Interview: How Dwight Dubai Will Nurture Genius

WhichSchoolAdvisor.com meets Blake Spahn who oversees all Dwight School operations in the US, UK, South Korea and soon Dubai in the UAE. He has an impressive CV, and some even more impressive ideas.
Interview: How Dwight Dubai Will Nurture Genius
By Veathika
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Outside of Switzerland it’s highly unusual to find a top independent school which is family run and driven. Such, however, is the story of the Dwight School which is set to extend its global reach with the opening of its Dubai branch in September of this year.

WhichSchoolAdvisor.com was delighted to catch up with Vice Chancellor, Dr. Blake Spahn on his recent visit to the city.

Dr. Spahn oversees all Dwight School operations in the U.S, the UK, China, South Korea and now in the UAE.

 

How did you come to set up the school in Dubai?

Ragheed Shanti, Senior Advisor to the Board, National Holdings, walked into my office in New York and said that Dubai needed the best IB American school in the world. We’re being pitched to on a weekly basis by people looking to set up schools around the world and 99% of them don’t get beyond the first discussion.

Ragheed was very persistent. We were impressed by the Bloom education. The more we talked the more it became clear that this was a great match.

Dubai is a perfect place for a Dwight school. We believe in IB, we believe in international education and Dubai is such an important hub. It’s a centerpoint for economic activity in the Middle East.

What do you look for when deciding where to locate a new school?

We don’t want to go anywhere unless we believe we can be the best school. But what is the best school? We define that as the school that will take you to your full potential. We are an inclusive school. We have some of the best, highly accomplished students going to Oxbridge and the leading Ivy League universities but we pride ourselves on being, above all, inclusive.

It’s very clear that ‘personalised learning’ is a key focus for you. Can you talk to us a little bit about what that means.

Our first pillar is personalized learning. That’s the ability to work with each child and say if you’re at level 2 how do we get you to level 10, if you’re at level 10 how do we get you to level 20? Our ethos is to nurture the spark of genius in every child.

Now if you read many schools’ mission statements they all sound similar but to me it’s all about the execution of your mission. So nurturing the spark of genius is finding out what your passion is – is it journalism, is it astronomy, is it football, is it art or music. We want to support and challenge you to the best you can be in that area but also to use that passion to get you excited about the subjects you’re not particularly excited about.

Your family history is intertwined with that of Dwight and I believe your father is celebrating a notable anniversary.

Our history is an interesting one – the school was founded in 1872. My family’s been running the school for 80 years so my grandfather was involved 80 years ago and my father is the longest serving head in the U.S. He just celebrated his 50th anniversary at Dwight and the beautiful thing is he is thinking about education 20 years from now. I get calls from him at 5 am most mornings. It’s either about an individual student or it’s about the future - ‘this is changing’, ‘we need to do more in this area’.

He is constantly looking for that spark of genius and he used to nurture that spark himself when it was a much smaller school. He would meet with you, find out what your passion was and then map out a personalized plan to get you to your goals.

Now that we are a much larger operation we have many ways of achieving that. Everyone from the head of school to the division heads to the deans to the classroom teachers knows that it’s their job to find and nurture the spark of genius in every child.

How important is it for you that teachers and staff know the children well?

When I’m visiting schools I will walk into classrooms and I will point a child out and ask the teacher ‘tell me about Suzy’s spark’. In the early years, it obviously changes a lot. For example, ‘I want to be a fireman’, ‘I want to be a lawyer’... but to us what makes Dwight special is the ability for every teacher and administrator to know the child incredibly well.

If you don’t know what a child’s passion is you don’t know the child and if you don’t know the child you will never be able to get them to their full potential.

So many so-called ‘great schools’ have great results because they are very selective and they tell you that ‘you have to score the highest marks to get into our school’ and ‘we’ve been doing the same thing for 50 years and we’re going to do the same thing’ and ‘we’ll get good numbers of students into Oxbridge and Ivy League.’ This is not what we believe.

What we believe is that education used to significantly change every 25 years but now it changes every 13 months because of technology. Our job is not just to prepare our students for further study and to help them get into the best universities, but to help them succeed in the global economy. That’s what our job really is. The ability to master content is a key requirement of the IB, you then have to think critically about it. Any great school should do those two things. The third level is the interconnectedness of the subjects, the interdisciplinary nature. That’s what the IB does so well.

What have been the unique challenges faced here?

The first thing we look at is can we be Dwight wherever we operate. Can we run the school as we do elsewhere.

We also look for a global vision – can we help our students here to think as global citizens. Can we do personalized learning here or are there certain tests that are mandated here and we need to teach to the test here? That’s the first step. If we don’t feel that we can have the mission and the pillars of Dwight we don’t continue, we don’t go to that country.

We felt after spending time with the KHDA that we would be able to do all of that.

