Dubai goes to DallasSeptember 14, 2016, 2:30 pm GMT
Over the past year, I've had a number of parents seeking admission for their children and the common comment is: "We've chosen this school because we want our child to have a holistic development, be challenged and be happy". This, I suppose, echoes across many schools in Dubai and around the globe.
There seems to be a movement among educators and parents alike that want to break free from the cyclical standardised testing and academic comparisons that seem to be dominating the world of academia and school children. As an educator, you sometimes find yourself torn between the rigorous systems you have to put in place in order to pander to OECD's drive for PISA scores and wanting to give your students the academic freedom to explore, discover, make mistakes and just give them the luxury of time to breathe deep and smell the roses along the way and be happy and positive.
So, when a senior official mentioned that the Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA) had been invited to showcase Dubai's private school sector at the Festival of Positive Education in Dallas, my ears were perked. Three months later, when we got the official invite, I started reading about positive education, but nothing prepared me for the wonderful and uplifting three days spent at the IPEN Conference. In attendance were 25 principal and teacher colleagues along with the KHDA staff, including director general, Dr Abdullah Al Karam.
Since we were in Dallas just a few days after it was in the news for all the wrong reasons, we were a tad apprehensive, but whoever we met put us at ease immediately. Our counsellor Sreekala's enthusiasm was infectious. She was excited about meeting some of the biggest names in positive psychology Sir Anthony Sheldon, Martin Seligman, Angela Duckworth, Shawn Anchor and Lea Waters to name a few. We poured over the detailed schedule and carefully picked the sessions we wanted to attend, spreading ourselves out so we could maximise the learning. Some of our colleagues included Ranju Anand from GEMS Education, Mariella and Sister Gwen from St. Mary's School, Reshmi Nandkeolyar from DPS Dubai, Dr Ashok Kumar of Indian High School, Dianne Leverette of Sharjah American International School in Dubai, and Christopher McDermott, founding principal of Oaktree Primary School.
The six of us were presenting Dubai's effective What Works programme in an innovative manner at the conference and we had a large turnout.
The theme focused on the five areas of wellbeing, which centered around Connect, Be Active, Take Notice, Keep Learning, and Give.
Fida, Maya, Lucile and Nada, from KHDA helped us plan the session and were efficient at what they did. Maya even managed a visual harvesting of our session, which the IPEN participants had never experienced before.
Students from one of the local schools were present as event makers, just as they do here in Dubai for our What Works sessions. Stephen Ritz, director of the Green Bronx Machine, New York and one of the top 10 shortlisted candidates for the US $1 million 2015 Global Teacher Prize was also present and was a moderator at the event. Dr Al Karam was the keynote speaker for the morning session, following which Stephen Ritz and I participated during a panel discussion titled "From Educate to EduCare: How Dubai's Education Community Works Together Towards a Positive Purpose" that was moderated by Christopher McDermott. When one of the participants asked Dr Al Karam a pertinent question, his reply received resounding applause "Our role as a government regulator is to bring our community together and focus on what's working. We all have something to contribute to education, and the more we give, the happier we are," he stated.
With our part played, we were all free to pick what we were interested in bringing home from the conference. We dragged our colleagues to some of the sessions that we thought were interesting and they insisted we came along for some that they were keen on the aim being common to bring back as much as we could for our children to benefit from here in Dubai. Some of the sessions that had a lasting impact and resonated well were: Angela Duckworth's headliner session on "Grit: The Power and Passion of Perseverance"; Sir Anthony Sheldon's "Positive Education in the Third Decade"; Martin Seligman's "Positive Psychology and Positive Education and the Hawn Foundation". Another panel discussion that caught our imagination was the one on "Using Design Thinking and Positive Psychology to Bolster Growth Mindset, SEL Skills, Resilience and Well-Being in At-Risk Youth".
The Loreto Mandeville Hall Toorak School had hugely benefited from Seligman's PERMA model (Positive Emotion, Engagement, Positive Relationships, Meaning, Accomplishment, and Positive Health) and were presenting at the conference with plenty of data as demonstrable proof of the impact of the implementation of the PERMA model. Also interesting was Simon Murray's session on "Using David Cooperrider's Appreciative Inquiry to Establish Australia's Positive Education Schools Association"; and Shawn Anchor's "The Happiness Advantage: Linking Positive Brains to Performance".
These headliner sessions were interspersed with provocations like the one moderated by Lea Waters and Mathew White "Managing Positive Change: The Topic You Must Know and Understand for Positive Education to Have Sustained Impact"; or the one by Toni Noble and Paula Robinson on "Can Strengths-Based Teaching Actually Weaken Students?". With both of them being psychologists, we expected some meaningful provocation, but were blown away by the intellectual engagement and challenge a masterclass in arriving at self-derived conclusions.
The workshops revolved around giving the participants the actual tools to be able to put all the psychological jargon into practice with the children in our schools and were effective as they used real life examples of strategies that had proven success and had worked. The Toolbox Tools for Life by Chuck Fisher and Bryan Clement was structured around a series of tools developed by Dovetail Learning that help build resilience, self-mastery and empathy for others. We caught ourselves wishing we had a 3D printer that could clone us as we wanted to attend all 31 workshops on offer.
There were many "aha" moments and to highlight a few would not do justice to the experience, but the special screening of Tiffany Shlain's short movies, the meditation sessions with Barry Kerzin, who has also worked with the Dalai Lama and shared delightful stories with us, and the book signings and the bonding with fellow educators from across the globe were some of the highlights.
If I were to pick two of the unexpected things that we experienced, one of them would have to be the session on Laughology. A stand up comedienne-turned-educator held a room full of educators hostage to rapt attention with her intelligent humour and a description of the course, "The Happy Centered School Programme", that was based on research by academics such as Dr Martin Seligman and Professor Andrew Oswald. I honestly believe that Dubai needs to bring her to our schools and work out a course for our children. Such is the power of positive psychology: grit, perseverance, a growth mindset it all can be cultivated and taught to improve lives.
About the author: Nargish Khambatta is the principal of GEMS Modern Academy, and was part of the KHDA-led delegation to the Festival of Positive Education in July
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