Dubai: Most schools still follow the same traditional way of teaching – a teacher lectures children seated in neat rows inside a classroom. When the class ends, the next subject teacher comes in and does the same thing until all classes are done for the day. The next day, the same process is repeated. Day after day, year after year, this methodology is followed until it is exam time and students have to put out whatever they were taught uding the year.
However, there are schools that are beginning to buck the tradition and ushering in radical changes, turning out to be the welcome disruptors that is leading to a new era of teaching. These schools understand that the world has changed, students have changed, and it follows that schools too need to alter their perceptions of teaching.
There are many examples of how schools in the UAE are leading the change. Classrooms are moving outside the classroom, homework is now a thing of the past, teachers are “personalising” studies for each student, and pupils have greater say in what they want to study, when and from whom.
In this special report, Gulf News brings to light some of the teaching trends sweeping the UAE.
Some of the new approaches successfully adopted by UAE schools
1. Out with homework, in with home learning
■ GEMS Founders School, Dubai
What do they do differently?
At GEMS Founders School in Dubai, a significant aspect of traditional schooling is missing – homework. What it does have in its place is ‘Home Learning’. There is a class website that is “populated” by teachers with mini projects and ideas to support concepts learned in class. Some of these activities online are “fun activities” designed to build on what is learned in class.
There is no deadline to finish these activities and no punishment for not doing them. However, students who do access these supporting materials are rewarded. The school has also purchased content to support the curriculum, including Maths, Bug Club, Education City, 2LearnArabic, Linguascope.
How does it help?
“It took a little persuasion to help all our parents understand that this [Home Learning instead of homework] was the right approach, but now we are seeing the impact; almost all of our community is seeing the benefits of this new approach to learning.”
2. Enrichment Programme
■ GEMS Wellington Academy — Silicon Oasis, Dubai
What do they do differently?
Students at GEMS Wellington Academy - Silicon Oasis, Dubai, students are given “ownership” of their learning. Giving students choice over what, when, where and how they learn is a key feature of this innovative approach. Throughout the 12-week unit, the students can choose which specialist teachers they wish to meet with to support them in their learning.
The school also seeks the expertise of specialists from industry, businesses, and entrepreneurs from various fields who can support students in their learning. Links to real-world case studies or problems allow students to apply their learning beyond the classroom. Learning also takes place beyond the traditional classroom in spaces such as the ‘Blended Learning Plaza’. The open-plan design and layout of this space is suited to support collaboration and inquiry-driven learning.
How does this help?
The model means students are engaged in interdisciplinary inquiries which are further supported through the use of digital technology. Classrooms teachers can monitor the progress of students weekly through their learning journals, which are kept online using Microsoft OneNote.
Student learning is made visible through an exhibition at the end of the project. This is an opportunity for students to showcase the outcome of their learning journey to their parents, teachers and peers. “The key outcome for students is not just a finished exhibition product, but also the acquisition and development of 21st century skills including communication, collaboration, problem solving, critical thinking and inquiry.”
3. Quest Programme
■ Dwight School Dubai
What do they do differently?
Dwight, an IB curriculum school, has developed its Quest programme that offers personalised learning to foster each student’s gifts and talents. Doing away with the ‘one size fits all’ approach of most schools, Dwight has made customised learning part of its core ethos.
The school is also proactive in recognising barriers that impact on students’ achievement, participation and learning, and works with students and families to remove these.
“Every child is unique and no two children are the same. Dwight takes this seriously and customises an educational path for every student based on their interests and talents,” said Janecke Aarnaes, head of school.
Quest is an accelerated learning programme initially developed by Dwight School New York 25 years ago for students with specific academic needs.
How does this help?
Quest provides an additional support beyond the provision the school will routinely offer in terms of learning intervention and specialist support.
It is a “bespoke” programme planned in collaboration with parents and faculty. It replaces the need for parents to engage outside tutors to boost academic performance and uses the connections between the Quest mentor and the student’s teachers to enhance learning.
Quest is as much an enrichment programme as it is a support programme. It assists students who may have an imbalance in their academic performance.
For example, in ‘English Acquisition’, Quest provides English language instruction and support for non-native speakers, to bring them up to speed with academic English proficiency. Also, in ‘Exceptional Talent’, Quest facilitates flexible learning structures, connecting with entrepreneurial professionals or expert alumni, to allow students to pursue exceptional talents.
4. Beyond Classrooms
■ Raha International School, Abu Dhabi
What does it do diffrently?
