Brett Girven is no ordinary headteacher. Possessing degrees in Zoology and Environmental Studies, and a passion for sustainability, the New Zealander presides over one of Dubai’s most progressive and disruptive education institutions: The Arbor School. His aim is to place awareness of the environment at the heart of his students’ experience of education.
The British Curriculum school, which opened in 2019, has been an instant hit among staff, students and parents who have been won over by its eco-centric approach to learning.
“The philosophy behind the school is what’s called an ‘ecosophy’,” Girven explains to Livehealthy. “It’s a deep green philosophy at the root of it all that says the world is a sanctuary, nature’s the best teacher.
“We want to move away from the human-centered approach to the world, where everything serves us and is about wealth and abundance. We don’t reach happiness through consumerism, we reach it through accepting these deep-seated green ideals.
“It’s not ecological in the idea of just caring about plants and animals, it’s that we understand that all things are connected. That what I do in here will then affect out there and vice versa. If we feel connected, it matters more.
“If we start with curiosity, we move to connection, passion and purpose — that’s the journey through the school.”
With its three biodomes and abundant green spaces, the Arbor School is the manifestation of a vision led by the school’s ownership group and, in particular, its CEO Dr Sa’ad Al Omari, who has a doctorate in paleoclimatology from the University of Cambridge.
The biodomes are designed to be an interactive interface between humans and nature, with species of plants that fruit and can be harvested — some of which are used in the school’s meals. There are animals and a ‘learning garden’, which allows younger kids to get muddy and connect with the outdoors, and a quiet ‘reflection garden’ too.
While the school, which currently has 850 students, may look more like botanical gardens than an education institution from the outside, Arbor principal Girven insists each space is used for clear objectives.
“I can’t stress enough that it wasn’t a case of ‘there’s no one in Dubai with the biodome so let’s build it’. This isn’t a biodome school, it’s a purpose-driven school.
“Eco-literacy has a curriculum that has principles and concepts. It’s not just go and look at the guinea pigs. It’s not a zoo. If you use the spaces, you go there with an authentic purpose to teach something. Nature itself is immediately engaging. Being there is really powerful.
“You might go to the domes as a Year 1 class and look at the plants and measure, looking at big versus small. You might go there as a Year 5 class and look at the turtles in the pond and explore what living things need. You might as Year 9 go there and measure the rates of photosynthesis in the different palm trees.
“Equally, if it’s about process. You might go there and discuss how we evolve big questions. Or you might just go there and read a book because it’s a beautiful space.”
Simone Condon, a parent of a Year 4 student at Arbor School is among those to have been thoroughly impressed with what Girven and his staff are doing.
“It has been an absolute pleasure to be part of such a welcoming and strong community,” Condon says. “Arbor is an inclusive, incredibly special school with the most brilliant program. The way it is taught by each and every teacher is next level impressive.
“Arbor is truly one-of-a-kind, and I do hope that we see more follow in its footsteps, as this will ensure we leave our planet in a much better way than when we found it.”
This sort of parental sentiment is not unusual according to Girven, who adds: “People buy into it very quickly. It’s experiential, it’s outdoors, it’s really caring, it’s hands-on. What parent doesn’t want that?
“Quite a few parents say to me, ‘oh, you’re the hippy school that kids will run around bare feet.’ Not quite but what’s the alternative? They all sit in a row staring at the board. Which would you prefer for a four-year-old?
“If you can couple that approach with really good teaching of literacy and numeracy and really good communication and a community feel — that is attractive.”
Students from Arbor have unsurprisingly engaged with innovative sustainability initiatives in the community, including partnering with Maine restaurants and the Emirates Marine Environmental Group (EMEG) on the Dubai Oyster Project. The discarded shells of oysters from Maine are sent to Arbor, where students, families and staff turn the shells into a natural reef at the EMEG reserve in Ghantoot.
“That’s a really good example because it pulls together the idea of connections,” Girven says. “Business connection with schools, connection with environment, connection with culture. It’s an authentic project, a real-life problem and a real-life solution that our children can be a part of.
“We need to know about this place, the Middle East, so that we can live well here. We centre our learning on questions, and we socially construct the knowledge around it. It’s based on our three pillars of sustainability, ecoliteracy, and environmental justice.”
Arbor also runs in-house initiatives such as a bio-farm that sees students involved in planting seeds, watching produce grow, harvesting it and then ultimately eating it in their canteen. Another is an after-dark experience where students and parents come to the domes at night for stargazing and to talk about tropical species.
“If we consider that the definition of sustainability is ‘enough for all, forever’, we need to understand how to teach for that,” Girven explains. “We need children to connect with nature and spend significant time outdoors. We need time and spaces to reflect.
“We need experiential learning and for children to interact with these spaces and places. We need big questions. We need to sustain a journey of curiosity throughout the school from bottom to top.”
Mark is a Dubai-based writer who has couch-surfed through Ukraine, broken bread with football fans in Basra, and appeared on a boxing reality TV show in the UAE – all in pursuit of a good story. Or at least an average anecdote.