DUBAI: An eight-year-old Dubai schoolboy made quite an impression at an international education conference featuring world-renowned speakers, and it’s easy to see why.

Born and raised in the UAE, Adam Al Rafey, a British boy of Egyptian origin, could read when he was one, started robotics studies at four, completed a dozen certified courses, is musically-inclined with a perfect pitch, a triple gold 2018 Olympiad UAE winner, master coder — and has a great sense of humour.

Making his public speaking debut, Adam held a session at the Global Educational Supplies and Solutions (GESS) conference in Dubai on Wednesday, asking delegates why schooling has to be the same for his generation, questioning why people look at age and not ability, and why grown-ups underestimate children.

Peppered with humour, his 10-minute talk, titled ‘Never Underestimate an 8 Year Old!’ was the only talk by a student at GESS, where delegates are more used to seeing education ministers and pedagogy specialists take the stage.

Asking questions

Adam, who is a Year Four student at Jumeirah English Speaking School (JESS Dubai), gave several examples of age-old teaching practices he believes need a rethink in today’s world. In art class, for example, why are children told to “colour inside the lines”, asked Adam. He mentioned some famous abstract artists “who don’t colour inside the lines, and I’d say they’ve done pretty well for themselves, so why should we?”

His point was schools sometimes limit children’s creativity by asking them to follow one particular way only.

Adam, who plays the violin and piano, also pointed out that we have spellchecks and Google today, so getting a few spellings or facts wrong in rote learning “is not the end of the world”.

Adam El Rafey addressing visitors at Global Educational Supplies & Solutions conference in Dubai. Image Credit: Virendra Saklani/Gulf News

Next up was cursive writing. “Really? If I’m more comfortable writing letters separately, what does it matter? Shouldn’t I be learning to type faster anyway because of all the technology — plus we save the environment [by not using paper to write on],” he said.

“I also feel like sometimes school holds us back”, Adam added, recalling an earlier interaction with a university physics professor. “How can light travel at its own speed? Light has mass, right? If so, then how can light travel at that speed because mass weighs it down?” he wanted to know.

Adam illustrated through this “little story” that if he — or another young child — was “dying to learn” advanced physics, “I would have to wait six years or so”.

“So I guess my problem with the current education system becomes quite clear — why put a minimum age on learning? Why make me wait?

Last but not least, a quick message for parents: Don’t water-down information, explain things in full detail. We might just surprise you in how much we understand.

- Adam Al Rafey, Student, Jumeirah English Speaking School

“I really wish education was more personalised; I’m pretty sure my mum was taught the same subjects, in pretty much the same way.”

Adam said he visited a tech fair last year in Dubai where he learnt about “mind-blowing” powers of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and other technology that “I should be learning in school”.

New focus

If AI will take care of coding in the future, for example, we should just concentrate on coming up with new ideas and leave the coding to AI, Adam said.

“What I believe schools really need to focus on is to teach us how to think for ourselves and how to dream big and think differently. It might have been a kid like me who dreamt up flying cars; now it’s a reality. No idea is ‘ridiculous’ and should not be dismissed. Don’t underestimate an eight-year-old.

“So instead of focusing on teaching us what is known, teach us how to make the unknown possible.”

Adam also mentioned how he applied for a job at a gaming development company but was turned down because the minimum age for applying was 16. “That’s double my age. Surely in today’s world, job applications should be considered based on ability and not age,” he said.

“Last but not least, a quick message for parents: Don’t water-down information, explain things in full detail. We might just surprise you in how much we understand. I’m lucky because my parents explain everything to me in detail, even if they have to Google the answer first.”

Adam said if people wanted to reach him, they could do so through his Instagram account @adam.er8, “which is controlled by my mum because I’m not 13 yet. Case in point! Thanks for listening”.

After his talk, some delegates met Adam to congratulate and wish him well, taking pictures with the boy. He was with his father Mohie Al Rafey, mum Soha and 11-year-old sister Laila (an international gymnast).

‘Don’t give up’

Speaking to Gulf News afterwards, Adam said “learning something new always excites me”. When asked what he wants to be when he grows up, Adam said: “Honestly, in life you can’t only be one thing and that’s it. I’m at this stage where I just want to explore, so I’ll get back to you on that one.”

His message for young children? “Try your best and don’t give up.”

About his question to the professor on light’s mass affecting its speed, Adam said: “Actually, we didn’t come to an answer until the 45 minutes were over.”

Adam’s mum Soha said: “What we want as parents is just to make sure he’s happy. We would love for people to reach out to tell us how to give us advice, if there are programmes he could join. It’s not about fame. We just want him to keep learning, stay engaged, motivated and excited. He loves learning for the sake of learning.”