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( — June 18, 2018) Shunyi District, Beijing —

Earlier this year, in a seniors’ housing complex in downtown Beijing, a group of high school students carrying notepads, cameras and tripods sat down to interview a group of elderly residents about their memories of Old Beijing. The students had prepared for the interviews together, studying the history of the neighborhood and determining the themes they wanted to cover. They set up the cameras, conducted their guided conversations with the residents, and then came back to school and edited the video for a school exhibition. The video program, called Into the Blocks, is just one aspect of an innovative approach to learning at the International School of Beijing.

The school has challenged itself to adapt its curriculum and prepare its students for a tech-driven, unpredictable 21st century world. It’s developed a short hand for the approach called Learning21@ISB, or L21. L21 consists of six kinds of approaches that inform the curriculum across all grades: Project Learning, Technology Infusion, Integrated Learning, Experiential Learning, Social and Emotional Learning, and Comprehensive Assessment. But it’s the ‘Integrated Learning’ aspect that’s got ISB’s Stacy Stephens most excited about the possibilities. 

As the Director of Learning, Stacy has been at the forefront of implementing the school’s ambitious curriculum. “The heart of our curriculum is still standards-based. We’re a Common Core school. But the standards don’t determine the method of getting there.

“When we say we want to personalize learning, to implement an integrated model of learning, we mean that we tell teachers and students: here are the standards, here’s how we are going to evaluate them. Now let’s work together to determine how we get there. We don’t want to just say, read this book. We want our students to be able to talk about different themes, and to be able to recognize these themes when they occur across different areas of study.”

Stacy came to ISB four years ago with an extensive background in designing curriculum for international schools. She’s something of a curriculum wonk. And she was very excited about ISB’s willingness to experiment.

“When I came in, I worked with the leaders of the school to really nail down and articulate the things we wanted to accomplish. We knew we needed to shore up our rubric and ensure a deep understanding of standards. We had to have strong evaluation tools. I feel like we’ve all gotten to a good place of sharing the same goals, of understanding where it is we want to get to as a school. So now it’s the fun part – we get to play around with different ways of achieving that. The school’s been great in giving us the freedom to explore different methods.”



Stacy was a part of setting up an incubator-style program in the middle school called Futures Academy. “Futures is an integrated, project-based learning model, and it gives us a chance to just jump head first into a style of curriculum that fully embraces that model. We get to see what works and what doesn’t, and what kinds of things we want to implement school-wide.”

The students of Futures know they’re signing onto something a bit experimental, and they and their parents have to sign off on the new approach. But few have expressed any regrets.

“Both students and faculty have been energized by the freedom to try new things in the classroom. They’re all in one space, they have different schedules, a different structure than the regular middle school. There’s a team of teachers who teach most core subject areas. And we get to see this in action: what does personalized learning look like in a middle school? What are the appropriate levels of implementation? We’re identifying what it is we want to do. And there have been some great successes.”

One success has been implemented as the final quarter unit in 8th grade Humanities. ISB developed a program in Futures Academy where students engaged in various research and learning opportunities in Beijing. As this developed, they’ve moved this program to the whole 8th grade at ISB.  In this project they examine urbanization, gentrification, environmental degradation and migration in a local Chinese context. They speak with locals about what is it like to live in the urban environment of the Hutongs and the various impacts on their lives. 

They explored themes in three different areas: social, economic, and environmental. Through this process, they identify a topic of interest for themselves to develop a research question around. They write research pieces based on the research question and produce documentaries in a variety of forms to raise awareness about the topic. Some of the topics this year included food and water safety, rights of LGBTQ youth, gender inequality and imbalance in China.

Classrooms at ISB are essentially in a research and development phase. They’re giving themselves the freedom to explore what works in an integrated learning model and what doesn’t. “There are times when we’ve gone too far with student-directed learning, and we’ve had to pull back on the reins a bit, especially in Grades 9 and 10,” says Stacy. “We sometimes need more scaffolding, a slower teacher release point. We’re adapting based on what we observe in the classroom.”

The school also takes cues from ‘big-picture’ schools around the world that have successfully adopted student-directed learning approaches. “There are some compelling models out there, and they’ve given us the courage to adopt more ambitious programs.”



One program that’s currently being led by Grade 10 students takes them all the way to Cambodia. It’s an ‘action research’ program in which students are partnering with communities to conduct a needs and resource analysis – what are the pressing needs of the communities, and what are the resources it has to help meet them?

The program delves deep into themes of developmental economics, history and sustainability while also teaching students how to work together to ultimately design a service or social entrepreneurship project. The development of this will be conducted by multiple classes over a few years. This kind of melding of subject matters and themes is the sweet spot for integrated learning models.

“I think one of the best things about the Cambodia program is that students are learning the importance of listening to locals about what the needs of their communities are. They’re not going in and trying to implement a service program that’s been designed by an outsider. They’re creating something from the ground up in partnership with the people who live there.”



The service program in Cambodia is a good example of the ultimate goal of any  curriculum at an international school: creating engaged, empathetic global citizens with the tools to create meaningful change in whatever discipline they choose. ISB has even used the United Nations development goals as a guiding framework for their concept-based curriculum.

“We definitely want our students to have aspirations towards global citizenship. When we empower them to seek out opportunities for service and to be a part of building those projects, we’re ideally creating a hunger for that kind of citizenship that will last a lifetime.”

Students at ISB learn that it’s ok to make mistakes, or even to fail, when they’re working on their own projects. They’re encouraged to share their results no matter what, and they learn as much from failures as successes. 

And like its students, the faculty at ISB has proven that it’s not afraid to take chances. That makes it an exciting place to learn.


International School of Beijing

10 An Hua Street
Shunyi District, Beijing 101318