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Project-Based Learning, from the Beginning

By Kate Ferrier
Project-Based Learning, from the  Beginning

The International School of Beijing’s (ISB) evolving vision for student learning strives to inspire students through relevant and engaging experiences and innovative teaching models.
As a result, the curriculum and professional learning coordinators at ISB are working with curriculum area leaders and teachers to incorporate forms of project-based and experiential learning into the elementary, middle, and high schools. Last December saw the culmination of the Communication and Collaboration Project, established by early years educators at ISB.
The nine-week, project-based learning experience began with a visit from British arts educator Debi Keyte-Hartland. Ms. Keyte-Hartland’s goal when working with children is to not only respect the curious nature of children, but to work with them as critical thinkers who form their world view in relation to others.
Through discussion and exploration, students in Pre-Kindergarten (age 4) were introduced to shadows in their environment, and the students’ work with shadows was focused around three Essential Questions:
1. How can I communicate using shadows?
2. Is it possible to communicate a feeling or idea in shadow form?
3. What is the best way to communicate my message?
The students quickly became fascinated by the shadows as they worked together to create and capture shadows with digital cameras.
The theme of shadows was incorporated into all areas of the students’ learning: music and movement, storytelling, and Chinese language and culture with a visit from the Beijing Shadow Puppet Troupe. After observing the performers’ use of light, puppets, and shadows, students made their own shadow puppet to portray a character in a Chinese fables.
Their learning experiences culminated in a showcase where students chose their favorite aspect of the nine week exploration and prepared an exhibit with a group of their peers.
In the middle school, educators are enhancing units to include project-based learning experiences tailored to grade levels and classes. For example, students in Grade 8 humanities classes researched, wrote, and produced travel magazines, designed to help new teachers appreciate the diversity of China’s landscape and people.
This learning experience began with a visit from Jen Lin-Liu, owner of Black Sesame Kitchen, a restaurant and cooking school in Beijing and the author of On the Noodle Road. The structure of the project allowed for student driven inquiry, peer feedback, revision and reflection, and provided an authentic audience for exhibiting student work.
Grade 8 humanities teacher Chris Herzberg was particularly impressed with the outcome of the travel magazine project, sharing that students “did not receive direct, step-by-step instructions [but rather] the results were completely based on structured student inquiry.” With students and educators being continually inspired by the learning model, project-based learning has quickly become an important method of accessing the middle school curriculum.
In the high school, faculty have developed long-term project planning initiatives that build up to a dedicated project week at the end of the academic year. Groups of students and educators are engaged in a collaborative process to create an authentic learning opportunity for this week, centered around a common interest.
Educators and students are working together to devise a driving question for the projects while students are managing the logistics of the experience to develop real world skills. In this manner, ISB educators are using project-based learning to harness students’ passion and cultivate student-led inquiry.
ISB is further connecting students to their interests with the formation of the ISB Futures Academy. Next academic year, a cohort of 24 Grade 7 ISB students will have the opportunity to explore this innovative approach to learning.
The ISB Futures Academy represents the school’s vision for all learning to connect students to their interests; cultivate relevant, transferable skills; and empower students to take ownership of their learning experience.

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