Approach to Learning

Approach to Learning

ISB L21 Compass

At the International School of Beijing, we take a direct and simple approach to the challenges of the 21st century with a strong focus on student learning in this period of change and ambiguity. Our understanding of the term "21st-century learning" encompasses many different aspects of learning. Equally, there are many avenues that we can use to help make learning relevant, vibrant and forward-looking.

When looking at our curriculum from PreK 3 to Grade 12, we started by asking ourselves two simple questions: "What can we do to ensure that the ISB learning environment adequately prepares our students for a future we cannot predict?" and "How can we help our school to function as a "world-class" environment of excellence, now and in this unknown future?"

In response, ISB developed "Learning21@ISB," also known as "L21." L21 is a simple yet comprehensive PreK 3 to Grade 12 framework for learning, which attempts to layer a strong sense of purpose and vision on top of an excellent academic program. The premise is simple and yet, we believe, the results can be transformative. L21 is explicitly embedded within our curriculum design and mapping processes. ISB uses Understanding by Design (UbD) as our curriculum framework, which is an ideal match for L21. We have organized our framework around three concentric rings within a five-point compass.

Standards-based Curriculum

At the center of L21 is our standards-based content curriculum. This curriculum was developed from subject-area standards adopted and articulated to specific grade and course level learning expectations. Some voices in the 21st century learning debate have attempted to argue that content and 21st century skills are part of an either/or dichotomy. We choose to see content standards as important starting points for valuable learning experiences. Content knowledge and skills are important, but they are more important within the context of a vibrant approach to application and transfer.

The core of this compass represents the content knowledge and skills that are essential to learning. The standards in our core subjects (English, Math, Science, and Social Studies) are based on the following:

L21 Approaches

The next ring of our compass is comprised of "L21 Approaches." These approaches are: Project Learning, Technology Infusion, Integrated Learning, Experiential Learning, Social and Emotional Learning, and Comprehensive Assessment. Together they best replicate an environment that is very similar to how we might envision the current (and, perhaps, future) world outside of school. These approaches will be familiar "companions" in our students' future academic, personal and professional lives. They are research-proven and, individually, serve as excellent vehicles for the development of 21st-century skills.

Project-based learning

Project-based learning is a systematic teaching method that engages students in learning knowledge and skills through an extended inquiry process structured around complex, authentic questions and carefully designed products and tasks. ISB embraces five criteria for project-based learning:

  • Exhibition Students exhibit products, present solutions or explain their work to others and respond to content and process focused questions.
  • Multiple drafts Students create multiple drafts for feedback with ongoing opportunities to improve their work and create high-quality products.
  • Critique Students engage in formal critique sessions to learn from models and other people's work and feedback in a structured, safe context that includes critique of the process and product.
  • Inquiry Students' proactive, open-ended questions or challenges provide a meaningful, authentic and sustained focus for learning through project work, culminating in multiple possible outcomes of an original nature.
  • Authenticity Student projects have relevance in the world outside of ISB, have a product-oriented outcome, evaluate performance authentically and target an authentic audience.

Experiential learning

Experiential learning is a format in which students learn through essential questions and experiences. It is rigorous, relevant, relational and authentic to the classroom, and has both local and global engagements. Experiential learning is purposefully designed and integrated into the ISB curriculum to allow for students to develop deep understandings, innovate and positively transform ways of thinking, acting and knowing.

Integrated studies

Integrated studies combine curriculum from two or more disciplines. They help students to see the connection between concepts across different areas of study. Integrated learning promotes development of complex understandings and growth of core 21st-century skills. The world rarely functions in discreet disciplines where subject areas are divided from one another by time and task. Our integrated approach reflects the 21st-century reality of combining appropriate assets from different disciplines in order to work with complex tasks and dilemmas.


Technology is a catalyst and enabler of learning in the 21st century. Effective tech infusion also helps to bridge the gap between discreet content and skills and real-world tasks and interactions. Technology is used in the service of L21 skills. Students use technology to learn, demonstrate their learning in new ways, and communicate their learning effectively. Technology is also a platform that gives students access to new, individualized sources and methods of learning –a key element of lifelong learning for today's students.

