“The classroom teacher is a major stakeholder”
Can anyone argue about the role of curriculum as the core driver of education’s push for excellence?
Every authority involved in the field of education understands this importance. The Dubai Ministry of Education pays special attention to the matter of curriculum, constantly reviewing textbooks, tweaking curricula and adding prominent initiatives in the form of extra-curricular activities to a student’s learning life thus ensuring all-round development.
““The classroom teacher is an influential factor that determines the success of a curriculum as he would be the one who takes the responsibility to implement it and ensures meeting the students’ needs. He is one of the major stakeholders whom we highly consider in the process of designing the curriculum.”
“Benchmarking shows that UAE students started to achieve top ranks in the Arab region in international standardised tests such PISA and IELTS although we have higher expectations in some of these tests, especially in the language proficiency tests IELTS and TOEFL, as the medium of instruction in most university programs is English.”
“The Awards of Excellence in Education such as Sharjah Award for Excellence in Education, Khalifa Award for Education and Hamdan Bin Rashid Al Maktoum Award for the Distinguished Academic Performance have considerably contributed to boosting quality performance and root a culture of high professionalism and quality education.”
Ahmad Othman Bourini, a curriculum specialist at the curriculum department of the Ministry of Education in Dubai, has been involved with this activity for the last 17 years. Apart from being a leading force in enabling students’ to achieve excellence, Bourini put himself too through the paces of learning as a student. He is completing his doctorate in Education at the British University in Dubai (BUiD) and was honoured with the Sharjah Award for Excellence in Education last month.
Bourini spoke to Education about the challenges of shaping the curriculum and the changing face of education.
What changes has education undergone over the last two decades?
The achievement and progress in education has been extraordinary in the UAE over the past 17 years. We have witnessed remarkable changes in regard to all the domains of the educational process, including curricula, instructional practices, learning environment, assessment and use of technology.
There is a real awareness that constant updating of policy and continual investment in the infrastructure ensures quality education. The Ministry of Education’s 2010-2020 Strategy, which represents a major milestone, has attended to current challenges and identified solutions related to the school environment that provides students with the needed communications skills and critical thinking for their future. The Minister of Education invited all the stakeholders, especially the parents and community, to play a significant role in achieving the major goals of the strategy. In addition to creating a proper school environment with equal opportunities, the strategy focuses on students’ attainment and developing the sense of citizenship among students. I believe the Ministry started to achieve a very good rate of progress through this strategy especially with the employment of 50 strategic initiatives to support the goals of the strategy.
Benchmarking shows that UAE students started to achieve top ranks in the Arab region in international standardised tests such PISA and IELTS although we have higher expectations in some of these tests, especially in the language proficiency tests IELTS and TOEFL, as the medium of instruction in most university programs is English.
The Awards of Excellence in Education such as Sharjah Award for Excellence in Education, Khalifa Award for Education and Hamdan Bin Rashid Al Maktoum Award for the Distinguished Academic Performance have considerably contributed to boosting quality performance and root a culture of high professionalism and quality education.
Another area that I believe needs to be highlighted is the modern and updated structure of the Ministry where such departments as the School Accreditation and Inspection and Educational Supervision have had great contributions in improving practice of the schools system. They enhance quality standards that include: school leadership, quality of teaching and learning, school as a community, school environment, student attainment, social responsibility amongst others.
While designing curricula, how do you ensure that attention is paid to the multi-disciplinary growth of the child’s intellect?
When we design the curriculum, we pay attention to the approach we should adopt and reflect through the different components of that curriculum. We take into consideration how students of different levels and inputs learn. We focus on other factors such as the social values, material resources, challenge and enjoyment, interactivity and student-centeredness. We attempt to ensure a high rate of motivation and engagement through a content that respects the interests, multiple intelligences and learning styles of different students in any curriculum. Also, to make certain that we are on the right track and to ensure students are achieving successful transition between levels, we refer to the document of standards called (English Curriculum Framework) which aligns with the Common European Framework of Reference and the UAE Qualifications Framework. This document respects differentiation and clearly shows the objectives and performance indicators students in each stage should achieve.
