Global Perspectives: Teaching International Baccalaureate Art Abroad

by Nathan Driskell

In May 2016, a team of researchers and practitioners from the Center on International Education Benchmarking and the National Institute for School Leadership conducted a weeklong benchmarking visit to Shanghai, China. During the trip, we spoke with policymakers and visited schools, including internationally renowned Shi Xi High School, which recently enrolled an initial cohort of students in the International Baccalaureate (IB) program. Students in pre-IB and IB at Shi Xi are expected to demonstrate fluency in English and ultimately apply to international colleges in the United States and Britain.  

As follow-up to this visit, CIEB Policy Analyst Nathan Driskell spoke with Ligel Lambert, a pre-IB art teacher at Shi Xi. Mr. Lambert has taught in the U.S., Japan, Korea, and China. In their conversation, Mr. Lambert reflected on how high school differed across these jurisdictions and what IB offers the students at Shi Xi.ShanghaiMusicStudents

Nathan Driskell: As an art teacher at Shi Xi High School, what are your roles and responsibilities? And how do you decide what students at each grade should know and be able to do?

Ligel Lambert: This year, I am in charge of teaching 10th grade art for pre-IB students. Students apply to Shi Xi to be part of either the IB or standard-track programs. Those who are accepted as IB students spend their 10th grade year as part of the pre-IB program before embarking on the IB course of study in the 11th and 12th grade. My goals for the 10th grade pre-IB art are to give students the foundational concepts in art history and skills in art production they will need to be successful in future IB study. Many of my Chinese students arrive in class with limited knowledge of Western art and culture, including the life, styles and influences of artists like Van Gogh, Picasso, Warhol, Basquiat, Duchamp, Kahlo and Cassatt, etc. so they need to get broad exposure to different artists and a familiarity with styles of art that their Western peers might take for granted. In terms of skills, as a teacher of an introductory class, I want to give them experience with a wide range of artistic techniques so they can find what speaks to them and choose favorite techniques to devote themselves to more in later years. Most arrived in my classroom with minimal instruction in artistic techniques, although some had limited experience with basic drawing. So this year, for example, we covered the basics of pencil line drawing before moving into charcoal and eventually more advanced painting techniques once the foundations were in place.

When people think of IB as an independent program, they picture a very different governance structure from the management of a typical school. To some extent that is true – my fellow IB teachers and I are essentially contractors who are accountable to both the school administration and the IB program coordinators. But what people don’t realize is how much additional autonomy being an IB teacher affords. IB essentially has an open curriculum. Students are doing self-directed projects a lot, and must learn how to plan out their own goals, which requires tremendous differentiation. Those of us managing IB programs have to be able to coordinate with one another. IB teachers work together to design a holistic strategic plan for the two-year IB sequence, and then I am also responsible for working backwards to design what kind of pre-IB experience is necessary to set students up for success in that program.

Because I am the only pre-IB art teacher in the school, I may have less structured communal planning time than other teachers who teach in grade level bands. But I have a lot of unstructured planning time throughout the day – typically 5 periods out of 7 — where I can either work independently on my lesson planning or talk with other IB teachers about lessons and students. Finally, despite this intensive pre-planning, I often find that I have to adjust the amount of time we will spend on different topics. I’ve needed to give students more time to digest concepts I wouldn’t have thought would be new or unfamiliar, and adjust my plans to respond to some budget constraints too.

ND: You’ve taught in a number of international jurisdictions throughout your career. What do you think are the major differences between high school education in China, in the United States, and in other countries you’ve experienced?

LL: I began my career teaching high school students in Savannah, Georgia before I moved to Korea to teach English for a year, and after that I taught in Japan. I then received a master’s degree in Australia before coming to Shanghai to teach art at Shi Xi High School.

In Japan and Korea, the number one thing that stuck with me was the overwhelming respect society gives to teachers – and the way that teachers think of their jobs completely differently in return. The entire conception of what being a teacher entails is totally different. Teachers are not just mentors within a school, but pillars of a community. They work with parents and with community institutions. And they happily work hours that as an American I would find totally overwhelming. My colleagues regularly stayed at schools until 10 pm – planning their own lessons, coordinating extracurricular events, meeting with parents, assisting with other aspects of the running of the school. While I would occasionally hear my colleagues sigh or lightly complain about the hours, there was not serious resentment because the teachers there are so respected.

The cultural ethic of respect and honor for teachers in Japan means that students, parents, communities, and government institutions regularly find ways to honor teachers through celebrations, demonstrate their respect, and give their advice great weight. Teachers were valued as experts in Japan at a level higher than anywhere else I have taught.

Respect for teachers was also strong in South Korea, and teachers’ work ethic was similarly strong as well. But in South Korea, a set of systems, structures and rituals accounted more for this respect. It was almost regimented the way the school day is structured. For example, students must request permission to even enter the classroom in a ritualized call-and-response. There is a kind of code—everything is couched in ritual and structure.

