A More Global Perspective

Liz Duffy, ISS President

level-five-teachers

One of the priorities of ISS’s strategic plan is embracing a more global, rather than overseas American, perspective. I was reminded of the value of that commitment last month, when I had the pleasure of leading a design thinking workshop at our LEVEL 5 Creativity and Innovation Hub in Shenzhen, China. The focus of the two-day workshop was on designing equitable schools for students, faculty and staff.

Unlike previous design thinking workshops that I had led at LEVEL 5 and other places, most of the participants were local educators, which made the experience even more interesting and engaging. Throughout the weekend, I was struck both by the similarities and differences between the perspectives of the Chinese teachers and their expat counterparts, who themselves came from various regions of the world. All of the teachers were incredibly creative, starting from the very first exercise, in which we redesigned suitcases. Among the creations were a drone suitcase that could fly, a green screen suitcase that could change to match your outfit, and a spherical suitcase that could be rolled, float like a balloon, and even entertain your children when you traveled.

Similarly, all the teachers found the distinction between equality and equity very useful. Whereas equality is treating everyone the same, equity is providing everyone with what they need to be successful. Based on that distinction, the teachers split into three mixed groups to redesign the school experience for high achieving students, second/third language students (including Chinese students who spoke Cantonese but not Mandarin), and students with sensory challenges. The teachers’ different experiences and assumptions greatly deepened the design process, as reflected by their thoughtful designs: challenging high achieving students to develop assessments, community-based projects with new and current students, and individual, low-sensory classroom pods.

The second day of the workshop, the participants focused on the adults’ experience in the school using an experience blueprint and considering a variety of roles in the school, including new teachers, teaching assistants, young teachers, substitute teachers, and even the school chef. The faculty/staff groups focused on onboarding, professional development, and retention, and they again were able to develop some imaginative prototypes by combining, or in design thinking lingo, “mashing up,” the best of both the international school and local school systems and approaches.

Towards the end of the two-day workshop, I had the participants reflect on their learnings, using a tool that I discovered works well with English-speaking faculty and students of all ages, but a little less well with teachers (and I suspect students) who aren’t completely fluent in English. I had people draw three shapes – a triangle, a circle and a square – and then write down 1) the three main points they wanted to remember on the three corners of the triangle, 2) a question still circling around their head in the circle, and 3) something they learned that squared with their beliefs in the square. I had never noticed that the exercise relied so heavily on idiomatic expressions – “square with your beliefs” and “circling around your head” – until I struggled to explain what those expressions meant.

In response to that exercise and another reflective question about what people planned to do this month, before the end of the school year, and next year, one Chinese teacher replied, “learn English better, because when I speak English, I think differently.” Her comment has inspired me to learn a little Chinese, not because I’ll ever be able to communicate effectively in Chinese, but because her insight made me curious about how our languages are structured differently and how we therefore think differently. I’m only two weeks into my study of Chinese, but already I feel like I have a more nuanced understanding of a place I now visit three times each year. Xièxie for the inspiration!