My interest in the idea of sharing pedagogical purposes comes directly with the contact I have had with the Project for Enhancing Effective Learning at Monash University in Australia. Now each of these teachers were very active in establishing learning agendas with their classes. The impact they were having was inspiring. Each classroom tool can have a purpose beyond delivering content, and this needs to be shared.
I suppose the purpose of this website is collate, crystalise and open dialogues about how to increase this within classrooms. As the quote from Carl Bereiter illustrates this classroom methodology can empower our students.

Thursday, 14 April 2011

The Benefits of Teachers as Designers- Thoughts on High Tech High

This is the first post attempting to summarise the observations and thoughts from my trip to High Tech High in San Diego. I must admit to retaining very clear memories of this trip, and still have some unresolved thoughts. Obviously a powerful and motivating experience! I must take this opportunity to publicly thank the staff at HTH, but in particular, Jay Vavra, Jeff Robin, Laura McBain, Rob Riordan and Larry Rosenstock whose passion and knowledge I have found inspiring.

One of the first things to be made clear was the role of the teacher at HTH, that of designer, a notion which on the surface seems fairly familiar. But consider that the management structure is fairly non hierarchical, and therefore the trust and responsibility for a high quality experience lies at the feet of the teacher. This is a positive thing, empowering them to teach to and with their passions. Passion is word used purposefully in these parts, driving the cross curricular and real world connections of the projects that the students do. Bringing a bit of yourself is actively encouraged.

The projects are genuine Project Based not Project Orientated, as the mercurial Jeff Robin points out. So the students don't learn some stuff and then make a project, they make a project and learn deeply as they go. A key feature of the projects is how connected there are to the real world either through the audience or by the recipients of the projects. For example students who designed and built toys in an engineering project had local toy manufacturers visit their exhibition and the toys were built after interviewing students in the elementary school who were also the recipients of the toys. A biotechnology project outcome was a group of students travelling to Mozambique to train game wardens how to DNA profile bush meat samples, thereby having an impact on the conservation of endangered anaimals. A cross species learning outcome- amazing!

It wasn't just the audience that made for an authentic learning experience, it was the collaboration on the project. There was lots of outside experts involved, for example the aforementioned toy manufacturers, but it was the internal collaboration between the students that gave the learning a real world feel and context. In four days I didn't meet a single student who did not know what every other student in the class was doing and how they were doing it. This level of collaboration was awe inspiring, and I believe it has come from two sources. For me this summarises what Learning Futures mean by School as Base Camp, a wonderful notion.

Firstly, through the "Critiques" that happen through each project, where the students refine their projects through feedback from the teacher and the class. I will write a separate post on these as they are a key way that I observed where learning took place, not just about the project but the "content" too. The second was the sense of community that was made manifest in quote from a teacher, "The students understand that when they exhibit their work, that one amazing project will look poorer if displayed with many mediocre ones". I think this sums up the collaborative learning experience they receive at High Tech High, that is both within the class but greatly influenced by what is beyond it.

My favourite anecdote from my trip defines this responsibility. A student on an exhibition night was there without a finished project, amongst a whole class of projects . This void, really stood out, I asked her where her project was and was confidently told that she had been let down by her partner, but that she had everything in hand to meet the deadline later in the week to hand over the project to the recipient. As we spoke a colleague came by and interjected, " I'm sorry" he said "but where's your project" , this was followed by another colleague three minutes later asking the exact same thing. So in about 10 minutes three strangers had asked this student why she had not finished her project, this is real assessment, with real feedback, leading to real responsibility. Which prompts the question why can't our exam system embrace such approaches where the examination is actually part of the learning process. Two things struck me about this student was how confident she was in failure and how much she had learned about the content and process of completing this project, in reality she had been really rather successful.

As a side note her partner was conspicuous by his absence! One of the few restraints placed on the teachers in designing the learning experience was that they do group the students by ability and insist on mixed ability groupings. We were told that ability groups in a class "would be frowned upon". It is this conviction that allows this community to flourish and that students enjoy a rich and realistic learning experience.

These Exhibitions happen regularly throughout the year, for each of the courses that the students take. This regularity and repeat immersion in this assessment is demanding and is used to assess the students learning, determining grades and whether they graduate or not.

Ultimately it is these reasons that the students at HTH demonstrated tremendous responsibility, not only for the project but for their wider education and school community. It is completely apparent that this is why they have such a high University qualification rate ( 100%) and why their students have such positive experiences when at University. For example there students are renowned for being able to communicate confidently with adults. such as college professors.

So how do the teachers go about designing this kind of learning experience. Jeff Robin makes it clear in these two videos that teachers need to do the project first. This makes the project viable as it is assessed for feasibility, whether it is a reasonable demand and identifies the pitfalls be to aid differentiation and support of the students during the project. It turns the teacher into what seems the novel role of project manager and "sets a minimum standard for the students to better, unlike a rubric which set the ceiling, a project sets the floor!"

The teachers do not plan in isolation and are in cross curricular teams, allowing them to operate outside their comfort zones, again I consider this significant in adding to the breadth of the students learning experience, they are not just taught how their teachers were taught, it allows for teachers to take risks as they have the support of a colleague. Furthermore each project goes through a Project Tuning Protocol so that many hearts and minds get to influence the project. This is very much part of the ethos of High Tech High. It is such an important one that a post will follow dedicated to this most valuable process. As a result the quality of student projects improves greatly from middle school through to high school, where it can only be described as stunning. Examples can be found here

One of the key and most consistent cross curricular approaches which is evident throughout the school is the infusion of art. The idea that "Art communicates" is every where and is used to great effect by students to show what they have learned, another factor factor in building student responsibility. I have found it difficult to reconcile the mantra of the UK education system of "pace" with this, it is almost contest between depth and breadth of knowledge. it seems much more realistic to deal with a few concepts in great depth (as preferred at HTH) than to learn lots of surface items as we must to deal with the relentless cycle of learn and regurgitate in preparation for an one hour odd exam.

So, where is the rigour? Is it in the UK exam system or is it in learning experiences designed by educators with the real world, not in mind, but in situ?