Launching a New School in China: An Interview with Wen Chen from Moonshot Academy

Moonshot Academy, a new private school for an initial group of 37 14-16-year-olds, opened in the fall of 2018 on the campus of the Affiliated High School of Peking University. Wen Chen, Head of Research at Moonshot, talked about the origins of the school, the key features, and a few of the things that the school leaders have learned as the school has evolved.  We spoke with Wen Chen during the US-China Education Forum, organized by the Columbia-Teachers College Chinese Students’ Association. Future posts from the Forum will feature Joan McPike, founder of THINK Global School and Christopher Bezsylko Head of the Imagination Lab School.

 

How did Moonshot Academy get started?

Wen Chen: We actually started with an App designed to help high schoolers in Beijing organize themselves into learning communities. The App promoted learning companions or communities:  Students coming together and then learning things together. We tried to focus on anything that the school doesn’t teach you, but that you really need when you go into society because we recognized there’s a huge gap in terms of what you learn from school and what you really need to be able to do. So, we established a research team to study what the curriculum covers and what you need in your real life and in the job market, such as financial skills and other career-related skills. For example, financial management might be something we all share an interest in at the age of sixteen, so let’s just get together and learn. That’s the idea of the App. During the App stage, we successfully hosted an animation exhibition initiated by one of the high-schoolers using the App. Another group created a band.

 

How did the App turn into a school?

WC: We realized that if you are only doing extra-curricular things you can never accomplish the mission which is to prepare the younger generation to face the future. So, we realized that having an App to organize this online community or offline community is definitely not enough. And then we got the chance to work with the affiliated high school of Peking University and to create a school.  The principal of the high school has been very supportive as he wants to have this innovative force on campus and to make room for new things to emerge.

Originally the idea was to create a school that is learner-centered and provides necessary support for teenagers in the world. To create the school, we focused on the education goals of “cultivating fulfilled individuals and compassionate active citizens.” Then we started a lot of discussions before we had any students. Basically, we wanted to figure out what we mean when we say that this is a fulfilled individual, or this is a compassionate and active citizen. With that in mind, we started to look around and look for all the agencies and institutes that conducted research on what future talent should look like. We drew on a lot of models to guide our work including OECD’s Competency Framework, the Partnership for 21st Century Learning, the EU’s Competence for Lifelong Learning, and the Chinese Education Bureau’s Core Competencies and Values for Chinese Students’ Development (in Chinese). Eventually, we developed a competency model composed of three main domains. First, we emphasized the thinking tools that are the foundation of personal development. The second domain focuses on self-management, career development, and also mental and physical health. The last domain, which we think is most important is effective social cooperation. This is the structure that we use to consider how to help learners learn, how to make sure that we are seeing all the changes and to connect the missing part that traditional schools are not providing.

 

What are some of the key features of the school now?

WC:  Some of the key features include: project-based learning for the main pedagogy; advanced curriculum standards – a little bit from AP and from the Common Core (in the US) to be our course standards; and for assessment, we changed the assessment system from traditional letter grades to a mastery transcript.  We also use OKR (Objectives and Key Results) a management system used in Google and a lot of other companies. It’s aligned with empowering the employee and the staff to come up with solutions. It’s different from KPI (Key Performance Indicators). Instead of “I tell you this is the number that you need to reach,” learners need to set their own personal development goals. They need to figure out what it takes to reach that goal and what are the key results they really need to accomplish. We’re using that system for our company as well as for our learners.

For the school, we offer a number of different courses/learning experiences.  Then the learners choose from these options based on their personal development goal so that they can get support and more exposure to the content knowledge and competencies where they want to improve. For instance, someone might want to acquire more social emotional skills which means that the learner might choose courses related to those skills. Some learners might choose to focus on self-management. So, this learner might choose courses that are related to those skills. Or some may say I don’t want to be a shy person and may want to practice oral presentation and communication skills, so we also have courses for that. Basically, they go through course selection phase based on their personal needs. Then this creates the learning group for each course. We offer more courses than the learners need so some of the courses offered aren’t going to open if there are not enough learners who choose it.

The style of the class depends on the topic.  Some courses are more similar to traditional classes where you have discussions, Socratic questions, or seminars. Some courses are more maker-oriented, such as computer designing and programming, so for those courses learners do a lot of things in the maker space.

 

What are the learning activities like?

