UWC education: Then, Now and the Future
UWC education: Then, Now and the Future

In this fourth issue of faculty sharing from members of UWC Changshu China, Shirla Nga Wan Sum, a graduate of Pearson College UWC in Canada, now the Head of Individuals and Societies (previously Humanities), recalls her experience as a UWC student and looks forward to a promising future of the UWC movement from a teacher's perspective. Prior to becoming a teacher, Shirla spent five years at Goldman Sachs in New York and Hong Kong conducting macroeconomics research, covering the US and Asia-Pacific economies. She has a double major in Economics and Philosophy from Wellesley College in the U.S., Masters of Education (MEd) in Curriculum Studies and is currently working towards a PhD in Policy, Administration and Social Sciences Education at the University of Hong Kong.

 

Content

How my journey began

I am very excited to have returned to my UWC family this year, joining UWC Changshu China as Head of Group 3: Individuals and Societies. Writing this in my classroom, I peer out my window onto the view of Kuncheng Lake, bringing up fond memories of my time at another UWC: Peddar Bay at Pearson College in Canada, where, 13 years ago, I first experienced UWC education.

 

There, as here, education was experiential: as much as possible I learned by living experiences. Having received many years of ‘traditional’ schooling in a Hong Kong public school, I distinctly recalled the first time I was asked to speak in front of a class at Pearson. It was social and cultural anthropology class, where we were studying "!Kung San", a group of foragers in the Dobe area of the Kalahari Desert. The request to comment on their cultural traditions came something of a shock and I was left tongue-tied and embarrassed. In those early days, my experiences were quite frightening, and my victories were small and gradual: meeting other students who were also nervous about this new style of immersive education; practicing English over ramen noodles with tabasco sauce. Gradually we helped each other adapt to the experience and were forced to grow in maturity.

  • One World Performance at Person College UWC (Author: second from the right in the second row)

 

But this was just the beginning. Once we had found our feet, the real experiences – and learning – began: On Refugee Day, I learnt about the refugee experience by living like a refugee for a day, being evicted from one area to another in the Canadian hills, subsisting on nothing but rice and water; I became empowered with a strong political voice through speaking at Village Meetings, where I fought for increased mental health support; I developed a sense of idealism, which still propels me today, through interacting with people from all corners of the globe who faced their own personal and social challenges. I met lifelong friends who inspire me daily with stories of their impact in environmentalism, education, medicine and other fields. This includes my best friend Rianne (Ireland, Pearson College), a change-maker who served as a nurse during the Ebola crisis in Sierra Leone, and now dedicates her life in chemical weapon disarmament. Their work inspired me to leave a career in investment banking, become an educator, and pursue a PhD in international education – in the hopes of cultivating the next generation of change-makers. 

Now: Humanities education at UWC Changshu China 

As Head of Group 3: Individuals and Societies, I am working with a diverse team of economics, geography, history and philosophy teachers to deliver humanities education that will develop in students an acute appreciation of the shared human experience. They are reminded of the critical importance of acquiring deep understanding of global issues as they take concrete action in the world.

  • Teaching in Economics Class

 

The UWC education model provides the most ideal context for humanities education. Episodes of hyperinflation, mass migration, and political crises are no longer stories of distant individuals, but stories of community members, friends and family. During Latin America Cultural Week, we explored in-depth the current economic crisis in Venezuela, where Samuel (DP2) shared his rare insights from a local perspective, explaining complicated mechanics of Venezuela’s underground currency market unknown to outsiders. After a film showing of the Big Short, I shared my own takeaways from the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, including the economics of interconnected financial systems, and personal accounts of Wall Street survival and grit. The multifaceted experiences UWCers bring to the classroom provide a rich, relevant and personal context to humanities education.

 

Inspired by my mentor Peter Gardner, economics teacher at Pearson College (1993 – 2010) who taught me the power of economics to decipher the world in both analytical and humanistic ways, we are incorporating studies in feminist economics, indigenous economics, and sustainable development into a new Pre-DP Economics programme (starting this year). Free from the constraints of a pre-defined curriculum, we explore non-mainstream topics underrepresented in national and international curricula, including the ‘feminization’ of work and impact on women’s pay, alternative views of land in indigenous communities, and so forth; not only in preparation for the IB Diploma program, but also for the development of reflective learners with a strong sense of social awareness and responsibility.  

 

Meanwhile, our weekly Global Issues Forum (GIF) brings together student speakers and invites outside experts to share and debate views on a number of topical issues, ranging from the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar,  drug trafficking in Latin America to nanotechnology developments. One of my proudest memories is the wide-eyed responses and active questioning of our students to journalist Huang Hongxiang’s sharing of hisivory trade investigations, revealing their own enthusiasm for action – the hallmark of a passionate activist. GIF sparks heated discussions which continue in the humanities classrooms, where teachers and students conduct further research and analysis, with the goal of formulating sound arguments grounded upon concrete subject knowledge and shared concepts. Importantly, we also learn to communicate across cultures and celebrate our different viewpoints. 

  • With GIF team members

Our Future: The way forward

 

Many alumni have asked: Is the UWC movement still relevant? When UWC started more than 50 years ago, these educational principles were idealistic and experimental; it was a novel idea to gather young people from around the world to live and study together. Now at UWC Changshu China, we are critically aware of the need to cultivate students with the competencies necessary to manifest UWC values in purposeful action in the 21st century.

 

Therefore, I am very excited to be working on a new initiative to introduce an Innovation and Design program at UWC Changshu China, including the offering of an IB Design Technology course beginning in August 2018. This program, including Zhixing co-curricular activities such as Robotics, Programming, Graphics and Fashion Design, will take place in Phase 2 Kuncheng Academy. Our aim is to encourage students to embed design thinking and a multidisciplinary approach in generating creative solutions to the world's complex problems. In IB Design Technology, for example, students are to take full ownership of their learning in their Design Project to capture a design opportunity in the real world, while accounting for commercial viability and sustainability. Such entrepreneurial experience embodies what we envision UWC education to be in today’s ever-changing, innovation-driven world. 

  • With IB Design Technology course consultants in front of the construction site

 

Additionally, to reinforce Chinese language and culture as a key pillar of UWC Changshu China education, the program will expose students to practical projects in varying material disciplines, including the great Chinese traditions of textiles, ceramics, glasswork and woodwork, among others. We believe this creates a new platform for students to develop greater understanding of Chinese heritage and history. Situated within Kuncheng Academy, the program also serves as a bridge connecting us with the local cultures of Changshu and Jiangsu region.  

  • Kuncheng Academy Rendering

 

Working at a young school stepping into its third year, I am encouraged and invigorated as a member of faculty and as a UWC alumni; we are not complacent about our incredible diversity, but actively working to preserve UWC’s distinct tradition in experiential, international education and also better our learning community to fulfil the UWC mission now and in the future.  


Photo: provided by the author