Project-Based Learning (PBL)

Students Put Global Skills to Work

March 31, 2014
Photo Credit: Peter Wieczorek
Students from Northwest Passage High School traveled from Coon Rapids, Minnesota, to China for the Global Student Leaders Summit.

This is the second of a two-part series about the Global Student Leaders Summit in Shanghai that brought together several hundred students from the United States and China in March. Developed by EF Educational Tours, the event offers teens an immersive experience in cross-cultural collaboration. Read about the global education themes that emerged at the summit in in my earlier post. Today, some American students offer their reflections about how experiences like this help to prepare them for the challenges ahead.

The Global Student Leaders Summit brought together high school students from 26 U.S. states, 16 cities from across China, plus a smattering of other locations. Their mission offered a perfect set-up for applying 21st-century skills: work together to design sustainable solutions to wicked problems, such as access to education, universal rights, environmental challenges, or global health and safety.

Although participants traveled to Shanghai with classmates and teachers from their own schools, they were matched with new faces during the summit. They had to build effective teams in a hurry if they were going to get busy improving the world. What lessons from home did students draw on? Which insights and impressions would stick with them after the summit? I had a chance to sit down with two teams of American students who put their thinking skills to good use in China. Here are highlights of our conversations.

From Massachusetts: A Head Start on "Glocal" Action

Nine students -- all girls -- traveled to the summit from Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School, a public school in Cambridge, Massachusetts. They earned their way to China by winning a competition that challenged them to address local issues with sustainable business solutions. That gave them a head start when it came to thinking globally, acting locally. (Read an earlier post about the EF Glocal Challenge.)

Over a family-style dinner, chopsticks-wielding students shared these impressions:

Cultural contrasts: "Working with people from so many places was eye-opening. Cambridge must be one of the most liberal places in the U.S. I didn't realize we live in such a bubble. I've never met someone my own age who doesn't think gay people have rights -- and that came from someone from the U.S."

Another student commented on censorship in China, where familiar social networks and news outlets are blocked. "That's scary because you need access to information to solve problems and make progress. People in China aren't getting to hear perspectives from outside their own country. Most of what I know about current events comes from social media. How are they staying current without that?"

Becoming better thinkers: "We had an advantage because we had already thought about how to make a project sustainable. That made us better thinkers. We approached possible solutions by thinking about, would it really work? Could it last? Other kids weren't necessarily thinking that way. I had to keep asking them, 'Reality check: How are you going to pay for this idea? What's your business plan?' Finally, I just started writing a plan. Then they got it. These are definitely skills we'll need in the future."

Learning to listen: "I learned how to work with other people in a way that's effective. I learned how to use other people to generate ideas, how to build off one another. Being flexible is important. And so is listening. Our team was almost at the end when a boy from China had a new idea. He was struggling to translate his thinking into English. One of our team members just said, 'Stop. Mike has an idea. Give him time to think it through.' It turns out he had a great idea -- but we had to make time to listen."

Cambridge students also credited their teachers -- including trip advisers Marya Wegman and Andrew Miller -- with emphasizing critical thinking as a cornerstone of their education. "Our teachers don't leave anything out," one of the students said. When speakers at the summit focused on opportunities in the new global economy, Cambridge students listened for gaps in their message. "Where was the discussion of income disparity? What happens to people who don't have access to the same opportunities that we do? We need to hear all sides of an issue to understand it."

For Wegman, who teaches English, the summit provided "a perfect balance of fun and learning." It also provided a chance to reinforce the "authentic connections" that she strives for in the classroom. Giving students a chance to earn the trip by competing in the Glocal Challenge "meant that they had invested intellectually before they ever left home. They had to find their internal motivation," she added. "These are students who have that passion."

From Minnesota: The PBL Advantage

Northwest Passage High School in Coon Rapids, Minnesota, is a small public charter school that emphasizes inquiry and self-directed learning. Project-based learning and expeditions outside the classroom are key instructional strategies. NWPHS students noticed that being PBL veterans gave them a distinct advantage at the summit. Here are more of their insights:

Knowing How to Work Together: At the summit, students were placed in small teams with peers they had never met before and asked to come up with innovative solutions to global issues. "That's firsthand for us," said one NWPHS student. "We're used to collaborating, figuring out how to define problems, and identifying our audience. For us, that's normal. But for other students, this was a struggle."

Although summit facilitators guided students through a design thinking process, some participants struggled with open-ended challenges. Students from more traditional schools "weren't sure how to respond without a lot of instruction going on," one of the NWPHS students noted.

The Minnesota students took a leadership role. "We understand what it means to take control of our own education," said one student. Another taught her peers some of the team-building exercises she uses regularly at NWPHS and encouraged students to express their ideas in more detail. "Expansion is so important at our school. You need to be able to talk about what you want to do, why, and how you're going to make it happen."

Ideas Worth Sharing: When it was time for teams to pitch their ideas, NWPHS students challenged their peers to communicate more creatively. "All they could think of was poster boards," one student said. "I grabbed some paper and started making origami models of our prototype. They looked at me like I was crazy at first," she admitted, "but they realized, wow, we can communicate however we want. Then they jumped in."

Northwest Passage students were accompanied by teacher Val Miller and school director Peter Wieczorek. Miller said she noticed a shift in students "who haven't necessarily fit the traditional model. They have not always felt super-positive about themselves as students." Thousands of miles from home -- on the first international trip for nearly all the NWPHS students -- they found their confidence as problem-solvers and peer leaders.

For a student named Lexi, the trip to China was memorable for another reason. Just before the summit, she completed graduation requirements. She received her high school diploma while standing on the Great Wall.

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  • Project-Based Learning (PBL)
  • Curriculum Planning
  • Social Studies/History
  • 9-12 High School

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