Tuesday, March 8, 2016

High Tech High

Day one began at High Tech High in San Diego.  A student tour guide spend 2 hours with me at the relatively new High Tech High International, allowing me to chat with a number of teachers and students, before I gave myself another 3 hour self-guided tour of the original school.  The short of it: they are doing a lot of really cool stuff in class, but culture change is the even greater accomplishment.  I will talk about culture and curriculum in general here, but write a separate post to discuss just math and its role in PBL schools based on the synthesis of my first two days on the road.

International is a new, separate school about 100 feet away from the main building, part of an effort to replicate the school, slightly diversify the approach, and keep buildings small.  More than anything, the infusion of the arts blew me away.  There was not a wall in this place that wasn't covered in paint or projects, giving everything a home-y feeling.  There was a handful of music practice rooms and small music classrooms equipped with all kinds of instruments, digital and acoustic.  The painting room was awesome.

As I walked through, I couldn't help but feel like things were not tremendously different from our best classes in Byron.  My guide told me about one of his favorite teachers that happened to be a start-to-end intense lecturer with hard tests, but you stayed riveted the whole time.  Another teacher did lots of role plays and debates.  There were whole class and individual projects all happening.  Though the physical spaces were different, the differences were more at the school level than classroom level.

Students are grouped in advisories with about 5 students per grade together.  They do not just get together once/week as a rallying point before dispersing off to do homework -- they chat about life together, do college visits as a group, go camping together, take out of state trips together, and just become a very cohesive unit.  They rely on each other and their adviser for advice and support for non-academic things as well.

More than anything, there is a huge attitude set that everyone is going to a 4-year college.  They do not force this, but they connect student's dreams and goals to the education required as young as possible and talk about college a ton.  There isn't a guidance counselor, but the college adviser's office is in the middle of the building with a ton of exposure.  Don't get me wrong: I think it would be bad for our nation if all high school students wanted 4-year degrees.  However, if a student has the drive and skills for a certain career, it is not our place as a school to stop them, just to present the facts about true costs and benefits of higher education.

There is also much less focus on the nit-picky rules, like snacks in class, that get teachers into battles.  Everyone is 100x more chill than at most schools.  I never saw anyone appear tense or ready to burst all day.

One unique structural component is the one month internship all students have during January of their junior year and the externship that all seniors have for two months before graduation.  This is very powerful, even if it is a bad experience at the time, since it gives students a sense of whether or not they might want to work in a given field.  It is a great reality check.

Another unique piece, something that reminds me of Olin and many other awesome schools, is the limiting of course choice.  PBL schools maximize choice in the classroom, but you get no say in which classroom you go to.  This greatly simplifies team teaching, student scheduling (also saving counseling time for college support), and planning, though it makes in-course differentiation and personalized approaches to teaching become completely essential rather than good ideas.


Over in the original building, I was greeted with more of what I expected from High Tech High: clear paired teaching at all levels, projects everywhere, chop saws in half of the classrooms, tons of windows, and students building all kinds of things.  Like most PBL work, there was some inefficiency in student time, with a handful of kids blocked or waiting on things out of their control at the moment, but most had something to be working on.

Many of the teachers heavily leaned on their course websites.  Students created pages on the teacher's site that tracked all of the project components and deadlines.  Most projects were large, 2-4 month projects, and many were spread across two traditional periods of the day (the two subject teachers working together on the project).  Teachers reused as many projects as they could year-to-year, but would also switch things up just to try new ideas or improve upon past challenges in the project flow or students learning and engagement.

Teachers and students all seemed to float across the building pretty easily.  Given the San Diego weather, most rooms had external doors so students could work with more space outside, but students wandered to other rooms to get what they needed without hesitation.  No passes or traditional nonsense.  Teachers also roamed a bit to check in with students in different areas or touch base with their team teacher.  It was clear that student teams and teacher teams communicated effectively and often.  It was also clear that everyone was treated with respect and trust and they wandered around.

The biggest required subject where PBL was full force was always physics / physical science.  Beyond that, other sciences, social studies, then English, and finally math.  Electives were often paired with required courses to maximize project flexibility.

One thing I wondered about was Special Education services.  The school still has paras and SpEd teachers working with students as most schools do.  More than anything, they seemed to focus their efforts on helping students manage the social and management complexities of project based learning.  As an example, one student I observed was frustrated about problems he had with his teammates and with an unexpected teacher deadline.  The SpEd teacher coached him through the conversation he needed to have and then went with him to see it through since the boy's story didn't really make sense.  My impromtu afternoon tour guide, a SpEd student himself, told me how they helped him transform from a "bad freshman" (he didn't do homework or care about school) to the senior he now was (he appeared to be more on-task than peers when I first ran into him and was very articulate about what he was doing and learning).

The specific projects I witnessed were pretty cool, but more than anything, I think that the way students viewed their own high school education and beyond was the key benchmark that made High Tech High so cool.  Students were grounded in the reality of what they could do now, but believed they could learn and do anything with effort and practice.  This is the same attitude that fueled me my entire life, and to see that in other young people cut across gender and racial lines is really awesome.  The school uses PBL as an important tool, but it is NOT their "why".  Instead, they focus on students' growth and future opportunities and provide all students equal access to an excellent education.


  1. Needless to say, I am jealous you had this experience, but also glad it was you to have this experience. Through just day 1 you had many thoughtful insights and knowing you, you will be able to take what you learn from this school and implement and share with others. I will have to keep reading further, but would love to talk with you in person more about the structure of their day. I assume you talked to many students and from what it sounds like is that they are less stressed and are achieving at their own level and pace. It also seems like they are gaining a real world experience that will help serve them well for a successful future. Would love to hear your ideas of helping our students achieve these feelings as well.

    1. I would love to chat more! As a start, look at the HTH website: http://www.hightechhigh.org/projects/. If there are projects that sound awesome, they have public-facing teacher pages that have a lot more details to really put a project together too. They are such a cool system of schools. If you ever can, find a way to get out there!