Project Based Learning – Reflections on High Tech High

We must provide students with improved strategies to help deal with (real world) problems – that is what holds the most promise in our educational system.  

John Barell, Problem Based Learning: The Foundation for the 21st Century 

In January 2012 the North Vancouver School District was pleased to host Larry Rosenstock, CEO and founding principal of High Tech High, a network of eleven K-12 public charter schools in California.  Rosenstock has an impressive resumé.  In the late 1990s he directed the New Urban High School Project, an initiative funded by the U.S. Department of Education aimed at creating a new model for urban American high schools.  As a former carpentry teacher, administrator and attorney, Rosenstock is committed to an educational model that prioritizes personalization of learning, collaboration, and real-world connections.  This model is at the heart of the High Tech High organization of charter schools.

I was very fortunate to work with a team of educators who designed the plan for Larry’s presentation in North Vancouver and then travelled to San Diego in April to tour several High Tech High schools.  Our field trip was an amazing professional development experience and highly successful in terms of the ideas and inspiration we brought home. We were able to speak in depth with staff and students at the schools we visited, observe classes in action, and collectively take hundreds of photos to record examples and artifacts of great teaching and deep learning.

The North Van team was particularly inspired by the emphasis on Project-Based Learning at High Tech High.  All teachers at HTH are firmly committed to this pedagogy.  They work collaboratively in ‘pods’ with their colleagues to design, implement, and reflect on unique, multi-disciplinary projects.  The curriculum design is similar to the Understanding by Design (UbD) framework in that HTH teachers use the principles of backward design, beginning with California State Common Core Standards.  Learning throughout the project is driven by Big Ideas and Essential Questions that have relevance beyond the classroom.  Each project culminates in a product (published writing, art project, 3D model, etc.) or performance (play, debate, speech, musical performance, etc.).

The projects are academically rigorous but also provide relevancy to the students’ personal lives and to the world beyond school.  The collaborative development of these projects goes beyond teachers simply planning together; there are specific stopping points along the way when teachers in the pod are asked to participate in Project Tuning sessions. These sessions follow a specific protocol that includes opportunities for the project designer to describe the projects, present student examples, consider feedback from colleagues, and reflect on the effectiveness of the project’s design.

We noticed a noticeably high level of motivation among the staff at HTH.  Teachers talked about how much they enjoyed the project-based approach to learning and the opportunity (dedicated time) to collaborate with other staff members in curriculum design and action research. Many teachers had taken significant pay cuts to come to HTH from the regular public school system.  They said they work harder now than ever – developing original, project-based curriculum designs, collaborating with colleagues, and reflecting on their practice.  And yet none of them would ever go back to the regular system of prescribed curriculum sequences and teaching in isolation.  Staff turnover is minimal at HTH.  And it’s a competitive, complex process to get hired in the first place.  We were there during a Hiring Bonanza in one of the HTH schools.  The process is a full-day, interactive job interview involving 25 candidates, who interact with staff and students, teach model lessons in real classrooms, and answer questions from a panel of key stakeholders from HTH, including staff and students.

Students are likewise highly motivated and deeply engaged in learning at HTH.  They spoke to us with excitement and pride about the process and culminating products and performances of their learning projects. They appreciate the real-world connections of their assignments and the more collaborative, personalized approach to learning.  They understand that their education at HTH is very different from the public system. They feel a sense of ownership; not only over their own learning, but also over the operation and success of the school they attend– they were very proud to guide us through the schools and could easily articulate the underlying constructivist, project-based philosophy of High Tech High.

The conceptual and physical design of HTH schools is also worth mentioning as an important component in this project-based learning environment.  Consistent with the Reggio Emilia early learning philosophy, the conceptual and physical environment of HTH truly represents the third teacher.  The school’s timetable has been designed to support project-based, inter-disciplinary learning.  Longer blocks of time (90 minutes at secondary) with fluidity in transitions (no bells) and minimal interruptions (no PA system!) help to maximize instructional time in the core subjects.  Sports activities and extracurricular learning take place after school.

