By Yvonne Robertson, Newswire and Nick Yates, ISB Communications
For grade 10 students at the International School of Beijing (ISB), the year's most character-defining moment may well happen not in a classroom in the Chinese capital, but 3,000 kilometers away, in the Cambodian commune of Chan Sar.
A group of students recently got back from ISB's third trip to Chan Sar, near Siem Reap, where they spent a week in service, working closely with locals on a needs assessment and assets analysis.
The travelers are part of ISB's Action Research course, which over the course of a year engages them in cross-curricular conversations on real-world issues by analyzing different global perspectives. Chan Sar is among the many opportunities at ISB to get out of the classroom and learn through service, as faculty at the school follow a Whole Child philosophy that values empathy and a sense of teamwork alongside attainment in tests.
They also value interdisciplinary learning. The first two Action Research trips came last school year, after ISB began a redesign of its High School curriculum to offer the best mix of traditional academic and interdisciplinary courses. Guided by teachers, Action Research students will determine whether they return to Chan Sar in 2019, as they chart the course of their studies across subjects including economics, geography, and design.
"Through these trips, we've noticed a change in the students," says David Munro, High School principal at ISB. "One student in particular grew in his maturity, poise, and confidence. He had not previously seen the world through anyone else's eyes.
"His teachers noticed that after the two experiences last year – first to do the survey, the second time to work on some implementation – he was thinking about the world with a much more mature and reflective attitude."
Interdisciplinary learning in action
After a successful pilot in year one, Action Research and the High School's other opt-in interdisciplinary courses are building momentum. While only three students went to Chan Sar last year, nine are involved in 2018-2019. ISB is developing more cross-curricular courses for its older students. Among those being considered for next academic year is an Action Research-style program for grade 9.
"We want our students to develop a sense of social responsibility in today's global society," says Mr. Munro. "We want our students to empathize with those in need and see the world through their eyes before they venture off in the world. We don't feel that being successful in business, engineering or medicine and helping those in need are mutually exclusive goals."
With Action Research, ISB has designed the course to be both a culminating experience for grade 10 students and a launch point for further study and exploration in grades 11 and 12.
"Through these experiences, students develop their capacity as interdisciplinary global thinkers," says Mr. Munro. "The trips provide rich pathways to fulfill other High School course requirements. For instance, the two trips in grade 10 will provide a data source for their investigative and design work to meet the AP Seminar course requirements."
Beyond grade 10, students have the option to return to Cambodia on their own to further investigate and work towards their proposed solution. This body of work will provide a unique and rich data set for meeting IB Diploma requirements, such as the extended essay component, according to Mr. Munro.
Over the three years, students will have a unique opportunity to be field investigators, build relationships with a partner community, design needs-based solutions, and take action.
Developing a globally minded course
To design the program, ISB's Service and Experiential Learning Coordinator worked with a contractor who had expertise in the development field, and attended professional development workshops on needs assessment strategies.
As that progressed, the school partnered with Buffalo Tours, a company that had facilitated the training and had been running similar programs with other international schools.
During the first year, students were involved in a range of activities to gather information about the Cambodian commune, mapping the community, identifying areas of strength and challenges, and collecting data through surveys, interviews, and focus groups.
They worked in close partnership with Chan Sar residents to share ideas, get feedback, and refine their plan as needed.
"Our students learned a great deal about working with people who come from very different backgrounds," says Mr. Munro. "They were exposed to a community that on first sight might have seemed disadvantaged. With time in the village and getting to know them, they soon realized that people in the village had many advantages that we do not.
"Our students learned to empathize, communicate about difficult topics, negotiate challenging situations and how to live somewhere that does not have all the creature comforts that we are accustomed to."