Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Reflections On “The Best PD Ever!” Part 1- Design at ISB

In the course of this school year, I was fortunate to be introduced to the idea of Innovation in education (yes, I’m pretty late to join the wagon…). I initially was not sure what exactly it meant or looked like, but the more I looked into it by reading great literature, participating in Twitter conversations, and discussing with anyone I could find to engage with me about these topics, I realized that without it, schools and teachers are likely to lose their value and not actualize what their initial purpose has been- to prepare their student population to the challenges of the present and future, and to create responsible and contributing citizens, so that hopefully they’ll be able to fix all the problems our generation has left them with.

When the opportunity to explore other interesting teaching roles at the school arose, I was the first to apply for a new ES Design position as well as to a new Research and Development ("R&D") project my school chose to embark on. So, long story short, in the next two years I will be spending my days as a 50% ES Design teacher and 50% member of our new R&D team.

ES Design- Taking our grade 3-5 Visual Arts course one step further, and including more STEM opportunities to address both Visual and Media Arts elements as well as Science (Engineering and Technology) standards, all through integrated project-based learning that emphasizes the iterative design-thinking process. 
R&D Team- Composed of several tiers, with the one at the center including two educators from each division (ES, MS, and HS) and the Head of School, and reporting to our division’s Vice Principals, we were tasked with creating a 5-week personalized learning experience for our students (Kindergarten to grade 11). Everything involved in the reasoning, planning, preparing and executing this goal (all the WHYs and HOWs) is what we will be focusing on in the 2018-2019 academic school year.
When I was asked for what kind of Professional Learning opportunity I would like to do to support my understanding and growth in these distinct areas, and the idea of a school visit was suggested, I was ready to start planning my trip to China to visit some of the most dynamic and innovative schools who have been grappling with the same questions we are starting to for quite a while, and have taken steps to address these needs in creative and unique ways.

The three schools I chose to go and visit were the International School of Beijing (ISB), Western Academy of Beijing (WAB) and farther to the south, Nanjing International School (NIS)

The objectives of my trip were threefold:

  1. Learn what established ES Design and personalized learning programs look like 
  2. Get ideas for implementation in my school 
  3. Connect/ network with like-minded leaders in the industry
Together with two colleagues (teaching HS Social Studies and HS Science), we ventured to Beijing to start our incredibly rewarding learning journey…

In this blog entry series, I will re-capture my learning and reflect on the different programs we observed at each school, and add some of the important takeaways I got from each school and program. Here are the programs I looked at within each school:

ISB (International School of Beijing)
  • ES Design Course (K-5) 
  • MS Future’s Academy (grades 7-8) 
  • HS Future’s Academy (grades 9-10) 

WAB (Western Academy of Beijing)
  • Design and the PYP Exhibition 
  • FLoW (“Future Learning of WAB”) 

NIS (Nanjing International School)
  • ES Design 
  • MS Design 
  • MS “X-Block” 

*** Disclaimer: These five days of school visits have been extremely busy, interesting and intense few days, and I have no doubt I did not get the full picture of the history, present, and plans for the future of each of the programs I observed and conversed about. If you notice and inaccuracy, I apologize and would appreciate if you could contact me so that I can represent these hard-working educators and their work more accurately.

Days one and two: ISB- Design

The Design-Thinking Process at ISB:

As soon as you get into ISB it is clear that the school is taking their newly created Design-Thinking process quite seriously. Aside for the fact that posters of the process and other Design-related propaganda are spread around the school’s walls (in both classrooms and hallways), the conversations we had in the past two days included numerous mentions of the Design process and the importance of integrating it into different aspects of the curriculum- both vertically (ES, MS, and HS) and horizontally (across different subjects).

The ISB Design-Thinking process is quite basic. It was put together by a small committee with all three divisions in mind. This way, they believed, each division can, on the one hand, share the general process and vocabulary, and on the other hand, get into as much detail as they needed. I really liked that idea. Julie Lemley, one of the Design facilitators, shared that using this process has marked a powerful shift in their work to embed Design in teaching and learning.

ES Design at ISB:

While Design seems to flourish and is visible all around the Middle and High Schools, the idea of using a process in the Elementary School had only started in April 2017 when ES homeroom teachers were officially included in the final stages of the ideation and implementation of the ISB’s Design-Thinking process. Since then, the ES has adopted the ISB Design-Thinking process, but no requirements accompanied it. A few teachers chose to voluntarily use the ISB Design-Thinking cycle in part of some units of study.

