I spent most of last week at High Tech High schools in San Diego. Much has already been written about this education phenomenon – if there are a better set of schools in the world, I’ve yet to see them – but it’s been interesting to observe UK teachers’ reactions to what they saw here.
We’ve become accustomed, in the UK, to a polarised debate: knowledge vs skills; academic or vocational; state vs independent. It’s become difficult to have a sensible discussion around the ‘and’, because politicians and the media always fall back on ‘either/or’.
What Larry Rosenstock and Rob Riordan (official job title: ‘Emperor of Rigour’) have shown, unequivocally, is that either/or is no place to innovate from. Its sterility forces people to draw upon prejudice and personal bias, rather than looking dispassionately at what works. I’ve seen four key ‘ands’ while I’ve been here:
Students at High Tech High combine the Hand and the Head – in this regard Larry’s own skill-set (a carpenter with a law degree) offers a great model to students. Everywhere we looked this week we saw student making things, but also understanding, and articulating, the theories behind their artefacts.
Projects explicitly develop skills (habits of mind: evidence, supposition, connection, perspective) but they do so alongside acquiring knowledge. Students often have to pass a written test within a project, and the knowledge is ingeniously shared, insisting that the knowledge and concepts covered by one student is peer-taught to all students.
High Tech High are charter schools, but they admit students by lottery and receive the same funding as state schools – they also run their own teacher training programme, but offer it to any public school in the area. This is no gilded enclosure. They have over 2,000 visitors a year, and great ideas are coming in, as well as going out, all the time. The partnership between Learning Futures and High Tech High to create a guide to Project-Based Learning, is a good example. How often do good ideas get to be shared between state and independent schools in the UK?
There is a wonderful sense of a caring, learning community here, but it doesn’t come at the expense of external connections. Rather it happens because the school serves local communities and businesses. This is a vivid example of school as basecamp – staff and students on a common intellectual mission, in, but more often than not, out of the school buildings, in the pursuit of making their community a better place to live.
The initial response of our UK educators was to suggest that the context is different here, which of course it is. But as the week wore on, they began to see that there is a significant amount going on here that could be brought back and made to work. Teachers often fail to realise the freedom and autonomy they actually have. Even High Tech High students have to sit national standardised tests – they just don’t let it diminish the joy and collegiality of learning.
Besides, for High Tech High, the internal accountability measures are far more important: Larry and Rob ask for the quality of their teaching to be judged by the quality of student work produced (and it is of an astonishingly high standard) and whether their students are college-ready, as almost 100% of them prove to be. We have schools in England which have these kinds of progression rates, but I bet that neither their students nor staff are having as much fun as this lot.
Far from being disheartened, our Learning Futures teachers came away inspired. ‘They’re not perfect, which makes it all the more impressive’, ‘We’re not that far away’, ‘We can DO this!’ were some of the comments I heard on the final day.
One of the mantras that High Tech High live by is the ‘it’s not just what you put in, but also what you don’t let in’. So, no separate dining and toilet facilities for staff, no bells, no PA systems, no ability groupings and no single subject specialists.
But the lesson I’m taking away today is that it is what you bring together (adults, students, community, diversity of ideas and approaches) that determines a truly great school, rather than what you proscribe from the either/or standpoint.
The sobering realisation was that it was only a surprise to our eyes to see students and staff frequently hugging one another, or seeing staff getting emotional when talking about learning. We’ve lost sight of what really drives a school because it’s frankly easier to adopt the shield of cynicism.
So, maybe the real four foundations aren’t simply about how you organise your school. High Tech High may have been framed by any number of great and rigorous principles, but it’s the quadruple combination of passion, trust, respect and love which makes this place such a powerhouse of learning.