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How to Teach Saudi Arabian Adult Students in Higher Ed

Good educators know that their students’ cultural backgrounds require different teaching approaches to promote success in the classroom. A “one size fits all” strategy does not work for higher education adult students. While the idea of treating everyone the same might seem like a fair and proper way to teach, the truth is that everyone is not the same.

Why Adult Students Bring Their Own Unique Lenses to Higher Education

Knowles’ Andragogy tells us that adult learners bring a unique set of experiential and cultural lenses to new learning experiences, and educators must be aware of these lenses to make relevant and meaningful connections. If teachers do not try to meet students where they are in life, they risk compromising the educational process.

From 2018 through 2020, I had the pleasure of working with dozens of Saudi Arabian adult students who were part of a study abroad program hosted at the University of Central Florida (UCF). These students were K-12 professionals, including teachers, counselors and principals.

An understanding of cultural differences and how they affect students’ education can be useful for instructors.

During their programs, I served as both a teacher and a mentor for these Saudi Arabian students. They spent the better part of a year in the United States, learning about the American approach to childhood and adolescent education.

Through this experience, I learned a great deal about Saudi culture and how it influenced their UCF educational experience. I also learned valuable lessons on how Saudi Arabia’s unique traditions, customs, values, and norms influence the way its people think, feel, and behave.

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Lesson #1: Religion Permeates All Aspects of Life for Saudi Arabian Adult Students

Unsurprisingly, religion is a major influence in Saudi Arabia. This country is home to roughly 20 million people, according to the Department of State.

Approximately 90% of those people are Sunni Muslim, and the remaining 10% are mostly Shia Muslim. These two sects share some common beliefs and values as far as the basic tenets of Islam are concerned. However, there are also fierce points of discord between the two factions.

The Sunni sect is generally the more orthodox of the two sects, so strict religious observances inform all aspects of life in Saudi Arabia, including personal and professional endeavors. For example, at home and at work, Sunni Muslims typically pray five times each day, and nearly all residents of Saudi Arabia also attend mosque on Fridays for services which can last up to an hour or more.

Under the Sunni interpretation, the belief system of Islam instructs all learning, including history, science, math, and art. Large portions of Saudi culture generally accept many key scientific discoveries of the modern era – including the Big Bang and Darwin’s theory of evolution – that have been the source of notorious conflict in other major world religions such as Christianity. Adherents of the Islamic faith commonly interpret passages the Qu’ran and its precepts metaphorically so as to allow for compatibility with modern scientific understanding.

I was surprised to learn in my interactions with my Saudi Arabian adult students that most Muslims even recognize the basic tenets of the Abrahamic religions, such as the belief in Moses and Jesus Christ as prophets and instruments of God’s will. Rather than being heretical to the Islamic faith, many Muslims acknowledge that these other religious messiahs were simply predecessors to their own – Mohammed.

How does the presence of the Islamic faith affect the teaching and learning experience? Teachers of Saudi students (and likely Sunni Muslim students from other national and cultural origins as well) must understand that all knowledge is viewed through the lens of Islamic doctrine.

That isn’t to say that Muslim students are not open to learning new ideas. In fact, some of the most thoughtful and dedicated students I’ve ever had were part of the Saudi study abroad programs that I helped administer.

However, when new ideas are presented that challenge predispositions about the world predicated on a different religion’s ideas, the educational experience may be a source of stress for those students. Consequently, tact and sensitivity are required from the educators to teach without causing offense or anxiety.

Lesson #2: Saudi Arabian Gender Roles Are Evolving, but Still Strictly Observed

Saudi views on gender roles in society are very different from American perspectives. In Saudi Arabia, women are still expected to observe social traditions that stem from their religion. These traditions include the wearing of body coverings, such as the burqa (a garment that covers the body), the hijab (a head wrap) and the niqab (the full face covering that allows only for the eyes to be seen).

To be clear, no written law in Saudi Arabia requires these coverings, but the practice is more of an expected tradition of the culture. Saudi schools, from K-12 up through university, are mostly gender-segregated as well.

Some elements of the Saudi female gender role are also behavioral. Expectations include being modest in public and showing strict fealty to one’s husband. Women are expected generally to follow instructions and to be seen but not heard.

To be fair, Saudi Arabia is slowly modernizing its views toward women and becoming more progressive in its approach to gender dynamics, especially under the controversial Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, heir to the throne and de facto current leader of the nation. Bin Salman has taken several steps in the direction of creating more women’s rights in Saudi Arabia in recent years, including lifting the ban on women driving cars in 2018.