The schools have all been built with an open concept in mind; windows rather than walls for classrooms allow students, staff and visitors to observe learning taking place.   When we visited the schools, pedagogical narration/documentation was evident in every school and at every grade level.  The process of learning and the final products of class projects were documented and displayed in the hallways in a professional manner.  In fact, the school had the look and feel of a museum or interpretative centre, with a vast collection of student artwork and learning artifacts that had been professionally curated (by students and staff) with attention to detail and aesthetics.  The story of the process of learning was everywhere.

Project-based learning is not unique to High Tech High, but the school has definitely embraced this philosophy as a core value in curriculum design and teaching methodology.  And it seems to work.  Students at HTH come from a variety of socio-economic backgrounds and have many of the same learning challenges as students in other schools.  In fact, Rosenstock is quick to point out that the blind lottery used to enroll students in his popular charter school system ensures that under privileged students are well represented.  High Tech High is by no means an elitist school system.  The student body includes a high percentage of ELL learners with language challenges, as well as students with learning disabilities, and behavior issues, who seem to outperform their peers in the regular public school system.  High Tech High boasts high levels of achievement for all students on state exams and SAT scores.

There are many elements of High Tech High philosophy that cannot be replicated in schools in BC for current political and logistical reasons.  However, the project-based approach to curriculum design and pedagogy can be imported.  In a debriefing session after our visit to HTH, our North Vancouver team identified many elements of the High Tech High project-based model we would like to enhance or implement in our schools.  Highlights of our discussion included:

Curriculum Design for Educators:

  • Continued focus on backward design in curriculum development with a focus on complex Big Ideas and Essential Questions that drive inquiry-based instruction and learning
  • Problem-based curriculum design that begins with a relevant question or problem for students to investigate
  • Inter-disciplinary and collaborative approaches to planning (staff working in pods) with dedicated time during the day for teachers to meet and plan together
  • Implementation of the Project Tuning Protocol to foster deeper reflection on teaching practices and enhance the quality of curriculum designs
  • Greater emphasis on pedagogical documentation at all levels, with a specific focus on the curation of student learning processes and products throughout the schools’ hallways

 Curriculum Design for Students:

  • Significant opportunities for students to work in teams, developing 21st Century skills in communication, collaboration, critical thinking, research, and inquiry-based problem solving
  • Personalized approaches to project design that meet the needs and interests of diverse learners, with differentiated instruction and assessment
  • Renewed emphasis on learning activities that engage and motivate students, with authentic performance tasks and products that enable them to demonstrate their understanding of essential concepts and mastery of core skills
  • Real world applications of learning, with opportunities for students to connect with professionals from the field, including authentic and engaging career and work experiences
  • Opportunities for students to investigate social issues and affect positive social change in their community and globally.
  • Curriculum design that allows students to take ownership of their education, reflecting on their progress, goal setting, and exercising voice and choice in their learning pathway.

Examples of High Tech High projects are available for viewing at Additional projects may be found on the High Tech High website at


Does Curriculum Always Need Intentional Design?

Yesterday in my first post on the new Blog, I explained in detail one of my favourite curriculum design frameworks – Understanding by Design. The underlying message in my post was that teaching for deep understanding, and transfer of skills and knowledge, requires thoughtful curriculum design that begins with the end in mind.  Intentional curriculum design works backward by asking the question: “What big ideas and enduring understandings do we want students to develop that they will remember 40 years from now?”

At the risk of contradicting myself, I would now like to offer an alternative perspective.  It is what we might call Learning Without Design.  Today’s post is inspired by a session I attended this afternoon at one of our schools.

In our school district we support teachers’ action research, through what we call “Collegial Conference” projects.  School teams are invited each year to submit proposals for funding that will allow them to pursue collaborative, inquiry-based projects focused on the improvement of their instructional practice.  In order to qualify for the funding, school teams must identify the instructional or assessment practices they wish to research, and demonstrate how the project will enable a collaborative, site-based approach to professional development among staff members.  The team must also commit to a debriefing session, during which they reflect on their collegial conference project and share their research results with school and district administrators.  Hence my invitation to the session today, which was an opportunity for a team of teachers to debrief a collegial conference project at one of our large, dual-track schools.

