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Oh the places you’ll go!

By Abbie Pumarejo 2019-01-09 16:02:40

How Shanghai’s international schools take learning outside classroom walls

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”

—Mark Twain

Long gone are the days where a school education was all about listening unquestioningly to the teacher, copying notes, and memorizing facts. Today, students want to be engaged in their studies; they want to ask questions and learn by doing. One way that teachers help engage students in their studies is to take learning outside the classroom, allowing students to gain first hand experiences. Some schools take it a step further still and offer programs where kids can travel and learn from projects conducted in other countries. After all, travel is one of the greatest teachers there is.

Travel changes our perspectives and offers new opportunities for learning. It is an equalizer, because we’ve all been somewhere new, where the language spoken is not our own, the people may look different and the time, climate and even surroundings are all “other.”

For this reason, many schools incorporate into their curriculum some form of travel for students. By virtue of moving to Shanghai, many students are already immersed into a new and exciting culture. But there is much more to successful experiential learning than just seeing someplace new. Schools have the opportunity to enrich students’ educations with travel programs that incorporate learning outside the classroom. We spoke with two Shanghai international schools about their management of such programs and the benefits of travel for not only the students, but all involved.

 

 

Craig Tafel is the Director of Menwai Programming at Shanghai American School (SAS). The Menwai (outside the gates) program offers a number of overseas experiences including athletic programs, performing arts and service, as well as several new offerings in development. In the past, the trips developed organically through the efforts of teachers and counselors who felt a trip could benefit a group of students in the context of the curriculum. What’s now different with the SAS Menwai program “is the development of a clearer sense of purpose that aligns all these experiences, as well as support for teachers who want to create them. As we review our existing offerings and build new ones, we are looking to help students understand their off-campus learning as a part of a cohesive whole, as opposed to separate, individual experiences,” says Tafel.

This program focuses on four criteria. Tafel explains, “Ultimately, we design experiences that allow students to test life outside the SAS/expat/compound “bubble” (expanding intercultural understanding). We also insist that students are working through challenges, experiencing personal growth that occurs when students work beyond their comfort zones, and—perhaps most importantly—we have our students develop an acute awareness of impact on the places they go and the people who live there.”

 

 

This is important. A great deal of discussion and research must take place in order to create opportunities that combine with curriculum goals and criteria. According to Adam Galinsky, Columbia Business School professor and social psychologist, “foreign experiences increase both cognitive flexibility and depth and integrativeness of thought, the ability to make deep connections between disparate forms.” However, he also emphasizes that the links between creativity and international travel will not be made if people do not experience multicultural engagement, immersion and adaptation. Given that students are first and foremost at school for an education, these experiences outside the classroom should be carefully considered.

 

 

Al McDowell, DP Film and MYP Media Teacher at Western International School of Shanghai (WISS) could not agree more. “Students are still forming conceptual ideas about people, the world and their own place within it and experiential knowledge of other countries, cultures and customs is invaluable at this stage.”

WISS offers several opportunities for students starting as young as 6th grade to take their learning outside the classroom. In the 2019 spring break, they have trips planned to South Africa, the Philippines and Cambodia. “The trips often feature a service component where the students engage in activities to provide some form of benefit to the people or the area,” says McDowell.

The International Baccalaureate program they offer provides a natural stepping off point for the school to integrate some form of travel within their curriculum. McDowell emphasizes, “Students are required to complete a set number of hours at various stages of their time studying under IB, and these trips provide the chance to fulfill those requirements with the added bonus of travel and adventure!”

But it’s not all fun and games. These trips require passionate and dedicated adults to accompany the students and make sure all goes smoothly in a variety of situations. Tafel is definitely no stranger to managing students and travel. Previously, he led student groups for month-long, place and inquiry-based learning adventures in Xizhou, Dali, Yunnan Province as part of the SAS Microcampus program. Next March, the 23rd group of 8th grade students will continue the journey.

 

 

“It is both the beauty of the process and the most frightening part: the success of the experience for student groups lies with the students themselves. In an environment when so much of their lives are carefully curated to ensure success, this is a big step- up for our students,” says Tafel.

This is echoed in an experience that McDowell had on a previous scuba diving experience. “As a teacher and guardian, to witness these young people achieving such an admirable balance of mature behavior and easy socializing was a genuine pleasure and I can honestly say that they represented themselves, their school and their parents incredibly well. As a keen SCUBA enthusiast, the only thing better than the thrill of diving is being able to introduce others to ‘the world beneath the waves’. Seeing the students experience life in the ocean as a pay-off for their diligent work during training was a real thrill and gave rise to many excited conversations afterwards,” enthused McDowell.

It makes one muse and think about the future. If our children have the opportunities now to experience things we never dreamed possible, what does their future hold? Of course travel is important. Of course they will gain experience and knowledge. But we cannot forget that it all comes with a certain responsibility, helping our kids to mature through the lessons they learn outside the classroom.

By offering students the opportunities to experience learning outside the walls of the classroom and school, students can gain first-hand knowledge and experience, and those lessons are processed more strongly. International schools that offer and continue to develop programs like the ones at SAS and WISS are on the way to creating well-rounded citizens of the world. And in agreement with Mark Twain, students will most likely not be disappointed if they are able to explore, dream and discover.

 
 

Some schools take it a step further still and offer programs where kids can travel and learn from projects conducted in other countries. After all, travel is one of the greatest teachers there is.

 

 

“Foreign experiences increase both cognitive flexibility and depth and integrativeness of thought, the ability to make deep connections between disparate forms.”

 

Good to Know

To find out more about the Menwai Program at Shanghai American School (SAS), visit https://www.saschina.org

To learn more about education abroad trips at Western International School of Shanghai, visit https://www.wiss.com.cn

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