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The Teacher’s Desk

Islamic schools excel but still have lessons to learn

By Omaira Alam –

The Fraser Institute, a Canadian think tank, ranked 3,037 public and Catholic schools from across Ontario, Canada, based on their performance in province-wide reading, writing and math tests. Three Islamic schools – Islamic Foundation School, Olive Grove School and IQRA Islamic School – were among 13 schools that received a perfect score of 10. Soon thereafter, Al-Amal School in Minnesota placed among the top three in the regional science fair, moving on to the state science fair.

All over the United States and Canada, Islamic schools are being recognized as premier private schools geared towards the highest standards of academic excellence. For parents who are willing to dole out the extra dollars for an academically rigorous school within an Islamic learning environment, this proves to be a dream come true.

And it does seem like a dream come true. But there is a deeper reality that many Islamic schools are having to face. One longtime educator at Islamic schools mentioned that he only refers to Islamic schools as Muslim schools because, in reality, they appear only to be places to house a lot of Muslims and little more than that.

We hear the call to prayer, we see hijabs as a part of the matching uniforms, we know the hours of instruction meted out for Qur’an study, Islamic studies and Arabic. What is paraded as Islamic school curriculum, more often than not, is simply the state curriculum infused with snippets of Islam here and there.

It is not enough to memorize facts and figures in Islamic history, have a place to pray, know how to perform the rights of Hajj, and list off what is halal and haram. All of these things have to be imbued with a deeper understanding of the spirit of Islam. Islamic schools so often simply focus on the practice of Islam and its rules, regulations and rituals. It seems that, in order to be considered Islamic, a school simply would need to check boxes off a superficial list of elements of the faith.

What we need to be asking is not “how Islamic is your school?” but “how is your school Islamic?” The nature of this question forces teachers, administrators and parents to focus on the quality and depth of the Islamic school experience and the spirit behind the practices of this awe-inspiring faith.

The response to this question requires approaching education itself in a very different way. Over the last ten years Finland has overhauled its education system to become the premier example to follow. Recently, it again took the limelight as an innovative education game-changer when it announced that instead of teaching subjects, schools will be engaging students by topic in order to create a curriculum that is relevant and connects to real-world experience. In this way, Finnish schools create a connectedness between what is being taught in schools to what the students will experience post-graduation.

Perhaps Islamic schools should consider a similar approach that takes the concept of integrated curriculum to the next level. With elements of character education – tarbiyah – as well as the development of a holistic education aimed at an integrated approach, Islamic schools could learn from the Finnish example. One such example is in the field of Arabic calligraphy. The topic of Arabic calligraphy would actually encompass a number of subjects including language of Arabic, the adab of approaching the Qur’an, the artistic and stylistic elements of calligraphy and illumination, as well as the science and history of the topic.

While curriculum is only one aspect of the Islamic school experience, it is a very tangible starting point. At the very least board members and administrators, as well as lead teachers, should follow new trends in academic approaches with keen interest. They may provide a unique insight into how to meaningfully imbue Islamic values to enhance the arguably dated curriculum options. In this way Islamic schools truly can consider how their school is Islamic, and develop comprehensive options in order to achieve this. In doing so, Islamic educators should take to heart the adage, “Seek knowledge even in China,” or in this case, Finland.

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