WC: In the fall, we had three different kinds of learning activities or what we call “learning scenarios”: Blended learning, project-based learning, and deeper learning.  Blended learning focuses on knowledge requirements. Learners make their own academic goals for the semester and then they just directly use Khan Academy or other online materials as their learning resources. All the learners go at their own pace, but we designed milestones to check learners’ progress and their mastery of the content. For the milestone, we design a defense session or if they want, they can choose to take a standardized test. It’s up to them. For the defense, the learners randomly pick questions out of a question pool, and then they need to give an oral representation within ten minutes. That is followed by some questions.

The second scenario, project-based-learning, is considered our main course. All of the projects are designed by our teachers, and learners will choose the course based on their OKR’s.

The deeper learning scenario is designed to accomplish three outcomes: One is learning how to learn, one is systems thinking, and the last one is self-awareness.

We changed these scenarios significantly after the first semester. We decided to keep the names of the key elements, but instead of using those as our curriculum structure, we changed into a different structure which includes our common core (which still includes some elements from our original Blended Learning scenario), the Focused Curriculum (courses that are interdisciplinary and focused on project-based learning), Media Courses (Math & English) and the Personal Project which emphasizes learner-initiated projects.

The way that we define the common core is, we provide four different domains in the disciplines: social science, humanities, science and engineering. We try to select “discipline competencies”, which are shared by all of the courses or subjects inside of each of the domains. For instance, in the social science domain, subjects like anthropology, psychology, and sociology share some competencies so we tried to use those as competency standards for course design. Learners need to choose at least one course out of each of the domains before they graduate.  We want to make sure that they have those competencies (maybe not the course itself or the content knowledge itself), but definitely have that kind of a shared competency mastered after the Common Core.

 

Why did you make these changes?

WC: There were two main reasons. One is that when we conducted the blended learning, we realized that in a mixed group sometimes it can be really challenging for the learners to be on their own with the content. No matter how frequently you try to interact, we’re missing the part where the learner is watching the video themselves. We don’t want them get into the habit of passive learning. So we decided to design a better scenario where we can see and be with them. The second reason is that we realized we want to have three sets of assessment standards. One is efficacy competency, like global citizenship or global perspective. But we also want to make sure that our curriculum is very rigorous and academic-driven. So, we needed to put more emphasis on subject competency as well as subject knowledge mastery. We had to figure out what would be the best way to combine subject competency and the subject content knowledge learning without jeopardizing what makes us a different type of school. We definitely couldn’t go back to traditional courses, like one teacher preparing one course and then just talk and talk. However, we really wanted to make sure that the face-to-face interaction time is enough to meet the subject competency or habit of mind of the subject learning. We decided to adopt a scenario where the teacher and learner have more interaction but we definitely needed something that’s not one-direction instruction all the time. We created the common core scenario which is more like the flipped classroom where the learners do pre-course reading and listen to the audio materials, but once they are in the classroom, it is a facilitated process and discussion.

We still kept the part where learners can go on their own pace. You can learn as much as you want, but in class we try to sit together and discuss something that we all share and ask questions. We still provide the blended learning as a separate course or a separate activity and experience that learners can choose. Because we’re a really small school, we don’t have the capacity of having all of the subjects covered for all of the teachers. For some courses, learners still need to go online to learn the materials, and they are going to learn on their own. However, we need to make sure that we answer their questions in time, when they run into trouble.

 

It’s still early in the journey, but is there already anything in particular that you’ve learned from this that other people trying to start their own schools might find beneficial? Things you wish you’d known before you started?

WC:  I would say the most important thing what we learned so far is to “know your audiences and know your families”. We are very transparent and very honest with parents. I want to share this with people who want to open a new school in China: be honest with your parents and also work with them. That’s something that I learned from the previous semester.

China is a complicated society and you ave all different types of audiences and families. The reason why I’m saying know your families and work with them is to emphasize the complicated features of the families. For us, we have a lot of families who used to stay in the public school system. However, their kids are in the public schools’ international sector. The learners have already made up their minds to go to a college or university abroad when they graduate from high school. Then there is also part of our group who are already in international schools or schools with the International Baccalaureate system or A-Level system. Then there are a few families that are just in a traditional public school setting. Those are our audiences. We try to create a lot of opportunities to discuss the school with the families before they decide to jump on board. We really want to make sure that what they are looking for is something that we can provide.

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