Every year, numerous teachers flock to Beijing, and often educators bring with them new innovative and positive changes they wish to implement to their respective school curriculums. We talked with Sharyn Baddeley who is now in her first year of being principal of the Middle and High Schools at Beijing International Bilingual Academy (BIBA). She has decades of educational experience working with top-tier schools in her native Australia. But after years of reaching the top levels in her field, Baddeley felt she needed something that “would stimulate (her) passion.” This led her and her husband to settle in Beijing.
Baddeley’s educational outlook could be described simply as “back to basics.” As many schools push new technologies into the curriculum, Baddeley feels the need for a balance between tech and more hands-on learning which places an emphasis on mental, social and physical health through “experiential learning” in remote, outdoor environments. With an emphasis on self-reliance, resilience, personal physical and mental challenges, positive risk-taking, and working as a team, students practicing experiential learning end up with the skills to be able to adapt to challenges, solve problems, think more critically and deeply and be more independent and resilient. According to Baddeley, “They’ll be able to cope with the demands and pressures of life as well as the stress and anxiety often associated with their academics as well as provide them with important skills they will utilize at college or within the workforce after their educational journey.”
Baddeley then explained to us about the Experiential Outdoor Program that was implemented at her previous school in Australia. It is implemented for grade nine students to live off campus in nature for 12-months. “In a way, you can say it’s like boarding, but it’s very different,” said Baddeley, “It’s all about experiential learning.” Located in the bush, the campus is surrounded by high country fields and mountains. The main focus was on an all outdoor educational experiences helping students develop confidence, courage, and independence.
Students at the Educational Outdoor Program live in groups of ten or more in special group housing and have to collaborate constantly. Classes were spread throughout the day, and interspersed with physically demanding, but rewarding, activities like rock climbing, cross country running, horseback riding, and hiking as well as chores like house cleaning and collecting firewood for in-cabin heating. Besides school laptops for certain projects, no computers, tablets, or cell phones were allowed. “The only way they could communicate with parents was by writing letters,” said Baddeley. The rewards of outdoor activities and a disconnection from social media are obvious, and students left the program more confident, independent and courageous. As Baddeley puts it, “When they’re outdoors and they have to run 17 kilometers in mountainous terrain in hot temperatures within a time frame, the growth in that individual alone is huge.”
Another important point in Baddeley’s educational focus is positive education. Which she says is “looking at not only positive relationships, positive emotions, and engagement, and it is focused on developing positive mental health and developing individual strength and motivation” said Baddeley. “It’s looking at character traits, as in ‘What can we do to build on your character? Let’s see if we can work on your strengths.’” This includes mindfulness programs for mental health, which Baddeley also used in Australia to help the many international Chinese students who had difficulty adjusting in classes and conducting conversations and lesson learning exclusively in English.
Overseas Chinese students in Australia also participated in this pastoral and outdoor program, which stimulated an interest to create a similar curriculum in China. Since her arrival, Baddeley has been working hard on creating this outdoor learning lab experience in Beijing. Collaborating with Insight Travel, BIBA will be involved in a new project to create a communal living camping site teaching real-life outdoor skills. This new program hopes to mirror the success of the Australian one but in a Chinese context, without simply being a carbon copy.
To Baddeley, education is much more than rote memorization and piles of books; it’s also learning from others, having a healthy body and mind, and developing independence by using critical thinking skills. All of these aims are also developed in physical education programs, like the ones being created at BIBA.
“I think parents need to understand that not everything is about academics,” said Baddeley. “We really need to focus on the social and emotional needs of every child. The problem in many schools is that they just focus on the end result.”
This article appeared on p41 of beijingkids June 2018 issue
Photo: Kipp Whittaker