The First Steps of Education
The establishment of a full cycle of education at Qatar Foundation (QF) is considered one of the great successes of the organization’s first 20 years.
Through this process, QF has laid the foundations for the development of a generation of young Qataris, empowered with the highest levels of education, in order to fulfill its vision and create a culture of innovation and creativity in service of a knowledge-based community.
The cycle places students on an educational path from an early age, starting from as young as six months old, right up to undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral level.
Parents have the opportunity to enroll their children into the Early Education Center program of QF when they are six months old.
Serving children aged six months through to three years, the program encompasses three centers – at Qatar Academy Doha, Hamad bin Khalifa Student Center, and the Education City Club House – and operates under the auspices of Qatar Academy (QA), a member of QF.
A proven approach
The visionary behind the program is Her Highness Sheikha Moza bint Nasser, Chairperson of QF. Speaking to The Foundation, Gillian Gunay, Assistant Principal, Primary School, QA Doha – who was a key figure in the program’s initial development and implementation – described how the foundations of the program were laid in 2010, before its first center opened in 2012.
“The initial proposal for what would become the Early Education Center program came from Her Highness Sheikha Moza bint Nasser,” said Gunay.
“The concept was to extend QA’s teaching to early education – starting at six months of age. It was a very exciting project to be a part of, and we eventually decided on utilizing the Reggio Emilia approach: an educational philosophy founded in Italy that aims to teach children to express themselves by encouraging curiosity and creativity.”
Inspired by this approach, the Early Education Center follows the ‘Creative Curriculum’, a research-based program developed and published by Teaching Strategies, an early childhood education company.
The curriculum follows five central components that encompass a variety of routines and experiences: partnering with families; knowledge of the development of infants, toddlers, and two- and three-year-olds; creating a responsive environment; learning needs of children; and caring and teaching.
According to Jo Ellis, Assistant Principal, Early Education Center, QA Doha, the learning environment provided is inspired by international research on the brain development of children, especially the growth period between infancy and three years of age.
“Research has shown that the more engagement and interaction that children have within learning environments from the earliest age, the greater impact there will be upon their lifelong learning,” stated Ellis.
“The Reggio Emilia approach has also helped shape society's view of children, and their importance within society – that they are citizens who contribute to a community. Those initiatives have driven a lot of thoughtful practices in early childhood education.”
During the course of each day, children enrolled under the Early Education Center program may spend time learning independently, one-on-one with a teacher, or with a small group facilitated by a teacher.
Experiences are planned to encourage inquiry; attentive engagement; independence; and balance among social-emotional, physical, cognitive and language development. Each child may spend time in a sensory room, outdoors, or in each center’s art studio.
“The most important skills that we teach are social and emotional, and we help the children to express their feelings and communicate from an early age,” said Ellis. “We encourage play-based learning, which is about trying new things.
“This type of teaching is highly sensory in terms of the experiences we provide; everything is about children having the ability to explore new activities in new environments. They're always having the opportunity to run and jump, and to socialize and learn alongside others.
“Though the educators at QA, HBKU Student Center, and the Education City Club House come from a variety of backgrounds, we all share the same belief that very young children will benefit greatly from being in creatively enriching environment, surrounded by qualified teachers and an amazing curriculum.
"That's what we're all here for: providing play-based and inquiry-based teaching. It's not traditional academic learning; it's very much about learning through environments that provoke the children’s thinking.”
Trust through integration
The program’s approach is grounded within the principle of providing an integrated approach to language, with each classroom taught simultaneously by an Arabic-speaking teacher, English-speaking teacher, and a teacher’s assistant.
“With the integration model in early years, our students have the balance between the international-mindedness, the Qatari identity, and their mother tongue,” explained Taghreed Al Mansoori, Assistant Principal, Primary School, QA Doha.
“The first proposal of Her Highness Sheikha Moza bint Nasser highlighted that the center should support the mother tongue language of Qatar,” said Reem Salem, Arabic and Islamic Coordinator, Early Education Center, QA Doha, who first joined the QF member 17 years ago.
“If children don’t have a strong mother tongue language, they will likely have problems when they begin to learn their second or third language in life. That’s why it was important that the center provided a strong program for students to learn both Arabic and English.”
Building trust within parents of the children enrolled as part of the program is essential for its success. According to Salem, educators of the program are often asked what early educational entails, but understand that their response will not matter to parents until they trust that the program is one that respects Qatari family values, and can make a huge difference in the lives and behavior of their children.
“Our first challenge has always been to emphasize to parents that we are not a daycare center or a nursery; we are an early educational center. Building that understanding is not something that happens overnight, but it is something that will happen over time through results. In that respect, the families who started with us years ago have become our messengers, and say to the whole community: 'Our lives are different since we enrolled our children.’"
As a measure of demonstrating the program to parents, in October 2015 each Early Education Center organized its own ‘Family Math Day’, where parents joined their children in classrooms. The aim of the event was to engage children to master key math concepts and skills, while allowing their parents to take a more active role in their learning.
For Karen Wheeler, Lead Teacher, Early Education Center, QA Doha, who joined the QF member earlier this year, the comprehensive approach to teaching and engaging parents has left a great impression.
“Everyone works as a team and supports one another for the good of the children,” she said. “It’s also been encouraging for me to see parents join their children on occasions at the center, to experience the routines and understand our approach to education.”
Ensuring a legacy
Though the Early Childhood Center program is in its infancy – with the center at QA Doha having opened in 2012, before expanding to HBKU Student Center and Education City Club House in 2013 and 2014, respectively – its educators agree that its importance to the QF cycle of education cannot be understated.
“The most amazing aspect of this approach to education is that a child can join us at six months old and can leave here at 18 years of age,” stated Ellis. “And we take the parents along for that journey, because they watch their children grow and achieve academic success at every level.”
For Salem, who has worked at QA across the past three decades, the legacy that QF’s full cycle of education hopes to fulfill is already passing down from one generation to the next, thanks to the promise and results offered by the Early Education Center program.
“The vision of QA is to empower students to achieve academic excellence and be responsible citizens,” she said. “Having been a part of QA for the past 17 years, I can see the results of this in my former students, many of whom are now adults and working in Qatar.
“These students have started their own families, and they tell me they are thinking of bringing them to our early education centers. This is so special for me and makes me so proud to be part of QA and this program.”