I’m back at the High Tech High schools in San Diego this week and once again, within minutes of walking into the place, I’m moved when looking at student work (which is on display everywhere at HTH).
I suspect that the timing has a lot to do with it. My last post – about the wider role of education in England after the riots – seemed to touch a nerve with people. My post held out the hope that, following the riots, we could move towards a curriculum which would engender a more compassionate civic society, and not just a generation of jaded test-takers. I argued that the fall-out, from privileging academic skills above all else, and the disparagement of vocational and inter-personal skills, left a growing body of disengaged students who have little in the way of aspiration or self-worth.
While many people who actually work in schools agreed with me, the media response to the riots has been truly depressing. Many commentators dismissed the riots as ‘shopping with violence’, or – and this was particularly upsetting – put the blame on the dominance of ‘bling’/black culture to young people of all ethnicities (thank you, professor David Starkey for that insight). For his part, David Cameron seems to have abandoned his desire to ‘understand more and blame less’, as he declares ‘all-out war’ on gangs. But after we’ve all felt a sense of righteous retribution in seeing children and young people locked up (including a mother of two, jailed for five months for receiving – not stealing – a pair of shorts), we’re going to have to face the fact that these people we’ve labelled ‘scum’ will be back among us in due course, and the underlying causes won’t have gone away. So, what then?
The contrast between the apparent despair felt for England’s youth back home, and the deep sense of a nurturing adult/young person relationship, evidenced here in HTH, could not be greater. Make no mistake: some of the students here come from families that are just as dysfunctional as those we’ve seen in the tabloids recently. But there are three critical differences in the way High Tech High schools operate that seems to avoid the social, and emotional, dislocation often seen in UK students.
First, most of the project-based learning which takes place here is in the service of local communities – businesses and community groups are committed to supporting the school and its students. It’s not an add-on to learning, it’s where it happens. Second, HTH schools believe in Human Scale Education – no schools are bigger than 400 students, and no student see more than 6 teachers in any given year. Students and staff are on first-name terms, but there is a deep sense of mutual respect. There’s also a palpable sense of a learning community, and students aren’t allowed to slip through the cracks. Thirdly, adolescence, and its accompanying pains, is not something which students experience alongside academic learning – it’s seen as rich source material: students here study the standards but, more importantly, they learn about themselves. And no-one here avoids the deeply personal, often conflicting, emotions that go with that. Know thyself, seems just as important as knowing the standards.
The first two projects that I saw here, illustrate this beautifully. The ‘Love and Violence’ project, at HTH Media Arts school was suggested by a 14-yr old student who was concerned about growing levels of violence in his neighbourhood in San Diego. Asking the deliberately naïve questions ‘What is Love?’ and ‘What is Violence?’, students read Kurt Vonnegut’s dystopia, ‘Harrison Bergeron’, ‘A Long Way Home: Memoirs Of A Boy Soldier‘, and speeches by Martin Luther Kind and Gandhi, before creating their own short stories. This might be a useful project for the rehabilitation of our locked-up rioters – but it might have been even more useful had it been undertaken in their schools before they took to the streets.
Another display, which was powerfully moving, was a series of illustrated poems which 12 yr-old students had written around the question ‘ What Is My Legacy?’. Here they reflected upon what they could do to benefit their families and communities, and what they could pass on – these kids were writing about how they would like to be remembered – and some of it was painful to read.
Some simply wanted to not be like their (often absent) parent: ‘A person determined to not live a life that causes the people I love to go through the experience you put me through’. Others wanted to be an inspiration to the Latin American countries they came from (San Diego is 14 miles from the Mexican border).
I could well imagine that, were Michael Gove and his advisers ever to read this (which is highly unlikely) that they’d dismiss HTH’s approach as touchy-feely mediocrity. The reality is that disciplinary issues are virtually non-existent, as is absenteeism, standardised test scores are high and over 90% of HTH students go on to graduate from higher education.
In the debate which we need to have, about the purpose of schooling in England, we need to face an inconvenient truth: too many schools are essentially structured around the needs of the institution, not those of the students. We now teach the exam first, the subject second and the student third – and they know it. At schools like High Tech High, that order is exactly reversed – and their students know it too.
So, if we want to prevent our kids from trashing the communities that they live in, maybe we should recognise that the kind of values-driven (rather than results-driven) curriculum that’s in evidence here – and in many of our better schools in the UK – would be a far cheaper investment than building more jails.