How much emphasis is laid on extra-curricular activities and sports?
There is a focus on extra-curricular activities in all subjects. As a supervisor specialised in English, I can say that the structure of the curriculum encourages teachers to use different resources and engage students in co-curricular activities that conform to the standards and help students develop their skills. They do not need to stick to the textbook all the time. There is no specified ratio but depending on the quality of these activities and the subject taughts, I encourage up to 20% extra of co-curricular and extra-curricular activities, especially those related to volunteer work and community service and sports
What is the most important element while designing curriculums? How do you determine a curriculum is working?
The characteristics of the learners as per the age group and responding to the individual needs form a major component that determines the structure of the curriculum. Working on a curriculum for the kindergarten will considerably differ from designing a curriculum for adult learner (who study at the evening Adult Centers) although the objectives might be similar. In this case, the content and strategies teachers follow should be different amongst other things.
After designing the curriculum, it gets piloted in some schools in different educational zones and depending on the reflection, continuous evaluation and feedback from the stakeholders we provide a final evaluation and then the decision is made accordingly. As I mentioned earlier, the English Curriculum Framework standards state the objectives and performance indicators for each skill for each level.
What are the aspects you keep in mind (in designing a curriculum) from a teacher’s point of view?
The classroom teacher is an influential factor that determines the success of a curriculum as he would be the one who takes the responsibility to implement it and ensures meeting the students’ needs. He is one of the major stakeholders whom we highly consider in the process of designing the curriculum. We take into account that, according to research, the influence of the teacher’s instructional practice in the classroom exceeds 50 percent. Feedback from teachers is highly appreciated during the process of the curriculum design. We respect that teachers tend to prefer to have a rate of freedom and flexibility with using resources and teaching aids. They favour a content that respects the actual interests of their students so that they can maintain a positive atmosphere in the classroom.
Your doctorate thesis was on ‘Differentiation’. Do you believe that curriculum has to be tailored to the individual needs of the student?
Joining the doctorate program at the British University in Dubai (BUiD) has enriched my experience and enhanced my chances to better the quality of practices as a Curriculum Specialist and PD Coordinator. I have learnt to think more critically and academically.
Differentiated instruction is a teaching and learning philosophy which places particular emphasis on modifying and adapting instruction to meet the individual and diverse needs of students in the mixed ability ordinary classroom) Tomlinson, 1999 (Students are different in their levels of readiness, interests, and learning profiles. Therefore, following a one-size fits all instruction has not proved to be successful. Hence, differentiation must be adopted in the curriculum and practiced by the teacher to observe individual needs, and to maximise students’ competencies.
Recently, more educational systems, including the UAE system of education, have been modified so that a large diversity of students is included in the classroom to ensure the existence of proper differentiated instruction for all. Yet, practicing differentiation seems to be very challenging, and many teachers (according to my study) still need to learn more about the theory and strategies of differentiated instruction. So to be successful, educational institutions must design the curriculum activities in view of differentiation.
The UAE English Curriculum Framework recently introduced is designed for differentiation; student-centred planning, instruction and assessment. The key concept of differentiation is that regardless of grade level, the teacher can diagnose where each student is and teach from there. Knowing students’ proficiency levels allows teachers to proactively plan what students need to learn, how they will learn it and how they will prove they have learned it. Hence, the standards we follow in designing the curriculum offer the teacher the opportunity to take on a dynamic, facilitating role which helps create a purposeful learning environment and social interaction (ECF).
You have received this award for excellence in the education field. How would you describe your journey so far?
My journey in the education field began in 1993 as a teacher of English at UNRWA in Jordan before joining the Ministry of Education in the UAE three years later. Ever since, it has been a journey full of excitement, enthusiasm, challenge and joy.
What has been your learning?
