Monday, 14 December 2015

Can schools help motivate students to aim higher?

Time flies! It feels like it was only yesterday when I was a Primary School Parent and now here we are starting to feel the slight jitters of Subject choices/College plans/Career goals ahead. Although I am working in the arena of education for sometime now, when it comes to my child, I’m just like everyone else. Concerned about the choices that he or she will make. Will they be sensible ones?. Can I gently nudge him towards something better (read lucrative) without appearing to do so? In other words, nag to instil some sense of urgency into his thought process with regard to plans ahead. I marvel at how some children are so self motivated and go after what they want whether it be a place in the MUN at school or the university that they aspire to study at.

I believe that to a large extent schools can inculcate and encourage students to aim higher. Career counsellors must provide that bit of support when it comes to higher education. Right from Year 9, children should be exposed to a variety of workshops/discussions, Tools for Self evaluation, University visits, Panels by Industry experts along with active parent involvement . Right from year 9. That way, there’s ample time for students to research, discover new areas that might become a passion, gain an opportunity to ‘try out’  or job-shadow , get motivated by the academic journey of someone successful in their locality and in the process start thinking about what they would like to do in the years ahead.
It is disappointing to see very little of the above happening at schools here. Don’t get me wrong , there are schools that have a fabulous academic Counseling departments where the focus is career counselling  and no one in that department is a teacher having to juggle two functions. We at Varsity Connections are really proud that our career counselling activities have been  integrated into many schools’ Career Counseling activities. So the main intent of todays piece is to put down what I would love to see at the schools here in the UAE. Here I am wearing 2 hats, that of a parent and that of a Career Counselor.  

1)    All schools to have a dedicated Career cell staffed by dedicated professional Career Counsellors
2)    Career development activities as a year round initiative with clear goals defined for the individual year groups.
3) Provide standardized psychometric assessments for students. In my opinion every student needs to take one as it gives them a clear indication of skills and interests that they may not have been aware of and more importantly giving them an understanding of where challenges lie. This makes choosing of subjects or career pathways easier.
4)    As an outcome of point 3, student portfolios can be compiled.
5)    Invite industry experts to come in and talk about what’s happening right now within their realm.  This will give the children(and us parents) an an idea at least, about whats ahead in terms of opportunities. 
6)    Invite range of Universities to come to the school. Don’t stick on to the old tired career fair format. Be innovative.  Make it compulsory for students to come and interact with them. It doesn’t matter that those Universities are not ‘good’ ones or as we hear it all the time ‘Local ones’. Have an orientation for the students before the fair and encourage them to ask questions. Trust me they will learn a thing or two.
7)    Provide support for students looking at interning or volunteering. Develop links with places that the students can volunteer at, develop skills and yes clock hours for CAS or DOEd and so on. Those activities should be very aligned with the Career Counseling department.
8)    Ensuring that all co curricular activities/clubs at the school are actually incubators of sorts, promoting creativity among the children.
9)    Maintaining continual updates with the parent community regarding timelines and goals  as defined in the beginning of the year.
10)Arranging information sessions for parents and ensuring that they are aware of the various steps in the high school journey starting with subject selection, criterion for entry into the senior grades, exit points possible and so on.
11) Tie ups with prominent and highly ranked  Universities globally to conduct Immersion or summer programs. This will give the students a taste of the brilliant and inspiring atmosphere at those Universities and give them a feeling that yes, it is possible for me to study there.

At the end of the day we want our children to be prepared to face the future and an uncertain one it is looking at the pace at which things are changing . Our children need be confident of their potential and reach beyond their comfort zone to step into exciting and new opportunities . I believe the school is an important stakeholder in this process and must step up in order to support active and Deep Learning .. 

There are loads more in my wish list but I thought I'd restrict my thoughts to points related to Academic and Careers rather than Learning support and social issues.
Parents and colleagues out there, jump in with your take!

