Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 21 January 2020

How students can build their own curriculum

Michael Lambert says there are opportunities for high school pupils to study university-level courses
Online learning allows students to complete courses from international curriculums. Satish Kumar / The National
Online learning allows students to complete courses from international curriculums. Satish Kumar / The National

Parents beware. Certain schools have begun to promote their own school’s curriculum as the panacea to end all educational woes. As part of sophisticated marketing campaigns designed to increase enrolments and ultimately secure the profit upon which our education system relies, head teachers and their henchmen would have you believe that without the qualifications they offer you will be condemning your child to a second-rate university and, ultimately, abject penury for the rest of their lives.

The perpetrators of this lie do so from a position of neither knowledge nor strength. They act as desperadoes within an increasingly competitive marketplace vying to attract students to fill their seats and balance their books. What we are seeing in the world’s leading schools, however, is a deliberate move away from such single track curricula – for example, the International Baccalaureate (IB), A Level or Advanced Placement (AP) – towards a recognition of the potential for a hybrid international curriculum.

No longer do individual schools need to be frustrated by the limitations of the national curriculum which their home nation imposes upon them. The past decade has seen the radical democratisation of knowledge online. Anyone with access to a computer and Google search can essentially access the content of any previously closed curriculum free of charge. This means that students no longer need the IB to be able to study six subjects in the Sixth Form. In fact they can study as many subjects as they want for next to nothing by cherry picking the best international qualifications through a series of massive open online courses run by some of the world’s best universities. Visit edx.org to see what I mean.

Many of these courses offer an online certificate of completion. If this is too insubstantial for our generation of qualification-hungry parents and pupils, then students can register for online examinations or simply use their school as an examination centre to take subjects for which they have self-studied. In one UAE school, students have recently subscribed to the Harvard University CS50X course – a first-year undergraduate computer programming course. Through collaborative online study free of charge and by registering their institution as a test centre, they will acquire a formal United States qualification at their nominally “British curriculum” school in addition to their A Levels.

This is a perfect example of the transcendence of knowledge beyond national boundaries which the 21st century affords. Another choice example would be a cohort of students at a school who were keen to study psychology, a subject which the school does not formally offer. This follows hot on the heels of half a dozen other such depositions over the past two years. For these students they recommended the Level 3 project otherwise known as the extended project qualification (EPQ).

The EPQ is essentially an empty qualification vessel for students to populate with whichever knowledge they want. It does not fit with either A Levels or IB. In fact it is curriculum independent. What it does do is allow students to pick a research question, a field work topic, an artefact to create or a performance to produce, and then empower students to direct their own learning.

What is even better about this approach is that students get to show evidence to universities that they have broadened their horizons and their number of subjects, not because it was part of some mandatory packaged curriculum but because they were motivated to do so. University study has always been characterised by independence of thought and independence of study. Students in higher education no longer have form tutors to check their attendance or subject teachers who will email parents if they fail to hand in their homework.

Success at degree level requires students who are self-starters, who can be given an essay title and a recommended reading list and then be trusted to write an essay with little or no input from their supervisor. The EPQ is just that but at secondary school level. What better way to show universities that they are ready than for students to produce a dissertation at the age of 17?

These kinds of self-starting, genre defying qualifications very much embody the zeitgeist of 21st century education. With the first branch of the entirely free of charge Paris-based 42 coding school recently opening in Silicon Valley, fully funded by French technology entrepreneur and billionaire Xavier Niel, it is clear that no single institution can now claim to offer a monopoly of our children’s future.

So anyone who would have you believe that selecting one particular curriculum or qualification is the cure-all for your child’s educational needs must be categorised as an educational charlatan, quack and peddler. Qualifications are not the same as education – and certainly not in the 21st century, which is rapidly showing us that a far more imaginative and flexible approach to learning is becoming the norm rather than the exception.

Michael Lambert is headmaster of Dubai College

Updated: December 26, 2016 04:00 AM