Greater Critical Thinking Following the ‘Arab Spring’
The so-called “Arab Spring” has changed the thought process for many who live in the Middle East and most specifically their thinking about the role of the military within transitioning democracies. The Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies (NESA), a Department of Defense funded regional center that builds partner capacity and relations in that region, is working closely with United Arab Emirates Armed Forces, the Lebanese Armed Forces, the Yemeni military and the Palestinian Authority and others to support the modernizing of professional military and security sector education. NESA has posited a teaching model to support the necessary transition.
The approach uses andragogy, Bloom’s taxonomy, and Socratic questioning techniques and applies them in unison, institutionally, across curricula, faculty, and participating students. These three methodologies are not new, but when used together they make sense in an attempt to partner with countries that wish a simplified approach, which will enable them to implement the “green shoots” of educational reform within their security sectors, which they see as a vital byproduct from the Arab Spring.
In the US we tend to take for granted that our military is subordinate to civil authority. We also expect our future military leaders to be critical thinkers in order to manage change and support future development.
Our experience in the Middle East suggests that the military is interested in change but is constrained by factors like culture and institutional structure. We have discovered that changing curricula, faculty and the mindset of students takes time. An institution like the military is even more difficult to change and if change does not occur quickly there is often a disconnect from the people. Supporting our partners, the NESA Center’s equation for success for critical thinking uses these three key teaching methodologies.
NESA started this work four years ago and many Middle East security sector educational institutions were more pedagogic than andragogic. In general, course materials were released late, learning objectives were poorly written and participating students were generally excluded from what they needed to know. Also, there was a lack of electives in accredited programs, coupled with the fact that students were seated in old school house lecture rooms with a lecturer-teacher focused approach which reinforced students to be motivated by extrinsic awards and grades, rather than by intrinsic benefits of choice and self-satisfaction. Q and A sessions were short if they occurred at all, and breakout group and seminar discussions were unwelcomed or considered unnecessary. Consequently, little experiential learning and sharing occurred.
To highlight success, on September 1, 2013, classes began at the UAE National Defense College (NDC) in Abu Dhabi for 30 UAE students who were offered a top quality educational technology infrastructure, a web-based Blackboard learning environment, and an open/wireless IT educational network, all in a refurbished building.
The students are both military and civilian, male and female, motivated and are led by capable leaders who represent the UAE government. NDC prepares and qualifies both military and civilian leaders to assess challenges to national, regional and international security and develops an understanding of the fundamentals of managing and employing state resources in order to defend national interests.
These issues are debated and discussed with key leaders from the UAE and the region in lectures, active Q and A sessions and seminars with facilitated debate. NESA has provided administrative, curriculum, faculty and technical support to the NDC. A strategy and security studies masters degree program was developed and is set for accreditation locally through the UAE Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research: Commission for Academic Accreditation (CAA) and ultimately internationally by a yet to be chosen US accreditation authority.
The curriculum was UAE-US jointly crafted through a process of multiple joint curriculum reviews designed to tailor the program to NDC local and regional needs. This process has proved to be essential for successful and rapid curriculum development. Several joint recruitment boards achieved consensus to hire eight highly-qualified US faculty members to teach the program. NESA has also supported NDC with technical services including support for the development of IT and the provision of library support. It is clear that the NDC is set to be the “go to” place for professional military education in the Gulf Cooperative Council.
Although NESA’s success in supporting other countries has been less dramatic, the UAE case has drawn renewed regional attention. We believe that our simple approach is as logical as it is understandable. When applied institutionally in unison across curriculum, faculty and participating students, we believe these methodologies foster the first key steps in moving toward improving critical thinking to support existing and further Arab transitions.