Whole Child Education

Another Choice for Science Classes

The documentary Most Likely to Succeed was released in 2015. It tells a story about the High Tech High (HTH), a charter school in the U.S., and how its subversive classroom teaching brings innovative education ideas into reality, and the concept of Project-Based Learning (PBL) began to trend because of this documentary.

There’re no textbooks, distinct subjects, written assignments or assessments in this school. All the students learn through projects. The result is that 98% of its graduates enter college. The cool learning experience and the fancy college admission results brought PBL popularity across the world.

But when PBL was introduced to and spread in China, critiques gradually arose: low efficiency, loosely structured knowledge, blind box-like ability building ……

Ms. Vivia Xu, Deputy Director of the Education Department and Head of Science Department of Dipont Education Group, pointed out that there’re some typical misunderstandings in the case with PBL.

Either for a school or for an educator, it takes sufficient research and practice to ensure the operability and effectiveness of a teaching method. Simple copying will never work out. Ms. Xu and the Subjects Building and Development Center of Dipont figured that out since day one.

Ms. Xu has a bachelor’s degree in Biological Education and a Postgraduate Certificate in Education (PGCE). Till today, she has nearly 20 years of experience in education and management and has won first prize in various teaching evaluations in Shanghai. She participated in the founding of several famous internationalized schools. She’s highly experienced in curriculum development, and has abundant knowledge of bilingual teaching, cooperative teaching, inquiry learning and other related teaching strategies, and is also an expert in teacher training.

In the field of science education, Ms. Xu is not only a researcher, but also a practitioner, a practitioner whose experience covers teaching, research, teacher training and many other areas. Seeing PBL being marketed as a ‘panacea’, Ms. Xu pointed out that a fancy project without a backbone will teach you nothing.

Can you tell the real PBL from the fake ones?

Let’s start with an example. Here’s a bamboo-themed PBL.

Children will learn about bamboo from ancient Chinese poems, say, “绿竹入幽径,青萝拂行衣 (Follow the serene path into the green bamboos, with usnea lightly brushing your clothes);”then they can learn about the growth of bamboo, the fastest-growing plant on earth in science classes; they will learn how to draw bamboo in art classes, and what an important role bamboo occupies along with wintersweet, orchid and chrysanthemum in traditional Chinese flower-and-bird painting; they’ll learn how to make things with bamboo in crafts classes, learn about buoyancy explained with bamboo raft, and the raft can even connect knowledge of Chinese history and geography  together ……

A single theme links together knowledges of different subjects, and teachers of different departments can plan their lessons around the theme. That seems like a pretty good PBL, right?

“Many schools will do it this way. However, it is also the most universal problem.” Ms. Xu straightly pointed out that the most common practice actually contains the most common misunderstanding about PBL.

From a professional perspective, such practice makes at least two mistakes:

First, the entry point is unspecific. Bamboo seems to be a concrete thing, but it doesn’t point to any enquiry direction. It can easily involve a wide range of knowledge without a main logic or a boundary. Also, it can be very time-consuming. A project like this would take a whole semester, which leads to worries about “inefficiency” from parents.

Secondly, the learning goal doesn’t include vertical improvements. A theme and a project can transversely connect different subjects together and create an image of interdisciplinary learning, but do they present different requirements for G1 and G3 students? The answer is no, which means the core goal of ability training is missing. The higher the grade, the greater the feeling of mechanical routines and the easier the challenges. And the attainments would certainly be like opening blind boxes.

PBL, a “most likely to succeed” pattern, is having difficult acclimatizing in China?

The right way to conduct PBL in Chinese schools

PBL is short for project-based learning. Just as the term suggests, it’s a learning method based on projects. Through working on a project, students investigate and analyze complicated problems, taking on challenges and updating their progress. Their all-round ability is trained during this smooth process from knowledge to practice.

The origin of PBL can be traced back to Dewey’s philosophy of “inquiry-based learning”. Later scholars integrated it with Piaget’s constructivist theory and the theory of “learning from the environment”, and ideas such as being interdisciplinary and emphasizing the process are developed.

In the U.S., Science is delivered through interdisciplinary teaching, and in many schools it is even taught by general-subject teachers. A general-subject teacher teaches all subjects, be it English, Science, Art, etc. To a general-subject teacher, interdisciplinary teaching is both efficient and easier to carry out.

But obviously, we have different soil of education in China. Here we strictly implement subject-specific teaching for basic education. Physics, Chemistry and Biology all have their own syllabuses and requirements and are taught by different teachers. That’s why Chinese schools have barely enough time to carry out PBL, and we lack interdisciplinary teachers versed in PBL.