Working as a Professional Development Coordinator with higher education institutions (AUS, BUiD, UoS, AUST and HCT) helped me feel more confident that bridging the gap between secondary and tertiary education is possible. I designed many programs for teachers, school principals, social workers and students. I learned that teachers needed continuous moral and professional support to enthuse their creativity. Resistance to change on the part of some teachers can be minimised if we know how to gradually change their attitude through successful provision of up-to-date skills and techniques, especially when it comes to technology assisted instruction.
I realise there are two things that are urgently needed to support positive practice in the field. First, instructors should work proactively, not reactively when it comes to addressing problems. Second, reflective practice needs to be enhanced to improve performance.
What are the immediate needs in the field of curriculum?
We have started training the teachers of Cycle One – Grade One on teaching according to the standards. We have plans to include all grades in this project. Standards Based Instruction is one of the most immediate needs from my point of view. Another immediate need is training teachers to employ differentiation while teaching.
There is a growing concern for inclusion in mainstream schools. What are the ways in which a curriculum is adapted for this?
The Ministry, through the Department of Special Education, supports inclusion of special needs students in the regular classroom to observe their educational, social and emotional needs. Several programs have been introduced for this purpose including:
1) Inclusion in Regular Education Classroom with Community-Based Support
Students with special needs may be enrolled in a regular education classroom and receive special education support service from community providers.
2) Inclusion in Regular Education Classroom with Classroom-Based Support
Students with special needs may be enrolled in a regular education classroom and receive special education support services in the classroom from the general and or special education teachers or from specialists.
3) Inclusion in Regular Education Classroom with School-Based Support
Students with special needs may be enrolled in a regular education classroom and receive special education programs and services outside of the regular classroom, but in the school setting.
Every year hundreds of mainstream teachers receive training on the strategies of dealing with special needs students to insure successful inclusion. In the past 5 years 4,509 teachers received training on including special needs students.
The other Departments, including the Curriculum Department, provide support to the initiatives and programs for students with disabilities. The curriculum specialists of different subjects attempt to respect the different needs although this is very challenging. Sometimes, we design different scenarios and employ various audio, visual and computer-assisted materials that meet the needs of the main disabilities. However, I think it is hard for the regular curriculum to meet the needs of all students without the support from special needs specialists and without individual plans. That is why the Ministry focuses on training teachers on modifying their instructional practices as a major intervention, depending on the case.
Will e-learning help children be more avid learners?
E-learning and the use of Computer Assisted Language Learning in the classroom leads to laying more focus on learning, and not teaching, which maximises the role of the students. I believe the use of technology in the classroom would result in greater rate of motivation and positive attitude towards learning, because technology provides an enjoyable, safe and learner-centered environment. As a supervisor of English, I initiated the first e-learning project in the schools of Sharjah in 2006 by establishing e-learning centres in 6 schools. The reaction of teachers, students and parents was very positive. However, simply adding technology, without a well-planned strategy and without a positive attitude on the part of teachers, may not be significantly effective.
The Sheikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Smart Learning Program will revolutionise the way we teach our students and the way they learn. As a coordinator and member of the Program Committee at the Ministry of Education, I could see a change in the attitude of teachers and students and the development in students’ motivation and achievement towards the use of iPad technology in the classroom. The interactive ICT-based environment the Program offers has positively influenced students’ engagement.
This year, I organised the first Sharjah ELT Conference on Smart Teaching … Smart Learning (a professional development conference for teachers) in cooperation with the HCT, MAG Schools and the British University in Dubai. The major recommendations were:
1) encouraging schools to employ the use of the tablet computer technology;
2) enhancing communication and cooperation between public schools and higher education institutions in regard to the use of smart learning; and
3) training all teachers in this technology.
In this respect, I coordinated with Sharjah Higher Colleges of Technology to host the iPads on Wheels at different schools. It is a mobile lab that is equipped with all the facilities that provide a smart leaning environment including iPads and smart boards. More than 300 teachers and 1,400 students received training in this lab.