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Action Research students in Picun Village

By Nick Yates, ISB Communications

Published on Friday, March 4, 2022

Outside Picun Village, a 30-minute drive from the International School of Beijing (ISB), there is a display of plaques honoring all the people and organizations who have made donations to the village and its 40,000-strong population of mostly migrant workers.

These one-off gifts are laudable, but ISB has established a different kind of charitable relationship with Picun – one driven by students and designed to be of long-term, ongoing benefit to those involved. The work with Picun is at the heart of Action Research, a popular High School course that exemplifies ISB’s values in modern, interdisciplinary learning and inspiring young thinkers and leaders to serve others.

At this time of year, the ISB community and those looking at enrolling in the High School are getting excited about the opportunities on offer for Grade 9-12 students next academic year. The menu of courses ISB has put together is once again unparalleled in its range, flexibility for students, and combination of traditional subjects and innovative programs. The new course guide for 2022-2023 has just been published and the sign-up period opens soon.

From Cambodia to China

Action Research engages Grade 10 students in cross-curricular conversations on real-world issues by analyzing divergent perspectives. Students who opt for Action Research look at a chosen location through political, economic, and geographic lenses. This course uses an experiential approach that draws upon elements of project-based learning, design thinking, and personalized learning.

In recent years, Action Research students have taken regular trips to Chan Sar, near Siem Reap in Cambodia, where they worked closely with locals on needs assessment and assets analysis. The first two Action Research trips came in 2017-2018, after ISB began a redesign of its High School curriculum to offer the best mix of traditional academic and interdisciplinary courses.

With international travel restricted since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, ISB faculty including members of staff dedicated to service learning have looked for alternatives closer to home. This year, Action Research students have been working with the inhabitants of Picun to understand their challenges and create solutions to improve life there.

Action Research students at lunch

The Action Research students take a break from their work in Picun

Following an Action Research classroom discussion last week, the students explained what they had been doing and how it had challenged them. “My classmates and I might have to research about a science-related subject but also the history of it, while simultaneously incorporating aspects of economic theories like supply and demand,” said Katherine W.

“It’s going to be really useful in our university and professional careers after ISB. This course helps us with base skills to build off,” added Rebecca L.

For Korean student Jun K, analysis using different academic disciplines while working with classmates to interview the villagers has been fun. It’s important to be able to participate in this course without perfect Chinese language skills, he said. According to Jun, Action Research has been a valuable exercise in teamwork and multitasking.

Action in the community

When organizing field trips and off-campus programs like Action Research, ISB commonly works with external organizations to provide expert guides and facilitate learning opportunities. In this case, Keru is acting as a bridge between ISB and Picun to organize interviews with villagers and local leaders. Organizations like Keru can also continue ISB students’ work when they cannot be there and ensure ongoing impact.

The Action Research students were able to make several visits to Picun in October and December, when they did lots of research on the ground. They’ve since been generating ideas and maintaining contact with the village through video conferencing, and they are now looking forward to returning to Picun to implement their ideas in March. Projects include:

  • A fun fair/market
  • Recording audiobooks for Picun’s literacy center, after this was identified as a need
  • Helping to revive a village events space that has been mothballed during the pandemic. Students may stage arts performances for the villagers.

There are advantages to focusing on a very local place rather than Chan Sar. While Picun has its own distinct features and challenges, it has a more meaningful link to students’ everyday lives. They would have had contact with the inhabitants of Picun and other similar conurbations. These people live in Beijing but have very different lives and outlooks to international school students – this project helps students identify with and understand their neighbors, making it a great piece of service learning.

Action Research students group shot

The Action Research class

ISB has developed a three-year cycle for service learning projects like Action Research. For the students’ work to be meaningful, effective, and truly of help to the intended beneficiaries, there needs to be a sustained focus; it can’t just be a short-term project for one group of students. In Chan Sar, the 2017-2018 cohort of students did research that the 2018-2019 cohort built on, and so on. There is a “passing of the baton” from one group of students to the next as they move through grade levels. The Picun ties will be maintained in the same way.

Pathways through High School

ISB offers many different routes to graduation. Since the school is able to develop its own curriculum from Early Years up, it has the flexibility to adapt and change its programs to best meet students’ needs. While many High School students choose to pursue the full International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme (the world-leading college preparatory course), others take hybrid or personalized options. This versatility provides a best fit for individual students and equips them for success whatever direction they choose.

The menu includes a number of courses based around service and interdisciplinary learning:

  • ISB strives to provide opportunities for students in all grades to get out of the classroom and learn through service and charitable initiatives. As set out in the school’s philosophy statement on social and emotional learning, ISB faculty value students developing empathy and a sense of teamwork alongside working to excel academically.
  • There is a consensus in education about the value of learning exercises that bridge academic disciplines. Skills as diverse as math, languages, and art could be involved in a single interdisciplinary project.
  • In Grade 9, Civic and Social Entrepreneurship is a similar course to Action Research.

What message do current Action Research students have for those considering the course for next year? “Don’t be intimidated!” said Christine H. “It sounds scary – interdisciplinary, double block, seems like a lot of work – but it’s actually really fun. Rather than just sitting here studying in the class for three hours, you get to go out and make a real difference.”

For Mea M, it’s been a good exercise in international education. “We’re all so different in this class, from lots of countries and backgrounds, but the fact we have the same mindset of wanting to help in the community has made Action Research such a success.”


Click here for a look at some other examples of popular and innovative High School courses at ISB.

And if you’re interested in joining ISB, please check out the Admissions section of our website.

ISB is an extraordinary school, made so by a tradition of educational excellence spanning 40 years. Establishing, nurturing, and growing such an exceptional learning community has been and remains intentional; we work hard to build strong relationships so our learning is at its best.

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