At a glance
From the earliest days when Clarion was initially announced, it was clear that this was a school being developed because of the passion of its owners for progressive education, and their desire to see a one-of-a-kind building and campus to support what is a one off curriculum, based on the US common core but with an approach unique to the cultural context of the UAE and Dubai.
Clarion School's campus is located on a large rectangular plot with amazing views towards the skyline of downtown Dubai with the Burj Khalifa at its heart. The design and layout of the school on the site has been very carefully considered with the main entrance and teaching block overlooking this view.
Unlike most schools where the administration is the first point of access, at Clarion it is the classrooms that enjoy the spectacular views and open access to the outside areas. The three sides of the building are surrounded by grass with integrated natural wood play equipment and between the two blocks is an expansive open area. On the second floor, in front of the school resource centre and cafe, is a large terrace overlooking the skyline.
At first sight, the school looks more like a very large private home than an educational establishment. The building is two-stories high, a white rectangular block, with two sections to the right and left of the central core and with classrooms located on either side or with outside access.
Classrooms are light, bright and airy, furnished with predominantly light wood with none of the primary colours so popular in many schools.
Teachers do not have desks, but are expected to work at the same level as the children. This often means that they sit together with the children on a mat in front of the whiteboard or together individually with children as they're working at their level.
The aim is to create a calming environment with all modern technologies and facilities that would be expected with a specific focus on engaging children physically in learning. One of the core parts of the curriculum is use of field trips to underpin learning. Learning is topic based and the same topic is the focus for the entire academic year enabling teachers to plan a range of visits across the calendar.
The main administration block is set at the rear of campus with an open outdoor corridor between it and the main teaching block. This area creates an attractive learning and play environment with a range of natural materials and wooden blocks which can be manipulated by the children.
At the entrance to the administration block and to the learning corridor is a ramp which leads to the second floor of the building and which has been specifically designed to resemble that of the Guggenheim Museum in New York. Even the administration building is imaginative in terms of design, with a double height entrance foyer which is used for both school assemblies and other gatherings.
To the rear of this area is a small parent cafe, which is a popular gathering place for parents after dropping their children in the morning prior to collecting them in the afternoon. It is these clever and imaginative architectural touches, the use of wood and bamboo imported specifically from Bali to create fencing that does not seem to be a barrier and outdoor play equipment which seems to match perfectly with the surroundings, that gives the school such a natural feel.
A key feature of the school are wooden building blocks which are used by children in a variety of ways. This may be to replicate something they have seen or learned such as the flow of the water pipes below the building, or they may be used to develop their maths skills through counting.
The curriculum is strongly focused on learning through doing, through experiential learning following the program of the Bank Street College of Education in New York, but with an adapted curriculum that has been specifically created for Dubai and there is a real sense of Bank Street's influence in the school.
Progressive education as a curriculum has been provided by Bank Street for around 100 years. Clarion school also ensures that the US common core curriculum is embedded within the curriculum they are teaching. This ensures that students are provided with teaching in all of the subjects and with the specified learning outcomes of a regular US elementary school, but with the method of teaching adapted to the progressive curriculum.
We were shown around the school by Dr Kandice Williams, the superintendent, who explained that in Clarion school there is an emphasis on every child being different. This philosophy is applied not only by teachers to the way in which they teach individual children, but also to ensure that children understand that each and everyone is different.
Examples of this are provided through explaining that children have different eye colours, different hair colours, but at heart are the same. Teachers at the school are all holders of a Masters degree in Early Childhood Education, many of them with direct Bank Street experience. This ensures that they have specific training which enables them to understand the reasons behind a child's behaviour and to address it appropriately. Teacher feedback addresses behaviour as well as academics.
Access to the outdoor areas means that children can be given impromptu play breaks and can relax, do breathing exercises or whatever staff feel appropriate for returning to the classroom. On Sunday mornimgs, children participate in Tai Chi to focus their minds for the new school week. There is a daily meeting between staff and children to discuss the programme for the day and also 'check in time' when children have the opportunity to talk about concerns or behaviours among their peers.
A focus of the curriculum is that it is less results oriented and more process orientated, ensuring that children know how to question, how to research how to experiment, how to learn and therefore how to become lifelong learners in a world that is changing so quickly and where adaptability will be the key to success.
Of course, Clarion school has all the facilities that would be expected of a premium education. This includes a large multipurpose gymnasium, and swimming pool. There are also specialist music, art, design technology rooms, a library and separate Arabic teaching rooms. A second phase of the school will be built to provide a middle and high school environment.
In speaking to parents, all were particularly complimentary about the way in which teachers approach the children, the way in which they are motivated and in which children lead their own learning. Although there are milestones to be met in line with the common core curriculum, parents especially commented on the fact that there was a great deal of flexibility in the way in which milestones were approached and they particularly appreciate the way in which a collaborative and calm approach to learning is a fundamental part of the school. They believe that the school has a clear focus on mindfulness and the physical and emotional wellness of the children. In their opinion, this approach makes learning more effective for the children, who love what they are learning about. They specifically mentioned how teaching is tailored to each child.
The parents also commented on the fact that there seem to be many parents with a similar mindset and interests to whom Clarion school appeals. None of the parents we met had previously experienced Progressive Education but all are now convinced by it. Two of the three parents we spoke with and whose children had started school in pre-KG are now moving older children to KG 2 from other schools.
Currently the school is relatively small with approximately 130 children attending pre-KG to Grade 4. Both the school and parents are happy that growth is relatively slow since this assures small class sizes and great focus on their children.
There is much to admire about Clarion school. It is one of only a small number that have chosen an innovative curriculum which until now (despite its long history in the USA) has not been offered in the Middle East. We saw a school that was imaginatively designed, with teachers and children who seemed to really be enjoying the setting that they have been given, with up to date and modern resources and facilities and work and activity on display which clearly underlined the academic focus of the school.
It is the delivery of the curriculum-with its truly hands-on approach-which is so different. The teaching methodology may not appeal to all parents who are used to a more traditional teacher led, rote learning environment but may well have much appeal for those who want to see a more innovative approach to learning.
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