Brendan Law puts forward the case for shifting the curriculum towards an approach that appraises emotional and social development alongside intellectual progress.
Written by Brendan Law, Director General, Misk Schools Riyadh
Broadly speaking, the world has three main K-12 curricula. While each has its merits, they all remain structured for standardization which is, quite simply, out of step with how the world works. Standardization quashes rather than breeds curiosity. And without curiosity, much of what sets humans apart from machines is lost.
Thought leaders all over the world agree that there is an urgent need to evolve current educational practices and design new curricula that are fit for purpose. There is also a general consensus on what kind of impact and influence a modern curriculum should have. So, what’s holding the education sector back?
It’s probably fair to say that the complexity and interdependency of constituents in national education systems are the main barriers to transformation. Wholesale change would involve challenging deeply engrained habits and bureaucratic processes. Real progress would require a fundamental shift in curriculum design and delivery, spanning content, materials, standards, assessment and pedagogy. In turn, this would require a remodeling of teacher training and professional development programs, and the establishment of new, accredited pathways into higher education. Success would only be possible with the support of key stakeholders, from teachers to parents, and universities to government policymakers. The cost in terms of time and money would be very significant.
In spite of the scale of the challenge, this is exactly the task we are taking on at Misk Schools in Riyadh. We are at the beginning of our journey, but we have a clear vision of what kind of innovation is needed and we are supported at a national level.
Innovation Underpinned by Technology & Tradition
These days, innovation and technology are closely, often inextricably linked. But they are not the same thing. Innovation remains a human process (for now anyway) which is catalyzed by the power of digital talent and tools.
In the context of curriculum innovation, technology and technologists are pre-requisites for success. Their role is to enhance and enable the vision, facilitating the kind of reinvention we are looking for. But it’s important to say that they will respond to and support the needs of the educational strategy rather than the other way around.
The word ‘tradition’ is important for two reasons. Firstly, in spite of the fact that change is needed, much of what we have been doing for years as educators is still valid and necessary. There is huge risk that in trying to constantly adopt the latest technological advances or business school theorizing, we de-stabilize and undermine some of the most critical foundational work we do. We must not throw the baby out with the bathwater.
And secondly, tradition as it relates to culture is hugely important in any nation – particularly in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries. We must push the envelope in terms of our aspirations, ideas, and use of technology, but we must do so while respecting and reinforcing the values and heritage that make this region such a special place.
What is a Modern Curriculum?
A modern curriculum needs to be child- and life-centered as well as skills- and competencies-based. It needs to stop teaching children what to think and start coaching them how to think. Different terms are used around the world, but the ultimate goals are more or less the same. For us, it can be summarized under four main headings:
Personalized: fit the curriculum to the child, not the child to the curriculum
How well do we know each child in the classroom? Even those of us privileged to work with small class sizes don’t have deep enough insights to understand all the twists and turns in each child’s learning journey. A modern curriculum needs to be fully adaptive and capable of real-time feedback on the development of the whole child – mind, body and soul.
This is one of the areas where technology can make the biggest difference. With advancements in AI, we can now understand and support each child in a true 360° manner. Machine-learning and data science are advanced enough to tailor personal learning pathways that encourage curiosity, identify gaps, allow early interventions, and customize content as well as assessment.
But there’s a lot more that can be done with this beyond academic subjects. It needs to be extended to support individual social, emotional and physical development too, which are all too often glossed over in current curricula. The development of emotional intelligence (EQ) alongside intellectual intelligence is critical and historically, something that has mostly been bypassed because it’s hard to pin down. However, by using the power of technology to monitor how children react to stressful situations, how they work under time pressure, whether they can empathize, how they react to failure as well as success etc, we can understand where they need support and ultimately, put EQ in its rightful place as a key part of each child’s development.
My last point on this subject is about balance. A modern curriculum is not biased in favor of any one field of study and has a strong focus on creative and co-curricular activities interwoven with core academic subjects.
How many times have you heard a child say: “I’m not sporty”, or “I’m not musical,” or “I’m no good at art”? It’s only when you are looking after each child as an individual that you can find out why he or she might believe they are not capable; once you understand the barriers, psychological or physical, progress can be made. There are invariably sporting or creative avenues a child can go down and be competent in, they just need help to find them. We all know that a fit body supports wellbeing and a fit mind and that involvement in sport builds resilience, teamwork and leadership skills; and that the arts help to develop language and communication, collaboration, social interaction, inter cultural awareness, critical analysis and more. These subjects need to be part of every single personal learning journey.
Experiential: relevance and interest encourage learner curiosity and agency
Application of learning to real world scenarios should be inherent in all aspects of school life. A curriculum has to be more than theory. It has to be practical and experiential. It has to trigger curiosity and interest. And it has to have relevance.
Not all children are or want to be Ivy League scholars. And we don’t need everyone to be an academic. Arguably these days, entrepreneurial, leadership and diplomatic skills are what we should be focusing on as these are what the world is desperately in need of. There are so many pathways to a successful and fulfilling professional life and schools have a responsibility to ensure students are aware of their options.
