I’m currently in California, having visited the High Tech High schools in San Diego. I’ve written about the High Tech High philosophy before, as have my colleagues at the Innovation Unit. But it’s easy to be radical in theory, less so in practice.So, to actually see the work at first-hand, and to see the quality of teaching and learning taking place, was a privilege.
In point of fact, when you see how it all works, it doesn’t seem radical at all. Just common sense, and how all schools should perhaps be. There’s a dismissal of all the usual protocols often seen in schools which are deemed essential in order to maintain ‘respect’ (no one demanding to be called ‘sir’ or ‘Mr’, kids chewing gum, no school uniforms, no obvious formalities at all). Students were treated like responsible adults, and so behaved accordingly. I was told just to wander around and ask any student what they were doing. Actually, I didn’t need to – students were openly, and happily sharing their work with me, despite the fact that they get around 2,000 visitors per year. I saw no indications of the usual barging and bumping which you see in every other school, and was told that bullying is almost unheard of.
High Tech High doesn’t feel like a school at all. There are no classrooms, just work-spaces where projects get done. I saw lots of small groups of students working without any supervision and didn’t see a single one who wasn’t ‘on task’. Engagement was everywhere. Work was everywhere – on the walls, in the halls, hanging from the ceiling. And it’s work of the highest quality. Very high expectations are placed on these students, and there’s a presentation/performance aspect to most things they do. Even higher expectations are placed on staff however: everyone works to a rolling, 12-month contract and ‘letting go’ of staff is not uncommon if the school directors feel the students work is not as expected. Because the quality of the teaching is directly connected to the quality of the output. Coming from running a performing arts school background, I can entirely see the connection – a poor pefrormance was usually because the students hadn’t been directed well, or they’d been placed in roles which were either unsuited to, or beyond their current capabilities.
The biggest reservation most people have about project and enquiry-based learning, is how the requisite knowledge can be sure to be covered. At High Tech High, this appears to the result of careful planning, expert coaching and an attention to detail which is apparent in this project that I’ve chosen at random from their website. Take a good look inside the project’s construction, and make sure you click on ‘pool hall challenge’.
High Tech High have an ‘open source’ approach- pretty much all their IP is on the website. It’s an incredible resource, yet it still doesn’t tell the full story of how they’ve done it there. Someone needs tell the full story of HTH, because I really believe it’s a replicable model. I’m going back there next week, so I’ll post further on it.