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The Teacher’s Desk

The 21st Century Skill: Islamic schools should nurture creativity along with academics

Omaira Alam –

The following are taken from Islamic school websites from across the nation:

“We will prepare our students to function effectively in an ever-changing world.”

“We diligently prepare our youth to excel in academic performance for acquiring leadership roles in the global society.”

“Our vision is to be a pioneering and nationally recognized school that strives to prepare competent Islamic leaders, scientists and professionals.”

Every Islamic school wants to be premier in its delivery of the skills that Muslim students need upon graduating and entering post-secondary life, be it college, work or something in between. Consider what has been touted as the top skills in the 20th century: reading, writing and arithmetic. Add to that a healthy dose of leadership skills, a nod to Islamic values, a dash of technological awareness and you pretty much have the makings of what should be a great 21st century education.

The problem with all of that? It’s so last century.

Teaching the three R’s and building leadership potential are great, but even more important than what the school will focus on, is the question of how the school will do it. How many Islamic schools can honestly say that they point to the real skill needed for “an ever-changing world”?

Enter Dr. Ken Robinson, an educator and creativity expert who said, “Creativity is now as important in education as literacy, and we should treat it with the same status.”

To truly prepare Islamic school students and graduates to function in the “global society” and “acquire leadership roles,” schools must reconsider how, and whether, they develop creativity in their students. Every child, when he or she first starts school, is a creative genius. However, what do Islamic schools do to nurture that creativity into a skill for the 21st century? While there are a number of options to choose from, there are two that can be followed with minimal revamping.

First, with a focus on play-based learning and a child-led environment, Muslim students in Islamic schools, especially those in preschool and lower elementary, can benefit from developing social as well as academic skills. I remember observing a preschool classroom locally and the pace of academic rigor was too much for the students. Three- and four-year-olds were required to learn their numbers up to 100 and while a few were able to do so, there was quite a bit of resistance and frustration. Pushing students too early to learn numbers, letters, reading and writing can actually stifle future academic potential. Allowing young children the opportunity to play and develop the skills for innovative ideas nurtures the mind for thinking-outside-the-box skills such as creativity, leadership and empathy.

In upper elementary, middle school and high school, the focus then should shift to project-based learning. More than group work or cooperative learning, project-based learning allows students to take real world issues and solve them as a group with minimal teacher involvement. These processes nurture innovation and problem-solving, allowing for the emergence of leadership skills, as well as developing a sense of responsibility in students. The teacher serves as a mentor or facilitator. Problems to be solved need to be realistic in nature and there has to be a value-added component that lets students know that their ideas matter, beyond just a grade.

These two suggestions for Islamic schools really engage learners and allow for the authentic development of a 21st century skill. Recognizing creativity and then nurturing it in the classroom are key elements for the success of Islamic schools and their graduates.

Omaira Alam is the Program Director of the Islamic Teacher Education Program ( She spent the last year serving as the Education Director on the Noor Academy of Arizona School Board.  She holds a master’s degree in special education with a focus on students with emotional and learning disabilities. With almost 20 years of experience in teaching and teacher training, she has presented on topics related to Islamic education in the United States and Canada. Her blog, Black Board, White Chalk (, explores traditional and contemporary issues in education. She lives in the greater Phoenix area with her husband, Josh, and their two children who are homeschooled.

1 Comment on The Teacher’s Desk

  1. A.T. Sheikh // June 18, 2016 at 6:43 pm // Reply

    a solidly good read highlighting a very important essential ingredient of quality education! Thank you for sharing your views!


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