Like every organization, a school is a business and it is a community. It has bills that need paying, buildings that need maintaining, staff who need motivating, services that need managing. So right there, on our doorstep, we have a myriad different opportunities for children to learn, explore and extend their academic learning by taking on projects. They can help to develop a marketing campaign, write a tender for a new landscaping partner, design and cost a new sports center or do a catering stock take.
But we need to go a step further. A modern curriculum should include working partnerships beyond school, with families and the community, with businesses, government entities, NGOs and more. In other words, a modern curriculum needs more than one institution. It needs a learning network or ecosystem.
The conclusion is that in order for learning to be relevant to children – and therefore effective – it needs to be based in a tangible reality. When learning becomes relevant, you see personalities develop; you see young people collaborating and making decisions, engaging, taking the lead, prioritizing their time, becoming good global citizens and much more.
Maker-centric: inspire a shift from a consumer to a producer mentality
Maker-centered learning is a concept that came out of Harvard Graduate School of Education's Project Zero. It is described as encouraging “thinking routines that foster the primary maker capacities of looking closely, exploring complexity, and finding opportunity.”
Tinkering, exploring and creating are not unusual in STEM subjects, but when applied more globally, these behaviors encourage children to think independently and critically; to be curious and brave, take risks and experiment. They encourage learning through mistakes and deliver experiences that build the capacity to adapt. As such, the benefits of a maker-centric curriculum are relevant in all contexts and are arguably some of the most important attributes to have in a world that moves quickly in new and unexpected directions.
According to the Project Zero team: “...the most important benefits of maker education are neither STEM skills nor technical preparation for the next industrial revolution. Though these benefits may accrue along the way, the most salient benefits of maker-centered learning for young people have to do with developing a sense of self and a sense of community that empower them to engage with and shape the designed dimension of their world.”
Unfettered: remove curiosity barriers
Everything I’ve covered so far relates to the content and design of a modern curriculum. But there are two obvious areas I haven’t addressed yet. Firstly, the spaces and environment in which children learn. And secondly, the huge question of how they are assessed.
In both of these areas, our imaginations are constrained and limited by the scale of the challenge. Existing school buildings are difficult and expensive to reconfigure. And an attainment-based academic assessment score is so engrained as the main criteria higher education institutions use to make their selections, that to change it will take decades.
I suggest that we need to unfetter ourselves from these legacy inhibitors to allow truly lateral and creative thinking to take place. I am not saying that current buildings or assessment protocols can or should be changed overnight. Not at all. That’s simply not possible. But what I am saying that we need to reimagine educational spaces and assessment approaches. And that now is a good time because technology can be our golden ticket.
As disruptive as it’s been, we may well look back on COVID-19 as a leapfrog moment for education. The pandemic has forced schools to enhance, embrace and trust technology. We have proven that classes and activities don’t need to be bound to a single location and that on the whole, children (and teachers) are adaptable enough to cope with online classes. Not that we’d want this situation to continue indefinitely of course. But in looking for the silver lining, it has been a time to properly explore the pros and cons of virtual and hybrid learning.
Back in the physical world, we need to ask how learning spaces can and should be configured to support the kind of tech-fueled personalized, experiential and maker-centered learning described above.
Some of the questions that need to be asked include: When is learning better without desks? How do you include enough flexibility to allow for tinkering and performance spaces? Should learners always be grouped by age? How can spaces be designed technically to allow for augmented reality learning including technologies like holograms? The answers to these questions are not obvious yet, but they need to be explored.
Moving on to assessment – one of the biggest challenges we face in education today.
Right now, in spite of some good progress from the likes of PISA which has added Global Competence as an additional category in its testing regime, we are still in the dark ages when it comes to assessment. It’s really still all about attainment of a score rather than achievement of an aspiration. The skills needed to achieve an aspiration include much more than the ability to learn and recall academic knowledge. Cognitive flexibility, creative and lateral thinking, diplomacy, curiosity, courage, tenacity. These are the assets we need to develop. We know this. And yet, we don’t assess them.
It’s true to say that what gets measured gets done. Currently most assessment is designed to measure the results of learning, rather than to improve and expand on learning as it happens.
So, we need to move away from standardized testing and towards competency-based evaluation designed to support individual development on a continual basis. We need an approach that appraises emotional and social development alongside intellectual progress.
There is an urgent need to shift the assessment conversation. Our goal is that the Misk Curriculum will be accredited by leading universities and colleges and will introduce a holistic, viable alternative to traditional testing methods. One that supports curiosity and deepens learning rather than dumbs it down.
Brendan is an inspiring educational leader with over 35 years of international experience. He believes in child-centred learning and is strongly focused on the transformation of school curricula. In his current role, Brendan is working with his team to deliver on Misk Schools’ ambitious vision to design a new educational paradigm in Saudi Arabia. He has deep experience in the Middle East having worked with GEMS Education in Dubai directing a portfolio of 14 British premium schools. Prior to this he was Director of Education at The Tourism Development & Investment Company in Abu Dhabi, and Founding Headmaster of its flagship school, the multi-award winning Cranleigh Abu Dhabi, which he launched in 2014. He also established and led Brighton College Abu Dhabi as Founding Headmaster. Based on the significance of his work in Abu Dhabi, he was listed as a UAE Education Influencer, 2017.