'The Illiterate of the 21st century will not be be those who cannot read and write  but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn'  - Alvin Toffler

Saturday, 24 October 2015

Carrot or Stick?!

‘I just don’t seem to be motivated  to do anything.’ ‘ I don’t have any interests’ are some of the statements made by teens who visit us at the office. Its difficult to have a cookie cut answer as every child is different.

Its no easy task for us parents, especially when teen angst is in evidence.  The children are struggling with so many things at so many levels. Trying to make sense of it all can seem so daunting. Often they ask deep questions like…What’s the point of studying hard and getting the grades to get into the Number 1 University , getting the best job one can get, when we are all going to end up the same way. (At the very end) So why do we need to bother?. 

I kid you not, there are highly intelligent children who ask this in all earnestness. Its not an easy question to answer and each of us have our own interpretation of life and we must be careful how we respond. After all what they are actually asking us is ‘What is the meaning of this existence?’  How many amongst us know the answer to this one.
Or is it sheer laziness from their side which they try to mask by asking  philosophical questions.. just to throw you off?

On paper there are so many strategies and techniques that we are advised to use. There is no set answer or technique. I think in some cases where there is inertia or a lack of motivation, we need to help with some form of external motivation, can be the carrot, can be the stick.  Looking at it positively , this form of  external motivation may lead to children actually starting to make an effort in  activities and enjoying them as well.( I may be kicking up a big storm here with my carrot or stick statement ) But what else can we do when there is no evident intrinsic motivation and one has run out of options.(including the chemical imbalance that comes at puberty) Maybe the stick might just shake things up a bit and in a way  reboot the system. But only when one has run out of all options, in my opinion.

What’s important is to be non judgmental and hear them out without getting into a reactive overdrive. This could just be their way of articulating deep fears within themselves and not really knowing how to communicate this across. Patience and oodles of  love and understanding  and maybe a carrot or a stick  will help us cross this turbulent phase.

Whats your take?

Friday, 9 October 2015

A level or IB.

There are many opportunities available for our children in terms of schools and curricula here in the UAE. The Indian CBSE/ICSE, The British Curriculum, IGCSE and the GCSE, the American Diploma program and then there is the IB.  Of course there are also the Russian, French German and Japanese  and Pakistani schools as well. I hope I have not missed any.

Parents looking for an international education for their children often ask us – “Which curriculum is better for my child; IB or A Levels”
Its often a tough decision especially when the child is already a senior at school and one has to think about the non academic implications, making new friends, leaving familiar faces at the old school and so on.

I thought I’d look at the most common question we get at work, which is the big debate about the IB and the GCE.  Let’s navigate through both of these and understand them a bit more.  And here Id like to reiterate that it VERY IMPORTANT to understand it well and not be taken aback later at a critical juncture.
The International Baccalaureate Diploma Program or the IBDP is a 2 year program (Year 12 and 13) where students are examined on 6 subjects, 3 taken at a higher lever and 3 at a lower level or standard level.  Students choose one subject from each of five groups –
Group 1: Language and Literature,  
Group 2: Language acquisition (a Second language(French, Spanish etc)
Group 3:  Individuals and Societies (Geography, History, Psychology or Anthropology),
Group 4: Experimental Sciences (Biology, Chemistry, Physics), Math  and computer science (Math is compulsory)
Group 5: Arts (Visual Arts, Theatre, Music) and finally   
Group 6 : An additional subject from Groups 2 to 5 .
Students also need to carry out an independent research on a topic that interests them, link it to topics that they have learnt and submit a 4000 word essay. This Extended Essay as it is termed, is a compulsory component of the IB program. Another compulsory component is the Theory of Knowledge(TOK) where they are expected to complete an approx 1600 word essay as well as an oral presentation on an inquiry based topic that can be related to topics that they have studied. Finally all IB students must put in 150 hours of CAS: creativity, action and service . All this over a 2 year period and the final exams are taken at the end of 2 years. (Year 13)   
Grades range from 1 (Low) to 7 (High ) So the final diploma is the combined score  for each subject and additional 3 points for the TOK and extended essay . There are no points awarded for CAS but it is a required component in the final awarding of the diploma.
A levels
The A levels is also a  2 year program where the year 12 program is referred to as the AS or A1 level and the Grade 13 program A2 or A level.   There are 2 qualifications that are seen here in the UAE. The International GCE (IGCE)and the UK GCE. (GCE) Both of these require students to take 3 to 4 subjects at an advanced level . There aren’t group rules in this system. . Each subject is separate and the multi disciplinary approach or integration of subjects(as seen in the IB) is not evident.  There is no requirement for an Extended Essay or TOK and CAS is not compulsory.   Students  are graded on the final exams at the end of the 2 years i.e in Year 13 with the necessary course work if they are following the UK GCE.  If the school follows the International GCE or the IGCE, then students can opt to take the A1 assessment at Grade 12 followed  by the the A2 exams  in Year 13 along  with necessary course work. Grades range from A* to E but  will soon have a 1-7 grading in the future according to recent reports online.

