ISB pupils lead the charge towards a changing world

Summary

At a recent conference at the International School of Brussels, teachers from around the world joined students to explore new ways of working in areas such as social innovation and climate change

Future-proofing

“Schools have become learning enclosures, separated from the world our kids need to understand,” learning futurist David Price tells assembled teachers at the International School of Brussels (ISB). “Education itself needs to change.”

The teachers have gathered to hear Price’s thoughts on one of the key topics of a learning conference being held at the school: how education can transform itself to keep pace with new ways of living, working and communicating.

“Disruption” is a word that might make some teachers’ blood run cold, but the Learning by Design event was put together with the express aim of inspiring educators to disrupt the existing system, to better equip students for a world that’s already rapidly changing.

The English-language school in Watermaal-Bosvoorde is home to international students from pre-school all the way through secondary school. For the recent Learning by Design, it hosted 420 educators from more than 40 countries – as well as involving 120 of its own pupils – and plans to repeat it in 2019.

Social learning

Sessions at the three-day event tackled topics such as using Instagram as a language learning tool, creating prosthetic hands with 3D printing, fostering student autonomy, teaching the power of engaging storytelling and learning how to break out of old habits and risk innovative ideas.

A range of workshops focused on project-based learning such as inventing Internet of Things projects or creating interactive robots using common electronic parts and recycled materials.

It’s an opportunity to engage in conversations aimed at re-imagining how schools can best facilitate learning in today’s complex world

- ISB director Lee Fertig

As part of its social innovation theme, a parallel event for students involved being mentored by experts to come up with practical actions to help tackle global issues like climate change, racism and poverty.

“It’s an opportunity to engage in conversations aimed at re-imagining how schools can best facilitate learning in today’s complex world,” says ISB director Lee Fertig.

In his session, Price relays an anecdote about discovering the reason his own teenage son was so “zombie-like” each morning that they couldn’t get him out of bed. He eventually revealed that in the small hours he’d been appearing as a panellist on an internet radio talk show about libertarian politics.

“We knew nothing about it,” says Price. “I realised there was this gulf opening up between the learning that’s being done socially and the learning in the formal context.”

Working with change

Price went on to write the best-selling book Open: How We’ll Work, Live and Learn In The Future and gives talks all over the world about making education more democratic, innovative and relevant. Citing predictions that half the workforce will be freelance by 2020, he says schools should focus on what children can do with their knowledge: “We need to prepare kids to be entrepreneurial, to be self-starters, to work with change.”

In the next building, more than 100 students are busy doing just that. Printouts of the United Nations’ 17 sustainable development goals adorn the walls, and groups of children are noisily coming up with their own ways to tackle them at a local, achievable level.

Peter Gee, 14, and Fred Brown, 13, have put their own spin on animal conservation and devised a plan for a not-for-profit organisation providing free 3D-printed prosthetics for disabled dogs. Though only two days old, Saving Paw Prints already has a website and flyers, and the pair have persuaded a local vet to volunteer his services.

“We’ve done it all by working in the evenings,” Peter says. “Yesterday we called 15 vets, dog shelters and kennels, asking them to contact us if they have anyone interested.”

Thinking differently

Fred says the school has promised seed funding for any projects that get going. “Most of the groups in here are fantasising about their projects, but we are actually doing it.”

The teacher leading the session, Ben Doxtdator, says the racism group has set up a meeting with someone at the EU who works on Islamophobia, while another is discussing building an inclusive LGBT community within the school.

It’s important in teaching not to keep doing the same things

- Teacher Akio Iida

Writer and education consultant Suzie Boss, who is running a teachers’ session on “students as change agents for the planet” says there is room within the current system for students to engage in real problem solving. Armed with myriad examples, such as a Massachusetts student project to capture energy generated by pedestrians using specialised floor tiles, she says that “action is doable and students are eager”.

“What these projects require is the will to think differently about how students learn,” she explains. “Real-world projects put new demands on teachers, but educators tend to be energised by what their empowered students can do.”

Over at ISB’s middle school, groups of teachers are grappling with little wireless electronic blocks, trying to come up with inventions that they could replicate as a lesson plan. While the physics teachers work on a set of plastic bat-wings that flap when triggered by a sensor, another group discusses devising an alarm system to alert pupils when they’ve been sitting down too long.

Across the room, design teacher Ryan Evans is among those building a Lego animal enclosure that closes when a creature wanders inside. “It then takes a picture and tweets it out to let people know there’s something in there,” explains his teammate Peter Aitchison. “It could be used for a wildlife study or capture and release.”

Everything is connected

Evans, from Wales, teaches at an international school in Angola, and has come to the conference to explore “design thinking”. “I was interested in how this conference was about design thinking for the whole curriculum, to show how everything is connected,” he says.

Everything we do is a process, he continues. “It could be writing an essay or doing a project on famine in Africa. You approach, plan, do it and evaluate it. It’s all about problem-solving, rather than just listening and regurgitating.”

Outside, Tabitha Johnson from the US and Akio Iida from Japan – who are both teachers in Hong Kong – say they travelled to Brussels after seeing the event advertised on Twitter. “This is the kind of thing people in education are talking about right now: how to create experiences in classrooms that are hands-on and innovating,” says Johnson. “We went to the recycling and robotics session and made birds. We could definitely replicate that. In teaching you sometimes get marooned in your own school and don’t know what’s going on in other classrooms.”

“It’s just great to get excited about stuff,” adds Iida. “It’s important in teaching not to keep doing the same things.”

Photo: Fred Brown (left) and Peter Gee, the founders of Saving Paw Prints