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Engaging the Challenge of ChatGPT and Discovering the Excellence in Every Child

NJIS
Engaging the Challenge of ChatGPT and Discovering the Excellence in Every Child

NJIS introduces its approach to learning and teaching by prioritising the needs of every child through the personalised approach.

In an exclusive interview, NJIS Head of School, Gerald Donovan (GD), and Primary Years Program (PYP) Coordinator, Ezra Alexander (EA), discuss the school’s discovery of excellence in every child, and how ChatGPT and emerging AI technologies are changing the landscape of education.

Hello, Gerald! It’s been a while. How have you been?

Very well indeed, thanks for asking. How have you been? It has been a while, hasn’t it? I’ve been great and it’s been wonderful welcoming students back to NJIS daily and strengthening those relationships and habits that are such an important part of the school. Allow me to introduce our PYP Coordinator, Mr Ezra Alexander. Mr Ezra teaches Grade 4 and also coordinates the primary program here at NJIS.

It can be said the COVID-19 pandemic is over. What was the biggest distress you faced as the head of school during the pandemic and how did you overcome it?

GD: As a school, the first month of the pandemic was spent simply trying to survive. But as it became apparent that the lockdowns and virtual learning were likely to be counted in years rather than months, we adapted quickly. Our motto throughout became “not just surviving, but thriving” and that is what we did! Early on, we decided to base our decisions on one simple question; “How will it impact students’ learning?” We found that this cut away a lot of the confusion and made sure that we were making decisions that prioritised our students’ mastery every day and made sure that everything we did was purposeful.

EA: We were very fortunate to have an extremely supportive parent community and an extremely resilient and bright student community as well as the best teaching faculty in Jakarta. 

GD: We were also lucky to have a great leadership team who really kept the focus on student welfare; Mr Ezra, of course, our MYP Coordinator, Hendri Yasir, our DP Coordinator, Warren Wessels, and our Support Coordinator, Kate Hamman. Together, they engaged and worked with faculty and students.

Please elaborate on how NJIS discovers excellence in every child.

GD: At NJIS, we help our students work in something called the Zone of Proximal Development – it’s an educational theory from a Soviet psychologist called Vygotsky. To put it simply, if you imagine three horizontal zones on a graph; at the top are skills that are currently beyond a student’s reach, and at the bottom are skills that a student can already do autonomously. It is in the middle zone, between the things they can’t do and the things they can already do with autonomy, that we find the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) and it contains things that a student can do with help.

If a student is given too many tasks that are in the uppermost zone – they might feel stressed and incapable. If they are set too many tasks in the bottommost zone, they will feel bored and unchallenged and they may even start to misbehave. So a teacher’s job is to identify which tasks fall into the middle zone – the ZPD – for each child and support them to tackle that task with as much guidance as they need.

Zone of Proximal Development
Understanding Students’ Zone Is Crucial for Teachers

EA: So, I think this is what is special about the NJIS approach – we recognise that there is not one level to each class. In fact, in one class of fifteen students, there might well be many different zones of proximal development. And that’s okay – in fact, it is the best way to structure teaching and learning.

This is not something that just any teacher can do! It requires training, conscious practice, and a lot of emotional intelligence to really get to know the individual levels and needs of every student in the class. It takes a lot more work and skill to connect personally with each student in the class, get to know their strengths and weaknesses, and provide them with tasks and challenges that keep them working in their zone and it really requires a special kind of teacher – this skill of connection is one of the most important skills we look for in any teacher who applies to join our team.

How do you view ChatGPT and the new technology of AI in schools?

EA: We started experimenting with ChatGPT very early and, sure enough, many of our students already knew all about it and had been experimenting with it in their learning routines. We have been having open and frank discussions with our students about the benefits, the risks, and the ethical implications. Everyone; students and teachers alike are still figuring out the do’s and don’ts when it comes to AI-generated work and we are having an ongoing conversation about where the line might be drawn between using AI to cheat and using it to help plan, evaluate, and improve their work and their purposeful learning.

GD: If we engage with it and use it correctly, ChatGPT and other emerging AI technologies can be used almost like a daily “guide on the side” for students. Just one example might be a Japanese student who is having her first year at an International School like NJIS having moved straight from her home country. She can use ChatGPT to translate an assignment into her own language to help her as she sits in class. She can ask it for further clarification on any points she doesn’t yet understand. The use of AI can help her gradually adjust to the English Language environment, especially when integrated into the ELL support system with a teacher.

How do you think ChatGPT will change schools?

GD: I think that old models of assessment are already dead in the water. We are already starting to reduce the essay as a major source of assessment – those old one-size-fits-all approaches to assessment no longer serve students well – in reality, they were never all that great to start with. Successful learning will require that teachers know their students personally. Just as good schools gave up on the idea that memorisation of facts was the pinnacle of education when the internet came along, likewise, we will now have to realise that AI will reinvent assessment to make it more personal and individualised.

NJIS - Personal Approach
Successful Learning Will Require a Personal Approach

EA: If you asked me to compare the impact of Covid on education to the impact of AI, I would say that the impact of AI is likely to be larger and longer-lasting by an order of magnitude. Personalised learning, driven by engagement between teachers and students, is the only way forward. AI is going to be a profoundly helpful supplement to that process.

Gerald and Ezra, what’s next for you and NJIS?

EA: On Saturday 4th March, we have a Filmmaking Masterclass for schools from all around Jakarta. We have local and international filmmakers coming in to coach student teams on making a short film, which they will then have one month to complete before they present it in April at the “Reel Deal” Film Festival.

GD: NJIS is going through a period of expansion and growth and we are in the process of preparing spaces and adding new classrooms for our additional classes for next school year. We are Jakarta’s fastest-growing international school and we believe that this is directly driven by our personalised approach to education. It really is an honour to be part of a community that is so focused on purposeful student learning and well-being; to achieve those goals, we need to work together as a team – students, teachers, parents, and administrators. We all have a role to play in creating a positive, supportive learning environment that fosters growth and development and this is part of our work that never ends!

How can our readers get in touch with you both and NJIS?

GD: We have an open house coming up on 1st April 2023, but there is no need to wait that long – you can give our wonderful and welcoming admissions team a call at any time to arrange a school tour or even a trial class. Their Whatsapp is +62811 927 888 7.

EA: I hope to see you here and, if your child is joining in the primary years, I’ll look forward to talking with you about our approach to personalised learning and how NJIS discovers excellence in every child!

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