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How Ideas From European and Asian Schools Can Help Your Child

Learn what exchange programs, International Baccalaureate, outdoor classrooms and Singapore Math can offer students here.



Education in the United States often attracts worldwide attention but it is also improved and enhanced by adapting international approaches to schools and learning. Here are four effective and popular strategies with origins elsewhere that are being implemented in local schools.

International Baccalaureate (IB)

International Baccalaureate programs, developed in the 1960s, emphasize rigorous inquiry and project-based learning that transcend the classroom for students aged 3-19. “They connect the real world and the subject,” notes Ralph Lelii, IB program director and teacher at The George School in Newtown, PA.  

Approximately 1,700 schools in the US offer IB programs, though not necessarily an IB high school diploma. Lelii explains that the IB diploma is accepted across the world because it meets internationally recognized standards and assessments that other high school programs do not.  

“There are no multiple choice questions in IB,” he says. Instead, IB measures student progress through the learners’ portfolios, papers, exams and collections of many assessments over a period of time. These assessments are reviewed by multiple outside educators – often overseas – to ensure standards and objectivity.

Design of original experiments isn’t something reserved for science fairs. IB students in biology, for instance, are required to create, run and explain original experiments and in calculus students are expected to create, solve and discuss 10 special problems beyond the scope of their course.

IB programs are demanding while encouraging flexible thinking and fresh approaches to problem solving. Their international scope has a unifying and connective benefit across cultures as well.

Outdoor Classrooms, Forest Schools

“There is no bad weather, just bad clothing,” explains Kristina Eaddy, lead teacher in the Outdoor Classroom preschool program at the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education in Northwest Philadelphia.  

Layers of appropriate gear and plenty of snacks are how youngsters prepare for a full day’s curriculum in nature, even during a chilly winter.

Forest Schools are popular in Germany and the Schuylkill Center was a founding member of the Eastern Region Association of Forest and Nature Schools in the US. Outdoor Classrooms typically combine structured time with child-driven free play. Students make berries and leaves into ink; they journal and draw outdoors, sometimes in the snow. They skate on ponds. When sticks are employed in play – which is inevitable – students learn safer ways to wield them and alternative uses for them, from picture frames to brooms. “Everything in nature is multi-purpose,” emphasizes Eaddy.

“We try to say ‘yes’ as much as possible,” she continues. So when students climb trees, build forts or engage in other forms of what some adults consider “risky play,” degreed and licensed educators, who are also trained in natural education, facilitate safe practices to enable children to explore to their own limits. This helps kids build technique, competence and confidence.  

Nature classrooms support social and emotional growth as well, says Schuylkill Center Director of Early Childhood Education Sandi Vincenti, because different kinds of learners thrive in this community of students. Finally, when these students move to a new educational environment, the transition is smoother because they have discovered how to learn, negotiate challenging situations, and take responsibility for their own learning.

Singapore Math

Teachers at the independent St. Anne’s Episcopal School in Middletown, DE are excited that a different approach to teaching math has transformed first graders from saying, “I can’t do math” to saying, “I tried this and it worked.” They now beg for additional math time, both in and outside of school.

Singapore Math is credited with keeping Singapore students ranked among the best in complex problem-solving and mathematical thinking. The approach is rooted in child development, moving from the concrete, to the pictorial and the abstract with each topic, according to first-grade teacher Tara Liguori.  

Instead of memorizing which formula to apply to get the right answer, Singapore Math helps students develop a deeper understanding – a number sense – so they can think about mathematical problems and explain how to work them, says another first grade teacher, Melissa Meier.  

Practice, not drills, helps students solidify their basic math facts; meanwhile, class members collaborate to address daily “anchor problems.”

This approach rejects rote steps in favor of learning the meaning behind them, says Meier. Students learn why, not just how. The result is students who think flexibly on their feet and generate multiple ideas to solve complex problems.

International Exchange Programs

Experiencing a foreign country directly is not the same as talking about a foreign country and that’s why Greene Street Friends School’s Costa Rica Exchange Program for seventh and eighth graders is powerful, says Ryan Kimmet, associate head of the Philadelphia-based Quaker school.

He believes this special connection between US students and their peers in another culture is “life changing for our kids.”

Some students remain in touch with their Costa Rican friends into adulthood, he says.

From PreK, Greene Street Friends students start learning Spanish but the exchange also integrates history, social studies, science and other curricular and philosophical objectives.  

In a period of just less than two weeks, seventh-grade students visit the homes and schools of their Costa Rican pen pals; tour bat caves, cloud forests and coffee plantations; engage in indigenous cooking and decorative arts, and provide service. During eighth grade, Costa Rican hosts visit Greene Street Friends in Philadelphia.  

When young people leave their home or country for the first time, they benefit from understanding diversity and resources in a new way, says Kimmet. Their eyes open and their worlds expand as they couldn’t have imagined otherwise. Students document their growth through journaling and presentations.

These four educational strategies are among the many global approaches to learning that inspire curious students, engaged parents and bold teachers in our region.

Ann L. Rappoport, PhD, is a contributing writer to MetroKids.

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