Upgrading Education for Future Uncertainties

How Beijing’s international schools are changing to prepare students for accelerating change

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By Aaron Kruse and Joseph Good

During times of substantial economic innovation, new skills become the basis of growth and opportunity. According to a 2016 report from Brookings, traditional models of education that emphasize mastering an area of knowledge are insufficient to prepare students for the challenges of the future.

“Our current world and the changes coming in the future require education to prepare children for a world of rapid change,” reads the report, entitled Skills for a Changing World. “Thriving in today’s fast changing world requires breadth of skills rooted in academic competencies such as literacy, numeracy, and science, but also including such things as teamwork, critical thinking, communication, persistence, and creativity.”

Adaptation begins with comprehending that challenge, and many international schools in Beijing seem to understand the situation. “It is impossible to predict what jobs children today, especially those in primary school and younger, will be tasked with performing when they’re older; there’s a good chance that many of these jobs do not yet exist,” explains Jim Sweeney, one of the Year 3 co-teaching experts at the Yew Chung International School of Beijing (YCIS Beijing).

Across Beijing, international schools are developing innovative curricula and pedagogies that they believe will prepare the students for an uncertain future. From kindergarten to senior high school, premier educational institutions in China’s capital city are quickly adapting to the new realities of a 21st century economy.

Foundations for a Global Student

Students at the Children's House Montessori Kindergarten learn with materials designed to encourage creativity in a mixed-age classroom. Credit: Children's House Montessori Kindergarten

For some schools, this is all old news. The Children’s House, an international Montessori kindergarten in Beijing, opened its doors in 1992. The methodology employed by Montessori schools was developed by Dr. Maria Montessori in the early 1900s, and the first Montessori school opened in the US in 1911. Montessori classrooms are carefully constructed environments, designed with interactive learning materials that allow children to learn naturally by following their own intuition and creativity.

“We believe that the formative years for children are zero to six,” said Karolina Gillert, Head of Schools at The Children’s House. “The latest research in neuroscience shows more evidence that this method of learning helps students.” One of the key underpinnings of the school’s curriculum is the belief in common traits of childhood development that are often suppressed by the methods used to deliver traditional curriculum. 

For example, in a traditional classroom, subjects like geometry and biology are divided into different units. Young students may learn about shapes, put away the learning materials, and then move to a new unit on insects. But in the Montessori classroom, learning materials about bees include hexagonal shapes that students can touch and play with. As students are interacting with the learning materials, the teacher describes how a honeycomb is shaped like a hexagon.

Gillert believes that this type of learning in a mixed-age classroom uniquely prepares students to be better learners when they get to grade school and beyond. “If you go into a first-grade classroom, you can tell the difference,” she said. “They can cooperate and learn from others, and also teach others. This is really important when you see the kind of project-based learning that is happening more at higher levels of education.”

The teachers are also trained to instill a strong sense of responsibility to themselves, others, and the environment. This value formation at such a young age, advocates maintain, will stay with children for their entire lives and help them to think and act in a more communitarian manner. With four campuses now operating in Beijing, it seems that many parents feel similarly about the lifelong benefits of a solid educational foundation.

Creativity and Learning Spaces

Like the Montessori classrooms, YCIS Beijing has incorporated communitarian ideas about learning environments to encourage collaboration and sharing between their students, who come from more than 40 countries. In their curriculum, YCIS emphasizes a bilingual and co-cultural learning environment, where paired Western and Chinese teachers help students develop communication skills, role-model appreciation, and respect for diversity – all at an early age.

While schools across the world continue to utilize enclosed classrooms and solo-teaching classroom models, at YCIS Beijing award-winning education space design architects from Fielding Nair International have created open and interactive learning spaces. The core concept behind these spaces is “community,” and the design is intended to promote the development of effective communication habits. The variety and flexibility of the environments also ensures that students remain engaged with educators, who can match the classroom environment to the unique learning styles of individual students.

YCIS Beijing’s unique learning spaces also allow students to develop “soft skills” and explore their own creativity. The environment at YCIS Beijing instills cross-cultural understanding and encourages fully rounded development. Educators in primary school frame lessons around broad concepts and themes, which are then applied across traditionally isolated subjects, such as science and social studies. This deepens learning across subjects, teaching students the importance of making connections, and how to more effectively discover and explore them.

An instructor takes advantage of the learning space flexibility at YCIS Beijing to facilitate a more collaborative environment for students. Credit: YCIS Beijing

This multidisciplinary approach gave Chen An Lee an opportunity to learn an instrument. Lee, a current Year 8 student who began studying at YCIS Beijing in Year 1, first started playing violin in the school’s music program. Now, playing the violin has evolved into an essential part of her life, and it has also had an impact on her personal growth.

“Before I learned the violin I was really, really shy. I wouldn’t want to do things or perform in front of people” she explained. “I used to be really independent and introverted, but now I like and even prefer working with others, which is definitely thanks to my experience with the orchestra.” 

