By Chris Schuessler, Newswire
A little over a decade ago, the International School of Beijing (ISB) set about revamping its approach to student learning. Like many educational institutions, they realized that they needed to create a new framework for implementing a standards-based curriculum that would better prepare students for an unpredictable, tech-driven future.
The result was Learning21@ISB, or L21, a unique set of guidelines that inform the curriculum across all grades and subject areas. There are six elements to L21: Project Learning, Technology Infusion, Integrated Learning, Experiential Learning, Social and Emotional Learning, and Comprehensive Assessment. We've previously written about the 'integrated learning' aspect of L21; today, we're exploring ISB's efforts to infuse technology into all areas of learning at the school. This and really embracing science, technology, engineering, and mathematics has been a big focus of the work around L21 more recently.
Clint Hamada, ISB's Education Technology Coordinator, works with the school's faculty to build tech tools and digital concepts into their lesson plans and assessments. He's energized by the school's emphasis on exploring and experimenting with new learning strategies.
"There is support for these kinds of ideas from the top down, and that motivates me and the rest of the faculty to take risks. If we can show that our ideas will have a positive impact, we'll go for it," Mr. Hamada says.
Throughout all disciplines and in every grade, faculty are encouraged to utilize tech tools to help spur inquiry, nurture critical thinking and empower students to design and lead their own projects. It's this emphasis on 'design' that truly sets ISB apart.
ISB high school science teacher Tyler Beatty believes in the importance of teaching his students to think like designers. "We always look for opportunities to push our students into designing things for themselves. It's an ideal way to help them grasp the concepts behind the subjects we're learning," he says.
Mr. Beatty teaches a robotics course at the school in which students plan and manufacture their own designs. He explains, "In robotics, there are three categories of design. There's the planning and manufacturing side, which is very conceptual. There's the mechanics side of it, which is about the motion and the strength of the materials. And then there's the control system, the electrical aspect that gives the robot movement. In our course, we mostly focus on the manufacturing aspect.
"We rely a lot on our programming course to give students the skills to create sequences, sub procedures and functions. The interface can be tricky, but it gives them this real-world experience of using skills from a lot of different disciplines in creating a single project."
Mr. Beatty and his students utilize 3D CAD technology to design, program and simulate their creations. "With this software, we're able to employ all kinds of motions and linkages. We're able to do laser cutting and 3D printing in the classroom. They're learning how motors work, how circuits work. The tools and resources that are available here for our students are truly incredible."
These tools are a reflection of the priority being placed on preparing students to master these kinds of design and engineering tasks. The leadership of the school is dedicated to building these experiential learning opportunities into the curriculum.
"Our approach is different by design," says ISB's Director of Learning, Stacy Stephens. "We developed L21 to adapt to changing work and social environments, and these are mostly changing due to the rapid evolution of technology. A key component of staying focused on that goal is giving our faculty the resources and the freedom to explore and engage with these new innovations. Experiential learning leads to inquiry – it puts critical thinking into practice. This builds a solid foundation for our standards-based curriculum."
Beatty travels with his students to two competitions a year to present their robot creations. "We had a small team go to Seoul [recently] to compete. It's a young group, they didn't win any gold medals or anything, but it's great to have the competition aspect to the course to spur them on and get them motivated."
The process of collaboration through all disciplines at ISB is one of the core goals of L21. "Everyone feels very connected," says Jeff Layman, Mr. Beatty's counterpart in the Middle School. "Our units are purposeful and well-planned, and everything links together very well. Clint and Stacy do a really nice job with facilitating that."
Animatronic petting zoo
One project Layman and his eighth-grade students have had a lot of fun with is an animatronic petting zoo. "This is something I've wanted to do for a long time, but I've never had the resources. And here at ISB, I do," he says.
His students went through a design cycle to learn how to create their robot animals. "This shares a lot of ideas and concepts with Tyler's robotics course. In the same way, we want to give our students ownership over a project in which they can do some real-world implementation of what they're learning."
When his students completed their projects, they hosted a group of first graders and gave them a tour of their new 'petting zoo.' The students were able to interact with the creations and ask questions about how they were made.
"My students surprise me every day," says Mr. Layman. "Watching my eighth-grade students interact with the first graders in such a mature manner was so satisfying. These kids who can be crazy and rambunctious instantly became nurturers and leaders. They were very excited to share what they'd learned. It was such a positive experience for everyone."
After the 'petting zoo' visit, Layman held a couple of wrap-up classes for reflection on what they'd created and learned. The students also took high-quality pictures and videos of their projects and showcased them on ISB's blog. They crafted blog posts to describe the creation process.
"Everyone at ISB can see their creations and read about their process," according to Layman. "We also share them with other middle schools around the world. It's a good lesson in using images, blog posts and social media to create engagement around something they're passionate about. That's an important aspect of learning how to maximize the benefits of technology."
Mr. Hamada also believes strongly in demonstrating the process of learning. "When students share their journey of creation, it leads to opportunities for the kinds of transformational experiences that every educator wants to facilitate," he says. "Students put their ideas and intentions on display in an engaging, exciting way so that other students, both at ISB and at other schools, can grasp them more easily and build on them more effectively."
Building a design toolkit
The philosophy behind integrating tech and design elements into the core curriculum centers on arming ISB students with a comprehensive toolkit of skills and habits that are necessary for any creative industry. "Design is about learning to solve problems in a systematic way," says Mr. Layman. "We're giving our students opportunities to learn that process first-hand.
"We don't know what the world will be like in five, 10, 20 years. We do know there will be a lot more automation and a lot more importance placed on critical thinking and problem-solving skills. We know that if we arm our students with the ability to solve problems and work together in a fruitful, collaborative way, they'll be ready for that world."
As part of a three-year plan coming to fruition with new courses coming online next year, the school's curriculum leaders plan to continue to find ways to push their students to be designers. For 2019-2020, they will add a grade-10 science and engineering course to the one already existing for grade 9. Students are here encouraged to focus on the creative, entrepreneurial aspects of design.
And learners at ISB will be able to put their ideas into practice with the school's soon-to-be-opened industry-quality design center. The center will be stocked with state-of-the-art design tools. "This is almost like a modern-day vocational class for tech," says Mr. Hamada. "When you go to any workplace, you'll be ready."
Parents get hands-on in ISB's design labs
On February 26 and 27, members of the ISB community learned how technology features in students' academic lives during two hands-on sessions giving insight into the skills taught in ISB's design and engineering courses. Parents rolled up their sleeves and made something as their children do in the school's design labs.
The sessions came within ISB's Parent Talk series, which invites community members to learn more about the choices ISB curriculum leaders make and the programs delivered at the school.