Education: The Next Phase

We talk to principals and senior leaders about the latest trends and talking points for the new academic year.

A popular topic of discussion revolves around the Fourth Industrial Revolution and the jobs of the future that do not exist yet. It means the decision-making process around preparing for something we don’t yet know is challenging. Christophe Savard, Vice President — Student Career and Future Employment Architect at GEMS Education, says that with a tremendous amount of information at our fingertips, in both our personal and professional lives, we are continuously seeking the best option and validation through various channels. This leaves us continuously wondering if we have made the right choice and, in some cases, suffering from FOMO — the fear of missing out.

“With an increasing number of career changes in today’s average lifetime, transferrable skills are essential. For our students, it is important that we focus on skills such as research, analysis, and decision-making in order to equip our ‘already info-equipped’ young people with the power of choice and the accountability that comes with it. Options such as online courses, experiential hands-on programmes, certificates, and training courses, coupled with the fear of student debt and a lack of placements after post-secondary education, leave students and parents concerned for the future,” says Christophe.

In a recent Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) report, Envisioning the Future of Education and Jobs, students described how they saw their world evolving to include fluid learning, a focus on media and digital literacy skills, as well as the relevance of technology in how they will work and live in the future, signalling the time has come to reconsider the structure of education.


A recent debate in education has introduced a new vocabulary for schools focused on the language of AI (Artificial Intelligence), IoT (Internet of Things), AR (Augmented Reality)/VR (Virtual Reality), blockchain, credentialing, machine learning, and computational thinking, according to Michael Gernon, Chief Education Innovation Officer, GEMS Education. A disproportionate amount of time is spent writing about them compared to implementing solutions that impact on student learning, classroom teaching, and school leadership. It appears that education has adopted the language of business but is struggling with adopting and applying the technological practices that are now associated with the world of business, and certainly the world of the future.

If that describes the debate of the last two years, then Michael says that the adoption and embedding of these technologies, as well as the associated changes to how learning about them is organised and delivered, must define the next two years. This will require a focus on three key areas: utilising new technologies to personalise the learning journey for each student; re-defining the role of teachers to take full advantage of the technological tools at their disposal; and an increased focus on the delivery and application of social and emotional skills.

“In GEMS schools, increased use of AR and VR will expand students’ learning experiences into new and immersive environments, allowing for a greater depth of exploration, understanding and application of practical skills. Adaptive programmes in core subjects will allow students to master key concepts at their own pace and accelerate their progress. This will also create additional time and space for teachers to coach students and facilitate learning in different ways. We need to accept that schools can no longer be a one-size-fits-all operation,” says Michael.

Nargish Khambatta, Principal, GEMS Modern Academy and Vice President — Education, GEMS Education, adds that the current education system and curricula were never designed for today’s students, with young people being digital natives. Cloud-based technology, mobile devices and bring your own devices (BYOD) schools have transformed the way students learn, receive feedback, and collaborate on the go.

“Coding, Internet of Things (IoT), and the Maker Movement have caught the imagination of students and teachers alike, and schools have started allocating spaces, curriculum focus, and evaluation tasks to the Maker Movement,” she says, adding that: “the infusion of art into science, tech, engineering, and maths is a more inclusive approach and has enabled collaboration to be taken to another level.”

Nargish adds that gamification allows students to have fun, be creative, and collaborate effectively, and educators and providers have embraced it. GEMS Modern Academy has effectively piloted Arc Skills 21, which according to the Arc Skills website is a research-backed programme designed for students in Grades 7-12 that immerses students in scenarios that require them to identify, develop and practice a set of social, emotional, and behavioural competencies. This in turn nurtures 21st-century skills which include communication, self-management, persistence, creativity, collaboration, and critical thinking.

Embracing technology in the classroom is all well and good, but Matthew Burfield, Principal/CEO, GEMS Founders School (GFS), says that while the school has VR headsets, drones, a Mac lab, and 3D printing, all of these must be utilised to the benefit of students’ education. “Technology in the classroom must be moderated and used to enhance children’s learning and not just as a gimmick. I think there is a bit of backlash after a trend happens where people reflect and ask if it was necessary.”