Students are not the only creative people at YCIS Beijing; their staff and educators also incorporate various technologies into their lesson plans so that students can learn to enhance their own coursework. Even if students are studying the same material, they can show the results of their learning in different mediums, such as making a PowerPoint presentation, designing visuals, or even making short videos. 

Greg Eiselt, a marketing officer at YCIS Beijing, described how the Year 3 teaching team, like other levels at the school, work to incorporate technology into the curriculum. “The ability to recognize how digital tools can enhance your own work, and to use them effectively to craft creative digital content, is an increasingly valuable skill to possess,” he said.

Students at YCIS Beijing take advantage of their classroom’s technology options to develop skills for a digital future. Credit: YCIS Beijing

Technology is integrated seamlessly into daily lessons at educational institutions like YCIS Beijing. The application Seesaw, for example, is a learning journal that allows YCIS students to upload pictures of their own work onto school-provided tablets. Then, students can reflect on their and their peers’ work, which provides a valuable opportunity for them to think constructively about how they can improve in future projects.

Applications like Seesaw also promote the development of strong communication and critical thinking skills. Nowadays, everyone has a computer in their pocket, so having a strong grasp of skills like critical thinking, collaboration, creativity, and communication are essential, and allow YCIS Beijing students to stand out.  

A Self-Directed Future

Incorporating technology into school curriculum can have huge benefits in the classroom, but the same technology has also made it possible for students to learn with greater autonomy. When looking to the future, Western Academy of Beijing Deputy Director John D’Arcy believes that this indicates a need for a pedagogical shift. “We are giving students the chance to self-direct their learning because students need to have the capacity to self-regulate,” he said. “They need to be capable of being autonomous in their learning, because to be successful today and tomorrow we all need to be capable of continuously re-inventing ourselves.”  

D’Arcy is an expert in the field of self-directed learning and is also leading an initiative at the school called “Future of Learning at WAB,” in which this methodology is a key component. Giving students more freedom in the construction of their learning is one of the 20 goals contained in the initiative, which is intended to help WAB lean into the future of learning. D’Arcy sees a future where students are not just taught what to learn, but also how to learn. To succeed as a self-directed learner, students need to be able to identify an area of interest, judge what is important to learn in that field, find and contact experts, and develop resilience to failures.

In preparing students for their future challenges, WAB has initiated changes in its curriculum at every grade level, and is working with educators and parents to innovate their teaching methods. For example, the Capstone Program is open to WAB high school students and aims to encourage pupils to find individual pathways to self-determined learning outcomes. In close cooperation with instructors and mentors, the recently inaugurated program allows students to “co-construct” their own curriculum and assessment measures in an area of learning about which they are particularly passionate.

“It has been a career-long passion of mine to implement individual pathways like Capstone,” said Melanie Vrba, Principal of WAB’s High School. “I'm proud to work at WAB, where our open-minded and risk-taking community embraced this effort wholeheartedly." The fruits of that effort seem to be paying off, and the program has received enthusiastic reviews from parents and students alike.

Students in WAB’s newly-founded Capstone Program spend part of their school day on self-directed coursework, ranging from digital animation to dance choreography. Credit: WAB

In a traditional high school these students may take the same subjects, study the same curriculum, and work on the same homework assignments. But in Capstone, the variety of student interests is instantly made obvious by the different projects that senior students have initiated. One student is writing his own computer programs while another choreographs and coaches a dance team; other students are also working on video game animation or studying photojournalism. At the end of their long-term project the students are required to defend their learning to a panel of academics and experts in their area of study.

The benefits for the students are not limited to the content that they learn in the program, but also include the qualities they develop as young learners, such as individual resilience and taking initiative. In D’Arcy’s opinion, the character development is likely to be the most lasting element. “It’s an essential trait for contemporary life in a globalized world,” he said. “You have to be capable of self-directing. Right now and in the future, the people who are going to be most successful are going to be doing this.”

Occupational Invention

The world is changing, and rapidly so. Uncertainty – over a variety of complex social, economic, and political issues – has become the norm, and the impact of globalization is a prominent topic of discussion in every national capital around the world. Governments and individuals alike are struggling to keep up in this environment. Thomas L. Friedman, a New York Times columnist, wrote about the shifting tides of the job market in his most recent book, Thank You for Being Late: “When I attended college I got to find a job; my girls have to invent theirs.”

Globalization has challenged our previous understanding of quality educational systems, and around the world those systems are adapting. In many places in Beijing, the educators responsible for preparing the next generation are responding in a remarkable way. Institutions like YCIS Beijing, The Children’s House, and WAB are inculcating students with the necessary skills not just to compete in the human-knowledge economy, but to thrive in it.  

Aaron Kruse is the content editor at AmCham China

Joseph Good is a Government Affairs intern at AmCham China