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The constant change to our lives throughout the last year has been a process of trial, error and reflection. With the International Baccalaureate’s (IB) flexible programme framework and approach to teaching, trialling multiple ways of schooling was easily achievable, allowing educators at the Victorian International School in Sharjah to adapt to meet students’ requirements. Dean Pyrah, Executive Principal at the school and Head of the UAE Association of IB World Schools, discusses.

The events of 2020 were a shared experience on a global scale. Throughout lockdowns and periods of isolation we, as a global community, have been able to truly understand the interdependence we have on each other. Global causes need global solutions and through collaboration, we have a better chance of tackling issues. There has been a monumental amount of learning for all in the past year and looking to the future, we must reflect on what has gone well, and will continue to be implemented, and what we will leave behind as we move forward.

In the education sector, students and staff faced periods of significant changes to approaches to learning and teaching. As a school we shifted the way we learn, teach and come together as a community into a mixture of virtual and face-to-face learning moving through different learning paradigms. We looked at the hierarchy of needs for our staff and students recognizing that our staff need to feel secure and supported to ensure our students (and their parents) feel confident with their education. In an international school, teachers can feel isolated so it was important to galvanize our staff and give them the power to overcome their insecurities which in turn excited the students with their learning. The only way we were able to successfully navigate these changes with our learning community was to be transparent through honest and open communication and a trial-and-error approach (on a macro and micro level), which enabled us to be prepared for whatever change came our way.

We approached each stage of change through the evaluation of lessons, our technological provision and methods of teaching. Not just with our school but with a community of schools across the Middle East who came together to share resources for the benefit of all. At each stage, we gauged engagement assessing the momentum of students adapting to changes to the way they were taught. We reflected upon what did and did not work, moving forward with the necessary steps at each stage to amend our approach to learning ensuring no students fell through the cracks.

Communication with students, parents, guardians and staff was key during this period; not only informing our community of changes but also in keeping them connected with each other, instilling a sense of belonging in a community that truly understands what it’s like to be a part of multiple cultures. To ensure our parent and guardian community were supported through the transition to remote learning, we ran training sessions – multiple one on one Zoom meetings – and held question and answer sessions for them to come together and discuss the best approaches to teaching students at home. We also knew it was imperative to support students on how best to approach online learning, so we hosted student training sessions and held surveys at each stage for feedback and to review the momentum of engagement and learning.   

The promotion of independent learning is at the core of IB programmes along with building resilience within its students to be prepared for a future where they can be open and inquiring global citizens. Because of this, we know that our IB students were better prepared for last year’s scenarios that required our students to put the IB learner profile (the IB mission statement translated into a set of learning outcomes) into action. The natural flexibility of IB programmes also enabled our teaching staff to have the power to adapt their programmes to suit restrictions, their students and national curricula needs.

But this ability to be flexible stems from an agile approach from central IB. At the beginning of the pandemic, the IB recognized that there would be a problem with examinations and it planned for the need to change prior to sharing clear communications with IB World Schools. We felt that decisions were made quickly by the IB and had a focus on the online learning environment for students ensuring as little disruption to education was caused.

There was an emphasis on schools having the power to be flexible and find ways to teach and keep the integrity of an IB education by adjusting to online practical examinations and other assessment methods suitable for each school. A flexible approach is something that has been empowered by the IB since its founding. Its flexible programme framework enables schools to adapt the IB programme to incorporate curriculum mandate by local governments, and to create instructional designs for programme components (such as community, activity, service and the coursework) that are authentic and relevant to their local context. Both pre-pandemic and post-pandemic, the IB consistently acts to ensure the integrity of an IB education.

Through the uncertainty of an end to disruption, the IB’s leadership assisted in bringing sense and order to what was otherwise a very distressing time to the IB community. Now there is a light at the end of the tunnel, we look to the future to see what positives we can take from our shared experiences that have helped us. It’s clear we can benefit from sharing resources; whether it be advising on online teaching, communicating ideas on engaging students in lessons or sharing teaching resources in a time when staff have been stretched more than they ever have before. If 2020 taught us anything, it is that we can be flexible, open to change when needed and can transition through uncomfortable periods of time smoothly through clear communication, togetherness and technology.