When I joined colleagues in Hatta in February 2020, I had no idea that I would not meet them for at least two years. Neither did I know then that well-being would be crucial to our survival in the challenges that followed. On that happy day my fellow principals and I had gathered in the blissful environs of Hatta to participate in a well-being camp, aptly called ‘The Principals’ Playground’, organised by KHDA.
In the evening we sat around a campfire to share our insights and experiences. Freshly returned from a wellness retreat, I mooted the concept of ‘Laughter Yoga’. To my embarrassment, I was asked to demonstrate, while others enthusiastically participated. This entailed laughing loudly and uproariously, body convulsing in merriment; all the time looking into the eyes of the persons on either side. The caveat: there was no reason for the laughter. But thirty seconds later, we noticed our genuine joy as we laughed at the sheer absurdity of it. When we stopped and looked around, everyone looked happier.
Lesson learnt: Laughter is infectious so fake it till you make it!
As we transit from challenging times, we look before and after; our rear-view mirror offers us some stellar practices that stood us in good stead: those we carefully nurture. We keep our eyes trained firmly ahead too, scanning the road ahead, embracing new realities as we prepare students for the future.
1. Wellness Program
KHDA has been pushing the happiness agenda and Martin Seligman’s PERMAH Model for wellbeing (H for health is an add-on), for several years, but we only truly appreciated that a wellness program in schools was so imperative for stitching together our bodies, minds and souls in the challenging months of the pandemic.
Today, every school has a robust wellness program built into the core curriculum. This maybe something as simple as deep breathing exercises during a change of classes or introducing the technique of tapping to de-stress during tests. Surveys on wellbeing and satisfaction inform school principals on the gaps they need to fix and suitable action is undertaken. Wellbeing is a whole school program, where all stakeholders are targeted. Even harried leaders are encouraged to have some ‘me time’.
Longer weekends in UAE reflect the emphasis on independent learning for students and wellbeing for all stakeholders
2. Leveraging technology in the classroom
If we had to choose a single hero during the pandemic, it would have to be technology. It saved the day when we moved to online classes overnight. Even schools that already had technology well integrated into their curriculum, tweaked or improved their systems, hardware and software. Going forward, technology will continue to be used extensively in classrooms for immersive experiences, collaboration and innovation. Virtual experiences, including STEAM laboratories and exotic educational tours are examples of immersive learning. AI powered robotics, coding, 3D printing, gamification, have driven passion and active learning in schools. Every teacher worth her salt uses apps such as Padlet, or software such as Nearpod, for learning and formative assessment. Students are naturally drawn to technology and are encouraged to use the SAMR model, i.e., move from a rudimentary use (Substitution) to the most sophisticated use (Redefinition) of technology.
Two years ago, schools had to scurry to train teachers, upgrade their WIFI networks as well supply their classrooms with hardware and software, capable of smoothly supporting learning in classrooms that operated in hybrid mode. Now that students and teachers are adept, classrooms are well equipped, we are never going to let the power go. Hurrah for technology!
Students are already waiting with bated breath to don their exotic avatars and dash off into the metaverse to collaborate with peers far and wide.
The big gains notwithstanding, we continue to closely monitor the scourge of cyber security and online bullying.
3. Personalized Curriculum
We no longer sacrifice the individual for the greater good. Schools have recognized the power of tapping talent, interest, ability and passion in students for specific disciplines and have unleashed a supernova of excellence. Students are empowered by a variety of subject choices to study with no hard compartmentalization of streams. Thus, a student may opt to combine Pure Science and Music or choose Accountancy and Art. Students may apply for flexible school hours, such as a 3-4 day week to pursue their interests or they may attend one school for a few days of the week, while appearing for another board’s examination. The permutations and combinations are mind boggling. Kudos to schools for juggling this with the utmost dexterity!
Skill subjects are offered in many curricula, ranging from Financial Management, Design Thinking, Artificial Intelligence, Mass Media, Handicraft, Financial Literacy, Marketing and Yoga.
Additionally, the integration of music, art and PE in the school curriculum, not only give it breadth and balance, but is known to increase performance in purely academic subjects. When we draw or paint, not only do we improve our dexterity, we unleash powerful creative impulses; when we learn music, we not only find an avenue for self-expression, but we also become innovative; sports makes us more resilient, determined and socially adept, besides making us healthier.
