Teaching creativity and thinking outside the box

Yang Meiping
A video of children playing baduanjin, or traditional Chinese eight-sectioned physical exercise, is going viral online. It was created by a group of third-graders.
Yang Meiping

A video of children playing baduanjin, or traditional Chinese eight-sectioned physical exercise, is going viral online.

It was created by a group of third-graders at Shanghai Minhang Experimental Primary School as a result of their explorative program, or project-based learning.

"It has been a long tradition for our school to engage students in unconventional courses to encourage them to explore the world by themselves on designated themes," said Shi Fang, head teacher of the class.

According to Shi, the school designs topics for students according to seasons and hot social issues every year, such as plants and the flower expo in spring, work in high-temperature environments in summer, foodstuff in autumn and the Winter Olympics during this winter vacation. Students of different age groups receive different tasks. Younger pupils can paint or draw while older ones may present research in more complex ways. They have one or two months to finish the tasks.

The baduanjin video was produced by some of Shi's students on the topic of health care in autumn, a project for last semester that concluded on January 19.

"Most students chose dishes and desserts we usually have in autumn, while this group decided to learn baduanjin and share it with their classmates, as it has become a popular exercise in workplaces, including some of their parents' offices," said Shi.

The video was praised by the students and parents who spread it on their WeChat accounts.

"Such programs are not regular homework that can be done within one day with knowledge of a single discipline but require students to think deeply, do research, cooperate with others and present their findings with cross-disciplinary skills," said Shi. "This can help cultivate their independent-study skills, curiosity and ability to work in groups and learn from their peers. It also broadens their vision."

In addition to seasonal projects, students are encouraged to identify problems in real life and find solutions.

Such programs are now promoted citywide since the Shanghai Education Commission released a three-year action in 2020 to promote explorative programs and project-based learning approaches – part of its efforts to promote all-around development among students and cultivate their abilities to solve real-life problems in innovative, creative ways.

"Problem-based learning is an important experiment in our education system," said Jia Wei, former deputy director of the commission. "Most of the challenges we face now are cross-disciplinary, so we have to keep our children curious and creative in applying all their knowledge to solve problems."

Jia stressed the intention of the plan isn't to add more courses but restructure teaching and learning models.

"There should be more complicated real-life issues to connect learning content with children in order to arouse their curiosity and motivation for learning," he said.

Shanghai has a good foundation for carrying out the plan in some schools, including Minhang Experimental Primary School, having piloted the new education model for years with a series of successful projects.

These include Shanghai Luwan Middle School, which adopted an approach called "education without borders" that puts all teaching disciplines on equal footing and pools resources while teaching students to solve real-life problems.

"One reason for us to launch the program is to adapt to the new high school entrance exam, which requires students to develop abilities in cross-disciplinary and explorative learning," said Zhang Yi, the school's principal. "The other reason is that we were trying to find a new balance between basic education and the cultivation of students' key abilities in facing up to future challenges."

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