One of the key features of High Tech High is its use of Project Based Learning throughout the teaching practices of the school. All teachers incorporate projects into their classes, and the results of student projects are regularly displayed in exhibitions for the community. These projects can be cross-disciplinary, the product of collaboration between subject teachers, or they can be within the individual subject area. However either way, these projects are significant enterprises into which both the teacher and students invest a lot of time and effort and produce amazing quality displays of learning.
However, many teachers in many schools use projects as a way of consolidating and evaluating learning. So what’s the difference with how it’s done here?
Well, I think there are a number of main things which make the projects at HTH work so well.
- Authentic projects. Projects are meaningful for both staff and students, as they connect to both the academic discipline and the real lives and interests of the students. They are academically rigorous to ensure the students are developing their knowledge of the discipline, however they also connect to things the students are interested in. This helps engage students in the process, and removes some of the boundaries between what students learning inside and outside the classroom.
- Real world connections. Connected to the idea of authentic, meaningful projects is the fact that the projects needs to extend beyond the school walls and connect to the community. Projects explore the world outside school and connect students with adults in the wider community. This connection should be before, during, and after the project, starting an ongoing communication between the school and the outside world.
- Hands-on learning. In the projects at High Tech High students are not just writing about their learning. They are applying their learning in hands-on ways. They are designing, creating, performing, building. These are higher-order skills which students can only do once they have mastered the content. At HTH, I observed building tools in a Physics classroom for students to use during their projects – the sort of tools which are confined to the Technology classrooms at home. This demonstrates that students don’t just talk about Physics, they use it: to create gears and simple machines which use the principles taught. And most importantly, these gears and machines aren’t simply built and then dismantled at the end of the lesson, leading on to the next point…
- Significant, permanent products. Students create something through their project work, and in order for it to be meaningful there has to be a result beyond a mark on a piece of paper. High Tech High hold regular exhibitions where student projects are showcased to the community, and the project work is also displayed around the school. It is not the best pieces that are displayed, but everyone’s work. As all of the projects are shared with the school and community, they have a permanence that is rare in school work at home: displays are built out of wood and glass, writings are published in book, artwork is displayed in a local art gallery. This puts a responsibility on the students to produce work which they would like everyone to see, and as a result the work has a quality and permanence which I rarely see at home.
- Respect for the design process. In the real world, anything that is designed or created is rarely created perfect the first time around. The teachers and students at HTH understand this and incorporate the iterative nature of design into the projects. Since students are creating artifacts of some kinds (be they artwork or structures or writing), they need to undergo the cyclical process of creation, evaluation, modification (and so on) in order to perfect their work. All too often I think we have a tendency to set tasks with a due date which students perform once. Their product is marked and returned, and that’s it. However, that’s not how the real world works, and it’s not helping them refine their creation and further develop their learning.
- Time. In order to do all of these things mentioned above, significant amounts of time need to be allocated to these projects. They are not completed in a week, but many weeks. They may not work on the project every day, however students need time to work on something, reflect, evaluate, and modify – they cannot do that in a couple of lessons. This aspect of time is what is often lacking in many schools. If we are too pushed to cover content, we cannot take the time to explore individual projects deeply. However, I would ask us to re-evaluate what content is truly required. Isn’t it more important for students to have developed deeper understanding and higher-order skills rather than know a little about a lot of topics?
However it is important to note that despite all that I’ve just said, when you look at it from a certain perspective High Tech High isn’t all that different from every other school. The classes aren’t all doing project work all the time. The implementation of these projects varies from teacher to teacher, and teachers intermix project work with more traditional direct instruction teaching.
That tells me that more traditional schools can do this too, it’s just about choosing the right projects to start with – or modifying projects which already exist, but maybe lack some of these features. I know we do projects, and some of them may be good ones, but there’s ways of developing them so that they are more meaningful for students. An easy starting point would be to implement exhibitions – making the products of the project displayed outside the classroom itself immediately changes the way the projects is perceived by both the teachers and students.
For me specifically, I’d like to develop a project which would do all of these things. There’s a lot to think about in order to develop the right project for my school, and I’ll have to write more about it in a future post.
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