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WKND Spotlight: Dubai student helms initiative for global education reform

Dubai - At 18, Emirati-Saudi teenager Leelya Sakka wants schools to adopt learning models that value creative intelligence too


Karen Ann Monsy

Published: Fri 27 Nov 2020, 11:31 AM

The most passionate causes are often those with personal stories at the heart of their missions.

Dubai-based Leelya Sakka is all of 18 and in her last year of school, but she’s at the forefront of a student-led initiative that wants to see education reforms not just in the UAE, but in schools across the world.

The Emirati-Saudi teenager with Palestinian origins founded Not Another Brick in the Wall (www.notanotherbrick2020.com) over the summer to encourage dialogue around the need for school systems to value creative intelligence. “The idea came out of my best friend’s experiences with education. I know this might sound biased, but she’s one of the smartest people I know,” she says. “Her ability to be creative and think critically is amazing. But her grades don’t reflect that.”

Leelya said she began to delve deeper into what exactly school grades were a reflection of, after her friend began to question her own intelligence. “I started asking questions like: what does intelligence mean? And is it right that intelligence is standardised?” The youngster believes that every child has an innate love for learning, but that academic systems in their current form are educating students “out” of that love — something she considers “a real shame”.

The youngster was one of three students elected last year to represent her school at the United Nations in New York City. The summit — focusing on the voice of the youth — didn’t take place due to the Covid-19 outbreak, but the teenager notes that the pandemic is the reason education institutions everywhere are reconsidering their learning models right now.

“More and more universities in the US are adopting test-blind and test-optional policies, as far as standardised tests for admissions are concerned,” she points out. “They’re more aware that there are other ways to evaluate a student’s merits. There’s just a fear of jumping out of a system that’s been around for so long.”

Supporting the change-makers

Leelya is currently working on a book that is based on research she’s conducted with students from 30 schools around the world. She’s also collaborating with UAE-based curriculum developers (who do not wish to be named yet) to develop an online, interactive syllabus that they’re hoping to see in schools in the region soon.

“Creativity is something we’re all born with,” explains Leelya, who loves acting, photography and scuba diving, and has a black belt in mixed martial arts. “The problem with standardised testing is that you only have a binary of right or wrong answers. Students, therefore, develop a fear of making mistakes — and that fear stunts creativity.” When students aren’t creative, they fail to be innovative. She contends that this makes for a defeatist approach, considering innovation, by definition, requires one to “think outside of the textbook (or the facts on the Internet) and piece together different pieces of information to create something new”.

It’s an ambitious undertaking for a young woman, but Leelya not only has the support of her peers — but of her parents and school too. Liam Cullinan, Head of Secondary at Nord Anglia International School Dubai, where Leelya studies, notes that, as educators, their job is to “nurture and develop the change-makers and leaders of tomorrow”. And that includes encouraging discussions about the endless possibilities of enhancing children’s learning experiences.

“Creativity comes in many different forms,” he shares. “It’s about nurturing that — whether it’s a beautiful mathematical mind, or a designer, or a performer. Schools must explore what creativity is to each individual, as this allows for expression, empathy and innovation to flourish.”

‘Value what makes us human’

This isn’t Leelya’s first experience petitioning for systemic change. An initiative the youngster started at her school succeeded in giving girls the right to wear trousers as part of the school uniform, rather than being limited to skirts that often felt restrictive. “After several presentations and students coming together, we finally saw the rules change — and, as part of a school club, even got to work together with a manufacturing company to ensure the trousers were as comfortable as possible.”

Teaching students how to think (as opposed to teaching them what to think) is the way forward, she believes. “We’re seeing how important that is right now in trying to figure out a vaccine for Covid-19. That’s not in the textbook. And I’d argue that if we had a more universally creative educational system, we’d have found it easier to discover a solution.”

Her emphasis on creative learning has everything to do with the rapidly growing use of artificial intelligence in every sphere of human life. “Every day, there are less attributes that make us uniquely human. What differentiates us from AI is our ability to connect and be creative, to collaborate and to empathise. Those parts of a human shouldn’t be undervalued in education, because they are what make us uniquely who we are.”

The stigma that creative intelligence is the weaker form of intelligence needs to go, according to her — especially considering that logical and mathematical intelligence is the type that can be replicated by technology.

Leelya is conscious, however, to not be seen as a student who’s ‘complaining about school’. “It’s not that I don’t want to do my homework. I think there’s a genuine concern that needs to be addressed. I know not everyone agrees — but I’m finding that those who don’t are usually those who’ve been out of school for a while — or the more fortunate students who find school easy, because it’s tailored to how they learn. It’s time we recognised that that sort of didactic method only works for a few students, not all.”


Photo by Shihab/KT
Photo by Shihab/KT
Photo by Shihab/KT
Photo by Shihab/KT

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