The Palestinian Entrepreneurial Spirit – Part 3 Education

Continuing on to my third post on the Palestinian entrepreneurial spirit with a focus this time on the education system in Palestine and how it contributes to the startup culture.  In brief, I don’t think it does whether we’re talking about grade school or college/university.

First of all, for most of us, we’re educated/trained/raised to believe that the best outcome we can achieve after graduation is to get a good job at a respectable company.  Unfortunately “good” usually refers to salary and/or stability when it comes to getting a job.  While I have no objections to people finding stable, well-paying jobs, I feel there are a lot of people who can do much more and that they’re limiting themselves by taking the easy way out in life.  I also believe that, as a result of this mentality, most people don’t like what they do.  They don’t enjoy it and they don’t find value in it, and as a result, they don’t innovate, they don’t try to go above and beyond what they’re asked to do.  They do the bare minimum to keep their bosses happy and not lose their jobs in hopes that another stable, better paying job comes along.

Second, our education system, unfortunately, is still based on memorization rather than innovation.  In most universities, I have no problem with the courses that are taught, but rather with the method of teaching.   We don’t push our students’ imaginations and we keep them in a very comfortable environment.  Instead of pushing our students and helping them reach and exceed their limits, we keep both professors and students in their comfort zones.  As a result, after graduation, students lack many of the soft skills that they should have gained during university, especially in terms of soft skills (i.e. communication, presentation, time management, etc…).  Students spend four to five years in university and yet end up with a lot of information/knowledge that really isn’t practical or useful in real life.  Sure it’s important for students to evolve their way of thinking, but eventually it all becomes just how much information a person can store in their head.  Information which really is useless in most real-life situations.

Third, the application of university research is an area where there’s a lot of talk and little action.  Universities should utilize their professors and students to conduct research.  Research that the private sector can benefit from either by existing companies or startups that spinoff from a particular research.  The private sector and economy would greatly benefit from such actions, but I think there also needs to be a loop where benefit also returns to the university professors, who hire more students to do more research and encourage other professors to conduct research.  This will generate more ideas for the private sector and the loop continues and grows.  The main problem is that university professors aren’t incentivized to conduct research.  There’s nothing in it for them, it isn’t required for them to keep their jobs.  They don’t make more money, they don’t get funding.  For them, it’s just a cause for a headache while they could be doing something more gratifying for them.

What we really need is to evolve our teaching methods in Palestinian universities (and hopefully even grade schools).  We should train students on solving real problems, not just storing information in their heads.  I think most university exams should now be open-Internet (very few are open-book), because if it’s available on the Internet, why bother storing it in a student’s head.  Give them access to the tools and push their limits, ask them difficult real-life questions.  Questions that don’t necessarily have one correct answer.  Have them present their findings, defend their ideas and pitch their initiatives.  Let’s treat universities like the industry, when it’s not just about doing the bare minimum, where a software application has to actually run and do what it’s supposed to, with minimal problems.  Let’s raise the bar for our students and they will follow our lead.

We need to encourage professors to conduct new research.  Give them the tools and funding they need to hire research assistants, purchase material and equipment and pay for seminars and workshops.  Since the Palestinian private sector will benefit most from their research, I think the private sector should be the leader in providing research funding.  Given the government’s financial situation, we’ll be waiting for a long, long time before we see any commitments to support and fund new research.

Impacting the education system in Palestine is probably one of the most difficult things to do, but I think there are a couple of universities who are adventurous and ambitious enough to actually try something new.  Getting a couple of success stories is usually the spark needed to get the innovation engine going.  But it needs to be planned, it needs to organized and it needs to happen soon, before Palestine is left too far behind in terms of innovation.

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