First Impressions of High Tech High

A number of years ago an education friend and I discussed our ‘dream school’ which we would love to build one day. This was a place where subject boundaries had been removed, teachers were facilitators rather than instructors, and students worked on self-guided inter-disciplinary projects which related directly with real world experiences.

High Tech High here in San Diego is the closest thing to this imaginary dream school that I have ever seen.

Students writing on a glass wall at High Tech High

High Tech High is a fascinating, purpose-built group of schools designed to prepare students for the world beyond school though personalized, project-based learning. Subjects boundaries are not completely removed, as student still have specialized teachers for each subject area, but students are often involved in projects which combine multiple subject areas.

Physically, the schools are unusual. They have open, glass classrooms with lots of whiteboards, chalkboards and other surfaces which students can write on (including the windows). There are multi-purpose communal learning spaces between classrooms. Classrooms (and teachers) are grouped in multi-disciplinary ‘hubs’ for specific year groups, rather than by subject areas.

And particularly striking as you walk around are the amazing displays of student work, all over every wall, table and window. These are everywhere and the quality is spectacular. We’re not talking some coloured markers on a piece of posterboard: these are often professional-looking, ‘museum quality’ displays.

An environmental science project on display

Display of a combine Art / English project

Much of student’s work is structured around meaningful, authentic projects with tangible, long-lasting results: artworks incorporating maths and physics, published literature incorporating environmental science, working engineered models displaying an aspect of physics. Results of these projects are exhibited for the community, and also displayed semi-permanently in the school. These projects are not all multidisciplinary, however they are all carefully thought out and meaningful for students.

After my first day of the Fall Residency here, I am definitely inspired to incorporate some of their approaches into my own teaching. Although I can’t build a school based on HTH’s physical design, the principles of project based learning could easily be incorporated into a traditional classroom. The project could even be multidisciplinary, with students working on it in two different classes. Although I would love this sort of teaching to be happening across the board, beginning small with a single project and demonstrating its efficacy could be a good way to bring about the support of other teachers.

Exactly how this could be implemented I am still exploring.I still have two more days to learn more at High Tech High, and I’m looking forward to getting into some more classrooms and watching the teachers at work.


5 responses to “First Impressions of High Tech High

  1. Wow – an interesting school! I’m assuming this is the school: – and interesting to see it’s a charter school too. And I’m seeing a connection between HTH and a new school in South Australia: the Marc Olliphant College Be interesting to see how they reconcile their approach with the Australian Curriculum – although I don’t see why it can’t be done in principle if the state body is flexible in the delivery of that curriculum.

    • Yeah, that’s the school. It is an impressive place, and great to see that kids from all over San Diego are selected based on a lottery system. Its designed to get a spread of all post codes to ensure a good, realistic mix of students. The kids I’ve spoken to love to the school and wouldn’t change a thing, and they feel very lucky to have been accepted.

      One thing I have noticed, however, is that the school has a far lower burden of documentation to demonstrate they are meeting the state standards, at least compared with private schools in NSW. So they have a bit more flexibility to make changes on a regular basis, without having to map out how every project combines to meet all of the outcomes specified in the syllabus. Not that it couldn’t be done at home but it may mean more advanced planning and documentation than they do here. Also I know that public schools in NSW have less rigorous documentation requirements as well, so it could work well in an amazing, charter style public school.

      There is a group of people from Marc Oliphant here at the moment and sounds like they’re working quite hard to incorporate many HTH ideas. It’ll be interesting to see the outcome.

    • I think it may be scary for some teacher, and that’s why they have quite a rigorous hiring process to ensure they are selecting teachers who will fit with the school. All the teachers seemed remarkably unified in their attitudes and opinions towards the school’s approach, which I’m sure partly comes from choosing the right people.

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