This spring a group from Head-Royce headed to San Diego to visit an innovative network of K-12 charter schools, collectively called High Tech High (HTH). Carl Thiermann, Upper School Head; Shahana Sarkar, Dean of Academics and Community; Chris Kinney, Engineering and Math teacher, and I were interested in seeing their unique approach to education that has garnered much attention in the education community. HTH fully embraces project-based learning and the schools are guided by four connected design principles of equity, personalization, authentic work, and collaborative design.
So how do these guiding principles come to life in 13 schools with approximately 5,300 students spread across three campuses? That's what our small team was interested to discover – here is a summary of our observations.
Windows everywhere led to an open, collaborative feel to the school. Students and teachers were naturally accustomed to observing each other, watching work develop in progress, and asking questions about the learning process.
I loved the creative use of different classroom space–several classes were arranged in different geometrical shapes–circles, triangles, squares. I loved how teaching and learning extended into all the hallways. Students were working in almost all the common spaces.
Their intentionality around a shared language and shared "systems" was impressive. All projects were explicit about what the focus was, and that focus was uniformly tied to their values
They really had the exhibition of student work down well. I liked how teachers could pair up across departments that had the same / roughly the same students, which made it easier to create and execute interdisciplinary projects.
Differences between High Tech High and Head-Royce
The key difference is that high school students only take three classes at a time. They learn content and skills in depth in those classes–and then spend afternoons connecting the three and developing a project to showcase. All grade levels (K-12) publically present and share learning outcomes
I would actually say we're more similar than different. We both have a lot of student projects, the difference is the equipment available to the students and the cross-disciplinary nature of the work.
Synergies between High Tech High's project-based learning approach and Head-Royce's strategic plan?
I talked at length with a math teacher and what was important to hear is that they don't do "only project-based learning." For example, he regularly lectures about right triangle trig, or integration techniques, but the way in which he overlays a project I think is an inspiration. He starts with the project, does some "traditional lecture" and they tinker with the project, more lecture, more tinker, more lecture, and ultimately they have "all the tools they need" to build their project. The project can take 2-3 weeks or 2-3 days.
I like the strategic plan's push towards incorporating PBL in more of our classes that don't traditionally have much hands-on learning. There's an opportunity to create classes where students demonstrate understanding without relying so heavily on timed assessments.
Key Takeaways from Visit
- Allow students more voice and choice.
- Empower teachers and students to collaborate and design together.
- Share student work (simply) everywhere.
- Space impacts learning in profound way.
HTH created a great school by taking risks and focusing on one or two key ideas. At the heart of their mission is the idea that students truly "learn and retain what they've learned" by performing, sharing, and presenting. Having an audience–particularly, a public audience–really matters!
As a team we observed learning spaces, curriculum designs, and teaching and learning approaches that could be integrated at Head-Royce and some that were simply not a fit. As we implement our strategic plan, we will continue to look outside ourselves for inspiration and information to fully appreciate and embrace the different ways our students learn.
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