The Clarion Interview: What is a Progressive Education?

The Clarion Interview: What is a Progressive Education?
By C Hoppe
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What is a ‘progressive curriculum?’ How does it work? What exactly will it mean for my child? While most of the new schools set to open this month are easily definable in their approach and set-up, there’s one which is causing Dubai’s parents some confusion. Clarion School, the progressive American curriculum school, is more than a little unique. To find out more, caught up with Kim Taylor, Academic Advisor at Clarion to discover just what makes the new school so different...


What exactly is the Clarion USP? “Clarion School will be based on the US common core curriculum,” says Taylor, “however, the biggest difference is the delivery system.” “We are covering all the traditional scope and sequence of traditional subjects, math, science, English, reading and writing,” she says, but unlike other schools, Clarion will do this, at a developmentally appropriate level. Unlike traditional schools, Clarion will have no ‘set-time periods,’ instead children will move through tasks, being given the time they feel they require to truly master each task. Taylor believes it’s all about “self transitioning, knowing when you’re bored and saying, oh I’m done with this.” And, being able to step back and say, “is this my best work...not just be done because the bell rang?” For the younger years, French and Arabic language will not be taught in separate lessons but by the teachers moving into the classroom and assisting with whatever the children are already doing at that particular time. “She [the language teacher] will come in and immerse herself in what’s going on... so much time is wasted in standing in line, waiting for the class, etc,” says Taylor.


The day at Clarion begins with a ‘provocation.’ “Provocations are if you come into our classrooms you won’t find desks, you will find groups of tables and chairs, and often on the different tables with those learning goals in mind,  with something very interesting, something scientific, something to be put together, a mystery, a question.” With younger children, the teacher will talk them through the provocation, “notice what we have here, I want you to make sure by the end of the work time, your goal, you can choose whatever you want to work on, but I need you to, go to this table and go to this table and this table.” Taylor explains, “one might be a handwriting test the other might be scientific, and then there will some other things often with an art element, we can use an art table, with recycled materials, all the tape and staples and things they need,  and want to create things that are on their mind.” She goes on to note, “our classrooms are much more chaotic, from the outside view, because we allow children to use their voices fully, we allow them to layer their ideas and we will allow them to scaffold that as much as possible, in our morning meetings.” Students will be encouraged to explore all forms of communication at Clarion, “we want children to know communication is verbal but it’s also through art, music, and also through writing, we want children’s voices in their writing... this is more challenging to have a teacher say to an eight year old child, I don’t hear your voice in that.” “There are aspects of this education which seem easy,” says Taylor, “but it’s actually the breadth of what’s demanded of them and that ability to share. Those social demands we’re starting them earlier so they will seem easier.”   Teachers and Teaching The school will utilise the co-teaching model, this means each class will have a lead teacher with a Masters Degree in education and another ‘assisting’ with a Bachelors Degree. In addition all Clarion’s teachers will all be Bank Street trained and certified and have a solid background in developmental psychology. “So we have two sets of eyes, we have low student to teacher ratios, so we would have on average 3 to 5 groups of children, who learn to become more dependent and interdependent on one another, So they are going to be working amongst themselves and the teachers seen as resources, and they [the teachers] will insert themselves only when necessary,” she says. “We’re not trying to control children,” says Taylor, “we’re trying to bring out the best in them.” “This puts a lot of responsibility on the children; it’s a fearless this type of education; they are bringing out the diversity and dealing with what comes.” Another difference at Clarion is that everyone, including the teachers are considered ‘learners.’ “We celebrate diversity in our thinking,” says Taylor, “even the teachers, (who are all coming from America) will be for the most part either learning Arabic or French or both, so there will be many children who have a relative expertise which their teacher doesn’t have... the children will see the teacher learning, and this will change their perception of the teacher/student relationship, rather than being seen as this all knowing repository of information which works top down,  the students will see everyone is a learner.”   Assessment Assessment at Clarion will be continual and unobtrusive. Given the teacher/student ratio, the concept is simple, build daily assessment into the daily tasks and then observe how they master the undertaking, before measuring it against their individualised learning objectives. “Assessment is observational, technology helps us, we use the work sampling system which was developed by a developmental psychologist, it’s very appropriate, and it’s almost like a virtual baby book with milestones going forward.” “We want children to be able to see different ideas, so much of traditional education is this is your desk, this is your paper don’t look to see what other people are doing,” says Taylor, “we want children to really think broadly, but still letting them know we are assessing them daily.” Taylor says assessment will be individualised, “because children will take to things differently...we’re all made and wired differently,” she says. It will start with, “how long are their sentences when they come to me in September? How has their vocabulary developed over time, when I monitor it in November and January?”   Taylor’s Credentials Taylor’s CV reads like a roll call of the top universities in North America. “My path has been very, very convoluted. I actually started my training at Yale University, where I did my Doctorate in psychology, and then I went to Stanford... my background is in brain development.  I’m fascinated by children’s brain development. I really believe the first seven years of a child’s life are pivotal.” Kim’s work at Stanford was both in the nursery and the behavioural neurological centre, where she diagnosed children with special needs. “I really saw the range of development and the range we’re all on... it’s really a journey, and this is a snapshot.” Later she moved to New York where she completed her third and fourth Masters Degrees in social work and early childhood general and special education at Columbia University. From there she began teaching in a public elementary school in the south Bronx. It was here she was selected as a semi finalist in a nationwide public school teacher competition. “I was shocked,” she says, “How did they find me?” After the competition, she moved on to Bank Street, where she worked in collaboration with a Not for Profit organisation in Liberia in West Africa, establishing and rolling out progressive pre-schools across the war ravaged country. Today she is the Bank Street associate director for international programmes overseeing their international and new affiliate programmes, the first of which is Dubai’s Clarion. While Taylor will be launching the school and has been instrumental in the two year curriculum design process, as Clarion launches this August she plans to spend her time between Dubai and New York, travelling back and forth, over the next few years.


