Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 14 December 2019

Some Dubai schools mull a future without exams

Some private schools are replacing stressful end-of-year testing with challenge-based projects

Arham Jain, left, and Muhammed Hafesjee at Gems Modern Academy in Dubai, where some exams have been dropped for middle-school pupils. Pawan Singh / The National 
Arham Jain, left, and Muhammed Hafesjee at Gems Modern Academy in Dubai, where some exams have been dropped for middle-school pupils. Pawan Singh / The National 

Private schools in Dubai are exploring new ways to test their pupils after finding that traditional examinations fail to measure true potential.

Instead, teachers are testing children’s practical knowledge by presenting them with real-life scenarios and problems to solve.

It is a growing international trend across developed countries with Finland, which is renowned for its high-quality education system, doing away with sit-down tests for pupils aged below 18.

Last year, Singapore abolished school rankings and by 2020 more than 50 per cent of primary schools and more than 90 per cent of secondary schools will do away with half-yearly examinations.

Experts say that exams may soon become completely redundant.

In Dubai, Dwight School has abolished examinations for pupils between pre-kindergarten and Grade 10.

“End-of-year exams are not the best way of assessing student outcomes,” said Janecke Aarnaes, the head of Dwight School.

“An exam will only give a snippet of information about the pupils and it will be hugely related to how they feel on that particular day.

"Any well-performing student can give a bad exam because they are too stressed or have not slept, and it is unfortunate that it will define their future.”

Ms Aarnaes said an added benefit was sparing the pupils end-of-year stress.

“Our focus is much more on measuring progress over time,” she said.

The school creates a portfolio of work submitted over the course of the year that will be the basis of the pupil’s end-of-year grades.

Pupils are given challenges and can choose to write an essay or produce a video to show how they solved it.

Ms Aarnaes believes that for school exams to be abolished entirely, the university system must change.

“We need to look at what the universities are expecting and we are directed by the universities' expectations, because that is what we are preparing students for,” she said.

“If universities start looking at portfolios or interviews rather than exam results, then schools might be ready to make that leap.”

Another school to have finished with some examinations is Gems Modern Academy, an Indian curriculum school in Dubai.

This year, its middle-school pupils will not have to sit exams at the end of the first term.

These has been replaced with a challenge-based learning, which has been valued as a grade in the pupils’ report cards.

Challenge-based learning encourages pupils to find solutions to a problem linked to the UN sustainable development goals or in their own environment.

Mohammed Hafisjee, 13, a Grade 8 pupil at the school, set himself the challenge of improving the school’s system for sorting out lost and found items.

Mohammed developed a mobile app for the items, which the school is now using. Photographs of lost items are uploaded to the app to help their owners find them.

More valuable items are categorised and separated from the lower-cost items.

The challenge-based learning project led another pupil at the school to design a low-cost shelter for people affected by hurricanes.

Others came up with an idea for an edible, biodegradable alternative to single-use plastics, which the school is now funding to make bowls and plates to reduce plastic waste.

James MacDonald, senior vice-president of education at Gems Education, said assigning challenges would develop practical skills that pupils would use when they entered the workforce.

“We are going to see schools giving more flexibility to pupils," Mr MacDonald said. "Pupils can help to design and assess projects.

“Critical thinking or problem solving are important but not easy to assess. Assessments will have to keep up with these, so final exams will have a lesser role."

The move to abolish exams is also being considered at colleges and universities in the UAE.

The Mohammed bin Rashid School of Government in Dubai has replaced exams with projects.

“Exams are already becoming redundant. I do not believe in grades,” said Prof Martin Spraggon, associate dean of the school. "Either you have the skills or you do not.

“We completely eradicated exams and we replaced it with project-based learning, where the student is guided and mentored by members of the private and public sector to find a solution to a problem in the real world.

“This has a real impact.”

Updated: June 12, 2019 12:55 PM

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