Original article can be found at the Inly News & Events archives page.

East Meets West

September 25, 2006

Less than 24 hours after wrapping up the final end-of-school work week in June, head of school Donna Milani Luther and middle school director Julie Kelly-Detwiler hopped on a plane headed for China. Their destination was the annual ITIE International Technology in Education Conference, where educators, librarians, and information technology (IT) leaders joined forces to exchange ideas and compare teaching practices between the East and the West. The entire roundtrip journey actually involved eight separate plane trips, but Julie and Donna made sure the Mississippi River Project created by Inly’s 7th graders made it safely to Kunming, Yunnan Province, and back again.

The Mississippi/Yangtze Rivers Project
Last spring a group of Inly 7th graders were charged with developing a presentation to teach students in China about the Mississippi River. With Julie as facilitator, the students had to decide what topics to cover—such as history, geography, engineering, and culture and commerce in communities surrounding the river—and how to cover them. That multidisciplinary project culminated in a PowerPoint presentation and a video, which Julie was able to take on the road.

Concurrently, a group of middle school students in China developed a parallel project on the Yangtze River. Through funding from the Evergreen Education Foundation, these projects were brought together and shared with the help of translators.

A Student-Centered Approach
Julie presented Inly’s project, entitled “Learning About the Mississippi River: A Student-Centered Approach,” at ITIE. In this student exercise, she explained, the process—not the product—was the focus. Julie explored some of the differences in approach: “In a Montessori setting, students learn independently through collaboration and teacher-facilitated exploration. Using guiding questions, students construct their learning experience, create a product, and share their learning with others.”

In contrast, the Chinese middle school’s approach was much more traditional. Given that the Chinese school has 60 students per class with just one teacher, it is a difficult comparison to make. “The sensibility is just so different,” says Donna. “A different educational reality,” is how Julie explains it. “Their system is not yet designed to do what we do here. It’s currently designed to transfer information to students as efficiently as possible, and the kids don’t have time to process or problem-solve. But they’re now looking for ways to move away from their rigid structure.”

Julie commented that the poise and maturity of the Chinese students was truly impressive. In follow-up questions the students spoke about the process of developing their project. The brightest students were chosen to work on it–during lunch and after school–over a three-month period. Although the work was more prescribed than would be the case in a student-centered classroom, the students were quite independent.

The most striking difference between the two approaches, according to Julie, stemmed from the Inly team’s “search for relevance.” They spent ample time researching the general facts, then quickly searched for relevance in their own world. “Why do we care?” is a question they ask every day in their work, so they naturally applied this to the Mississippi River project. Hurricane Katrina soon became a focus of intense interest, and it all came together from there. Why did the levees break? Why was New Orleans built on the Mississippi? Should it be rebuilt there? What are the economic implications of Katrina? By asking and researching these and other questions, students made the project authentic, real, and all their own.

Geography and Cultural Studies
Donna then gave a presentation on Inly School’s approach to Geography and Cultural Studies. She explained that, from Children’s House (ages 3-6) through Middle School, Geography is studied in three parts: physical, political, and economic, and that geography contextualizes the fundamental needs of humans. As she put it, the school-wide central question is, “How and why do world civilizations connect?”

About the Conference
Since 2004, the ITIE International Conference has been gathering educators, librarians, and leaders from the information technology (IT) industry together to exchange ideas and compare teaching practices between the East and the West. Participants from China, other Asian countries, and the West share practical experience and bring different cultural perspectives on instructional/curricular design to the table. This year’s theme, “Ethics and Knowledge,” focused on social, ethical, and learning issues related to information technology use in K-12 and higher education.

Dr. Tu Weiming, director of the Harvard-Yenching Institute, gave the keynote speech. A professor of Chinese history and philosophy and of Confucian Studies at Harvard University since 1981, Weiming is currently interpreting Confucian ethics as a spiritual resource for the emerging global community. He called upon the education system in the East to broaden its math/science-centric focus and to make humanities a higher priority. “He asked, ‘What kind of thinkers is our educational system breeding? What do we as a society value?,’” said Julie. “He recognized that we all need to be generating a greater ability to problem-solve and make connections.”

IBM community relations spokesman Zhang Ming gave a presentation on student-centered learning entitled “IBM China’s Corporate Social Responsibility: Innovation in Reinventing Education.” Former president of the American Library Association Dr. Blanche Woolls presented “Information and Technology and the Preparation of Students for their Role in a Global Society.” Surprisingly “Inly” stuff, all around.

About the Evergreen Education Foundation
The California-based Evergreen Education Foundation was founded by a group of Chinese and American academics and professionals. It receives support from a variety of sources, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Its mission is to improve education opportunities in rural China by providing books, computers, supplies and training to middle and high schools and libraries; to offer scholarships to students entering high school; and to enhance information literacy and other educational exchanges between China and the United States.

What’s Next?
Plans are already brewing, including adopting a library in China and hosting English-speaking students from China. But first off is implementing a Chinese language program at Inly by September 2007. This has been one of Donna’s dreams for some time, and she’s determined to make it happen: “If our kids come out of Inly knowing Spanish and Chinese, we will have given them one more tool in their journey to become productive global citizens.”