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Bringing subjects together, bringing people together

By Nick Yates, ISB Communications

How inclusive is the International School of Beijing (ISB) community? Do all groups of people feel equally welcome here? It was with such big, real-world questions that ISB Grade 9 students grappled right before the Chinese New Year Break as they pitched solutions to strengthen ISB as a warm, accessible place for all.

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From a wellness room for people with anxiety to merchandise promoting LGBT respect to a cultural appreciation club for ethnic minorities, the students’ ideas were the culmination of a three-week interdisciplinary learning project that saw the whole of Grade 9 use their science, math, English, history, and social studies abilities to first identify and define a problem, then develop, create and refine a solution, then present it.

Members of ISB’s Leadership Team and faculty are now considering the best proposals with a view to actually implementing them. ISB students are currently pursuing an innovative program of online study as the campus is closed due to the Covid-19 outbreak, but the community can look forward to their work being put into action once school life is allowed to resume as normal.

Sticky learning

This is the second such grade-wide interdisciplinary project after one focused on Islamic art last academic year. Grade 9 will take a short break from the regular curriculum once every year for these projects, as ISB places more emphasis on interdisciplinary learning. There is consensus in modern education that learning can be most effective when subjects are not taught in isolation. Projects that cross disciplinary lines are more engaging and more accurately reflect what happens in the real world, the world of employment.

Or, as posters for the inclusivity project read, “Learning sticks with us when we connect what we learn to our lives. It sticks even better when our learning involves connecting disciplines together. The best solutions to wicked problems of the world are reached through using multiple disciplines – so that’s what we are doing!”

Work for the inclusivity project largely took place in ISB’s High School Flex Space, which was opened at the start of the 2018-2019 academic year to help facilitate integrated learning. It features movable walls, versatile seating, and an adjacent design lab full of tools and laser cutters.

Students were placed in teams to apply the design cycle commonly used at ISB. Its Define and Inquire phase mainly involved analyzing and processing survey data (math). Develop and Plan involved assessing options (social studies), and identifying measures of success and constraints (science). The Create and Improve, and Present phases saw students create a prototype and pitch it (English). The final Reflect phase is a blog post on their experience.

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This interdisciplinary project followed the design cycle commonly used in ISB work

Stronger culture of inclusivity

The wellness room team proposed it as a comfy, secluded retreat for people with anxiety and those who feel under academic pressure. The team aimed for a solution for this particular group of people after studying global statistics showing the prevalence of anxiety among other mental health issues. Devices would be banned and schoolwork should be left outside the room.

The Cultural Appreciation Club was designed for third-culture and ethnic-minority students. It would achieve the twin aim of comforting members and raising awareness among the broader community through guest speakers, assemblies, maybe even an International Week as an extension of ISB’s existing International Day.

Another team’s merchandise and key chains would be part of a campaign encouraging respect for the LGBT community, and a competition challenging people to design a space for introverts was paired with a documentary video promoting the initiative. This team suggested that, while up to 45 percent of the global population count themselves as introverts, their needs and qualities are often overlooked in a world favoring extroverts.

A lot of ideas fell by the wayside during the Develop and Plan phase. The introvert team realized that their initial pitch for a club where introverts could share their experiences would have a low chance of success due to the likelihood of quiet members feeling singled out. Another team focused on ethnic minorities considered a prayer room and traditional clothing days before settling on the idea of incorporating more traditional national cuisine in the ISB cafeteria. They interviewed the school’s catering head of staff to establish that this would be realistic and created promotional posters for themed menus.

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Student teams put a lot of preparation into their pitches

Services for all

The project comes as part of a strengthening of the culture of inclusivity at ISB. The school is expanding its learning support services to cater for more families than ever before. Beginning August 2020, it will extend its existing services for students with mild and moderate learning needs to provide for those with intellectual/cognitive disabilities.

Inclusivity is broader than just admitting students with disabilities, of course. Faculty at ISB believe each student’s uniqueness adds to the rich diversity of the community and fosters a culture of compassion where everyone learns from and cares for one another. “Inclusion isn’t just about accepting students with identified diagnoses. Inclusion is really about equity and access for ALL,” wrote Danette Sack, ISB’s Director of Student Support Services, in a recent blog post. “Inclusion is for all of us and when it comes right down to it, we are all unique and have the need to be included in our school community, regardless of gender, race, disability, religion, social beliefs, socio-economic status, sexuality, language background, etc.”

The school’s Grade 9 students took Ms. Sack’s definition to heart during interdisciplinary learning designed to make a real difference. And with community even more important than ever during these trying times, the implementation of the students’ proposals to further strengthen inclusivity will be good news for all.

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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