How Competition And Choice Are Driving Innovation In The MENA Education Sector

The global trends toward the commodification of education tend to privilege entrepreneurial skills together with cognitive forms of instrumental reflexivity over cooperative learning and sociocultural inclusive approaches.

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With competition and choice being at the heart of the MENA's market-based approach to education, the region's private education sector is unique when compared to its peers around the world. This approach is not simply an economic policy, but a way of life that drives innovation, and the results have been incredible, especially in Dubai's case. Having this set of core values mean that every aspect of the education system, from capital investment, to human capital, is viewed through a market lens.

The global trends toward the commodification of education tend to privilege entrepreneurial skills together with cognitive forms of instrumental reflexivity over cooperative learning and sociocultural inclusive approaches. As such, educators looking to move into the MENA region would be wise to invest in learning the nuances of this in order to prosper, and ultimately reap the rewards. For educators, this dynamic is often new territory, compared to the systems elsewhere.

Choice for parents is presented as a socially neutral mechanism to maximize their children's educational opportunities, and it implies that the regulators will not over-regulate certain aspects of the market- namely, admissions. So, the power dynamics are with the parents, and their power to choose represents the ultimate freedom- and the ultimate risk for schools.

The power to choose within a marketized system is a highly individualized capacity, as choice and access go hand in hand. Although the word "choice" is often used to legitimize parents' decisions, it is rarely used with teachers. The ability for teachers to frequently move positions within a market may actually signify a power structure that would not benefit the MENA's private sector, because, generally, parents (fee paying) are looking for schools with outstanding reputations.

Private schools are typically owned by families, private equity firms, real estate funds, and school groups. This means that it is imperative to have a strong commercial base in the event of a global pandemic like the one we're in.

The intersecting worlds of school owners and school leaders

I've lived and worked in the UAE for nearly 13 years now, and I've seen a lot inward and outward traffic in the education sector. I've recruited educators from all of the world, and one of the biggest gaps I see in the sector is the nature of the relationships between school owners and educators.

Quite often, educators don't easily grasp the economic nuances and metrics needed to be successful in the private sector, and this sometimes detracts from their desire to replicate their previous success from a different context. Too often, educators simply attempt to import their philosophy and pedagogy from elsewhere and transplant it in the Middle East, without considering the context, the history, or the needs of the time. Similarly, school owners get frustrated at the perceived lack of commercial expertise and "softer" approach to managing performance and people. In both cases, a commitment to learning the codes of professional practice in business and education is a necessity for a new type of professional knowledge to emerge.

So, the question thus becomes: how can we create a new type of professional knowledge that is codified?

New solutions are needed to address the challenges facing private schools and to support new ways of approaching the learning of educators in the MENA context. One possible solution to navigating complex contexts is the notion of "boundary crossing."

A boundary is a socio-cultural difference that leads to a discontinuity in action (Akkerman & Bakker, 2011). These discontinuities often happen between school owners and principals because of their professional spaces intersecting. Boundary crossing can be described as the "efforts made by individuals and groups "at the boundaries' to establish or restore continuity in action." (Akkerman & Bakker, 2013:3).

Throughout my experience in the MENA region, I have crossed multiple professional boundaries, and I have experienced multiple discontinuities, and used different methods to access and continue dialogue within my roles with both owners and educators. These experiences on the edge of boundaries, and often between professional spaces (business and education) can be categorized in four different forms:

  • Identification, the nature of different worlds working together, but with discontinuities;
  • coordination of activity flow, which leads to the overcoming of boundaries;
  • reflection on differences between cultural backgrounds, and practices, and an effort to shape and take different perspectives leading to new understandings;
  • transformation, which leads to changes in views and potentially the creation of new in-between practice (Daskolia, 2014:4)

Working on the boundaries

My work on the boundaries has been infused with my values, emotions, prior experience, professional accountabilities, and my personal goals. My experiences have been facilitated by the use of boundary objects such as reports, visual research methods, rubrics, and quantitative research data to start and maintain dialogue. These objects have enabled me to bridge conversations when I have sensed that a discontinuity was about to happen, and therefore, they have provided "interpretative flexibility" and acted as a means of translation.

Of course, these haven't always immediately resulted in continuity, as some of the objects I have deployed did not start out with this intention. This, along with inter-cultural interactions have been sources of personal enrichment, as I have embraced the MENA's unique contexts, and they have enabled me to navigate some of the challenges that the education sector has thrown at me.

The skills involved in intercultural competence include empathy and cognitive flexibility, alongside the ability to adapt one's behavior to new cultural environments, and act as a bridge or mediator in conversations between people from different cultures.

One of the questions I frequently pose to educators is to gauge their awareness of the context and their role with a specific investor is: "Are you more teacher or template?" Quite often, principals and senior leaders are very good at managing people, and this naturally comes from their desire to work in education; however, to prosper in the MENA region, their development of "template" means that they need to think more in terms of the business, organizing resources, using benchmarks and metrics, and knowing the right kind of information to communicate up, to increase their credibility within the business boundaries.

Ultimately, this particular skill, is one that needs greater emphasis and awareness for educators looking to move into the region in order to sustain their employment, and make a long-term impact.

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