Does it work? Outcomes and engagement at High Tech High

So when I started this study tour I said I was going to ask the following three questions of the methods I observe:

  1. How effectively does it engage students in science?
  2. How does it improve student outcomes in science?
  3. How could it be implemented within the existing curriculum and school structure in NSW?

So it is time to reflect on the answers for these for the Project Based Learning I observed at High Tech High. Now it is important to note that at High Tech High the success of their Project Based Learning program is embedded in the very nature and culture of the school, which is quite different to the environment present at many schools (see my post on student voice). So this is an evaluation of Project Based Learning at High Tech High specifically, not its many iterations elsewhere.

How effectively does it engage students in science?

Engagement is where the approach implemented at High Tech High is definitely winning. Students are actively engaged in the learning process, and they take pride in their work. As I walked around the school and spoke to students, they could articulately and enthusiastically explain their projects to me and the learning they were getting from them. The independence the teachers give the students to experiment and learn from their failures meant the students were not afraid to explain their ideas. In addition, the hands-on nature of the projects definitely kept them focused on their work most of the time.

This was true across the board for all subject areas. However, I think science in particular is a subject area which lends itself to these methods. Since science is about exploring and explaining the world around us, it fundamentally connects with the real world and the world outside school, and these projects empower students to investigate these things. I observe students highly engaged with projects work in both Physics and Biology classes: in one, building a Rube Goldberg machine applying principles of mechanics, and another studying and classifying invertebrates in the San Diego area. In both, students were working hands on to create something which meaningfully applied the theory they had learned in class.

Physics class: a student showing me their Rube Goldberg Machine

How effectively does it improve student outcomes in science?

The projects at HTH are not designed to improve test-taking skills. Instead, they are designed to develop students higher order skills: the application of knowledge to real situations, their creativity. As a byproduct of this process students master the lower-order skills along the way, but this is not the sole focus of the class. Of course, alongside the projects teachers often have the students doing traditional homework, sitting quizzes and tests, and completing more traditional classwork. So they are combining the development of the higher-order project skills with the fundamentals.

The students sit standardised state tests at the end of each year. However, at HTH they are not teaching for the test and they are not ticking of state standards to ensure their students have covered everything and will be able to pass. Due to the time spent on large-scale projects, they may have aspects of the state curriculum not covered every single year (they are not required to produce documentation to show they are covering all the state standards). However, the students have historically always done reasonably well. They are able to apply their knowledge and understanding to new situations, and perform well even in topic areas they have not studied. They are not outstanding performers, but they easily meet the expectations of the state – and from the perspective of the teachers at HTH, they do well enough for the state to leave them alone and let them continue their approach.

More important for HTH is college-readiness. 100% of their students are accepted into college, and 77% of those have graduated university or are still currently completing their degrees. Note that this is a non-selective school which uses a lottery system to ensure they have a representative sample of students from the San Diego area, so the college acceptance level are not just a product of the socio-economic level of the students. In addition, 38% of HTH college graduates have graduated with degrees in STEM fields, as opposed to 17% of California graduates generally. Due to these perceived successes, the school has continually expanded since its creation in 2000 from one school to now being a network of nine school. So obviously something is working, at least in the opinion of those at HTH.

How could it be implemented within the existing curriculum and school structure in NSW?

This is a big one, and one I am still thinking about. Could a model like this produce satisfactory results within the high-stakes testing environment present in NSW, especially at the HSC level? It wouldn’t be impossible to create a school in the model of HTH targeted at the NSW syllabus, although this would present challenges with regards to meeting state expectations and satisfying HSC examination requirements.

However, a more realistic application is to incorporate Project Based Learning (or aspects of it) into programs of work within a traditional school environment. The project-based work could easily be incorporated into the existing school structure and curriculum, especially in the 7-10 syllabus. Cross-curricular projects could be developed, although the simplest starting point would be for teachers to develop projects within their individual subjects. As noted, the teachers at HTH are not always teaching with projects, so it is a matter of incorporating large-scale projects into existing units of work. These could be projects which span the entire term, with traditional direct instruction teaching intermingled with project time, as the students develop their projects. A combination of project work and traditional classwork may allow students to develop both content knowledge for standardised tests whilst ensuring student engagement and the development of higher-order skills.

The heavily content-driven nature of the years 11 and 12 HSC syllabuses may make it more challenging to incorporate project based work into them. Although it would not be impossible, the important aspect of time which I mentioned in my last post may be difficult to find. However, with the right project, perhaps the project could become a culmination of the students work for a unit, which has structured the  investigations and learning throughout the term.

As I continue on my trip, I hope to develop my own project which could potentially be implemented within the 7-10 Science syllabus. As I do so, I will reflect further on developing projects for the NSW curriculum and school structure.


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