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.