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“Try it!” High School Transformed

Shanghai American School, Pudong Develops Interdisciplinary Project Based Learning Institute
By Samuel J. Richards
“Try it!” High School Transformed

Science Rotations: The new I2 space at SAS Pudong adapts to learning needs. Here students in the "cafe" section have a teacher-led lesson while students in the lab center experiment. (Photo credit: Samuel J. Richards)

Oxygen wept as three students rapped, “How was our ionic love slaughtered?” A mesmerized audience bobbed their heads to the beats of Mattisimanity the Musical, inspired by Hamilton and four high school courses at Shanghai American School (SAS).

The musical was just one of seven stories shared with visitors gathered October 19 to celebrate “Story Time!” as the inaugural exhibition for the Innovation Institute (I2) at Shanghai American School’s Pudong campus.

21 freshmen formed seven publications teams to create a product that integrated learning from four courses to answer the question, “What is more influential in how we make life decisions: hope, fear, or something else?”

Students used the design cycle to identify a target audience, conduct focus groups, and choose a medium to best communicate their answers. The exhibition included live performances, podcasts, comic books, and a choose your own adventure story. Students also reflected on their process and fielded audience questions.

It was the culmination of unit one in a new two-year program for grades nine and 10 that uses interdisciplinary, project-based learning (PBL). The curriculum promotes SAS’s transdisciplinary transfer goals.

Developing a Team
Months before the exhibition, SAS leaders formed the I2 teaching team. Four faculty bring together a range of experiences while teaching Asian History, English, Integrated Science, and Design Technology. As a team of equals, they develop units of study based on a common conceptual lens and essential question.

Renée Couturier, SAS Pudong’s associate director of educational programing, believes program success begins with staffing. Her advice for schools considering similar programs, “Hire the very best. Hire the most collaborative, the most flexible and adaptable, and the most committed teachers.” Then, “Trust your teachers. Be very clear, as a team, about your goals and design your space to encourage collaboration.”

Amanda Young, high school science teacher, recommends that anyone considering an interdisciplinary PBL approach “have an open-mind, and clear norms regarding communication and collaboration. Teachers should be able to share ideas openly with their teammates and be flexible in thinking how their subject's content and skills could be incorporated into a project. Thoughtful consideration of others' perspectives is critical in developing the dialogue and framework necessary to move forward.”

She considers her experience teaching AP Environmental Science to be invaluable preparation for PBL. “I have become accustomed to discussing responses to questions [in that course] that I would not have generated myself and are not found within the textbook.”

English teacher Michael Crachiolo agrees on the importance of teamwork, noting that “the level of collaboration is much more than I had expected—it is non-stop.”

Curriculum design started in early 2021. Couturier and Annalee Higginbottom, the secondary technology coach, helped guide development. SAS Pudong also benefitted from past experiences from the successful art-focused I2 at SAS Puxi began in 2016.

Some faculty also participated in professional development beyond campus, including an online PBLWorks program by Buck Institute and a year-long PBL cohort at the University of Pennsylvania.

Developing a Space
I2 teachers also influenced floorplans. Three classrooms were demolished to create an expansive, well-lit area that incorporated two nearby hallways. The new layout sets the tone for collaboration and flexibility.

SAS Pudong principal Dr. Benjamin Lee solicited input from teachers at multiple stages.

“The learning space that students have at their fingertips is designed with the students in mind,” according to design teacher Stuart “Jeff” Bailey whose background includes Primary Years Programme and Middle Years Programme exhibitions. “The open, creative space is their blank canvas for thinking and creating, but, more importantly, it is also a transformative space that molds and adapts to the needs of the students, day-by-day and project-by-project. Dry wipe tables and walls encourage students to make their thinking visible beyond pen and paper.”

The learning space adapts to learners rather than learners adapting to the space. In Bailey’s words, “It is more than just the space; it epitomizes a pedagogical approach we wish to promote.”

However, compressed construction timelines mean teachers and students continue to discover ways to improve the space including needs for storage, dropdown electrical outlets, and additional sink space. Constant improvement fits with the iterative I2 design cycle.

Developing and Implementing Curriculum
Several all-day meetings in spring 2021 were crucial to program planning. Couturier and Higginbottom designed these days to focus on big ideas of academic disciplines. They also provided plenty of snacks and logistical support, which even included Bailey calling in from Qatar.

“I think a clear goal in mind is key [to planning],” according to Crachiolo. “If each course comes with clear non-negotiable standards that can serve as a basis for making sure each course covers required content, everything else sort of flows from there organically.”

Couturier says, “Discuss, discuss, discuss. Put as many ideas on the table as possible. Take time away and revisit after reflection.” Then, be risk-takers and “try it!”

In the introductory “Hope and Fear” unit, school days initially looked similar to peers in traditional high school programs with the addition of morning and afternoon meetings for community building. There were designated lessons for all four courses.

Samuel Richards, who teaches social studies, compares early parts of that unit to preparing travelers on the ancient Silk Roads. “Our students need to be equipped for their journey. At first, we help them pack. We give them supplies, content and skills, from each subject. Over time, roles shift. Students travel more independently. As distinct classes morph into longer design blocks, innovators discover new ways to integrate learning while answering the essential question.”

For unit one, students studied character development and plot structure in English, chemical reactions in science, and world religions in Asian History then synthesized learning using the design cycle to create “Hope and Fear” stories answering the essential question.

“I’ve never before had so many conversations with freshmen about whether scientists could be religious or vice versa. This didn’t happen in our traditional stand-alone courses,” according to Richards. “Students don’t have to make sense of ideas in the same way when we’re in academic silos.”

Schedule flexibility within I2 also helps integrate subjects-based content and skills.

On A-days, I2 students and faculty follow the regular SAS Pudong schedule. On B-days, I2 meets in its redesigned space and follows its own schedule except for lunch. This allows teachers to maximize interdisciplinary synergy when planning each week. Some days English might be 60 minutes and other days just 30 minutes. In some instances, science has met for two lessons in a single day in order to maximize lab-based learning. This flexibility also eases logistical challenges as Bailey works from The Netherlands while awaiting travel to China.

Couturier also emphasizes that, “the daily schedule with community time at the start and finish helps students understand their learning begins and ends as an interdisciplinary community of learners.”

SAS Pudong will expand its interdisciplinary, design-focused, PBL program to Grade 10 in August 2022.

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