When I think about innovation in education, on the one hand I am daunted by all that needs to be done to fix our broken systems. I often feel overwhelmed by the achievement gap, inequity and lack of access to quality programs. On the other hand, I am inspired by what I see happening in pockets all around me, if I look hard enough. From programs that open access to a broader range of students in independent schools, to outdoor preschools like Tiny Trees (inspired by models in Scandinavia like this one), to public school students like this group setting up computer labs in the developing world even though their school no longer houses the program they created.
The latest school to catch my interest is called High Tech High. It’s a public charter school in San Diego that has retooled its academic program around project based learning. I had heard about the school before, but when I watched the documentary film Most Likely to Succeed, I became reinvigorated by what is happening there. Students work on team-based interdisciplinary projects, each taught by a pair of teachers for one semester at a time. The students stand firmly at the center of their learning, so the teachers have been trained on how to set up a learning environment to support that pedagogy. The film focused on a ninth grade class taught by a humanities and a physics teacher. They explored ancient civilizations from a literature, arts and science perspective. The guiding question was “What factors cause civilizations to rise, thrive, and/or fall?” Using ancient texts, modern political situations, and mechanics of gears and wheels, the students worked in groups to explore the question from multiple angles.
At the end of the term, they hosted a huge showcase for their parents, guardians, and community members. They demonstrated the theme dramatically through Greek tragedy (all parts played by boys as would have been in that time period) and the Malala story (all parts played by girls to emphasize the importance of girls education). Then they showed the technology through a giant puzzle mechanism made up of all of their gear boards put together. It’s hard to describe, but somehow they were able to capture the rise and fall of civilizations through these two means in a very compelling way. As they spoke about their work to the visitors who came to see it, their learning, pride, teamwork and perseverance were evident. It was clear during the course of the semester they were also learning interpersonal skills, public speaking, problem-solving, collaboration, and self-advocacy, referred to as “soft” skills, and perhaps the most necessary for success in the workplace.
To the naysayers worried this kind of learning is not rigorous enough, they don’t cover enough material, they can’t quantify their progress, I point to a recent study done at a prestigious east coast independent school where the highest scoring students on all test measures (finals, APs, SATs) took the same tests three months later and failed them. Given the amount of content that can be found in one’s smart phone these days, what is learned through these kinds of comprehensive projects seems much more relevant to life in the real world than learning how to take tests. Now if only colleges and universities will agree…