School visit: GEMS Nations AcademyJanuary 23, 2017, 2:55 pm GMT
When GEMS Nations Academy, the flagship Dubai school for school operator GEMS Education, was announced in October 2015, it promised a "new paradigm" for education in the UAE. Two months after it opened in 2016, Education Journal Middle East visited Nations to find out what a school with an enhanced American curriculum really offered.
During our visit in November, it was clear the staff and students had settled into their roles already, despite there being a noticeable delay in the opening of facilities such as the sports field, swimming pool, and the main atrium for the building. We entered, instead, through the administrative block, where we were greeted by the school's resident humanoid robot, who is quite a hit with the students, we are told.
In its first year, the school has opened classes from KG1 to Grade 8, with new your groups to be added every subsequent year, principal Tom Farquhar tells us.
Given the school's high fee structure, the topic of a delay in opening the school's facilities hangs heavy, and Farquhar addresses it early on in our conversation.
"We were so grateful we could open in September, and our parents had faith in us despite the uncertainty that they felt about the building.
"However, when people saw what was going on in the classroom, they realised it's all about the teaching and the learning.
"Given that so many facilities are just about to still open… the parents say their children are so excited when they go home to talk about what happened at school. Some parents have said that the promise of world class facilities was something that attracted them, but what they've realised is that the programme being delivered is what has already made such a difference for the families. It makes me almost grateful that it's all unfolded the way it has, so people are not just dazzled by the facilities, but they get to see what's different about our programme," he says.
So what is it that sets Nations apart from other school? According to Farquhar, the biggest draw for families is that Nations offers a "trilingual" curriculum with English, Arabic, and coding all given importance.
Coding and computer science, in particular are given importance at Nations. The school is piloting a robotics programme that GEMS Education has partnered on with Carnegie Mellon University's Community Robotics, Education and Technology Empowerment (CREATE) Lab
"We use the Hummingbird kit [created by Carnegie Mellon], which allows students to design, from scratch, a robot that will be moving or responding, with sensors and motors according to a programme the kids can write and then they code this. All of our teachers have been trained on this kit, and teachers in every subject area from science to maths to Islamic Studies will be using robots at various times during the year as a project for students," Farquhar says.
The school is also working with LEGO Education on robotics kits, which Farquhar points out are "very different" to the those supplied by the CREATE Lab.
He explains: "The LEGO block by definition is more of a structure so you're starting with more structure. The circuit is not a bare circuit board it's an actual controller unit with wires that plug easily into motors and things like that. So the LEGO system is a bit more of a preprogrammed kit, while the Hummingbird kit from CMU is a more generic thing where you really start from scratch.
"Both of these kinds of projects will be integrated within our curriculum as the months go by. We're working with both of them, and they both have great ideas. There are wonderful LEGO projects being done around the world that teachers are sharing with one another."
The school has also adopted a different approach when it defines achievement. Drawing inspiration from Howard Gardner's Gardner's Theory of Multiple Intelligences, Nations is working with the Harvard Zero Project.
"One of the directors of the Harvard Zero Project was Howard Gardner and he wrote a book called The Theory of Multiple Intelligences this idea that there's not just one thing called IQ that states how smart you are. There are some people who are better at maths or quantitative thinking, others who are more verbal, others who are more social, there are people who are musical.
"So he says there are nine different intelligences. I would say there are an infinite number of intelligences there are so many ways to express your talents, your passions, your interests and commitments, and we could call each of those unique ways of doing them to be a form of intelligence," Farquhar says.
Understanding these multiple intelligences in children is also a crucial part of the college counselling programme at Nations.
"We want children to develop in all these various dimensions and if there's any failure that schools may have made in the past decade, it's thinking that it's only about maths and reading or about memorising vocabulary. There are students all around the world who can score a perfect test on a college entrance exam. In the US, the ivy league universities are turning away, by the thousands, students who have perfect scores on the entrance exam. They realise that's not all there is. Memory has been a very important skill in school historically, but now we have some other forms of memory the machines can do memory very well. So we need to look at how we can interpret information, how can we create new solutions, invent new ideas. And no machine can do that. You can talk about artificial intelligence, but the machines are not composing the new music that people want to hear. Machines do not know how to take what exists and then go beyond," Farquhar asserts.
It's a sentiment echoed by Kierstan Connors, the school's director of college counselling, who is preparing students for university as early as Grade 6.
Explaining the process, she says: "We start talking to children from middle school, so from Grade 6 onwards. Grade 8 is going to be our priority in an established school. We want those kids looking at the Grade 9 students. Grade 7 and 8 are the pre-SATs. They start focusing on their extra curriculars, whether its debate or sports or arts or maths, and really build those skills."
With her background of having counselled international school students on the university applications process in countries such as China, Saudi Arabia, the US, and Costa Rica, Connors will play a significant role in planning the middle school curriculum. She will also be heavily involved in the school's Advanced Placement (AP) certification, and International Baccalaureate (IB) certification process.
"Because we are starting small, we'll be able to build a custom programme for each child based on what they want to be. And we'll be able to poll our students and families to see what kind of AP classes or IB classes we need to focus on as we think two to three years ahead because it will be very important."
The school's "trilingual" curriculum will also help set its students apart, Connors asserts. She says: "We're very lucky at Nations to start up to Grade 8 and we have a long road to prove ourselves. From my perspective, from a curriculum standpoint, we'll be right on from the beginning because we'll be able to be small and focused with this trilingual component, and then we'll just be able to grow."
For Farquhar, it comes down to delivering on the school's promise of "going beyond."
"Harvard Project Zero has a lot to do with themes of progressive education the importance of students becoming expressive in their education rather than being passive recipients. We respect the variety of talents students bring to the table instead of saying we'll put you in a box and you have to achieve according to our standards.
"The theme of our school is going beyond what schools have done before. We want students to believe that your responsibility as you become an adult is to go beyond what human beings have done before.
"If you look at Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg they became millionaires not because they set out to become a billionaire, but because they had an idea. It was because they wanted to chase a new idea. And the world will reward you if you're chasing a new idea." Farquhar concludes."
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