Learning Like We Do In The World Beyond School


I love my job. Really, I do. I’ve just had a week bringing together teachers from MLC school in Sydney, with teachers from High Tech High in San Diego. It was a privilege to help facilitate this adult learning experience of the highest order. I’ve written about HTH on several occasions, but each time I go there, I learn something new. This time, I learned how getting students to present their learning in an authentic, engaging, way is a challenge – even in the best schools – but it’s in so doing that one can see the power of learning through projects.

I attended a number of ‘presentations of learning’, where students are asked to share what they have learned (either during a project or across the semester) with their teachers, their parents and their peers. I saw student’s written work, I saw their models, drawings, talked with them and watched them perform. What struck me most about these assessment (and celebration) vehicles is how much they relied on dialogue to really get the best out of the students.

When students were reading from the dreaded powerpoint the overall effect was a little, well, dull. But when the students were questioned, then they really shone. PoLs at High Tech High are a little like university vivas – but in a good way. The questioning allows students to show not just their depth of learning, but also the passion that fuels it. Worksheets tend not to measure learning passions.

Coincidentally, I recently received an account of a similar experience observed by my Australian friend and colleague, John Hogan. John is supporting the establishment of Big Picture Learning in Australia (BPL build their curriculum around project-based learning, as do High Tech High). He told me the story of a student presentation:

Ryan’s first exhibition was towards the end of last term. His Mum was there along with his advisory teacher and the deputy Principal. Ryan had prepared a powerpoint, which he read from, for some of the time.He began by saying that he wasn’t any good at speaking. True to his word he slowly went through his first few slides. He gave us some information about the places he goes trout fishing. He talked about one particular lake. It was 9 times ‘bigger’ than Sydney harbour. And he went on to tell us the volume of the water and the capacity of the lake. He was not confident with large numbers and he didn’t know what the units of measurement meant.

So, not long into his presentation, he moved into talking about trout fishing. What a transformation! He talked about where the trout came from, what they did to keep up the stock in the lake…he started to use his hands in his talk..it was like he had the rod in his hands. Here was a young man who wasn’t all that keen on ‘school stuff’ but boy did he know about trout fishing.! He later talked about his recent week working with diesel mechanics – he was as effusive, smart and confident as he was talking about trout fishing.

The maths bit. He had tried to explain his ‘lake’ using some mathematical terms, and quantitative information. But, in fact, other than knowing that the lake was pretty big, he didn’t understand large numbers, volume and capacity, units of measurement, etc. Now we have an opportunity to help this young man see a connection between the mathematics and how knowing these things helps in presenting this information to others. Further, his interest in diesel mechanics might require a good working knowledge of these things too! So, here is the work of the advisory teacher. Noticing the moment, we have at least four entry points into the work with the student:

  1. As they plan a project we can be asking ‘what mathematics is necessary to do this work well?’

  2. As the student begins to do a project, it may become obvious that to do this well some maths might be necessary

  3. As the student prepares for exhibition we will have another chance to ask ‘will maths help here?’

  4. The debrief following the exhibition gives us yet another chance.”

I was able to be a panel member at a High Tech High Middle School student presentation of learning, where there was almost an exact replica of Ryan’s experience . Students were reflecting on what they’d learned in studying Greek history, Geography (following study visits to local national parks), Expressive Writing, and, yes, some Maths. One student, almost as an afterthought, read out a short story, which showed she had a real passion, and talent, for writing. In the hands of a skilled HTH teacher like Bobby Shaddox, each student was encouraged to identify their learning gaps, by setting goals for the following year, across a range of subjects. A complete, personalised learning plan, reinforced across subjects, was being assembled as we watched – co-construction in action. Just like Ryan in the Big Picture school, students were exhibiting what they knew – and what they didn’t yet know – based upon their individual interests. And they realised that, to get better at what they loved doing, they needed to learn some stuff that they hadn’t particularly been interested in, taught as a separate, unconnected, ‘subject’.

There is a re-awakening taking place – especially in North America – on the benefits of Project Based Learning. And schools, like Big Picture and High Tech High remind us of the power that PBL has in persuading students to tackle the hard stuff: the maths and science that we struggle to comprehend when removed from daily life, but which become relevant, once connected to what we really care about.

Songwriter Elvis Costello was never very interested in learning to read and write music. He found it too difficult. It was only when he was given the opportunity to write string quartets for the Brodsky Quartet, that he reportedly learned how to do it in a couple of weeks – the project drove the learning.

Too many schools include ‘projects’, but only after the ‘content’ has been covered. As High Tech High’s Jeff Robin explains, this is more accurately described as project- oriented learning and is, in part, what gave project based learning a bad name.

I’ll write more about the importance of adult learning, as witnessed at both MLC and High Tech High, in a future post. But, in a week where the UK Secretary of State for Education has wilfully disregarded the advice of curriculum experts, and advocated a return to rote learning, it is down to all of us working in education to speak out for learning which is fuelled, not by standards, but by student’s, and teacher’s passions. Because, if we’re really lucky (and after this week, I know how lucky I am) working on projects is how we live our working lives.


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