Project-Based Learning – How my kids and I spent four weeks in Yunnan, China

After weeks of hard work, the MYP2 Humanities class took their places at the roundtable to engage in a two day debate towards a solution to a real world problem.   In their project-based learning unit, entitled ‘River of Life’, MYP2 students strengthened their inquiry skills (and more!) as they tackled the question of hydropower electricity on the Jinsha River (Upper Yangtze) in Yunnan, China.

This activity served as a culminating experience for the students, who drew upon topics from their year of study, including cultural identity, migration and displacement, and human engagement with river systems.

Working independently, the students took on specific character roles** for the debate, addressing questions of alternative energy and environmental and social issues, as they honed their arguments and developed solutions.

From my perspective on the side of the classroom, the students totally owned the learning experience.  My guidance involved daily individual meetings to check progress, give advice on research and help the formulation of arguments. Beyond this, they were on their own – working independently and sometimes collaboratively to learn, share and build.   I found myself making inter-disciplinary connections and offering encouragement that became catch phrases – ‘Do the math.‘, ‘What does the research tell us about that?‘, ‘Trust what you know and figure out what you don’t.‘  I encouraged students to deepen their understanding by furthering their research.   ‘So, tell me all about solar power.  How can you convince your classmates that it is better than the rest?‘   To their credit, they largely figured it out.  They went straight back to their research and came back a day later knowing more.

On the days of the debate, the students spoke independently, but worked together towards mutually acceptable solutions in an area of the world where the energy crisis is sometimes hotly contested.   Not unlike their adult counterparts, reaching true compromise was the most challenging aspect of the event.

Through the activity, students developed their own understandings, thought critically about the topic from multiple perspectives and worked to communicate their ideas with a collaborative spirit.

They were proud to share the experience with over 30 staff, student and parent observers, who joined to watch the two day debate.

As a formative experience, a week before the debate, we held an in-class press conference.    By group, the participants took the stage and briefly outlined their opinions.  Some held their arguments close to their chests, while others used the chance to work through their ideas with the group.   The class and I peppered each participant with questions to spur their learning.   ‘What are the risks of nuclear power?‘   ‘So you are telling us that you’ll displace 1 million villagers.   Where exactly will you move them?

As lead in to the project-based learning activity, the class looked at several important rivers around the world, including the Ganges river in India, where we focused on human interactions with this famous waterway.   We then turned towards energy production and modern advancements hydropower with a more in-depth study of the Three Gorges Dam and Yangtze River, China.   This established a common knowledge base as the students jumped into their new roles for the debate.

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**Specific roles in the debate included government representatives, scientists, special interest groups and local community representatives.    Students were given choice and there was majority agreement that all roles should assigned randomly (lucky draw).   The sole exception was the Minister of Water Resources, the roundtable chair/host, who was chosen carefully for his developing abilities to collaborate, seek consensus  and consider all perspectives.   The results were amazing.

Observer feedback:

An amazing two days ‘debate-solution’ session – most impressive and so great to see the active and enthusiastic participation from all the students round the table. It is clear that they have learned a lot from your class this year and we think the students really showed the IB learners profile in real action – everything you could hope for as a parent.


I thought the whole thing was brilliant.  The maturity demonstrated was refreshing.  Way more of that stuff should be happening.  Awesome model for others.


It was a very interesting debate and I was very impressed with how much the students had researched and learnt about the whole project. They made some very interesting points for consideration and the depth of forethought was impressive.


…thank you and the children for such a stimulating display of what “inquirers” really look like.  It was a good couple of days and left me appropriately stimulated.







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