So lets break this down further.  Universities world wide recognise both these qualifications so no worries on that account.   Both are extremely good. The IB is the newer curriculum and increasingly looked at very favourably by Universities because of the holistic nature of the curriculum and the broad based subjects on offer.  A number of A level schools worldwide now offer the IB option as well.

To understand which of the 2, our children are more suited to, we need to understand them: how they work, what their interests are, if they are well organised, self-driven, more inclined towards language and the Arts or more towards Science and Math. Or do they have a specific Learning  Issue that requires support.

If we can identify definite abilities and interests, it becomes easier to decide.  If the student is not sure about career pathways and what to study at university (which many of them aren’t at age 16) , then the IB would suit the child  as they may not want to specialise early on and be boxed in.  

For students who have definite likes, hates and challenges, the A levels may suit better as they  have the option to drop  those challenging subjects and concentrate on the ones that they  like and in the end get  the high scores that Universities look for. 
So if your child is headed for a specialised degree program , and very clear about what she/he wants to learn (and clear about what he/she doesn’t want to learn) then  it might make sense to opt for the A levels and choose a set of 3 specific subjects that can help him/her be able to transition beautifully into a challenging specialised degree program.

In the IB, a child who is facing challenges in coping with the mandatory subjects from the 6 areas may see  overall grades drop just because of a poor score in one subject. (Having said that, Universities not only look at overall scores but also  the Higher level subject scores.)
Another point to remember with the IB is that the assessments are not linear and are based on criterions as well as test scores. Yes, its is a very demanding course program and students need to work extremely hard and be very organised from day 1 in order to maintain good grades across the 6 subjects. Both the TOK and extended essay teach the students independent research skills that will certainly help them at University and beyond.

Personally I am inclined towards the IB. The breadth of subject knowledge, the inter disciplinary approach, emphasis of independent research, their relevance to the present environment and all of the rest creates a well rounded student .I have seen how the IB has benefitted my son when he moved from a traditional British curriculum to an IB school . I see it in the way he approaches problems ,  the way he thinks ,the confidence he has built up and the ability to critique and debate, never getting fazed with the  projects and work demanded from school . He has learnt to become more organised as well. (Took a long time and still a long way away!) But that’s him. Our children are all different.

My advise to parents mulling over whether to switch or not, is to research both the curriculums, know it well, speak to the subject heads at  both IB as well as IGCE schools or the Head of secondary, do a school tour(Important) .. What also may also help is to keep in mind where your child is headed for University education . For instance if he/she is headed to the UK, then perhaps the A levels or the GCE makes sense. If your child is involved in a lot of activities outside of school which he/she is passionate about and wants to make it a profession, it makes sense to opt for the A levels with the 3 -4 subjects.
Understand your children well .... the way they learn, recognise if they are more comfortable with guidance through text books, instructions and course work or are they highly independent learners with a broad range of interests and make your choice. 

October 10th ,2015