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Future Academy Students Are the Architects of Their Own Learning

Upon entering the Futures Academy (FA) at the International School of Beijing (ISB), it seemed like something between an art class and a science lab, and a far departure from the classrooms we grew up in as kids. There was no “sage on a stage” or giant overwhelming blackboard, just a room filled with tech, circular tables, and happy kids. We were very impressed with the colorful and creative atmosphere that filled the room, as students looked very focused, working intently with a variety of the tools that they had available to them ranging from laptops, 3D printers, audio equipment, and cameras.

Now going into its fourth year, FA has a lot to be proud of as it begins the 2017-18 school year, bringing more students into the mindset of 21st-century learning. But, like all movements in education or elsewhere, the ISB Futures Academy started as an idea: an idea based on wanting to give students the ability to become the architects of their own learning, and encouraging them to experience a different form of education that is equally about developing proficiency in academic standards as it is about learning to be creative problem solvers.

While they were by no means the originators of this concept, as other schools in Beijing and around the world have also started to implement both project- and experience-based learning, ISB had the support from parents and faculty that was necessary to begin in 2014. As Dr. Tarek Razik, ISB’s Head of School, put it; “the atmosphere was right for a change.”

But, with over 1,700 students and 150 teachers at ISB, we were curious about how a redesign like this was initiated. After all, it was necessary that ISB created a program which didn’t completely negate the standards-based curriculum, but would rather complement and reinforce it, by providing a testing ground for educational practices which could later be integrated into the entire school. Also, it was evident to the founders of Futures Academy that if they decided to implement these new learning concepts throughout the entire curriculum, it would have taken years of planning to introduce, and probably be met with some skepticism.

If they chose to start the new way of learning in primary school, there’s a chance that the maturity needed for this kind of academic freedom had yet to surface in the student. On the other hand, if it were started too late, then maybe the benefits wouldn’t have enough time to take hold, especially with the added pressure of IB and college prep. That’s one of the reasons why they chose to start with Grade 7.

So far, with each year the program has been gaining traction and is currently at 88 students in Middle School, and ten students in Grade 9. If the student decides to stick with FA, the complexity and nature of the project-based curriculum mature along with the student.

A day in the life of an FA student is usually broken up into three blocks (90 minutes each), and two half-blocks (45 minutes each). Two-thirds of these full blocks are spent in FA developing projects, and the other is either in Art or PE. The half-blocks, which occur before and after lunch, are when students do their enrichments (Chinese, orchestra, robotics, etc.) with the rest of the middle school. As for the core subjects such as math, science, and humanities, these are all integrated into the projects, though in a less linear way than students are typically accustomed to. So while the rest of the middle school may teach unit 1-6, FA will mix it up a bit to better integrate these lessons into the student’s projects.

Jazzy, a Grade 8 student said; “We integrate subjects into our projects, but it’s not like ‘turn to page 80,’ it’s more about finding things as they relate to the topic of your project.” So while at first glance it may seem that life as an FA student is a huge departure from the standard, these subjects are just presented through more creative and less conventional methods. After all, the plan is not only to gain mastery of core academic subjects but also to engage with individualized learning which is specific to the student’s passions and interests, helping the act of learning to become a more organic process.

One of the essential ingredients of FA, we were told, is something called L21. This is in many ways the academic backbone of ISB that exists in their framework from Pre-K3 to Grade 12, and attempts to layer purpose and vision on top of academics. FA has a particular focus on these concepts, that range from communication and collaboration, creativity and innovation, global and critical thinking, and leadership responsibility. It’s combining these ideas with academic standards, technology, comprehensive assessment, and various types of learning, including project based, experiential, and even learning on a more social and emotional level that ISB believes will help prepare students for the challenges of the future.

Whether it be their Capstone Projects where they explore sustainability subjects relating to Beijing’s hutongs, or Futures Public Radio, which is a platform based on the National Public Radio (NPR) model where they learn the basics of podcasting and journalism, their projects are firmly rooted in this L21 framework while making sure a firm grasp of the core curriculum is maintained. Subjects like math, science, and humanities are integrated into these projects, but using a less linear approach, and expanded upon by the flexibility that is required by both personalized and experiential learning

One Grade 8 student we talked to put it neatly by saying, “In science, if we have a theory we have to prove, we make a claim and if it’s incorrect, the teacher won’t tell us. She just says ‘think what you think is right, and use the evidence that you’ve found from the lab or from research and prove your claim.’ Since we’re finding our own answers, it’s in our minds more clearly, and it stays there.”

Students explore their respective topics with guidance from their teachers, gather data in the field, and probe further to connect their projects to other areas of study. This allows them to get to know their topic, while learning essential skills like writing surveys, interviewing experts, and using the information they have gathered to write a complete analysis of the subject which they will eventually have to defend at the project’s conclusion. To us, this sounded more like something from a university dissertation rather than a middle school classroom, and we were quite impressed by the level of independence these young students were working at.

It takes a certain kind of teacher to be able to encourage students in such a way, without just delivering them all of the necessary knowledge straight from a textbook. It’s this kind of teaching style that makes the FA program stand out, as they not only help to deliver individualized learning through regularly checking up on progress, but also connect students with experts to further enhance the level of expertise of these projects. That’s why they are referred to as “facilitators.”

Dr. Tarek Razik explained, “As a teacher, it used to be ‘here’s the knowledge, I’m going to give it to you, and then you’re going toggle it back to me on a test’. But now as a facilitator what I’m going to say is ‘here’s what I want you to be able to do, now how can I help you do that?’ While the teachers still need to teach to the standards, how that happens is up to them.” This puts a lot of added responsibility onto the teachers to make sure the students are delivering, but also it allows them to be creative and use every tool at their disposal to make this happen.

This, in particular, has helped the school to receive input from the teachers on ways that it can further benefit students. Using Futures Public Radio and the grant they recently received as an example, FA facilitator Aaron Moniz talked to us about the motivational factor that comes with ISB actively working to support creative methods to give kids real world skills and hands-on opportunities with technology. He said; “For example, let’s take an individual with a learning difference. Maybe writing isn’t necessarily their forte, but if they know that they can get their hands on a camera and they can do the audio, and instead of getting quotes that they’ve embedded from research they get quotes that are embedded from a student and they clip it into a video and organize it into a visual essay. Then they are able to express even more than they would be able to if they were asked to write an essay. The more we teach other teachers how to use this kind of technology the more it actually expands what our teachers can do and what our students can do.”

This is how FA became what it is today, an incubator for new ideas about education. Less constrained by the old status quo, the program has become a testing ground for new ideas and teaching methods, which has provided these young minds an alternative way to learn, not to mention a first glimpse at the curriculums of the future. Only time, and full-on implementation of this educational style, will tell if this is the actual direction of 21st-century learning, but from our observations at FA, we are excited about the possibilities.


Photos: Courtesy of ISB


This article originally appeared on p 54-56 of beijingkids August 2017 issue.