  • Creativity and Innovation Students demonstrate creative thinking, extensive knowledge, and develop innovative products and processes using media.
  • Communication and Collaboration Students use media and environments to communicate and work collaboratively, including at a distance to support individual learning and contribute to the learning of others.
  • Research and Information Fluency Students effectively locate, identify and evaluate online resources in support of learning in a technology-enhanced environment.
  • Critical Thinking, Problem-Solving and Decision-Making Students use critical-thinking skills to plan and conduct research, manage projects, solve problems and make informed decisions using appropriate tools and resources.
  • Information Citizenship Students understand human, cultural and societal issues related to technology and media, and practice legal and ethical behavior.
  • Technology Operations and Concepts Students demonstrate a sound understanding of technology concepts, systems and operations.
  • Personal and Aesthetic Growth Students demonstrate an appreciation of media resources.

Social and Emotional Learning

In order to educate the whole child for life in the 21st century, we need to reach beyond a factual and deductive mode of learning. Beyond academics, students must develop and continually improve upon important “performance traits," including elements of executive function, perseverance and emotional intelligence. Studies show that these traits and capabilities are important elements of success, especially in the 21st century. Current neurological research indicates that learning is not simply a cognitive act. All learning takes place within a social-emotional context. Effective learning in the 21st century must account for this in order to educate the whole child.

Whole Child Wheel

Whole Child Wheel

Comprehensive Assessment

Good assessment in the 21st century should support the demonstration of key concepts and understandings in multiple ways. Assessment tools and tasks should be varied and include performance criteria for 21st-century skills central to the job at hand. Assessment must connect academic content with the way in which this content is used in the world outside of school. This includes the move away from discreet classroom tasks and towards rich, robust and authentic demonstrations of a student's ability to transfer academic content to a variety of settings and issues.

Skills for Life

ISB is proud of the results that we achieve in academic terms, but academic achievement alone is not sufficient to classify ourselves as a great school. To prepare our students for academic, professional, and interpersonal success, a great school needs to go beyond traditional academics to expand its understanding of what is required in terms of skills and knowledge to achieve success in the 21st century. Through the process of developing our vision and desired student learning outcomes, ISB has identified five essential skill sets that form the core of our L21 curriculum:

  • inquiry, critical thinking, and problem solving
  • leadership and responsibility
  • creativity and innovation
  • communication and collaboration
  • global thinking

ISB is committed to ensuring that all our students, from PreK to Grade 12, acquire these critical skills. These 21st century skills are supported by our L21 Approaches, specifically project-based learning; technology infusion; integrated learning; social and emotional learning; Chinese integration; and comprehensive assessment.

The outer ring is formed by a series of "L21 Skills." These skills will be familiar to anyone following the 21st-century debate and, indeed, to anyone involved in education. Our contention is not that these skills are somehow new or unique to the 21st century, but rather that the context and importance of these skills have changed drastically in the past number of years. The concepts of innovation and creativity, communication and collaboration, inquiry, critical thinking and problem solving, global thinking, and leadership and responsibility are not unique to ISB. However, our aim is to make these areas the backbone of our curriculum to empower students in their lifelong learning.

BEAD Math incorporates business, engineering, art, and design. High school students plan their designs for projects, including lamps and bookshelves, using careful measurements and infusing math theory. Inquiry and Critical Thinking are essential requirements for students, who must come up with designs for their projects and ensure their constructional integrity. Problem Solving is also a vital part of the process, from overcoming cutting and measuring setbacks to calculating orders based on market fluctuations.

Students raise awareness and money for Habitat for Humanity, an international non-profit organization that provides affordable, simple housing for low-income families. Leadership and Responsibility are instilled in students through their involvement in managing fundraising initiatives and school-wide events. Click here to see a student-produced video on Habitat for Humanity.

ISB Composer in Residence James Humberstone helps high school film students discover their creative side during his week of workshops about sound on film. The majority of students lacked any musical background, yet this didn’t limit their Innovation and Creativity by creating their own beats and experimenting with different musical genres. Click here to see a video on our students’ experience working with James Humberstone.

Chinese director Zhang Yimou inspires ISB students by speaking about the importance of creativity and innovation during student-led dialogues. High school students relied on effective Communication and Collaboration when working together leading dialogues with the legendary filmmaker, coordinating the translation of his book from Chinese to English, and interviewing director Zhang on camera with High School Film Club. Click here to see a video on Zhang Yimou’s visit to ISB.

ISB has collaborated with the High School Affiliated with Renmin University of China (人大附中西山学校) in a homestay program since 2013. The partnership enhances students’ Global Thinking by encouraging them to think beyond life at ISB and broaden their cultural horizons. Click here to see a video on our home stay program.

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