Maryssa O’Connor, Principal/CEO, GEMS Wellington International School (WIS), adds that supporting students in a digital world is also crucial. “There are many distractions and dangers online which we, as a school, are attentive to. We want to support our students as they embrace new technologies and intelligence so that it enhances their personal and educational journey rather than becoming a barrier. Sometimes our students lead the way, but we are fortunate to have some fantastic experts in school and across GEMS to support us in this rapidly changing landscape.”


On the flip side of the tech-heavy focus, Matthew says that one of the biggest trends he sees focuses on well-being and mental health awareness, adding that when looking at the most successful countries in terms of educational outcomes, they’re beginning to reduce or remove all the pressure of exams. “They’re starting to negate some of that outcome-driven curricula and they’re starting to look at the introduction of things like forest schools and the way we can engage with children so that their wellbeing is just as important if not more so than their academic outcomes,” he says.
Maryssa adds that children and young people find themselves under more pressure than ever to achieve. They face assessments from an early age and often these become their focus rather than the learning process itself. An important issue for schools is to ensure all students receive the right guidance and support, not only with their academic progress but also for their emotional wellbeing.

“Being emotionally confident learners that are not afraid to take risks is crucial as we build resilience and understanding that in order to succeed, we sometimes need to fail. It is crucial to remove the pressure of achievement and replace it with the genuine love of learning, the desire to explore and ask questions, developing students into high-performing learners with skills that they have for life. At WIS, we have embedded the High-Performance Learning Framework and are one of just
13 schools globally to achieve World Class HPL Award Status,” says Maryssa.

There is a trend across the UAE and beyond to look specifically at exam stress and the pressure that young people are under while they are at school. Both Maryssa and Matthew agree that schools are taking a close look at how leaders are impacting on student outcomes and positive experiences, and how do leaders inspire the wider school team, including the students themselves.

“Our students who need specialist support are a focus and we recognise that progress rather than pure attainment is often a more accurate measure of what each individual child has achieved. We are incredibly proud of the grades that all our students achieve, from the highest accolades to the first steps, each of our students has applied themselves and worked incredibly hard for this achievement. We would like to see more external regulators recognise the journey that individual children take during their education and the skilful support given by all educators,” says Maryssa.

On a practical level, Jodh Singh Dhesi, Head of School Performance and Standards, GEMS Education, says schools are expecting the release of a new unified inspection framework for the UAE and it will be interesting to see what the focus will be and how leadership teams will address any changes in schools. He says the issues that the GEMS leadership team continues to grapple with include how to ensure that children and young people are equipped for a rapidly changing, technological world while maintaining a focus on rigorous academic standards.

“As ever, the key objective will be to ensure that we successfully address inspection requirements, while continuing to develop our GEMS Core Values and the individual ethos of each school within our group. It is not impossible to do so, as after all the whole thrust of the current inspection framework, and we assume of the new one, is about developing happy, safe, and successful children and young people, which is want we want to achieve here at GEMS,” says Jodh.


Schools cannot achieve these developmental goals in a vacuum. “Working together with parents as partners is crucial to ensuring all students achieve their best, from the youngest in FS1 right through to Year 13 graduates,” says Maryssa. “The diversity of our curriculum and cohort of children means that we need our parents to be engaged in their child’s education and understand the individual demands they face. As a school, we have introduced a wider range of opportunities for parents to find out more about the curriculum, learning, and emotional well-being.”

“We will continue to develop this further in the next academic year as parents have responded so positively to this programme.”David Fitzgerald, Vice President – Cluster Lead, GEMS Education, agrees. He says, “In recent years, digital education has focused on the creation of and access to digital content. This will continue, but with greater focus on connections – connecting educational stakeholders including students, parents, business, government, and community. It’s about connecting learning to the real world, with more direct access for students to professionals, and connecting technology solutions to each other so they offer enhanced solutions to existing problems.”