Conversations about Teaching and Learning with PISA 2012 on the Side

Yesterday in Dubai’s Academic city, KHDA hosted What Works Maths and Science at Zayed University. Last year, this series of knowledge sharing events brought together hundreds of school leaders, teachers, and key community leaders to discuss what is happening in the private education sector of Dubai. Given the number of education events in Dubai, the natural question is:

Why would you create another education event in Dubai?

The difference with What Works is that the discussions are not about the business of education as with the larger vendor-driven shows. This event is about the content and delivery of teaching and learning considering the effect on student engagement and achievement. What does this mean in practice?

For example, the conversations is not about what technology to purchase, but about:

when and how various ICT solutions are being integrated into teaching various curricula? How they are enhancing learning? what is the effect on student achievement?

This distinction is not trivial. Salespeople were not present reminding me of Rebel XD’s performance (when he set the the Guinness world record for fastest rapper) pitching materials to schools to ensure sales KPIs. Instead, the community of educators was focused on their core services trying to find ways to offer better opportunities to learn for their students.

Having been present at What Works since the first one, we anticipated this environment and prepared by reading the results of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) 2012 where Dubai ranked 42nd in maths, 43rd in reading and 40th in science. The planned sessions about successful approaches to teaching and learning of math and science in Dubai’s schools could have easily been overshadowed by the Dubai PISA 2012 report which was handed out by KHDA upon entering the venue.

Usually, when these kinds of results are first released, sideline conversations take over. Principals would be boasting about how 85% of Dubai’s students reported being happy at school (above the global average of 80%). Professionals would be discussing the difference between the results of Emirati and non-Emirati student averages in all subjects, the comparison of results of the different curricula, and the ranking of each Emirate with Dubai (Mean Score: 464) topping the list and Umm Al Quwain closing the list (Mean Score: 398).

So why did the community of educators focus their conversation on the teaching and learning of math and science?

The culture of What Works that has been cultivated over the last academic year is about the practice of quality educational delivery. The very first event did see a lot of chatter about the Dubai inspection results; however, over time, the results have only become fuel to drive attention to the core issues.

Yesterday, the Dubai educational community did not seem to find the PISA information shocking or worthy of great discussion. Their reactions were that of professionals who had their perceptions confirmed and their direction reaffirmed. The conversations were deeply rooted in the practice of improving classroom teaching and learning.They recognized that in trying to identify the learning activities and approaches that they could promote in their schools to close the gap and improve learning, they were addressing the core issues that were relevant to their roles.  

If we view the event through the framework presented in Building and Connecting Learning Communities: The Power of Networks for School Improvement, then we might notice a cross-school culture of collaboration. The conversations were reflective of a space where relational trust had been established, capacity building was occurring and collaborative practices were budding. 

It seems that the event’s focus on sharing of professional knowledge and promoting collaborative inquiry might be changing professional ideas and practices. The focus was clearly on professional practices and attention to the PISA 2012 results has been appropriately left for another conversation with a different audience. Perhaps the UAE PISA 2012 results should be led by policymakers at the federal level since it does implicate all of the Emirates and raises critical issues relevant to the nation.

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