evidence of learning for the day.
Hopefully, these students will get the message when their (low) marks for the term come around—because, in this society, they are quite likely to bamboozle their way out of any attendance warnings they receive.
Astin, Alexander W. (1999) Student involvement: a developmental theory of higher education, Journal of College Student Personnel, 40 ( 5), 518-529.