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Before I start, and just for full disclosure, this article was researched and developed using both human and artificial intelligence. If your instinctive reaction to this admission is to question the value and authenticity of an opinion piece part-produced by a machine, then there is even more reason to read on. Generative AI is becoming an embedded feature of school curricula and an essential tool for enquiring into the most appropriate curriculum for your child.

The process of writing this piece, in fact, began with a very human experience: observation. Sitting in the stands of the Dubai Sevens recently, I noticed a preschooler taking out an exercise book titled ‘Writing Inquiry’ emblazoned on the front. This sparked my curiosity. What precisely differentiates an inquiry-based method from other approaches commonly used to develop a young child’s writing? Was this rugby game specially chosen as a stimulus for writing inquiry; if so, how would this sport-inspired narrative relate to the child’s previous stories and to others to come?

Whether you’re a parent, school educator or both, searching for good explanations of complex aspects of international schooling often begins with well-crafted questions. Faced with the task of choosing a school curriculum brings with it the need to confront and overcome one’s default positions, unconscious biases and blind spots. This is why enlisting the support of generative AI tools such as Chat GPT-4 is helpful. By producing precise and comprehensive prompts for the chatbot, we can reduce the kind of confirmation bias that naturally creeps in when conducting our own internet-based research.

Content and process

As Chat GPT reminded me, the fact that the meaning of ‘curriculum’ continues to change speaks to the cultural, political and economic contexts in which such definitions are framed. For simplicity, most definitions fall into one of two camps: the first focuses on curriculum as content (the ‘what’ of education) and refers to the organisation of specific subjects and topics; the second emphasises curriculum as a process (the ‘how’ of education) and refers to the methods and strategies used to teach that body of content. 

The ‘how’ is essentially about delivering the ‘what’; in other words, it is about making the content understandable, engaging and applicable to students. Examples of processes include:

  • Inquiry-based approaches.
  • Collaborative learning.
  • The use of technology.
  • Differentiated teacher instruction tailored to diverse learning needs and styles. 

To illustrate the how-what / content-process distinction, let’s consider a topic within science. The chosen content could be the human digestive system, and the process might be a blended learning approach combining hands-on experiments with digital resources such as interactive 3D models. In this example, the teacher might ask students to conduct experiments to understand digestion processes and to use online simulations to visualise the internal workings of the digestive system.

However, understanding the interplay between curriculum content and process can sometimes be a challenge for parents. Although school websites and brochures usually provide helpful insights into curricula, these tend to be just the broad brushstrokes. It is the finer detail that families need to make more informed decisions about curriculum.

It is for this reason that parents are strongly advised to make every effort to ask schools to explain in detail what they mean by content terms such as “broad and balanced” and “interdisciplinary” as well as to show how process concepts such as “personalised learning” or “project-based learning” translate into action in the classroom. As a conversation opener, a parent might ask: Could you tell me about two or three key features of your curriculum? Could you share one or two specific examples of each feature to help me understand how teachers teach, and children learn in this school phase? 

As international schools usually have the power to choose and shape their curricula, it is feasible that there will be marked differences in content-process across phases of a school. Indeed, it is not uncommon for schools to offer a national curriculum programme (British, Indian, etc.) in the primary and lower secondary years but opt for an international curriculum framework (e.g., International Baccalaureate, IGCSE.) further up the school. 

If parents are eager to keep their child in one school across multiple phases, their follow-up questions might include one or more of the following: Can you give me an indication of how the curriculum changes as my child moves through the school? To what extent does the style of teaching and learning change in different phases of the school? What does this look like in practice?

Knowledge and skills

When outlining the rationale for their curriculum choices, international schools will invariably refer to ways in which they support children in developing knowledge and/or skills. There has been a long-running debate within the world of education about which is more effective: the so-called ‘knowledge-rich’ curriculum that supports students in making links across subjects and building webs of knowledge or the ‘skills-based’ curriculum, which prioritises the development of practical skills and competencies over the acquisition of academic knowledge. A key argument put forward in favour of the development of transversal skills (i.e., skills not explicitly related to a particular job role or subject discipline) is the need to equip learners for the unpredictable world of the future. A contrary position is that building a deep factual knowledge base is crucial for improving critical thinking, achieving cultural literacy and preparing for lifelong learning.

Arguably, the most rigorous and robust school education relies on a harmonious blend of knowledge and skills. After all, skills don’t develop in isolation; they are anchored in a solid foundation of knowledge. This balance is crucial, so treating one as more important than the other creates a false dichotomy.  Moreover, the optimal curriculum will allow students to apply their knowledge through skill practice. This approach eliminates unnecessary tension between knowledge acquisition and skill development and leads to a more comprehensive understanding of the world and the individual.

Currency and relevance

In deciding the appropriateness of a curriculum, it is essential to consider how far schools have genuinely embraced the ideas, concerns and spirit of the age. Attending the Next Gen World Majlis event at COP28, I listened to four inspirational student panellists speak passionately and eloquently about the urgent need for climate action. Alongside fellow eco-champions Fares, Haneen and Yousef, Sunmarke student Sofia echoed COP28 Senior Education Advisor Rose Armour, who argued that schools must educate the next generation of employees on how to make a significant climate contribution.

The growing concern over environmental issues should have led every international school to integrate sustainability education into their curricula by now. The best schools in the UAE have made much-needed space and time to teach students about sustainable living, environmental stewardship and the implications of climate change. These essential themes ought to be woven into various aspects of the curriculum, encouraging learners to think critically about their role in the environment and their capacity to find creative ways to effect change. 

In addition, the most innovative schools in this region carefully combine a futuristic vision with the pragmatic needs of today’s classrooms. This work undoubtedly involves the full integration of generative artificial intelligence and machine learning into educational programmes. My school’s education strategy already includes a deep commitment to making such a significant curriculum shift. We aim to equip every student with the tools and understanding to navigate their future – and with the full support of AI. We are very encouraged to see emerging evidence that AI models can play an essential role in developing advanced analytical and cognitive skills.

With this AI revolution, international schools must cultivate technically proficient students and informed digital citizens who can critically assess the intricacies of AI technologies. A comprehensive curriculum is designed to ensure students are prepared not only to use these technologies but also to understand their broader implications in our digital society. The changing shape of digital literacy within the classroom mirrors the evolving relationship between technology and society, underscoring the importance of a well-rounded and ethically aware education.

The reality is that an incredible range of schools and curriculum options are available within the UAE, so making the right choice for your child is by no means an easy task. However, the cornerstone of a robust decision-making process is a set of well-designed questions and prompts that will help you scratch well beneath the surface of the matter. By requiring schools to drill down into the content process, articulate their views on knowledge skills and outline their position on current trends of local and global significance, you will soon appreciate how far their educational goals align with your own.