Experimental education in China

This is the story of a hack into the Chinese education system, a Trojan horse. When I went to China past January, I came across with the opportunity of involving the association I belong to in a very ambitious project: the creation of a makerspace in a school in China. My association is called Open Science School. It is an international organization based in CRI (Center for Research and Interdisciplinarity) Paris and founded at the end of 2014. It aims at promoting innovative education and expand science outside its traditional spaces of study and production: high schools, community centers, design schools… Open Science School members and collaborators combine different fields of expertise: hardware, teaching, event management, biology, electronics, design, art. We were very happy to get involved into the project, as the budget sounded interesting and the school seemed to have an open spirit and great views on education. It is a very rare change for a newcomer foreigner to be able to interact with the official establishment in China. Probably the fact that we were hosted at Tsinghua University helped a lot. Tsinghua is the alma mater of most of the Communist Party leaders and it’s famous for its political righteousness.

Shenzhen, in southeastern China, the silicon valley of hardware and technology.

The school is a public K-12 school with the aim of promoting comprehensive education reform, attempt internationalization of education, and explore the modernization of school running pattern. Teachers don’t have a contract forever, they are renewed and supervised every few years. This environment keeps innovation and creativity at the center of school’s values.

We chose to have radically different perspective from a typical makerspace or fab.

The school was granted a generous sum of money from the government to create a space for digital fabrication and electronics in the school. They initially wanted to create a sort of Fablab MIT-style, but finally rejected the idea, looking for something for more support on the pedagogy besides the equipment or the technical support.

I was rubbing my hands after I heard that: what a chance! We chose to have radically different perspective from a typical makerspace or fab. The reason was double: a need to differentiate this space from the other 200 little makerspaces that are appearing all over Shenzhen and also take advantage of our unique position inside a school that is very inclined to innovative pedagogy and organization. Because of this, we made the principal objective of the space the development of soft skills using digital fabrication just as an excuse to learn on the way critical thinking, independence, collaborative work, and finally democratic values.

I was talking about those values too much, but instead putting other solid arguments about macroeconomics, from the World Economic Forum and the US Department of Labor. First, the current job system is suspected to change in the next two decades. According to a US Department of Labor report, 65 percent of today’s school children will eventually be employed in jobs that have yet to be invented. This has a lot of implications in the way education is structured and the skill set the students are meant to have by the end of their education. The question arises: What skills or content we need to incorporate in education, what skills or content we need to leave behind? The World Economic Forum analysed in a study the main drivers of change that will make this transition. Robotics, IoT, clod technology, 3D printing or biotechnology were among the top technological drivers. This gave support to the decision of the school to promote this kind of curriculum to introduce this topics at an earlier stage, foreseeing a bigger offer of university degrees in the future as well.

Drivers of change of the job system. Source: Future of Jobs Survey, World Economic Forum (2015).

The curriculum we planned will help the student develop their skills on Electronics, Programming, Digital Prototyping, Design Thinking, Crafting and Material Science and Computer Aided Design (CAD).

  • In electronics, the students will start with building simplest circuit with electronic toolkits, and manage hardware programming with Arduino at the end of the year.
  • In programming, the students will start with graphic-based programming language such as scratch, and manage to use text-based programming language such as python at the end of their study.
  • In digital prototyping, the students will start with , and manage to use 3D printer to create all kinds of prototype at the end of their study..
  • In design thinking, the students will start with drawing/illustration tool and manage to use digital tools to visually present project perspectives at the end of their study..
  • In crafting and material science, the students will start with hand crafting with simple materials, such as paper, wood, play dough, and manage to use all kinds of materials in the material library and learn about the property and science behind at the end of their study.
  • In computer aided design (CAD), the students will start with simple 2D CAD software, and manage to use 3D CAD software (e.g. solidworks, Inventor) at the end of their study.

Furthermore, on the study, the socio-economic or demographic factors, the main driver of change is the nature of work itself. Work will become more flexible and liquid, our ability to work with different people and change projects will be very valued. The only way to incorporate this into education is by actively doing it. However, this is not possible in the current hierarchical scheme that schools are based on. At the end, what I needed to make is just a horizontal or democratic school were group work, flexibility, and student-driven learning would be at the very center. This is very well connected to my research topic for the year, which was democratic teaching and public engagement for the youth.

In Europe, I was interested in seeing how research practices and democratic education in school would improve youth engagement into democracy. Research practices in high school education provide an excellent case study for this topic. In the final years before they are going to be allowed to vote and be elected, student should experience the meaning of democracy and management. Research practices can be described as self-managed, collaborative, international, learning by doing, exploratory, and creative. In research workshops with this kind of students, techniques of inverse pedagogy can help the teacher to come down the step and assume a role of mediator or facilitator to the minimal expression. Students then can decide what to learn in an education based on projects and not on subjects, that prioritizes critical reasoning and creativity, in an international background.

Idea 1: The journey is the destination

Like this, students will collect their knowledge across the year and chose their own learning path. The evaluation will be made based on their own record of progress and self-reporting and not compared to a mean to the rest of the class. In a traditional skill flow, students would learn with the help of the teacher the different topics and progress all together, with a final exam. In our model, the students learn independently and create an differential portfolio of skills. This is only possible thanks to continuous group working.

Idea 2: Collaborative work at the center of evaluation, too

Group working allows students to choose a specific role within a team and specialize their task, choosing a topic that interests them. If the projects have balance and incorporate elements from different subjects, students will be able to go deep into one single subject across all projects, or touch a bit of everything by the end of the year. The evaluation will take this into account and evaluate the projects as a whole, and the progress of the class as a group.

Idea 3: Modular teaching

The teacher would overwhelmed if he or she needs to take care of group working, evaluation, and supervising 5 different projects at the same time and teaching the content required to do it. In the proposal, the teacher accepts the role of the mentor, and all the content needed to make the projects and learn are available online. In this context the teacher would ensure to give positive feedback to the students and create a good working atmosphere. The content is modular, in individual lessons or projects, that the students can follow over the year.

On Saturdays, the school will be open for a making club. In the club, there will be a topic relative to sustainable development and an open source hardware piece to fabricate. Every nine weeks they will change this topic, making a year with 4 different cycles of 9 weeks.

Idea 4: Guided research project

Big Making Projects are final projects at the end of the year, and will be completely free for the students to decide on what to do. A budget should be given from the schools and students should submit to the mentors a project proposal before the start. This will also link the students to national and international competitions, that will help student prepare a more serious presentation of their project and expose them to a broader audience. Students will be almost independent and will include all the steps from brainstorming to prototyping.

Idea 5: The more you give, the more you get

The materials that will be develop for the course will be released at the beginning of the school year online, and all the materials and projects from the work of the students will be also documented, hoping to involve other school that can’t afford paying for curriculum development but want to get access to this educational content. The free (libre) culture license allows anyone to develop the content, use it, share it, sell it, or give it for free, under the only condition that the works based on the content are also shared freely.

The project is now developed in collaboration with a local partner, an amazing hackspace in Shenzhen with a very important focus in education and innovative pedagogy, and we hope to continue this collaboration further between France and China. Keep in touch at openscienceschool.org!