Although teaching is respected in Shanghai, the systems and structures and the way that teachers interact with students and with each other are quite different. Students are expected to be obedient and attentive, but there are fewer rituals that accompany this. I believe teachers in Shanghai are very much in charge and the students respond to their authority without question. In both Korea and Japan, cleaning the school hallways and classrooms are considered part of students’ duties – as a way to build character and to build broad participation in the health of the community. That isn’t the case in Shanghai, where schools have large numbers of staff to perform these functions. And needless to say, none of these jurisdiction’s attitudes towards teachers is similar to the United States where teaching is much less respected.

ND: How would you describe classroom teaching in Shanghai to a U.S. audience? How much time do you spend on various topics? On lecture versus classroom participation? On homework?

LL: Class periods in most Shanghai high schools, including ours, are 40 minutes, with seven periods in the day and some short breaks in between. Once per week there is a double period of 80 minutes for each class. Teachers begin every class by asking students to review what they learned in the previous class period. This not only has the goal of circling back to previous concepts but also getting students to speak up more in class. Teachers in Shanghai are transitioning to more discussion-based classes, so getting older students to speak frequently, in particular, can be a struggle since their experience in the lower grades with this form of pedagogy is limited. We then may watch a short film or demonstration modeling a concept or discussing the life of an artist, and then have a discussion of what we have seen. Again, the focus is on getting students to learn to debate and think critically about various concepts, not just to memorize facts they have learned in lecture. Another goal is to really enable students to practice their English in discussions of advanced and ambiguous topics. It is required for all IB classes to be entirely fluent in English because they will all work towards acceptance into a college or university overseas.

I also have class periods where students are focused on actually doing art – these involve independent work and require students to manage their own time carefully. Because periods are so short, these independent projects require me to think very carefully about exactly what each student can be expected to accomplish in the period, while leaving enough time for set up and clean up. Using the weekly double period of 80 minutes for this purpose can be very useful, but in either case, making sure that not a second is wasted is very important, and a skill that teachers are expected to hone in Shanghai. This strikes me as different than the U.S., which has a more lax attitude toward time management in some cases.

Currently I teach students three days per week, however, my school is thinking about cutting that time down to two days per week which I think will not be enough time, although it is longer than in most U.S. high schools.

Homework has been something of an interesting experience for me. I strongly believe in assigning both long-term research papers and long-term art projects for homework. These help students build skills in research, critical thinking, drawing, and writing really early, along with time management techniques that will serve them well through college. But I got feedback early on that the deadlines I was giving were too ambitious and the homework load was slightly too heavy. Students were used to doing heavy amounts of homework, but less accustomed to managing multiple deadlines of long-term projects. I continue to give these projects, but have given students longer time limits to complete them. They also have more group and paired assignments; these cut down on the individual workload slightly and also teach students skills in teamwork, collaboration, and managing interpersonal relationships.

One way that our school has innovated is in the use of technology to help teachers and students manage long-term assignments. Teachers monitor completion of projects by asking students to update their progress through the app WeChat (it is a messaging application that most people with smartphones have in Shanghai and other parts of Southeast Asia). This way, we can check in on interim deadlines and model long-term project management skills for the students. We also use the school’s online portal ManageBac to send individualized announcements to every student and upload weekly syllabi and videos modeling techniques or recapping course content.

ND: What did Shi Xi hope to gain by offering IB? What do you see as the major advantages of IB? What struggles have you seen in implementation?

LL: IB is an internationally recognized program that offers students great opportunities to learn critical thinking, to manage their own learning, and to reflect on how they are situated as global citizens. For teachers, as I mentioned, IB offers increased autonomy and the ability to think more strategically and flexibly about how to co-construct learning goals with students.

Students see a number of advantages to the IB program, although it is not for everyone. All students in the IB program must spend part of their junior year in an exchange program in Sedona, Arizona. As a result, they are expected to become fluent in English. They have the opportunity to take more classes focused on politics, civics, and debate, which can be exciting for many students. They also are all expected to apply to international colleges, which is the big draw for our students. They are excited to study abroad and have the opportunity to apply to some of the top institutions in the world.

And – to be really frank – they are thrilled that they do not have to take the gaokao, China’s controversial high-stakes college entrance exam. As a foreigner, I am not all that familiar with the gaokao, but my sense is that there is a lot of controversy about the number of topics it covers, the stakes associated with it, and the stress it causes. Now, this is not to say that IB students have no high-stakes test of their own: they have to take IB tests, and often other tests that will be required for the colleges they apply to, like the SAT or ACT. But escaping from the culture of stress caused by the gaokao is a big draw.

Shi Xi High School is a well-known school with a long and proud history and set of traditions, and a really clearly articulated focus on technology, so sometimes the focus on art and IB can be lost. I say this as someone who really believes in the program and wants the best for the students: I hope Shi Xi and other schools that adopt IB in China and globally consider what a commitment it is and the resources it will require.