The staff member ‘lead’ on the project provided the audience with the highlights of this collegial conference project focused on the use of iPad technology to enhance classroom teaching and learning.   The presentation included photos and testimonials from the group of teachers who had participated in the project.  These teachers teach a variety of grade levels and in two distinct programs (English and French Immersion).

It was apparent that this project had had a positive and lasting impact on these teachers, all of whom spoke of how the iPads had enhanced their ability to engage students in their learning, differentiate instruction for a wide variety of learning abilities and styles, and begin to shift to a more paperless style of teaching (e.g. using blogs to publish student writing).

They had certainly thought through the necessary components of the project: required technology (iPads purchased by the Parent Advisory Council), a mentor/lead teacher (an intermediate teacher who is very tech savvy), and a process for collaborative planning, teaching and reflection (release time so teachers could work in pairs and groups).   It was also apparent that they had spent a great deal of time carefully planning classroom experiences designed to empower learning with iPad technology.

But did the teachers plan the sequence of learning that unfolded for themselves? What these educators spoke of with great passion was the opportunity the project had provided for them to learn and grow as professionals within a safe, collaborative, and emergent learning environment.  They talked about how the iPad technology was new for most of them, how they had simply leapt in with both feet and learned as much as they could, asking for guidance and mentorship from the lead teacher when they needed it.  They talked about stopping often during the project to ask themselves, “Where are we going with this?”  Most of all, they talked about the value of collaboration, discovering together with their colleagues new ways to engage learners and enhance their teaching practices.

This was clearly a group of educators who had become a highly engaged community of practitioners.  They learned about, through and from their action research in a manner that was unplanned, unrehearsed and unpredictable.  No design required.  Just a spirit of inquiry, trust and collegiality.

Reflections On Curriculum Design…

I would like to begin my reflections on Curriculum Design with a framework that I admire greatly and have worked hard to implement in the North Vancouver School District – Understanding by Design (UbD).  This particular framework was created by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, two American educational scholars and published authors who are regular contributors to the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD)’s UbD Exchange.  UbD is based on the principles of a ‘backward design’ model and was inspired by the work of Stephen Covey who reminds us all to “start with the end in mind”.  It is a philosophy that guides my own practice as an educator and director of instruction, whether I am designing curriculum for adult learning, or engaging in administrative problem solving.

I was first introduced to UbD in 2008, when I attended a Coast Metro workshop series with guest speaker Alison Zmuda.  Alison is an educational consultant who works with the Association for the Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) in the Understanding by Design cadre. Alison was in the Lower Mainland presenting Integrating Differentiated Instruction and Understanding by Design, a book co-written by well-known author Carol Ann Tomlinson and Jay McTighe.

Zmuda ran a three part workshop series that focused on deepening participants’ understanding of how differentiated instruction could/should be incorporated with the UbD framework in order to meet the learning styles and needs of our diverse student populations.  For people in the audience it was a first exposure to UbD, so layering Differentiated Instruction (DI) into the mix created a powerful but very advanced framework as a starting point.  Many teachers from our school district left the series a little baffled and overwhelmed by the complexity of the presentation and the proposed curriculum design process.

However, a small team from my school district was sold on the UbD model as a powerful curriculum design framework, and we were determined to introduce it to educators in North Vancouver.  The first year (2009) we invited interested teachers to join a ‘Collegial Conference’ three part series that focused on expanding understanding of UbD and building leadership capacity across the school district for this model of curriculum planning.  The series was popular, particularly with teachers from our International Baccalaureate high school who were just learning to implement into their practice the inquiry-based IB curriculum- planning model, a framework that is surprisingly similar to UbD.

We introduced that first series with this key quote from Wiggins and McTigue:

Teachers are designers.  An essential act of our profession is the crafting of curriculum and learning experiences to meet specified purposes.”

