Reflections from ISS President Liz Duffy

December 2017

Learning By Doing

isd01.jpg Last month I visited the International School of Dongguan (ISD), an ISS-managed school in southern China.  As part of my school visit, I attended a presentation by Andy, a senior at ISD, describing how he invented and was in the process of patenting a scuba diving device that will allow divers to more easily signal when they are in distress. It was inspiring to hear Andy describe his project in both Mandarin and English to the over three dozen people in the audience, including parents, faculty and students. While he is ethnically Chinese, Andy grew up speaking Cantonese, so he was presenting in his second and third languages.

As noteworthy as his linguistic skills were, Andy’s insights on both the design process and the value of an international school were even more impressive.

I taught design thinking for six years at the secondary school level, and I found myself nodding in agreement as Andy shared what he had learned from his project: how most new designs are mashups of existing products rather than wholly new ideas; how constraints lead to, instead of hinder, creativity; how what separates successful inventors from unsuccessful ones is NOT how often they fail, but rather how willing they are to take risks, how much they learn from their inevitable failures, and how resilient and persistent they are.


Andy had learned on his own through experience three of the key design principles that I emphasized each semester to the students in the design thinking course that I taught.

I am confident that, as with many lessons learned by doing, those concepts will stick with Andy for life. Indeed, Andy was very articulate in explaining the lasting power of authentic learning. He shared a series of quotes to describe the value of student-driven experiential education, including one by actress Rachele Brooke Smith, who starred in Iron Man 2: “Fun opens the door to creativity, which then leads to inspiration, which then births passion, which altogether equals both happiness and success!”

Andy’s passion for scuba diving and knowledge of tragic accidents led him to seek ways to enhance underwater safety, and I suspect that that experience in turn has started him on his path towards a future career as an inventor or an entrepreneur.

At the end of his presentation, Andy thanked his family, teachers and friends for supporting his independent work, and he described what he most valued about ISD:

• The encouraging culture
• The style of education that emphasized the journey over the destination
• The abundant curricular and co-curricular opportunities.

Andy’s final remarks were a lovely testament not only to his experience at ISD, but also to the value of an international education.

During this holiday season, to all of you who have dedicated your lives to educating, mentoring and inspiring young people: thank you for making a world of difference.