However, this isn’t to say that gender power and freedom in Saudi Arabia isn’t still extremely lopsided. For example, it is still legal today for a Saudi man to have up to four wives at one time, while a woman may be wedded to only one husband.

In addition, a Saudi woman generally cannot obtain a divorce unless she first obtains explicit consent from her husband. These practices are more the result of the religious orthodoxy that permeates Saudi culture, as their underpinnings are directly traceable to sharia law.

Why do gender dynamics matter in a higher education classroom? Female Saudi adult students, in my experience, may feel shy or even intimidated in classroom environments, especially when their male counterparts are present. They may also be less inclined to participate in classroom discussions or offer meaningful contributions for fear of judgment or admonishment.

The typical American classroom – where all students are encouraged to interact and engage freely without inhibition – is not necessarily typical in Saudi Arabia. So teachers of Saudi students may need to work harder to help female students feel comfortable expressing their thoughts.

Also, they may need to carefully balance group work and discussion with independent assignments to mitigate the stress on female students who are less inclined to speak up. In addition, they need to generally be aware of the way women are seen – and the way women see themselves – in Saudi Arabian culture.

Lesson #3: Public Decorum Is Vastly Different from Western Cultures

It is often said that sex, politics and religion are three things that should be avoided in civil discussion with strangers – so as to avoid creating discomfort or offense. Reflecting on American culture as the context of my own upbringing, it seems that people still follow this practice to be courteous, although many have become more and more comfortable airing their opinions in online settings, such as social media sites.

In Saudi Arabia, the same rule still generally applies, with some key distinctions. First, sex is generally not discussed at all; the topic is considered extremely private (and its parameters are dictated by the Islamic faith).

Second, the only political feelings Saudi Arabian people tend to express, overtly and enthusiastically, are opinions of support for the current monarchy that governs the country. The ruling family governs the affairs of Saudi Arabia very strictly; they even their own official interpretation of the Islamic faith (called “Wahhabism”), which informs many of the laws and customs in the country.

Political dissent is not tolerated in Saudi Arabia, and critics of the regime have historically been given harsh treatment. It has even been reported that the Crown Prince ordered the execution of dissenters in his own family and abroad – including journalist Jamal Khashoggi – so an outward showing of loyalty to the government is largely viewed as a matter of survival for Saudi people. How many Saudi Arabian nationals are secretly critical of the royal family and its practices is unclear.

Third, it’s interesting to note that people in Saudi Arabia commonly engage openly about religion, and that is probably due to two different factors that distinguish Saudi culture from the United States. For example, most people in Saudi Arabia share a common belief, unlike the United States, which is extremely religiously diverse. As a result, there is little risk of causing offense in religious conversations because everyone follows the same general ideology.

Also, religion in general plays a much larger role in daily life in Saudi Arabia than it does in the United States. Remember that the Islamic faith informs just about everything that Saudi Arabian people do from one day to the next – in their workplaces, in their homes, and in the halls of government. So it would probably be more surprising if people did not discuss religion, given its tremendous influence on Saudi society.

Why should Saudi Arabian public decorum and etiquette matter to educators? Understanding what Saudi adult students do and do not feel comfortable talking about will guide teachers in the creation of lesson plans and class discussions. It lets them know in which directions they can take conversations and in which they can’t. This mindset is essential to making meaningful connections with Saudi Arabian adult learners and supporting their academic success.

Instructors Can Aid Adult Learners by Remaining Aware of Cultural Differences

Clearly, Saudi culture is very different from the culture of most Western nations with respect to religious influence, gender dynamics and public decorum. But if instructors make a sincere effort to understand Saudi Arabian culture – or any other culture – and its influence on higher education, it is absolutely possible for Saudi Arabian adult students to thrive under the tutelage of Western teachers. However, that academic success depends on the teacher’s level of sociocultural awareness, sensitivity and adaptability.

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Gary Deel

Dr. Gary Deel is a faculty member with the Dr. Wallace E. Boston School of Business. He holds an M.S. in Space Studies, an M.A. in Psychology, an M.Ed. in Higher Education Leadership, an M.A. in Criminal Justice, a J.D. in Law, and a Ph.D. in Hospitality/Business Management. Gary teaches classes in various subjects for the University, the University of Central Florida, the University of Florida, Colorado State University, and others.

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