High Tech High and the importance of student voice

The past three days at High Tech High have been very inspirational to me (and most of the people who have attended the Fall Residency here). In particular, it is interesting to see what is actually possible at a school: to create successful and engaged students who have the ability to develop and apply knowledge in multiple ways. I’m not suggesting High Tech High is perfect, and I’m sure there are ways it is still being developed and refined, however there are so many ways which this group of schools is succeeding in areas where other schools are not.

Today we reflected on what we would take away from the experience of visiting High Tech High, and although there are many different things which I will attempt to implement at home such as Project Based Learning (more about this in another post), the thing that struck me the most was the importance of giving students a meaningful voice in the decisions and practices of their own learning, and the school culture which is needed to sustain this.

I worked with two teachers from William Smith High School, Brooke and Rachele, to summarise our thoughts. We developed the following diagram to represent what a traditional school structure looks like, with students at the bottom, teachers above that, and the school administration or executive up the top. This structure tends to have a top-down approach, where ideas and messages come from the top and are distilled into the school from there.

In contrast, our interpretation of High Tech High’s model is the following inverted triangle. In this triangle, students are at the top, teachers forming a base below them, and then the executive below that. In this model, the students often have a meaningful role in making decisions about their own learning and their school in general. For example, students are involved in the hiring process at HTH: they have a hiring bonanza when lots of potential teachers come and teach a mini-lesson to students, and the students provide feedback about whether the teacher will fit in at the school. There are multiple examples of students helping develop rubrics for marking projects, or participating in the ‘project tuning’ process where potential projects are evaluated and tweaked. These are just some of the ways students are involved, but the point is that across the board students know that their opinions matter, and providing them with this responsibility allows them to take ownership of their learning.

However, there’s still a problem with this triangle. As we all know, a pyramid resting on it’s point is very unstable and could easily topple. So what’s holding it up? How has this school manage to stay standing for the past 10 years?

We decided that there are two pillars of support to the model at HTH. One is the school culture, and importantly the alignment of all teachers and students in the school to that culture. All the teachers I spoke to were very much in support of the way HTH is run, and actively buy in to the school’s culture. Similarly, the students seemed to feel the same. Even those who hadn’t been there long appeared to appreciate the Project Based Learning nature of the school, and like and support the school’s approach.

The other pillar of support for this model is the school’s rituals and routines which are embedded in the day to day life of the school. These processes formally recognise the nature of student participation in the school. The hiring bonanzas, the project critiques, and other activities giving students roles and opinions in areas usually left to adults: these are the processes which ensure that student involvement happens regularly. Individually teachers still have the independence to run their classroom in different ways, but the school rituals and routines ensure that student voice is always loud and clear.

In essence, HTH demonstrates that students like being given respect and responsibility and will rise to the opportunity if it is presented, either on a school-wide or individual classroom level. In the classroom, regularly (not occasionally) giving students voice when developing projects, setting deadlines, critiquing peers, marking work, and so on and they will take ownership of their learning. I know that most of us do these things some of the time, but here they do these things all of the time, and that makes a big difference to the student-teacher relationship and the whole nature of the school.

As a group from Texas put it in their summation:

Additional links / resources:

  • Check out this interesting video by a group of Dutch teachers and principals who have been visiting. The images highlight the many ways that student work is displayed around the school.
  • Another group visiting have a blog about their attempt to create a school-within-a-school in the model of HTH.

2 responses to “High Tech High and the importance of student voice

  1. Wow – now that is student voice in action – even more radical than I’ve suggested 🙂 I have always felt student voice should have a role in teacher evaluation (not an exclusive role, but a contributing role), but to actually have them in an employment selection role – wow 🙂 Thanks for your deeper thinking how that inverted pyramid is kept in balance.

    If I may be so bold, can I point at my post on Student Voice http://exzuberant.blogspot.com.au/2011/02/putting-student-voice-into-practice.html – I would be interested if you saw any of these effects or practices are HTH – especially the use of anonymous student feedback.

    • Nordin, I love your strategies for getting student feedback on your teaching. I definitely saw anonymous student feedback while I was there. One teacher was asking specific questions on the board and getting the kids to answer using PollEv (either with their phones or on a class computer) and the answers were being displayed in real time on the projector. This wasn’t just feedback for the teacher, it was also anonymous self-reflection, how the students could do better, what they think they did well, etc. It was a fun and interactive way to give feedback, not quite as formalised as yours.

      However, it was interesting how public this feedback was. i think its great that you put the feedback up for kids to see the next lesson, it really shows that you are ready to take it on board. One of the ideas at HTH is that learning should be transparent, which also means that the processes which the teachers are going through are transparent as well. In order to demonstrate the iterative nature of learning, teachers are publicly reflective on their practices and strive to refine them. Teachers are happy to take student ideas and feedback and modify projects midway through- they’re not locked into the idea that the current way is definitely right.

      It’s a build up of all these little things that give kids the confidence to express their opinions in the belief that their opinions matter.

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