By Alex Makosz
Relationships and shared personal connections are a huge part of making learning fun, real and something that we remember long after a school year has ended. They are also great for developing empathy, broadening the mind to the experiences of others and cultivating a global mindset. The challenge for schools developing in countries like China is: How can we help students cultivate this global mindset and experience when nearly all of their classmates are from the same country and culture? Bringing teachers from around the world can go a long way, but there’s something extra special about kids being able to connect with other kids and share with someone from a far-away land on their own level.
My name is Alex Makosz. I am the Group Director of Curriculum, Assessment and Learning at Walton Foreign Language Schools where we are working to design the future of learning for the 5,000 students at our three current campuses and all of the future students at new campuses we are opening across China. As a group of private bilingual schools with a range of international curricula and IB programs, a big component of our mission is helping children develop future-readiness and global mindsets that can take them anywhere in the world they want to go. Giving primary school children who have never left China the experience to connect with kids on the other side of the world was a big reason for us to jump at the chance to run the China pilot class of Level Up Village curriculum with fourth grade PYP students at our flagship campus located in Taicang, just outside of Shanghai in Jiangsu province.
Global STEAM in Action
Our students had already been learning about relationships between technological advancement, industrialization, resource consumption and environmental conditions as part of their regular PYP units of inquiry, so getting them into designing their own 3D-printed solar lights was a perfect way to connect what they had learned with some practical application and design thinking – a great reason to choose the Global Inventors program.
The fourth-grade class had seized the opportunity to be the first in China to try out LUV, and this meant that we would do the program on a shortened time frame at the end of the school year. To be honest, there was more than a little nervousness in the classroom when the children first heard they would need to talk with native English-speaking American children, but they couldn’t have been more excited about learning to use the 3D printers and we still had a little time to prep for the English communications.
As we grew closer to the start of the course with our partner school in the U.S., our students were confidently settled into their 3D design and having fun learning about solar panels and electrical circuits. Getting hands-on with solar panels, LEDs and wiring provided a great mix of fun and challenge as they explored how to get the whole system working together without heating up. The times spent learning to design in 3D were both creative and practical as they played with design while figuring out measurements and using design software. This was the easy part.
The big challenge for our students, and my favorite teaching moment as part of the Global Inventors program, came with the mix of excitement and trepidation as our class prepared their first videos for their partners overseas. This was the point where the rubber met the road in our students stepping out of traditional classroom learning experiences and into something new for them, an experience where the English they learn wasn’t just for use with teachers and school lessons – they needed to make it real to talk with kids just like them who didn’t know any Chinese and where there was no common context or script.
Seeing how seriously our students took the opportunity to communicate with their partners in America was really exciting. Students who might not always be totally engaged in an academic activity requiring English were suddenly switched on and tuned in to prepping their communications.
Nobody wanted to record a video that they weren’t happy with either, so there were a lot of repeat takes and lots of questions and revisions during the prep time. After they received their first videos from their partners and suddenly their connection had a face, a name and their own story, it was great to watch their energy grow and the motivation be less about pressure and more about smiles and fun. Making it real in this way was a huge motivator that brought a lot of students forward in their studies, even on a really compressed timeframe. That was exciting.
In the end, a couple of key points stand out for how LUV helped our fourth-grade class: First, it pushed our class into taking action with hands-on activities connecting our inquiry topics with practical STEM skills and, secondly, it exposed our students to the world. The first change could have been accomplished not using LUV and with a bit of concentrated effort, but giving our students the chance to make their learning real and global by connecting with peers on the other side of the world is a change that goes beyond the hardware, the skills and the knowledge. It was a character-building experience and made the learning social in a way that couldn’t have happened otherwise. Based on how the students responded throughout the whole process, I’m sure they will remember the experience and look forward to more of these chances in future.
As a teacher who believes in making global connections possible for kids no matter what their age, I would gladly work with another Level Up Village course. It helped to make the world a smaller place for our fourth grade and brought them experiences I believe they will remember long after the summer holidays have started.