Reality: What a concept!

The above expression belongs to Robin Williams. For us as a group, however, it is more about turning our concept into reality. As you might know, ABQ currently consists of three different schools, Azzan Bin Qais International School, Seeb International School and Sohar International School. Each of the schools have developed their own identity, and we will continue to encourage these individualities. However, we have for the past six months worked on developing a common framework for all our schools. This consists of our vision, mission and motto, our philosophical statements, and our goals and values, as well as all our policies, procedures, regulations and guidelines.

The main purposes of this conceptual development is to provide a common structure, cultivate consistency in our services, improve communication, create a recognizable system for all our stakeholders, develop a scheme for identifying best practices, and making us all more conscious about our purpose, which ultimately results in the provision of a product of a much higher quality.

It allows us to identify and implement the best practices to the benefit of all our students and other stakeholders. Increased interaction between the schools also allows for the exchange of ideas between teachers, as well as students. Soon, our AS physics and biology students from Seeb and Azzan Bin Qais will travel to Sohar to do a full day of lab experiments together. Secondary mathematics and science teachers from all three schools have met in Seeb International School to practice exam assessment and sharing views on marking exam papers. They have formed groups on social media, ensuring they can contact each other if they need help or advice.

Because each of the three schools is best at something, learning from each other ensures continuous improvement in all our schools. We are constantly identifying and mapping these practices, with the aim of implementing them in all schools continuously. Amidst of all this increased collaboration, we also seek to maintain a healthy competition between the three schools, encouraging all three to spur each other on. We believe that the sum of all this is a rise in innovation and creativity, both of which we have identified as essential parts of our conceptual development. However, none of this is done from one day to another. Itism, rather, a process of steady and continuous improvement. Because, to borrow the words of Adam Lashinsky, “achieving it – even merely explaining it – is lightning-in-a-bottle difficult”.

Brace yourselves. Winter is coming.

Yes, I did borrow that quote from “Game of Thrones”. However irrelevant this is for the Omani climate, it is pertinent to the competitive future your children may face.

Let me explain what I mean by this. In 2012, 75,461 children were born in Oman. Since then, this number has grown every year, reaching 115,353 last year. That is an increase of almost 53% in just 6 years. In other words, the 75,461 children born in 2012 and who are now studying in primary, will compete for the same university places in 10 years’ time. From then onwards, the numbers increase every year, until they reach 115,353 in 16 years’ time. Unless the number of places at universities in Oman increase by more than 50%, it will be increasingly more difficult to secure a place.

If your children instead aspire to study abroad, let us look at what is happening there. In 2000, the number of international schools stood at 2,584 according to ISC. Today, that has increased to 9,626 and 5.34 million students, nearly 30% of whom study at schools in the Middle East. Within the next 10 years, the number of international schools are expected to increase to 16,585, with 9.71 million students. A significant part of this growth will be in Asia, including China and South Asia. These students are likely to compete for places at universities with English as the medium of instruction. We are already witnessing some of the consequences of this. The grade boundaries are gradually becoming higher, meaning it is becoming increasingly difficult to secure top grades. November 2018 saw the highest score ever required to get an A* in A level Physics. In IGCSE Biology, the same was the case in the June 2018 exams.

In addition, note the following facts: The number of children in Germany starting their secondary education this year was just above 670,000. That number will increase by 17.75% over the next 10 years. If we look at the UK, the number of births in 2002 was the lowest in decades, after a gradual decline. Those children apply to universities next year. From then onwards, the numbers will gradually increase by a total of 21.5% over the coming 10 years. In the United States, where we find the majority of the world’s top universities, the number of students applying will increase by 7.5% in the next 5 years.

My predictions are therefore that it will become increasingly difficult to secure places at good universities. What are we at ABQ going to do about this? With your, and your children’s, help, we pledge to prepare our students better, making sure their attainment improvements are greater and faster than those of our competitors. This is a journey we have already embarked on, and we hereby invite all parents to come on board as well.