Therefore, when we’re learning to offer PBL, we can’t simply copy foreign patterns or blindly borrow their experiences.

So far, it hasn’t been long since PBL is introduced to China, and we’re still exploring and improving it. But we’ve filled that vacuum, and now we’re perfecting it. We need to focus on the practical problems in the Chinese classrooms and adopt problem-oriented strategies.

What problems do we need to solve in PBL Science classes?

With years of front-line teaching experience, Ms. Xu and her team observed and evaluated a large number of classes and have found some common mistakes in China’s Science classes such as pumping theoretical systems into students and lack of thinking innovation and integrated application. In internationalized schools, there’re some other mistakes such as paying too much attention on computing skills and neglecting that English science terms are foreign to students.

Among all the problems, there’s a key one: many schools claim to emphasize inquiry learning, but they give little guidance, and there’s no ascendant helix of ability goals. Student’s inquiry ability development is neglected in these circumstances.

What is scientific inquiry ability? And what is an ascendant helix of such an ability?

Let’s take question raising as an example. Nowadays not many Chinese kids know how to raise questions.

They either raise questions too broad to design experiments based on them or carry out analyses and research; or raise “fake questions”, and the inquiry will just be a formality so that they don’t make mistakes or fail at all, then they definitely don’t need to reflect on the process and upgrade their research plan again.

Buck Institute of Education has been practicing and promoting PBL for over 30 years, and they’ve summarized a list of key elements vital to PBL, and “a challenging question” is on the top of the list.

  • A challenging question
  • A sustaining study
  • Authenticity
  • Students’ voice and right to choose
  • Introspection
  • Evaluation and revision
  • Public presentation of the project result

As students’ cognitive abilities and knowledge levels develop, the complexity and challenge level of the questions should rise to enable greater ability training.

With a profound understanding on PBL, the Education Department of Dipont expanded its academic connotation and developed three layers of PBL:

  • Project Based Learning
  • Problem Based Learning
  • Phenomenon Based Learning

“Project” is its fundamental organizing form; “question” presents higher requirements for academic knowledge and course literacy, achieving “doing it to learn” instead of “doing it for fun”; “phenomenon” points out that the theme should be chosen based on considering students’ experience and feelings.

For future’s sake, can we learn science in a better way?

Take a look at the case of a G1 class:

Japan’s Shinkansen lines used trains with bullet-shaped locomotives at first. When passing through a narrow tunnel at a high speed, such design experiences great drag and produces loud noises. Residents along the railways suffered from the constant noise attack, so the train company turned the design into a beak-shaped locomotive which reduced air drag and noises.

This is a real and sensible phenomenon to kids. When they observe and think about it, a question naturally arises: why can a beak-shaped design reduce air drag and noises?

“The knowledge behind it belongs to bionics, and the key concept is that ‘biological structure is always suited to its function.’ We don’t require scholars to memorize this sentence or the word ‘bionics,’” Explained Ms. Xu, “but the thinking process will remain in their minds, and they can infer other cases from it and apply the knowledge to similar questions like: why do trees in rain forests have broader leaves? Why do cactuses grow like this? That has already brought them into the process of PBL.

Science teaching has clear goals and cognitive order. Consistency should be kept from lesson design to teaching methods and all the way to assessments and evaluation.

In The 13th Five-Year Plan of Education Informatization released in 2016, Primary Schools Science Curriculum Standards of Compulsory Education in 2017, Curriculum Standards of Various Disciplines in Ordinary High Schools (2017 Version) and other major national curriculum standards, there’s the same consistency as those in the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) in the U.S., Cambridge Science Curriculum Framework and other international science education standards, and that consistency is the development of science literacy.

Based on these standards and consideration, the Education Department of Dipont Education Group spent great efforts in research and development and presented the “1+X” Science Curriculum. As an internationalized school founded by Dipont, Dipont Huayao Collegiate School Kunshan has an earlier access to this curriculum system.

There’re many example lessons like the “bionics” lesson in this curriculum system. Besides detailed and solid knowledge structure and ability training plans, we also noticed there’s an extra section after the end of every inquiry, which is introducing one or two professions relevant to the scientific theme.

“Many kids, when asked what they want to do in the future, would say ‘a scientist!’, but what does a scientist exactly do? Or, in students’ words, if I’m really interested in science, what kind of jobs can I do? A simple explanation might strike a spark of science.” said Ms. Xu.

Make dreams no longer hollow and science not rigid anymore. Science classes here are not just a formality. We focus on scholars’ future, their college life, career, life-long learning ……

Andreas Schleicher, who initiated PISA, once said:” Education should face students’ future but not our past.” In science classes at Dipont Huayao Collegiate School, we see such a future.