Saturday, June 16, 2012

Visiting High Tech High: What We Can Take Back With Us

At first glance, the sprawling High Tech High Truxtun Road campus with its purpose-built learning areas looks very little like most of the schools we work in. It is also a charter school, and though they do still wrestle with the state exams like everyone else, there are other issues, constraints, and much broader mandates that are not part of their daily conversations. This being said, the more we questioned and the deeper we looked, the more possibilities for duplication we were able to find. 

I read in a recent blog by Gary Kern that High Tech High is not really that high tech, at least by our definition, and I would have to agree. There are computers in common areas, and aside from the media arts room rocking Final Cut Pro, we didn't see anything we didn't have or couldn't get. What it looks and feels like to me is a really successful fine arts school. The whole building is packed with excellent samples of student work, and as they too have limited supply budgets, innovative use of cheap supplies like newspaper, cardboard, and scrap wood appear everywhere. 

We eventually found the tiny SPED office and had a great conversation with two delightful and well-educated young ladies who conveyed the school's philosophy of inclusion. Yes, they do have SPED students, and IEP's, and support workers (recently renamed "inclusion coaches") tied to formulae that looked a lot like ours. The room was hard to find because it is small, and it is small because if kids are expected to be fully integrated, then why build a room that makes it easy to separate them? Good question. They do find nooks and crannies in the building to give kids quiet spaces when needed, and we were impressed with their thoughtful, team-oriented approach to helping their students face challenges in this evolved manner.

The school has had more than 2000 visitors this year, and now there are dedicated staff to organize the touring process. Everyone was still extraordinarily welcoming and willing to stop what they were doing and talk with the complete strangers wandering around with oversize nametags. We got face time with several teachers and most of the directoral staff, and each were able to answer our questions and help us to understand the purpose and intention in their work. The kids were especially willing to engage with us, and it was clear that the focus on communication and presentation skills had increased everyone's comfort with speaking to adults and had rocketed the students forward with this incredibly valuable lifetime skill.

What I liked the most was the value they place on collaboration and feedback, and how this drives every practice in the building. Designing quality projects that will inspire students and allow them to master learning outcomes is daunting work, and the very thought of it would be unnerving to most teachers in a conventional system. This is never done in isolation at HTH, and the support of colleagues is what makes it happen. The same goes for students, and once they get over their initial reluctance to hear what others have to say about their work, they soon come to value how a diverse collection of viewpoints can extend their learning. I think this is an attitude that already exists in great classrooms and schools. Perhaps it is this attitude that makes for great classrooms and schools. 

We aren't going to be doing project-based learning all day, every day, across all areas of the curriculum. (Even High Tech High has "traditional" learning, especially in math with its extensive and challenging curriculum. Again, does this sound familiar?) However, as our interested staff members start to move with small steps to imbed more projects into their classroom learning and team with others across various curricular areas, it is crucial that we are ready to support them to take risks with their practice. We will be borrowing heavily from the HTH Project Tuning protocols, as these processes and guidelines, though seemingly onerous at first, help ensure that conversations honour and support risk-taking, and improve feedback for each staff member. My hope is that the collaboration that supports effective project-based learning will have a profound impact on the vocabulary of instructional practice and the overall quality of the conversations throughout our schools. Seeing this collaboration first hand and what it can do to benefit adult and student learning is a lesson that will travel well back to our own schools.

Photos from the visit
Neil Stephenson's blog on rigour, citing HTH


  1. I feel fairly certain that mathematics is not such a privileged domain of knowledge that it is not possible to teach it in a project based way. Seymour Papert certainly proved that it was possible, provided you were willing to extend your definition of mathematics beyond the traditional symbols and curriculum that form most mathematics courses. Hopefully we can have more conversations around what mathematics is actually taught, and broaden the scope of what it means to be able to think like a mathematician.

    I think that touring a school is an excellent way to learn. I've actually found that every school tour I've done has helped me grow, and expand my ideas around what makes schools work, even when I tour schools that don't work.

  2. I'm no mathematician but I would like to think it is possible to do more learning through math projects. The teachers at HTH are hopeful too, and continue to work at finding a balance of strategies and styles to meet their needs. It will be useful to check back every few years to see what new pieces we could take away with us as our processes evolve, too. I agree about the touring and have learned many things from my colleagues in other districts and jurisdictions. Thanks very much for the comment and the RT. BTW, I linked your short blog on ignoring research to a previous post. It was spot on and probably explained what happened in my later start process. PJ

  3. I concur that collaboration is key to effective, authentic project-based learning. With our SMAD projects (Students Making a Difference), I discovered that the whole school community (clerical, admin, supervision staff, parents, teachers) became part of the team. Developing a supportive mind set among all stakeholders quickly became part of my role as the Principal, particularly as many of the activities occurred during lunch or recess. A Red Cross floor hockey tournament, NEDA body image awareness walk, Playground Builders popcorn sales fundraiser, Jane Goodall Foundation presentations, were some of the projects.

  4. Thanks for the response! Looking forward to more collaboration and seeing more SMAD. The more SMAD the better, I say.