Day 4.5-A Perspective from Beyond, by Peter Merrill

Having spent a lot of time on the development of BASK, I have found it very difficult not to be part of its debut in Kunming. I wake up each morning wondering how the day they are just finishing has gone, and ticking through all the puzzle pieces that the teachers and students are dealing with. I thought it might be helpful to take a few moments to give some perspective on what is going on, because the participants themselves—deeply enmeshed in a very intensive program—may have a hard time being fully aware of all that is happening to them.

Let me start with the teachers’ side of the story, since that is where the heavy planning has gone on, and where I have a better sense of what is unfolding. First, in spite of having in place a day-by-day plan for classes, assignments, field trips and activities, there is a huge amount of integration and adjustment on the fly that has to occur on a daily basis. This takes the challenges (and perhaps anxieties) for the teachers to a different level of magnitude from what they have to do during the academic year. They are not only planning and watching how their own classes are going, but they are attending and watching how learning gets integrated across three other courses, and participating in a research-design seminar, in which this integrative learning is the focus. In addition, half of the students are in high-level English-medium classes for perhaps the first time in their lives. And at the same time, the teachers are working with Chinese colleagues from our partner schools who are also not used to English-medium instruction. So, it’s integrated learning on several planes at once, on a scale none of us has experienced. In fact, this project is so challenging that we are told that numerous schools in China want to know more, and an annual global workshop at the Harvard Graduate School of Education has been following our progress for a couple of years.

From the student side, I can only guess at some of what is happening. While taking classes is nothing new to any of them, having their academic day plus field trips, and even their athletic activities, dedicated to the same tightly knit set of topics is new, I believe, to all of them. From inside the experience, I suspect that they may not yet feel that too much special is going on. Sure, they are in a different location, but big parts of the day are still classes, sports, and “dorm” life (albeit in a hotel). My guess is that they are quite aware of language challenges, but less aware that they are developing an important skill in being able to negotiate their way in a dual-language context.

What I suspect will become evident only after some time has passed is what they are internalizing cognitively—and that is in many ways the core of the experience. The thematic orientation of the program on the environment, and the intentional focus on integrative learning is very different from the cycle of five independent courses that students are used to at Andover. This culminates in their final team projects, where the same piece of work will be evaluated from the perspective of three disciplines – and at that moment, I’m sure they will feel the differences. One of the outcomes we will be most focused on is the nature of the learning (for students and teachers), and the students’ own awareness of how they have developed in this regard. Stay tuned!

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