The American School Hong Kong (ASHK) opened its doors in Tai Po last month under the stewardship of School Director John Jalsevac. Under its STEAM curriculum, ASHK boasts an innovative teaching approach combined with a rigorous daily Chinese-language program, to equip students with the critical thinking skills necessary for success in the 21st century
By Jennifer Khoo
There’s a new kid on the Hong Kong international school block.
Opened in October this year, the American School Hong Kong (ASHK) is an American-style international school run by Dubai-based group Esol Education, the world’s largest operator of international American schools. ASHK’s day-to-day operations are overseen by School Director, John Jalsevac, who tells us more about the latest addition to Hong Kong’s international school scene.
Jalsevac, a Canadian with over 30 years of education experience in Hong Kong and abroad, is a keen advocate of a balanced, holistic approach to education, i.e. that learning enjoyment goes hand in hand with achieving academic excellence. This philosophy is strongly reflected in ASHK’s teaching methods and environment.
“We aim to build a vibrant school community with strong student-teacher relationships, and recognize the importance that genuine happiness has in advancing the learning process,” says Jalsevac. “At the same time, we are aware that a considerable body of research centered around effective schools has demonstrated that these schools are characterized as having high standards and high expectations,” he adds.
Man on a mission
With over three decades of experience at reputable schools both in Hong Kong and abroad, Jalsevac was a natural choice for the position of School Director – one he clearly feels passionate about.
While his role predictably involves tasks associated with building ASHK’s brand; establishing a strong sense of community within the school; ensuring that students are successful; developing ASHK’s curriculum and program plans; and supervising the business and operations tasks, Jalsevac says that his role fundamentally is to “get people to go with you where normally they wouldn’t go without you.”
Jalsevac’s motivation to instigate change started with an internal recognition that “all individuals have talents, knowledge and skills and are capable of offering meaningful contributions toward a desired goal.” With this in mind, Jalsevac says he has all he needs to enable or empower people – staff and students – in whatever they wish to achieve on behalf of the school.
Jalsevac feels the role of School Director requires him to be a jack of all trades. “To lead and provide guidance, but also act as a role model, celebrate success, lend support with all types of tasks or challenges, challenge where necessary, and find opportunities in all situations,” he says.
Skills for the 21st century
From his many years of experience, Jalsevac has gleaned a wealth of insights about schools in the traditional education sector, including about what has worked well, and areas for improvement.
Referring to some of the schools where he previously worked, Jalsevac says he has witnessed considerable and successful focus on the development of the whole child – academically, socially and emotionally.
“I would argue that these schools have also paid significant attention to the development of higher order critical thinking skills in students such as creativity, analysis, synthesis and application,” he says. “But for some schools, holistic development is still a growth area, as they transition from a majority focus on knowledge to a more integrated program that combines 21st century skills, such as critical thinking, with knowledge,” Jalsevac explains.
The goal, he says, is to channel students into becoming self-actualized, critical thinking problem solvers. Schools that focus on these skills, including, and especially, creativity and innovation, are preparing students for life after education, he believes.
ASHK intends to do just that, via its STEAM program, which encourages critical thinking by students and a practical, hands-on approach. “We are committed to providing a program of study that connects students to their learning so that they see themselves in what is taught, how it is taught and how it applies to them and the world at large,” says Jalsevac.
Full STEAM ahead
ASHK’s STEAM program is an integrated approach to learning that uses Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts, and Mathematics to guide student inquiry, collaboration, and critical thinking. Under this program, ASHK’s curriculum provides activities that foster true innovation that comes with combining the mind of a scientist with that of an artist.
Jalsevac says the approach is very hands-on in nature and requires students to be active and engaged, including being frequently called upon to gather supplies, construct models, and test designs. Through STEAM, students will develop ownership and responsibility for their education as they face many time management and decision-making challenges.
Another aim of the STEAM program is to help students become effective at teamwork, flexible thinking, and creative problem-solving. Emphasis will be placed on student collaboration, based on the rationale that teams tend to innovate faster, see mistakes more quickly, and find better solutions to problems – observations supported by various studies on the subject, says Jalsevac.
Giving a few examples of how STEAM principles will be practically implemented at ASHK, Jalsevac says, “Using an inquiry approach, teachers will begin a lesson by discovering what students already know about a given topic. Students will then be placed in teams and presented with a problem that may require a design solution, construction of a model, or fabrication of a final product.
“For example, in first grade, students will be able to provide evidence that vibrating materials can make sound and that sound can make materials vibrate,” he continues. “To accomplish this objective, students participate in activities that show the effect of sound on various materials. Students will then use their observations to create instruments.”
“Fifth grade students will be able to support the argument that the gravitational force exerted by Earth on objects is directed down. Students will use their knowledge to design parachutes and measure how well they delay gravity’s force,” he adds.
Language of the future
In addition to a holistic teaching approach with a focus on STEAM principles, ASHK’s US Common Core curriculum is supplemented by a daily Chinese (Mandarin) program offering both Traditional and Simplified Chinese writing options.
Explaining the rationale behind ASHK’s emphasis on Chinese language learning, Jalsevac says, “We believe that meaningful and early exposure to more than one language will provide our students with advanced cognitive development. Mastery of Chinese and English is the goal for every student.”
Additionally, fluency in a second language indicates aptitude, which could help a student stand out during the university admissions process. Many university admissions officers tend to prefer well-rounded candidates who can demonstrate their interests outside of school, says Jalsevac.
ASHK’s focus on the Chinese language has as much to do with its geographical relevance as it does with its global relevance. Officially the world’s most widely spoken language, Mandarin is certainly useful to know today, and in the future.
Speaking of the future, Jalsevac shares upcoming plans which include the introduction of ASHK’s high school program, and launch of the International Baccalaureate Diploma (IB DP) program within the next two years. “It is our view that the IB DP is the best university preparatory program in existence and provides for students a gold-standard passport for admission into highly selective universities and colleges worldwide,” says Jalsevac.
Jalsevac says the ability to memorize facts and information is not the most important skill in today’s world. Instead, students need to have a greater understanding of how to obtain and make sense of information, i.e. placing less emphasis on “what we know” and more on “how we come to know.”
To do this, students should be involved in the construction of knowledge through exploring, questioning, experimenting, collecting data, making predictions, testing theories and finding solutions. Active student engagement is key during the education years, he believes. Finally, Jalsevac advises parents to look for a school that is student-centered and inquiry-based, like ASHK, where students can develop those ever-important critical thinking skills for success in the 21st century.
Quoting an old adage to drive the point home, Jalsevac says, “Tell me and I forget, show me and I remember, involve me and I understand.”