“I really believe that so much of education as its stands as a professional entity is really adult centred. It’s not child centred and it’s not optimising brain development,” she says. “So much of education has to do with fear. There’s a parental fear, I’m not doing enough, there’s an educators fear that if I don’t teach the right things, or teach it fast enough and the next person after me will think I didn’t do a good job.” “Then there’s also a fear that I’m not going to keep up with the world unless I do harder, faster stronger,” she says. Clarion- for Taylor, is about, “bringing it back to what’s developmentally appropriate, also positive emotional notes, the things you learn by doing, get recorded in your brain differently, so in order to access the knowledge that you have in the best way possible, it’s best to do things... or add to the complexity of things.” Kim has taught in this way for over 20 years.   The Clarion Curriculum Taylor believes the Clarion curriculum is almost the antithesis of the traditional British school system. “I tell our families, if you have three children and they all do second grade, it will look different every time, she says. “You will have a theme which goes over the year, like social studies, and they not only encompass all of the academic subjects but they get children to really know Dubai.” The school will follow the Bank Street system which begins by looking at the child themselves, before working outwards, to discover and explore their local environment. “At the youngest levels we focus on the child, then we focus on the family, then we focus on the school and the school family and then we start venturing out.  We venture out into the neighbourhood, we interview the shop keepers, there’s so much to be learned and such a richness.” “Field trips are about venturing out and collecting data and anything can create data collection... It’s really about teaching the perspective, looking at things through different lenses, then we go out into the environment which is already something we’re adding a level of complexity, so if we study the Burj Khalifa for example we might have an engineer come in and discuss the design, talk about what it takes to run the Burj.” “We’re in partnership with Bank Street College in New York City, and what I love about its curriculum is that it really steeps the children in NY City. They also take a very urban environment and they connect children to nature, despite the urban environment,” says Taylor. “They connect them to people and their neighbourhoods, that’s exactly what we [intend to] do with Dubai. So instead of studying the Hudson River, we study the Dubai Creek, and then we study the here and now we start with the concrete and move back.  So when we study Dubai, we study it now and then, not then and now as is traditional.” “Learning doesn’t stop just because they have left the classroom!” says Taylor. Every element of Clarion has been designed created by Taylor, with the learners in mind. “The outdoor/indoor elements of the school, which didn’t in fact come from Bank St but from my work at the nursery school at Stanford University, where I taught, we had open environments and very planned play areas where children could determine where they wanted to play.”   Clarion’s Parents But, who will Clarion appeal to, we ask Taylor. “Progressive parents and those who really question their parenting style,” she says. “Being a parent myself, I know children don’t come with a manual and I know it’s an evolving endeavour. And just when you get it they change, they’re very dynamic.” “We want parents to be excited, to be really involved in the transparent nature of our education and support it. Parents are welcome on our campus, we have a parent cafe, because I want the school to meet the parents where they are in their journey.” “While there’s the valet parking drop off for the days parents really need to get on, there is also the parent cafe for when they want to stay,” she says.


The bigger mission, the longer journey is to tomorrow and expansion. Clarion it’s hoped will be not only the first, but also the Bank Street ‘demo school’ and launch pad into the region - and beyond. Taylor says, “I believe this school will eventually become a place where other people will come and want to see us in action, because they will say well this is great, but how does it actually happen, how do you really get really deep learning, and how do we take this on, and forward.”  

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