(Mis)understanding homework – Part I

Homework is one of the most controversial topics in education. We cannot say for sure when it was invented, but it has probably existed as long as education itself, in one form or the other. In my home country Norway, it has been etched into history since the 18th century, when we had an ambulatory school system. As it, in most parts of the sparsely populated country, was not possible to gather students in a schoolroom, the teachers traveled around from hamlet to hamlet to teach.The schoolswere operated by ambulatory teachers, hence the name of the school arrangement.The students were then given assignments to work on during the weeks they did not attend school.

The important thing when discussing homework is to be aware of its purposes. Traditionally, they have been many, and have varied in time and place, although most institutions and teachers would probably agree on most of them.

  1. Reinforce what students have learned during the day, and allow them to practice it
  2. Let the students investigate on their own, finding their own answers to questions
  3. Let students develop their own schedules, and learn how to organize themselves
  4. Complete what they could not finish at school
  5. A control instrument to see if students have mastered the concepts and ideas in question
  6. To be a channel of communication between parents and the school
  7. Vertical focus, where the students do in-depth studies of specific topics, allowing them to go beyond what is required
  8. Make students responsible and accountable
  9. Make students capable of meeting demands and requirements
  10. Prepare students for real life

All this is well and good in a traditional setting, where learning is mainly teacher-centered. In such a system, students are passive learners, and homework then serves the purpose of developing them as independent learners. But what about schools were learning is more student-driven? The very methodologies associated with this type of educational philosophy generally incorporates all of the above, and thus renders homework obsolete, save for completing what they could not finish at school, as well as reinforcing their learning.

However, because it is so deeply rooted in education, changing the concepts of this is very difficult, and there is a lot of resistance to such changes, especially among parents. As such, I ask all parents to take a critical approach to their view on the purpose and usefulness of homework, and not just regard it as a necessary evil that all children have to do. In fact, I challenge you to propose less unpleasant waysof achieving the same, or better, results.

(Mis)understanding homework – Part II

Generally, I agree with the previously mentioned objectives of homework, but in principle I disagree with the traditional homework, which for me is nothing more than one of many ways of achieving these objectives. Thus, for me, homework has developed from a reinforcement for learning (which is originally set out to be) to becoming all but an institution in itself, a by-product of education, which instead of a means, has developed into an end-product, an independent task that has to be performed, perceived to be an essential piece of the education puzzle, that is legitimized through the perception amongst all but a few, that it is an aim in itself, and thus necessary.

If we can achieve these targets/aims/objectives in other ways or by other means than through traditional homework, which in many ways is not only boring, but also outdated, we have achieved something great.

Moreover, there are other reasons for avoiding traditional homework. The help and support students get with their traditional homework at home, varies greatly from family to family. This can be due to lack of time, but also ability. As in our case, many parents do not have the opportunity to help the students at home because of lack of English skills. On the other hand, a lot of homework is often done by the parents, which is in conflict with the very purpose of the homework. Traditional homework also creates anxiety in many children, and constant pressure from they leave school and until it is finally done, often late at night.

I am not arguing for abolishing homework altogether. However, I am arguing for a change in how we teach. This means a shift towards lessons where students to a greater extent take centre stage, which again may cause students to disconnect from school when they leave, allowing them to spend time with friends and families, and participate in other activities. This way I am convinced that they return to school the next day with a fresh mind and increased capacity for learning. Homework assignments,I believe, may include a quantity or period of reading to be performed, writing or typing to be completed, problems to be solved, a school project to be built (such as a diorama or display), or other skills to be practiced, many of which to a greater extent can involve parents in a meaningful way.

Keep in mind also, that, although still substantial, the number of hours students spend on homework has decreased in the last couple of decades (the OECD average went from an average 5.9 hours in 2003, to 4.9 hours in 2012). The fact that Singaporean students spend seven hours or more, and Shanghai-China 14 hours per week, on average, doing homework, is not an indicator of the usefulness of homework, as by contrast, students in Finland and Korea reported that they spend less than three hours per week. All these countries do very well in the PISA Worldwide Ranking, mind you.

Still, supporters of homework among our parents need not fear there will be drastic changes. Quite the contrary. We still have several years of hard work in front of us before we get to the desired level, so there will not be any significant changes in the coming years.

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