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Throwing the old text books out

Kholoud Ramzi
Sahar Luqa has recently finished her fifth grade exams. She is now getting ready for the baccalaureate. Luqa was surprised to know that a decision has been taken by the Iraqi Ministry of Education to teach math for…
4.06.2010  |  Baghdad

Fortunately, Luqa has been exempted from taking the final exams because her average was in the range of 75-100 in all subjects. This exemption system, applied in Iraq for years, has given her the opportunity to join a private math school to study the new math book which will be taught next year.

"My knowledge of the English language is quite good but mastering math theories and algebra in English is very difficult for me," said Luqa. "It is the first time that this book will be taught in Iraq and it is a very new experience to us."

Luqa told Niqash that she and her friends are very afraid of this sudden change in the curriculum. "Baccalaureate students will be the first guinea pigs. They will test the curriculum on them."

This is not the first time that the ministry introduces changes to the curriculum. With the fall of the former regime, there have been continuous changes in the educational system and the last two years have witnessed a kind of educational revolution.

In the science steams, the ministry abolished last year the science text book which includes physics, chemistry, and biology. These subjects are now being taught separately in supplementary classes.

The Islamic education text books were also changed last year. Students have usually depended on this subject to raise their baccalaureate average in the final exams because it is considered an easier subject to perferm well in.

Most of the changes introduced were in the elementary and secondary text books. Students as well as teachers, who are used to other educational systems for more than 20 years, were confused by these changes to say the least.

"The changes in the history and Islamic education text books were expected but some other changes came very suddenly to science books and students found it very difficult to adapt," said Salam al-Ani, a biology teacher. "Many students now depend on private lessons to be able to understand the new books. Some schools will not be able to recruit enough teachers to teach these subjects."

Officials of the Education Ministry say that reforming the educational curriculums is necessary after the political transformations witnessed by Iraq with the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime.

Tahseen Amer, a member of the supervisory committee responsible for introducing amendments to the curriculum at the ministry said "change is inevitable."

He told Niqash that schools' curriculums were not developed for many years. "The country was closed-off from scientific developments and modern teaching methods after 1990. The ministry has plans to rehabilitate students and teachers to be able to cope with new developments."

Among these decisions issued by the Curriculum Committee, is teaching English starting from the 3rd elementary grade instead of the 5th grade. This decision was positively welcomed by educators.

On the other hand, some of the amendments introduced were politically motivated and others were not well thought-through, according to al-Ani and a number of his colleagues.

In 2007, baccalaureate students were asked in their final exam to answer a strange question. They were asked to "give details on the revolutionary process led by Muhammad Baqer al-Hakim in fighting the former regime till the date he returned back to Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime."

"There was nothing on this topic in the text books that the students studied and many students lost grades because of this question," said al-Ani. This question was also a reason for the changes introduced later to the Islamic text books.

To remedy this mistake, the committee supervising development at the Education Ministry added to the 6th grade curriculum a biography on the life of Muhammad Baqer al-Hakim, the founder of the Islamic Supreme Council, who was assassinated in a car bomb after Friday prayers in Najaf in 2004.

According to al-Alani "the mistake was corrected by another mistake. Al-Hakim was at that time a leader of a political stream and his biography should have been added to political history textbooks not to Islamic books." There were other amendments made to the curriculum in response to political transformations witnessed in Iraq after 2003 and with the Shiite dominance over authority in the country.

In the Islamic textbooks, a number of the prophet's Hadith that are still subject to controversy were deleted and new ones, more verifiable, were added.

As for followers of other religions such as Christians, Mandaeans and Yazidis, the only option was to skip Islamic education and for students to boost their grade by better performance in other subjects.

By adopting this method, the Ministry followed the old regime's procedures and was not able to provide these students with classes related to their own religions. The only places left for these students to learn about their religion was the religious buildings themselves.

Some students believe that this is an unfair system. Saleem Kamel, a Mandaean student, said that his son's average was 85 in the sixth grade because the exam questions were difficult and there is no easy topic like the Islamic religion to help him raise his average. "The Islamic Studies grade is distributed among other difficult subjects," he complained.

Mandaeans and followers of certain other esoteric relgions, do not learn about religion until they reach maturity. The community is opposed to having religion taught in school.

"What we want from the ministry is to add a new subject as easy to obtain good grades in as Islamic Studies to help other students raise their average," said Kamel.

Some changes in the education curriculums were meant to show a full separation from the former Baathist era and reflected the new position of Iraq among its regional neighbors.

For example, a 32-page chapter entitled "Saddam's Qadissiya" on the Iraqi-Iranian war was deleted from the 5th and 6th grade textbooks.

Many terms that were commonly used during Saddam's regime era were also changed in the different textbooks. The "Persian Enemy" term was replaced by the Islamic Republic of Iran and the "Zionist Entity" was replaced in modern books by "Israel." The ministry has also deleted the "National Education" subject in all pre-university classes.

With regard to university education, the only change introduced was dropping the "National Culture" subject from the university curriculums and instead introducing "Democracy and Human Rights" in all university classes.

The "National Culture" course covered the dissolved Baath party and its history in Iraq. A special chapter was allocated to teach students a completely positive history of Saddam Hussein in the manner of other authoritarian states.

Together with this chapter on his life, other booklets containing Saddam's speeches were taught. This material was one the students' favorite. They had all very well memorised the questions on Saddam and it was for them the easiest way to get good grades and raise their average.

"The Committee has developed a plan to change the elementary, middle, and secondary school curriculum in collaboration with the Curriculum Directorate of the Education Ministry,” said Hashim Ridha, a member of the Iraqi Parliament Education Committee.

"We have started by changing the English language, mathematics, science and Islamic Studies curriculum and the change will cover some other topics too, such as Islamic and European history and geography. Modernisation will be comprehensive and will gradually reach all subjects taught to students," confirmed Hashim.