I did my doctorate in comparative education at Oxford and I taught in Japan. When I was teaching in Japan I saw so many things that inspired me. I came back from there and said we have to get rid of our maintenance staff because I’d seen in Japan that the students and teachers get in a line at 3 o’clock. Thirty seconds later everyone has a job, one cleans the windows, one looks after the plants and so on.

The first thing you learned in my course of study is that you cannot replicate all applications in every country, every country is unique. All Dwight schools have a base but they’re all different according to where they are. So when we’re in England we’re a British IB school, when we’re in Seoul we’re a Korean IB school, when we’re in New York we’re an American IB school so in Dubai we’re a UAE American IB school. 

One aspect that is unique here is the requirement that all children be taught Arabic. This has, however, proven to be a problem for many private schools here for a variety of reasons. How have you approached this issue?

We sought to find out first why it is so problematic to teach Arabic and for 95% of schools it’s a tick the box. How do you make it interesting? How do you allow people to become fluent much sooner? How do you engender a different attitude when looking at the language and culture?

So we had an idea for an Arabic Centre of Excellence which is a key feature of the school’s site.

You seem to be working very closely at all stages with the Bloom team. How important is it to have the right local partner?

Making sure you’ve got the best partner is crucial. I personally oversee all of our construction whether it’s in New York or China. You need a partner you can trust. Who better than a partner who actually does that? Who better to deal with than an organization which has a history of working with schools from an infrastructure standpoint. The due diligence of our partner is critical. In China and South Korea we’re partnered with the government, in London we don’t have a partner. Everything is different. Who you’re working with is vitally important.

You’ve certainly got a passionate IB proponent in your principal Janecke Arnaaes. How did you find her?

We went through hundreds of people before we found Janecke. In the first ten minutes of speaking to Janecke I looked at my father and said ‘she’s Dwight’. Rebecca Skinner, who’s her deputy is one of the best regarded educators in the US. She started a pre-eminent IB school in Brooklyn, New York.

You have two incredible leaders but can you get the best quality teachers to go there? If we can’t do that then we don’t go there. No matter how great your facilities or your curriculum if you can’t get the best teachers you’ll never be able to fulfill your mission. I’d rather have a great teacher and be in a cave.

Has it been difficult for you to find top teachers willing to come to Dubai?

Our schools are all located in major world centres. I had many Dwight teachers from around the world looking to see if they could come to Dubai.

That blew me away.

We now have seven Dwight teachers, most of whom have been with us more than 10 years, coming to open the school. This is very important to us as they are the people who will help establish the Dwight culture in Dubai. Those seven people know Dwight inside and out. They will ensure Dwight is Dwight. The person who founded our Dwight Online program, for instance, is coming here.

Coming into this market now there is a lot of competition. How do you feel about that?

We’re based in New York which is the most competitive market in the world. Imagine five of the top schools in the world all within four blocks. You’re all competing for the same students. I would like our Dubai school to be rated as soon as possible. We believe we will be outstanding from the beginning which means I feel positive about the competition.

The IB diploma is often said to be for the more academically able. Do you think that’s a valid criticism?

You have to really separate when talking about the IB. Through to tenth grade you’re allowed to teach and allow the children to blossom. Asking the right questions and digging, creating curious and critical thinking learners is the most important feature whatever their future. Inquiry based learning is vital.

The diploma programme is very intense but what we’ve found is we can have most of our average academic students do it and succeed. We don’t believe that every student needs to go onto the diploma programme. All of our students can take the full diploma but we sit down with them and discuss options – for some there are elements which might be a bit too much. They can graduate with an American school diploma but the majority of their classes are IB classes. We’re still getting those kids into the top universities. It’s not meant for everybody and we don’t push everyone. In NY around 65% of our kids do the diploma and the rest are doing the partial diploma and that’s not hurting their opportunities.

Inclusive education, what’s the value for you of this?

It’s real life. You go into a work environment and you’ve got to work out how you manage people. How do you get things done, how do you help people to co-operate with other people? You’re going to be dealing with people of different abilities. Everybody is pushing everybody to be better.

What are you most excited about?

So many things. Space is a massive issue for us in New York. What I’m incredibly excited about is that when I see limitations in other schools, they are space limitations. When I was walking through today the area in Dubai that is dedicated to our Spark Tank, well... it is spectacular. If you don’t have space you put in the heart. The heart inspires creative thinkers. Space provides the room for innovation to flourish. The Dubai campus will have both.

 

WhichSchoolAdvisor.com was speaking to Vice Chancellor, Dr. Blake Spahn. Dr. Spahn received his BA and MBA degrees from Columbia University, where he was Captain of their undefeated Men’s Tennis Ivy League championship team.

He then went on to obtain Masters and Doctorate degrees in Comparative International Education from Oxford University. Author of ‘America and the International Baccalaureate’, Blake has taught English and philosophy in classrooms in the U.S., U.K., and Japan.

In 2017, he was named a Distinguished Leader in Education at the 15th annual Education Update Outstanding Educators of the Year Awards Program.

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