Boys falling behind in the Gulf? Then let's ask those boys for some solutions!

Abu Dhabi and the UAE seem to be in the news a lot these past weeks in the New York Times - full disclosure, I love reading that newspaper and I even have a subscription (and I don't even get an academic discount!), it starts my day, gives me fuel when I need a break and is my bedtime reading. I understand their biases - and they annoy me - but they are like a friend we love because they admit their weaknesses and don't really try to hide them.

But (big but here), they have a tendency to portray only one side of the story (and one that falls lockstep with those above mentioned biases). So, while it may be excellent reporting, it never really tells the complete story... and when it comes to telling a "story" that involves my students - my mother bear comes out and I just have to do something about it.

Sara Hamdan wrote an excellent article a few weeks ago about how there is an "attainment gap" of boys compared to girls in education in the Gulf (In the Gulf, Boys Falling Behind in School ). Some quick facts from the article, up to 25% of boys in the UAE don't graduate high school. When it come to university, a recent study demonstrates a 60 - 40 split in higher education in favour of girls in the UAE - a gap of 20%.  There are 20% more females in higher education than males, and 25% of all males don't graduate high school - kind of scary.

But then, the article quotes a few students - but mainly expat experts, who, if they are like many experts I hear from, have never really met an Emirati and certainly not a young Emirati male - or if they have you can count the number of young men they know on one hand. I must say I am blessed in knowing hundreds of young men and women here - and I know their opinion is not often solicited when devising solutions to their "problems".

But, I have the power of assignments and final exams. So, I gave my two classes of Introduction to Management (boys) the article by Ms. Hamdan and told them to prepare - they knew they would have to do something with it, but not what - by "magic" I asked them to use the organisational change process and pretend they were in charge of the UAE school system. What were the causes of the problems, what solution would they implement, how would they implement the solution(s), how would they measure results and finally what would they do to benchmark solutions.

As I was marking the exams in Abu Dhabi mall (5 hours marking and taking notes while watching happy families walk by), I sometimes laughed out loud and yes, a few tears of WOW escaped - I teach some very smart and insightful cookies!

Here are the results: I told them I would combine the results and blog them and they were all OK with it. I think they like the idea that someone, somewhere, might read the blog and actually listen to them (as all young people, they sometimes feel ignored). I feel like a catalyst, my involvement in the mixture makes the thoughts and ideas emerge, but they do the work (well, I do too, but I want you to understand these ideas are from THEM).

Five main themes of problems/solutions emerged:
  1. Too easy for boys to get a well-paid job in police, military and civil service without high school
  2. Parents need to become more involved in their children's (boys in particular) education
  3. Current teachers need to be trained to incorporate modern teaching methods
  4. Rewards for excellence and service to community need to be given for teachers and students
  5. Co-curricular and extra-curricular activities need to be provided to stimulate interest and allow students to explore new skills
Easy jobs, easy money

This was a major issue. The rewards for staying in school are not obvious (hard work, boring, giving up money and career advancement) since their brothers, cousins, friends could drop out of high school and be making extraordinary salaries. Their solution, make it mandatory for all civil servants (including police and military) to have high school education - no grandfathering (my word). In other words, provide adult education to those currently in positions without diplomas - in adult education centres.  As one student put it "It is not fair to our country to provide jobs without qualifications".

I know this is easier said than done, but these are their ideas about "tough love".

Passive parenting

Parents need to be more involved with their children's education - they need to be taught the value of education and how it is important in the future economy. At the moment some parents work harder to find their son a good job than a good education - harsh huh? Another student said that having a son dropout should be shameful for a family - really harsh... Others were more positive and said that parents and families need to be more involved in the education system, and they could be rewarded for their efforts (and fined if their son dropped out - yes tough love was all over these exams).

This quote from a student gave me those tears I was talking about earlier "The change must start separate from the organisational structure and be based in the very hearts of our communities, our homes". Smart huh?

Training teachers and more Canadians

Remember I talked about biases earlier? Well, I am Canadian and well I kind of never stop telling my students we need more Canadians and i love when they tell me their best teaches were Canadians - so they really mentioned we need more Canadians (but that finding is TOTALLY biased and based on the fact I am their awesome professor).

Teachers in public school were trained in the copy and paste methods - and don't really incorporate modern (e.g. after 1950) teaching methods. Tough love was evident again (get rid of them some said), but most said - train them in new methods of instruction. Reward them for using the new methods - and weed out the bad ones. Let administrators in schools be leaders and lead the change needed in their respective schools - force teachers to focus on thinking, not copying. High school is about teaching students how to learn (my Mom always said that was the purpose of school when I said I wasn't learning anything with my low-intelligent teachers).

Motivate and inspire through rewards and activities

We work harder when there are possible awards for our efforts. Yes, this is management theory, but more than that it is common sense. Reward students with field trips abroad, have mentoring programs so students know about different careers in real life not from movies. Reward good teachers and good teaching practices, reward good students, provide scholarships and bursaries - not just for grades, but community engagement. Maybe 8 am is too early to start (AGREE) - maybe there should be physical activity everyday (AGREE) - maybe there should be more electives and projects and competitions and fun (AGREE). Maybe students should know that they can reach the stars if they work hard, apply themselves and stay in school.

Finally, one student said we can't forget our Islamic traditions and our culture - we need more Emirati teachers and if we don't have them, we need to involve community members and our families in the learning process. He is absolutely right.

Now, will all these ideas work - maybe not... will they start a debate, hopefully. Will they start academically led and grounded (I think we have had enough consultants) research into the problem (yes Mariam, I am looking straight at you!) - well, it will happen anyways!

The gender gap is real, boys are being left behind and there are real social problems that impact families everyday. Divorce is skyrocketing - the education gap has to be part of the causes. Men in their 20s know they need a high school diploma, but don't always know where to turn - this causes STRESS! There are so many others, and many were mentioned in Ms. Sara's article - but really, the future isn't bleak - just ask my students, they will tell you what needs to be done!

Smile and courage, Dr. Connie (this post needed a smile and courage at the end)


  1. Thank you and your students for this Dr. Connie. I will share this with my students and colleagues. Wonderful stuff indeed.

    - David Edwards, HCT Fujairah,(FMC)

    1. Thank you Mr. David. I am glad you enjoyed it!

  2. Connie, I very much appreciated your effort to address the imbalance in the NYT article.

    I have recently completed Ph.D. research on the cultural border crossings experienced by young male Emiratis as they move from high school to higher education. A policy brief of mine was published on the Al Qasimi Research Foundation website -

    If you are interested, please send me your email address and I will send you a pdf of my thesis which contains many other goodies not included in a summary article.

    Regards, Peter Hatherley-Greene

    1. Thank you Peter for your kind words. I would be interested in receiving your thesis. My email is

      Warm regards, Connie