Education Reform

Eric Jamieson, Chief Education Officer — Egypt and Kingdom of Saudi Arabia at GEMS Education, discusses his belief that education, and what it offers students, can be so much more than it currently is.

Eric Jamieson has great belief in the power of education to be much more expansive and much more progressive than what it has been and what it still is. It was designed for an industrial-age society and it’s one of the rare professions that still looks the same, with the essence unchanged from 10, 20, or 50 years ago. While technology has brought in some changes, and there are some progressive schools, he isn’t sure we’ve come to terms with the need to bring large-scale reform to education. Bringing in that change is what drives him. He is currently setting up GEMS Education schools in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, with that idea of reform at the forefront.

“How do we design and construct experiences for the students that are going to equip them for the future? We want students to be designers, creators, and thinkers. But they’re in an environment where remembering things that schools used to encourage in the past are probably not quite as important when you can look up information in a flash on your phone,” Eric says.

Having worked in education leadership roles for 38 years, both in Australia and the Middle East, Eric has seen firsthand how education needs to adapt to an evolving society. A former maths teacher, he is the first to acknowledge education can take a formulaic approach, expecting students to practice repetitive exercises without even knowing why. “The purpose and meaning have been lacking, the relevance and application have been lacking — how can students be excited about that sort of thing, particularly when they have so much other external stimuli?”

It’s certainly not the case that the entire education system as we know it needs to be discarded. Eric emphasises the need for literacy and numeracy skills. These core skills enable students to engage deeply and vigorously and to challenge the status quo. He says: “Let’s create situations where students take on problem solving directly related to real-world situations or possibility thinking by asking them what ideas for creations they have. Let’s create more opportunity for them to be able to express themselves in various ways, instead of having predefined boxes for each discipline and have them go from one box to the next.”

He speculates that education should not be about preparing people for jobs per se, but for a world where soft skills and different ways of thinking are going to serve students better, and part of achieving that is for educators to realise they are part of something bigger. Eric adds that he doesn’t have all the answers as to what this reform should look like, but while working with the leaders in the schools in Egypt he asked what experiences they want for the children. He asked them to suspend the confines of the curriculum and all the reasons they may not have for doing certain things in the classroom.

“I wanted to know their optimal thinking and we could look at applying the curriculum to that, not the other way around,” he says. The Egyptian schools recently launched an initiative called WILD, where teachers can use their wild ideas in teaching, placing a much bigger focus on hands-on, experiential learning, which has been met with enthusiasm from everyone involved. A School Advisory Council has been created in each school to provide different perspectives on school initiatives. The Advisory Councils consist of students, parents, staff, business and community stakeholders, and the principal. Prior to this, there was no involvement of parents in any of the decision-making at each school.

Including parents in the school can be challenging, and Eric puts this down to their knowledge of education being based on their current experiences. They want the best for their children but their interpretation of that becomes “more of the same, but better.”

Eric has conversations with the parents where he discusses how much better their children will be served by being encouraged to be creative, critical thinkers and great communicators. He has found that parents are passionate about providing the richest education they can for their children, and they have very high expectations of the school, as they should.

Part of talking to the leaders in the schools is to encourage them to see passion and enthusiasm as one of the greatest gifts that they can give, as opposed to being threatened by them. While their passion may spill over sometimes, it is to the school’s advantage to reconnect with that passion.

“I think, as educators, we’re in a really privileged situation because we can lead this change. Education’s been the same for the last 50 years or more and if it’s still the same after the next 20 years we won’t be serving our young people very well,” says Eric, who adds that the onus is not only on educators. School leaders, system leaders, politicians, governments, and parents need to be involved in engaging students in ways that build their confidence and equips them to thrive in a fast-changing society.