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The Anti-Suitcase Curriculum School: How Shanghai American School has Reinvented its Schoolwide Learning Goals

Walking through the hallways, offices, and classrooms at Shanghai American School (SAS), one commonly overhears faculty intently discussing complicated educational jargon such as Disciplinary Transfer Goals (DTGs) and Transdisciplinary Transfer Goals (TTGs) among themselves. For such a large school – one with nearly 2800 students spread over two campuses in Shanghai – it’s easy to shrug off these exchanges as isolated pockets of conversation, but after speaking to both administrators and teachers alike, it’s clear that SAS has thoughtfully taken the time to invest in a profound initiative that is truly embodied throughout its school culture and learning goals.

In technical terms, SAS has spent several years building up a framework that involves using “backward design,” a process for deriving curriculum from a set of long-term Transfer Goals designed to specify what students would be able to do with their learning when confronting new opportunities and challenges. A related dimension of the framework is the identification of sets of “big ideas” (understandings) and essential questions that spiral across the grades. These elements provide the intellectual through-lines needed for a coherent and conceptually aligned curriculum. The journey to get to where the school is now with its alignment, widespread knowledge, and coherence among staff has been a challenging and intensive process spanning several years, and in fact, remains ongoing today.

Design space was guided by the instruction the faculty wanted to deliver.
Design space was guided by the instruction the faculty wanted to deliver.

According to SAS’s Chief Academic Officer and Deputy Head of School, Dr. Emmanuel Bonin, part of the school shortcomings related to curriculum were based on a common occurrence in international schools: regular turnover among expatriate teachers meant that in the absence of an established framework and guidance from administrators, teachers would resort to individual teaching and program preferences. “We realized that some of our excellent teachers were very much in a ‘suitcase curriculum’ approach,” Dr. Bonin explained. “They would come in for a few years and deliver their own curriculums before moving on to the next school. You could say there’s nothing wrong with that, but from a student’s perspective, that means a fairly fragmented experience.”

One of the key moments that highlighted the issue of misalignment was when Head of School Marcel Gauthier asked his team to take a “curriculum snapshot” in order to measure unity and coherence in their subject areas. In this exercise, staff members reported on a variety of factors such as their perception of alignment with their colleagues, both at the same grade level as well as with those above and below. Approximately 400 staff members’ responses were collected and translated into a visual format, and the results were staggering. “Everybody was struck to see that the areas of misalignment were not only where we expected them to be – the transition between Elementary, Middle, and High School – but that there were many other areas of misalignment, and certain subject areas were more prone to it than others,” Dr. Bonin recalled. “We were trying to create a sense of urgency, and at this one point we were able to take feedback we had collected to the faculty and demonstrate this. It was a moment of realization.”

SAS’ Mission inspires in all students the courage to live their dreams (Pictured: Middle School Art class).
SAS’ Mission inspires in all students the courage to live their dreams (Pictured: Middle School Art class).

Armed with a collective realization and a will to act, Dr. Bonin and his team engaged the services of Jay McTighe, familiar in educational circles for his work on assessment and curriculum and co-author of the well-known book Understanding by Design. Over a series of in-person visits to Shanghai and virtual support which continues today, Mr. McTighe has helped the SAS faculty slowly deconstruct and rebuild their curriculum framework. “My work with SAS has focused on the construction of a coordinated and vertically aligned Pre-K to 12 curriculum that integrates 21st Century Skills with academic content,” Mr. McTighe shared.

A unique feature of the work Mr. McTighe has engaged upon with SAS is the switch from mapping the curriculum solely around lists of grade level standards to be “covered” (inputs) to creating curriculum maps of authentic performance tasks (outcomes). Student work generated from these tasks will enable the school to track the effectiveness of its curriculum, while providing evidence of genuine accomplishment by students. Additionally, student performances on the tasks will enable collaborative teams within the Professional Learning Community (PLC) to analyze strengths and weaknesses and develop plans for continuous improvement.

Caty Romero, a mathematics instructional coach at SAS who works with teachers on instructional practices and curriculum development on a daily basis, sees the impact that Mr. McTighe’s consultancy and the leadership team’s efforts have had on students. “When my husband and I got the job [at SAS], we saw the mission and immediately felt that this was the school for us; however, there was absolutely no evidence of that mission in the curriculum,” Mrs. Romero said. “When the work with the transfer goals started, things started falling in the right place. Now, I am so excited about the work that we are doing because it finally makes sense and feels like what it was meant to be.” Dr. Cris Ewell, Associate Director of Modern Languages at SAS, shared a similar sentiment. “The school put a flag in the sand and said that our definition of a skillful communicator is a student that can advocate for self, others, and ideas in more than one language,” she said. “That was a powerful statement. In the framework of the TTGs, how does that intersect with collaboration? How does that interact with being an ethical, global citizen?”