According to Wiggins and McTighe, teachers don’t pay enough attention to the importance of curriculum design.  As a result, most teachers are guilty of one of the two ‘twin sins’ in curriculum planning:

  1. ‘Activity-driven’ lesson and unit planning.  This type of planning is popular among primary teachers in particular.  In these classrooms, an ‘apple’ theme in the fall is often more about making every subject fit within the theme, than planning based on identified learning outcomes.  Other popular themes in the primary grades are bugs and dinosaurs.  I like to refer to this as the ‘birthday party’ approach to curriculum design – having your napkins match the plates and paper cups and… 
  1. ‘Curriculum-driven’ planning is the second sin, which is generally more common among intermediate and secondary teachers.  Curriculum-driven planning is essentially the equivalent of ‘marching through the textbook’.  You start at the beginning of the book, and with any luck you will get to the end by June.  Another variation on curriculum-driven planning is what I have coined “PLO-itis” – a disease common among educators who see planning as a systematic checking off of the incredibly long lists of prescribed learning outcomes common in our current Ministry Integrated Resource Packages (IRPs).

Wiggins and McTighe argue that teachers must adopt a more thoughtful and creative approach to curriculum planning.  They must learn to seem themselves as designers who shape engaging, meaningful learning experiences based specific learning goals.

With design in mind, we shaped the three sessions of our series around the three stages of Understanding by Design, which essentially map the curriculum backward from specific, targeted knowledge and transfer abilities or skills.  The three stages of UbD are:

  1. Identify Desired Results – establishing priorities for learning based on goal setting – unpacking learning outcomes to determine  ‘Big Ideas’ and ‘Essential Questions’ that guide learning and teaching
  1. Determine Acceptable Assessment Evidence – based on principles of formative assessment, the 6 Facets of Understanding and an emphasis on authentic ‘Performance Tasks’ (vs. traditional testing).
  1. Plan Learning Experiences –activities, learning experiences and lessons that incorporate 21st century skills and lead to achievement of the desired results (stage 1) and success in the identified assessments (stage 2)

That first UbD series was such a success that we decided to continue the implementation phase into the next year.  Those who had been participants in the 2009 series joined the planning team and became workshop facilitators in 2010 when we named the series “Designing Instruction for Deep Learning and Diversity”.  The length and wordiness of the original title was a problem, which was pointed out to us by one of the participants at the first session.  He suggested we needed something shorter and catchier. We agreed and renamed the series “Designs 2010”designs 2010 flyer.

Maybe it was the positive influence of the Winter 2010 Olympics (and short catchy titles created by the government prior to the Olympics – in the spirit of “Legacies 2010”) that caught people’s attention with our name change, but I like to think that it was direct focus on the concept of curriculum ‘design’ that educators found fresh and appealing.  In any case, we had record numbers of teachers and support staff sign up for the five part series in 2010, which took place in the after-school hours and provided dedicated time to school teams for discussion and curriculum/unit planning in a variety of subject areas and grade levels.  A Gallery Walk at the last session allowed participants to see all the UbD units that had been developed in collaborative planning teams. The feedback at the end of the series was very positive, and participants indicated a desire to continue learning about UbD and engaging in collaborative curriculum planning the following year.  However, they also requested a change in the format from interdisciplinary school teams to cross-district planning teams in subject or grade level groups.  They also asked us to provide them with the planning tools.  And we obliged, developing district Backward Design templates and other materials.

The following year “Designs 2011” designs 2011 attracted many of the same participants, as well as some new people who had heard the buzz from 2010.  As requested, we designed the 2011 series to facilitate grade and subject area planning, which encouraged collaboration among teachers from across the district and resulted in the development of some interesting curriculum designs.  We also continued to invite teacher leaders to become presenters, which helped build leadership capacity at the school level and sustain the momentum for learning about and implementing UbD across the district.

Sadly, there was no “Designs 2012” this year because of job action.  I am hopeful that teachers have continued to plan curriculum on their own using the UbD framework, or at the very least, that they have continued to be thoughtful and intentional with their own planning frameworks.  We need curriculum design to go beyond themes and ‘coverage’.  Students need to ‘uncover’ the big ideas themselves through inquiry, develop deep understanding of concepts, and apply their skills and knowledge to new situations in meaningful ways.