(NB: KHDA has introduced the Rahaal program to enable flexibility).
Inclusivity in schools is a reflection of an emancipated, tolerant society that values and supports the vulnerable. The mandate in UAE is to be a fully inclusive country. The Ministry of Education has strongly advocated integrating students of determination into the mainstream schools, with the slogan, ‘School for all’. This push is reflected in the personalized attention that is given to students, in differentiated teaching in classrooms, in a plethora of vocational subject choices, teacher training and dynamic cells for pastoral care in schools. Schools take pride in the systems and quality of support they offer to students and the ethos of camaraderie and acceptance that is the norm in every classroom. It is not unusual to see a student in a wheelchair dancing on the stage with her arms, while being accommodated in the formations by her fellow students!
More than ever, the pandemic brought home the importance of support for the vulnerable and pastoral care teams have moved mountains to ensure that communication and personalized support remains strong.
5. Agility - a skill
Agility is the buzzword, a skill imbibed during the pandemic; it is the lifeline that educators have embraced forever. Educators, chameleon-like, have become capable of the most adroit volte-face as they cope with change in the face of uncertainty by finding innovative solutions for curriculum transaction. They can now efficiently manage online, face to face and hybrid learning, as required. The smoothness of response belies the ferocious hard work that is often required- schools, like icebergs, float on serenely: the actual labour is only known to insiders! Schools manage multiple forms of classroom transactions, changing protocols and realities every day. Leaders strategise, work with their teams, communicate with stakeholders and make it work.
6. Holistic education - the future
Holistic education is not just a cliché, espoused on every school’s website. In fact, schools deeply understand that every child must be have an armory of skills to navigate the real world. Future ready is the mantra; students must have the requisite skills of sound judgement. While sieving through a bombardment of information, they must think innovatively; keeping in mind the needs of a global society, they must view the world with lens that have a wide perspective. Having been initiated into a variety of cultures, they must be respectful and know how to navigate and understand other view-points and be masters of conflict resolution. Digital etiquette and great communication are also important skills. Above all, with the pyramid of knowledge having been upended by transfer-expertise valued at the pinnacle, students must be lifelong learners. Towards that end, classrooms will offer a menu that favours application, innovation, debate, discussion, problem solving, team work and leadership opportunities. Project based learning, Design thinking, Harkness Table forums, Model UN debates are par for the course in many schools. The teacher will be the facilitator, providing inspiration and scaffolding, while students explore and construct fresh learning and create innovations.
Heavy syllabi are likely to be trimmed to allow for deep learning of concepts, with a focus on innovation and application.
7. Value integration
A value driven curriculum, to embed conscious and ethical global citizenship from an early age, is an imperative in every curriculum. Moral Education is compulsorily taught in UAE in a thoughtful and structured manner. This is embellished by creative programs which are hands on, indoctrinating students from the very beginning to be ethical, contributing citizens of the world.
Besides values, soft skills, including agility, resilience and self-regulation are taught in school as an essential part of the curriculum. We want to make a better world and schools are the places that begin the journey.
8. Continuous professional development
Research based continuous professional development for educators are an important indicator of growth and improvement for schools. If we expect students to be lifelong learners, we must be too!
Professional learning communities proliferate not only in every school, but through the facility of the internet, globally. KHDA routinely shares best practices through “What Works”. Learning from each-others’ successful programs is an innovation that does work!
9. A new partnership
Parents as key partners in the education of students is a role that has been honed during lockdown. The parent community has become an important resource to facilitate the programs of schools. Many parents have become stellar teachers and trainers through the challenges of the pandemic and this valuable resource cannot be wasted.
In conclusion, there has been a metamorphic shift from the structured education of the Industrial Revolution to the technology transformed education of 2022. This is an unstoppable juggernaut and the beginning of a future where school campuses may be hyper-hybrid, “mall-like”, offering a futuristic learning environment that entertains, while incubating ideas and innovations, in spaces which are personalized and powered with sophisticated technology.
Rashmi Nandkeolyar is the Principal and Director of Delhi Private School Dubai and has authored several books for children.
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