When walking into Raha International School in Abu Dhabi, one can see students learning outside the classroom. Primary students may be practicing their measuring and mapping skills, or Early Years students may buzz by on a bicycle tour of the campus during their transportation unit. In the Early Years, children are also welcomed to a new playground every day. Tyres, logs and blocks are some of the many tools used to promote risk-takers in the playground. An “investigative wall” filled with different household items are used to investigate sound. Jasmine Taylor, Head of Early Years, has also started her ‘#anewplaygroundaday’ initiative to encourage families to get outdoors.
“We have never considered the classroom’s four walls as the boundary for a child’s learning. Students should know that problem-solving, analysing, reflecting, demonstrating creativity and thinking critically are life skills that can be used beyond their classrooms,” said Estée Caplen, from the PR and Communications team at the school.
In the Secondary School, students are provided out-of-classroom spaces around the school to read a book, research, or work on projects. They may work in ‘The Nest’, the upcycled secret garden space or the ‘Serenity Garden’, an outside extension of the Secondary Library.
How does this help?
“By taking learning outside, students are met with a multitude of opportunities to make learning real and relevant and therefore feel increasingly engaged and motivated to understand and learn.”
Most visible initiatives and trends in K-12 education internationally
1) Disciplining differently
Many schools in the US have adopted restorative justice practices for disciplinary infractions. These generally involve non-punitive measures, such as mediation, community service or peer counseling. While critics of this approach charge that offenders may not be adequately punished and back in class too soon, if done carefully, restorative justice can cut suspensions and expulsions and improve behaviour and school climate, say experts. Parents also are fully involved and given a voice in the outcome, whether their child has been harmed or has harmed someone.
2) Shifting the center towards personalisation
Popular learner-centered and personalised approaches are designed to move classrooms away from a one-size-fits-all approach toward teaching that addresses individual needs, strengths, and interests.
Educators pushing for more expansive approaches say that parents should know that with differentiation, teachers use material and instruction suited to various student needs, and in personalisation, they’re “facilitators” for students working more independently and potentially moving at their own pace.
Expert’s take: “It’s a way of thinking about teaching and learning that begins where the student is, rather than with a prescribed plan that ignores their differences,” according to Carol Tomlinson, an education professor at the University of Virginia and author of dozens of books and articles on instruction. “The goal of personalisation, whatever form it takes, is to engage and challenge every single kid,” she says. “We hope teachers are spending as much time pushing the high-achieving one down the road as they are helping the one who is in a hole and struggling to get out.”
3) Making the grade
New methods of assessing students also have been developed by educators, concerned that the A-to-F and 100-point systems are unfair, imprecise and demoralising.
In the US, for example, a Standards-based grading (SBG) system provides ongoing evaluation of students’ strengths and weaknesses, allows multiple chances for them to demonstrate their understanding, and eliminates what advocates call “extraneous grades” such as homework and extra credit, according to Matt Townsley, a top school administrator in Iowa who helped his district implement SBG.
Grade books note strengths and weaknesses and report cards typically show whether a student is making progress, is proficient or is exceptional, rather than utilising traditional grades.
Expert’s take: “More traditional grading practices do not always allow for continuous improvement. Instead a student, regardless of their subsequent achievement, is unable to reach an overall passing grade.” Steve Lockard, deputy superintendent, of Fairfax county schools, US.
4) Putting projects first
Many schools across the globe are increasingly using Project Based Learning (PBL) to teach critical concepts because, advocates say, it excites kids, taps into a variety of learning styles, flexes different skills, better shows student understanding and prepares them for real-world work. It is similar to the maker movement, which is often used in STEM classes.
Expert’s take: “The project is the meat of the lesson. Traditionally, students have been given a lesson and some background knowledge and then sometimes a project. This puts the project at the beginning and the lesson ingrained in it.” Teacher Laura Dembo, Arlington, Virginia.
5) Reversing lecture and homework time
Putting online lessons first and then having students view them at home before doing “homework’ in the classroom.
Jon Bergmann, co-founder of the Flipped Learning Network, stumbled upon this idea as a high school science teacher when he put videotaped lessons online for students who were absent. Other students liked being able to view lectures and explanations at their own pace online, too, and soon he found he could provide support by having students complete “homework” in class after they had viewed a lecture, to assess how well they had absorbed the lecture. A review of some 30 research papers showed positive results with this approach.
Expert’s take: “It also shifts everything to a student-centered classroom. Now students help each other after they have heard my lecture, or work independently, and I can move around the room to help others as they need it.” - Stacey Roshan, math teacher, Maryland