Catherine O'Farrell, Co-Founder,

Catherine O’Farrell is one of the founders of, an organisation supporting people of determination in a holistic way across the MENA region. Catherine has been working in education and inclusion for almost 20 years, she has degrees in Education, Psychology and a masters in Engineering.  She is passionate about developing opportunities for children with individual needs. She is an international school inspector, has been a Group Head for some of the region’s largest educational providers and has worked with international and national committees from the Global Sustainability Network to the Ministry of Education here in the UAE to push for a more sustainable and inclusive world. Catherine is a regular media contributor and conference speaker.


A recent article in the JAMA Network open Journal cited a study of nearly 2000 students found that those who played video games for 3 hours per day performed better on cognitive tasks than those who did not.

This can have far reaching significance for the way we teach and educate students. As the education industry emerges from the pandemic, where every school on the planet was forced to pivot on a dime from their traditional instruction to online instruction, this might just be very good news indeed!

“As these games continue to proliferate among young people, it is crucial that we better understand both the positive and negative impact that such games may have” said Bader Chaarani, assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Vermont and the lead author on the study.

Traditionally, educators and parents alike tend toward a negative perception of “screen time” and prolific messages prevail like “Screen time is killing children’s imagination” or “Children are losing the art of conversation because of screen time.”

But what if we need to shift this perception?

This study suggests that this could indeed be the case. The researchers found that the gamers did better than non-gamers in tests where they had to control impulsive behavior or memorize information. The gamers’ brains also showed more activity in regions associated with attention and memory. And the researchers saw changes in gamers’ brain functions in areas that are involved with vision, attention, problem solving, and memory processing, Chaarani said in an interview. The effects are clearly far reaching.

Of course, the content of the video games should be considered as this forms the basis of the vast majority of parents and physicians arguments against video games leading to questions like; are they violent, do they incite racism or hate etc. But if we can mitigate this and put it to the side to look only at the cognitive skills being developed with these video games, there is no argument- according to these findings- video games are good for cognition!

So what can this mean for education?

There is a growing trend toward gamifying learning. We can see the explosion of educational apps over the last few years- the common phrase in classrooms these days is  “there’s an app for that”!

Research from the Journal of Smart Learning Environments in 2020  found that “The gamification of education can enhance levels of students’ engagement similar to what games can do, to improve their particular skills and optimize their learning”. With some studies citing up to 40% increased fact retention for learning through gamification.

These findings are reflected in the adult world too. A meta study on gamification statistics by Boskamp in 2022 found that 90% of employees said gamification of processes and delivery of services made them more productive at work with an average 60% increase in engagement.

Boksamp, 2022

So how can we implement this research into the art of teaching?

The term gamification can be used in two ways. The first way is by adopting the act of playing a video game into everyday use. The engagement levels and entertainment values of video gaming can motivate users to accomplish tasks that are normally viewed as boring, such as learning. Another definition of gamification is the act of using game elements to make non-games more enjoyable.

Focusing on the first definition and adopting video games to deliver a curriculum there is much research available highlighting the many benefits for students and teachers alike.

The Smithsonian Education Centre cites many benefits of gaming demonstrating tailor made learning solutions and happier students.

Gamification aids cognitive development

Games that are created for enhancing cognitive development are often referred to as “brain games.” Brain games are gaining popularity and are based on various questions and problems that the student has to solve. Brain games can increase processing speed and information retention.

Some games can improve physical development

Interactive games are becoming more and more popular, particularly with the improved availability of Virtual Reality or VR Games.

Gamification increases levels of engagement in classrooms

An extensive study by P. Moffett from the University of Ulster found that gaming throughout the day for instructional delivery boosted students’ observed and self reported engagement.

Gamification aids accessibility and Inclusion

Used as a tool for teaching , gamification allows for self directed learning – this can support learners who need further scaffolding and significantly advance more able learners. As students moderate their own learning speed they can accelerate or reinforce their learning at their own pace. A study in 2010 from the Journal of Education and Treatment of Children with Autism found that children with Autism were more engaged, made more progress and most importantly, reported a happier experience in school.

Gamification breaks down barriers

Gamification can break down barriers to learning where students bring their learning home, engage more and participate in more self directed independent learning.

The pervasion of gaming is reflected in the huge influx of investment into the gamification industry.

Boksamp, 2022

With the global game-based products and services market expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 12.9% between now and 2025 NOW is the time for educators to jump on the train- it’s moving fast.

