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Abu Dhabi: The UAE logs nearly 60 schools hours a week, yet its students still score lower on international tests than students around the world on average, education officials heard in the capital on Monday.

Although student scores on the international test, known as the Programme for International Student Assessments (PISA), increased steadily until 2012, the improvement has petered out over the last few years, advisers for the PISA have said.

“To a certain extent, it helps to increase the number of hours spent in the classroom. But countries like Estonia and Finland have much shorter school days, yet their students score much higher, which indicates the quality of teaching is far more important than how much time is spent teaching,” said Andreas Scleicher, director of education and skills at the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). The OECD organises the triennial PISA test.

Scleicher was speaking at a conference organised by the Abu Dhabi Department of Education and Knowledge (Adek) at which regional educational ministers and officials discussed ways to improve regional student learning outcomes.

The next edition of the PISA will be issued in 2019, and the UAE students do outperform other countries in the Middle East and North Africa region on the test. But the UAE’s placing fell in both science and reading assessments in 2016, when 15,000 students from UAE public and private schools sat for the test. Only math scores improved.

On the other hand, the UAE’s national agenda aims for the country to rank among the top 20 nations in terms of PISA scores by 2021. Currently, UAE students are placed 47th in math, 46th in science and 48th in reading.

Scleicher called upon educators to adopt newer pedagogies that would help students keep up with the rapid pace of change.

“We cannot teach 21st century students what we have learnt in the 20th century under curriculums designed in the 19th century,” he said.

Michael Stevenson, senior adviser at the OECD, told Gulf News that parents in the UAE must also work to keep their children motivated.

“At the same time, educators need to drive home scientific concepts using relevant, exciting methods, including the use of digital games or real-life scenarios. Traditional teaching must be coupled with opportunities for collaborative learning and problem solving,” he recommended.

There is also a marked gap between the scores of boys and girls, especially in the sciences, and Stevenson said there is an opportunity to improve upon these in the coming years.

Sara Al Suwaidi, curriculum division manager at the Adek, pointed out a new initiative to improve the quality of teaching at public schools across the UAE.

“Since the beginning of the year, the Ministry of Education has mandated learning communities, in which subject teachers from different schools have to meet at least once a week to discuss teaching methods and developments. In this way, teachers of all diverse backgrounds learn from one another and use the techniques to reach out to their students,” she said.