Chief Academic Officer and Deputy Head of School Dr. Emmanuel Bonin leads collaboration with faculty.
Chief Academic Officer and Deputy Head of School Dr. Emmanuel Bonin leads collaboration with faculty.

One of the essential questions that SAS is trying to answer through this process is how to ensure that students receive a “guaranteed and viable curriculum.” This terminology, coined by Dr. Robert Marzano, is a relatively simple concept in theory but extremely involved in practice. With teachers coming and going each year, the challenge to provide a consistent learning experience for children by aligning assessments and curricular goals yet still providing the space and autonomy for teachers to exercise their best judgement is an ongoing challenge for SAS. And despite some of the grumblings from staff regarding the sheer amount of commitment and time it takes to constantly meet, collaborate, plan, and share, SAS administrators are adamant that the results have been worth the effort. “I feel pretty proud right now that I can say to parents that it doesn’t matter which teacher you’re going to get because you are guaranteed to get the same curriculum,” Michael Hibbeln, the school’s Pudong Campus Elementary School Principal, shared. “Of course, there will be social and emotional nuances between different teachers, but they are aligning common assessments and collaborating.” At the senior leadership level, Dr. Bonin also readily admitted the challenges in implementing such a sweeping reform at the school, sharing the challenges in communicating both the importance and value of the work with stakeholders such as board members, faculty, and community members. And perhaps most importantly, Dr. Bonin also acknowledged the importance of student voice in this process. “That’s one of the things I would say that if I were to do it again, I would work on having more input from students in the get go,” he shared.

Besides practical classroom implications and alignment of learning activities and goals, the work on Transfer Goals has also allowed SAS to implement novel programs such as Menwai with greater richness and diversity. Menwai, which translates as “Outside the Gates,” is SAS’s catch-all term for any learning activities that take place outside the campus walls. Nearly two years ago, Head of School Marcel Gauthier appointed Craig Tafel as the Director of the Menwai program as part of a schoolwide revision and re-alignment of its learning goals. Having led regular four-week trips with students to Xizhou, a rural village of 2000 inhabitants in southwest China, for service and inquiry learning activities as part of the SAS Microcampus program, Mr. Tafel was a natural fit to help the school institutionalize its approach to outside learning. “The school became very interested in me being based a bit more in Shanghai to try and support teachers in the refinement and building of these kinds of experiences,” Mr. Tafel said. “I am now working more on a systematic process of trip development, trip review, and trip enhancement with SAS faculty on a schoolwide basis.”

The Menwai philosophy at SAS promotes meaningful learning through off-campus activities.
The Menwai philosophy at SAS promotes meaningful learning through off-campus activities.

Without guiding principles and an established framework for the school’s learning goals, programs like Menwai might simply exist as glorified field trips for students with little connection or context to real-life application or classroom learning activities. Instead, with a sound framework and foundation in place, the Menwai program is thriving. One such example is an upcoming trip to Cambodia with seventh grade students, where they will be connected with a NGO (non-profit organization) working with a local community so that they are able to gain an appreciation and understanding for the work involved with long-term community development and how to achieve meaningful and sustainable results. Students are currently preparing for their upcoming trip by reviewing provided materials from the NGO and studying more about the history of the community they intend to visit. Upon their return to the Shanghai school campus, students will engage in follow-up work which will include recommendations for future service, such as planning a subsequent SAS student trip, helping with further research, or raising further awareness through advocacy work.

Often times, international schools struggle to implement new initiatives with any degree of sustainability or longevity. The revision and implementation of SAS’s learning goals seems to be an exception to this commonality in international schools and a model that other international schools can follow. From the identification of the problem to developing a vision to supporting implementation initiatives with adequate resources, SAS’s approach has an inspiration and testament to organizational focus and execution. “I respect the thoughtful and systematic way in which the school has initiated and engaged in their curriculum work,” Mr. McTighe said. “The school leaders clearly communicated their vision and long-term plan to staff so that everyone would be on the same page as they moved forward.”

This article is available and can be accessed in Spanish here.

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Wallace Ting
Dr. Wallace Ting is an experienced teacher, Principal, School Director, and University-level Researcher who has worked in Texas, New York City, Colombia, Guatemala, Nigeria, and Florida. He helped co-found SchoolRubric and serves in an advisory role for the non-profit organization. He currently resides in Orlando, Florida with his young son, Phillip.

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