We need to closely analyse how we can harness this amazing tool and implement it for our individual schools’ curricula. Close watch of the market for new tools emerging is key. Attending regional tech shows is a brilliant way to get a glimpse of up and coming ed tech solutions to support learning. As an educator or leader, it is vital that we appraise our curriculum and look for opportunities to embed gaming wherever possible. Find synergies where games can be easily implemented in daily classroom routines and get the conversation moving with the broader school community.

As of 2022, 75% of teachers in the US K-8 use gamification in the classroom. We need to ensure that we keep up, how are you going to use gamification in your school tomorrow?

The time is now!

“Hundreds of schools in England lose outstanding status after reinspection, ” The Gaurdian UK..

According to the watchdog, only 17% of 370 “outstanding” schools kept their grade when they had a full reinspection in 2021-22. What does this mean for schools post COVID? Is the standard of education suffering in the West and will that be reflected across the globe- an important consideration as the inspection season is well underway here in the UAE.

So, are we seeing a similar trend here in the UAE?

With only a handful of the nation’s 1,000 plus schools achieving the coveted label of outstanding; why is it so hard to get outstanding and what can schools do to maintain the high standards of education and work toward this coveted accolade?

The key message is simple. It is all about the students!

It is not surprising really, when you think about it.

The whole function of a school is like a simple systems unit

Input: Students who are not yet educated

Process: Educating

Output: Students who are more educated

Easy! So why does it always seem so complicated?

Let’s break down 5 of key elements found in outstanding schools from the perspectives of  research and stakeholders; teachers, parents and students.

One of the key elements that is consistently reported across all stakeholders is Great Leadership. With a full performance standard on leadership alone in the UAE Inspection Framework this is a key factor to driving excellence in education in the school.

Does the school have a meaningful Vision and Mission?

This should not simply be a performance rolled out at assemblies and events, it should be something that is embedded in the very fabric of school life, one that students feel ownership over, one that embeds the principals of this unique campus and its populus and one that is relevant to the school and its inhabitants.

Another key element to outstanding practice is Partnerships.

All stakeholders note the value of partnerships with the school. This is reflected by the way that students take ownership of their learning, how students participate in their education and the school environment holistically from sporting activities to charitable work. Partnerships embodies the ways in which the school contributes meaningfully to the broader community. This is not only for students but for parents and teachers engagement actively in all aspect of school life.

This is achieved through quality governance where all stakeholders are represented and heard, where leaders are held accountable for upholding the school’s mission and where the school is constantly driven to improve year on year.

Another element common across all stakeholders is that of Inclusion.

Is the school welcoming to all students of every colour, creed and ability.

This element is particularly reported by students as of vital importance. Schools should be a safe space where everyone feels welcome. This is strongly correlated to wellbeing and students’ self perception. If the school is inclusive it fosters an inclusive and growth mindset and builds character for students as they prepare for graduation and to enter life after K-12. School provides the platform for students to develop their perceptions of the greater world, it is where they form their first perceptions of those around them and how the community interacts with diverse populations. We are extremely lucky here in   the UAE where our schools are hugely diverse, a single class can have up to 10 nationalities, side by side, learning in harmony.

Next is the Teachers! Of course, this is arguably the most important factor for any school to move toward excellence in education. Does the school have happy teachers because “happy teachers make for happy students.”

Teaching is a vocation, it is one that has to be part of your core self, your embodied being. Not everyone can be a teacher, it is a highly demanding job with huge emotional input. When you see a teacher who truly loves their craft it is like watching a pro athlete. They are like a magician who tailors lessons with craft and style to engage students almost mystically.

A good leader will spot and foster strengths in their teachers and ensure that they curate an environment where teachers are confident to experiment, confident to flourish and where the focus is firmly on students.

Next is Student Behaviour and engagement. In studies across 40 countries the CfBT Education Trust has identified this as paramount to moving a school toward excellence. They note enthusiasm  and enjoyment in the classroom as key which is no surprise based on the previous point. Looking at how students are challenged in class, how they make progress in their learning and how they take ownership of their learning. This is reflected in the inspection process where the focus is on progress in lessons, independent learning and individualized instruction.

Finally, an element that is gaining more and more attention over the past two years is Wellbeing.

Wellbeing for teachers, the community and most importantly the students. Does the school take a preemptive and proactive approach in supporting wellbeing? What activities and programmes foster positive wellbeing and how are students and staff supported, encouraged and celebrated?

All complex tasks to achieve but when they are doing well they make for a wonderful place to be.

Each of these key elements relies on the other four to be implemented successfully. None can exist in isolation, none can stand alone. An outstanding school should have a focus on all aspects in a wholistic manner to build a comprehensive educational environment where there is always room for growth, room for risk, room for development. If all of these can be accomplished then a school is well on the way to achieving the ultimate crown of outstanding status.

Content Disclaimer

Related Articles