Setting the Stage:

  • All ES teachers went through a “What is Design-Thinking?” hands-on training session. 
  • Two teachers were hired for full-time “STEAM Integration” positions (the K-2 facilitator moved from a third-grade homeroom, and the 3-5 facilitator was hired as tech-integration coach), while the ES Librarian has taken on EdTech, library, and Design for Pre-Kindergarten students. 
  • Beginning next year, the facilitators will be collaborating with homeroom teachers to integrate design-thinking into units rather than teach their own Specialist classes. They believe that Design Thinking (as well as technology) should be embedded in the curriculum, providing students (and teachers) opportunities to explore what it is, what it means, and what it looks like when working on projects. 
  • A basic Design Lab was allotted. It will be available to about 36 classes. Currently, teachers are aware of the need to expand and will be using other spaces (such as homerooms) for the theoretical stages and the lab for the “Making” parts. They are also aware that it may send the wrong message to students, as this space is not just a “place to build things”, which is only one part of the design process. 
  • Not having requirements allows the design team to focus on quality planning. They feel like they have the freedom to go slowly, plan and put systems in place.

The Curriculum:
  • ISB has created their own design standards for MS and HS. They are currently working on specific skills and are simplifying it for ES. 
  • Each element of the generic Design Process is divided further and explained in separate documents. 
  • Planning to break required skills by grade level: “By the end of… all students know how to use… (box cutters, glue guns, etc.)”

  • Students do research in the classroom so that they work on skill-building in the lab.
  • Breakdown of lessons: 
  • Introduce the Design Challenge 
  • Review expectations 
  • Give challenge 
  • Planning: Students write things down before they start creating 
  • Emphasis on understanding the importance of the process 
*** Time for feedback and critique (very important!)

Student Agency:
  • A big goal is to build capacity in the students so they are ready for MS Design. “We would like to start pushing up rather than trickling down” (Angela) 
  • Some students don’t know what they don’t know. Once they realize, there’s the desire to learn more. 
  • Students are happy to solve challenges and demonstrate their understanding and knowledge 
  • Agency in terms of “I know what I need and what tool I need to use”- is there. In terms of planning for a specific audience or independently following the Design Process- not yet 
  • Students are not used to being asked questions about their work, but they are getting used to being asked lots of questions about each part of their processes and products.
Sharing and Assessments:
  • Getting parents to understand how much fun it is to Make
  • Involving the parents by holding events and allowing parents participate in design challenges (for example, “Design a lunchbox”). Reflecting with parents about what they did, what they learned (skills as well), how is it useful in life, etc.
  • Great buy-in!

Still need to figure out:

  • Sometimes feeling like getting forced into projects 
  • Difficulties getting teachers to use design-thinking process and to take risks 
  • More documentation is needed (for example, for design-challenges) 
  • Collaborate with classroom teachers to articulate and include the Design Process in their units

Suggestions for Starting a New ES Design Course:

  • Start with less (both materials and space) 
  • Do a few things very well 
  • Pick one skill you can say “Every kid can”, then move on to another skill, and so on 
  • Build a good team around you 
  • Conduct a teacher Design-Thinking PD (at the beginning of the year?!) to make sure everyone understands what it is and speak the same language. It

Valuable Resources:

  • David Lee (DT in ES) 
  • Pinterest 
  • Destination Imagination’s Instant Challenges (adapted) 
  • Use badges for successfully participating in voluntary classes for teachers/students? 
  • Create teacher Expert groups? (with badges)


  • Anchoring Design in the Visual Arts and enriching it with technology and the idea of Play is a unique way to introduce Design 
  • Grades 3-5 is an excellent age to start thinking deeply about Design Thinking 
  • We need to start talking about Design-Thinking more seriously as an Elementary School 
  • I need to collect Design Challenge ideas 
  • I need to find and create documents specifically for Design-Thinking 
  • Favorite quote: “We would like to start pushing up rather than trickling down” (Angela) 
  • I am still not convinced it was a good idea to get rid of the tech coaches and to not use design as another coach (STEAM?) 

Design-thinking at ISB is well underway, and as science, technology, and learning continue to change- so will these programs. I have no doubt it will continue to grow and evolve to create the best learning experiences for the learners it serves.

In the next blog post, I will be sharing what I found in the other innovative programs ISB offers its students in the Middle and High School levels, namely, their Future’s Academy program for grades 7 and 8, as well as the one for grades 9 and 10. Stay tuned!

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