What I learned from a visit to the best school in the world

Recently, I had the great pleasure of visiting High Tech High in San Diego. High Tech High is continually touted as one of the best schools in the world and was a feature of the education documentary, Most Likely to Succeed. It has long been on my bucket list to visit so a huge thank you to Summer Howarth (@edusum) for the introduction to Laura McBain (@laura_mcbain). We were truly lucky to have Laura, who is one of the founding teachers at High Tech High give us an in-depth tour of their Elementary, Middle School and High School campuses. Laura is currently High Tech High’s Director of External Relations and the Director of the Education Leadership Academy. Throughout our visit, we were lucky enough to be introduced to a range of High Tech High staff, who were incredibly forthcoming and honest about the work that happens at HTH. One of the staff members we met was Randy Scherer (@RandellScherer ‏), the co-author of two new books on Problem-Based Learning. Hands & Minds is a PBL cookbook for teachers by teachers and Inspiration, Not Replication, a collection of stories from schools on a PBL journey. Both books are fantastic and you definitely should check them out.

I’ll unpack some of my key takeaways in this post but the pictures really tell the better story.

Where does work live when it’s done? – The power of curation

I firmly believe that what a school values adorns their walls and that we under-utilise our wall space when it comes to the authentic display of student work. “Where does work live when it’s done?” is the question that staff and students at High Tech High continually focus on. Student learning is considered so valuable at HTH that they wish to broadcast it to the world. What greater statement does that make to a learner?

The use of space as a canvas to document student learning is unbelievable. High Tech High is a living and breathing representation of how much learning and inspiration takes place in the school. Carefully curated student works drip with rigor and passion. The benchmark of excellence is continually on display for other students. It is not about an A+ but about the power of peer learning. No surface is off limits also. Every corner, every nook and cranny captured a story. Heck, even the bathroom was a canvas. Nothing like a little streaming jazz to make your business time a little smoother!

Jazz in the loo anyone??

Careful consideration is given to how to use each canvas to represent the learning. Materials, layout, colour, depth, lighting are all considered decisions by students and staff to display the work and the workmanship would not be out of place in a museum or art gallery. It was truly breathtaking!

Equity and Problem-based learning

Throughout the world, High Tech High are recognised and renowned as a school that does Problem Based Learning (or PBL) really well. Problem Based Learning is “an instructional method of hands-on, active learning centered on the investigation and resolution of messy, real-world problems.” Talking to Laura about their PBL reputation and she was quick to point out that HTH was not a project-based learning school. It was more than that. At HTH, project-based learning is used to achieve their four connected design principles—equity, personalization, authentic work, and collaborative design. PBL allows for equity, differentiation and diversity in the classroom.

In project-based learning, students do not simply learn about a subject, they become someone: students making a field guide are not just learning about the environment, they become environmental scientists and journalists and the rigor of their work is measured according to how closely they adhere to adult or professional standards in the field.

Randy Scherer
Hands and Minds

Helping drive this learning is an essential question. This question can come completely from the students, be co-created or come completely from the teacher. There was no single method. It depended on the students and the staff member.

Onboarding staff

As you can imagine, High Tech High would be an in-demand place to work so I was definitely keen to find out how their onboarding process worked. The starting point…teachers should like kids if they are going to be teaching them. A no brainer but an under valued quality. HTH put prospective teachers in a classroom to see how they interact with students to put that to the test. You can learn a lot about a teacher by how they interact with their students.

To start their school year, High Tech High runs three weeks of professional learning for their staff. This is designed to build community, understanding and to start the year on the same page. School was out for the year when we visited but there were still many staff on deck working away. I think that says a lot about the culture at High Tech High.

Does High Tech High live up to the hype? Yes, it most certainly does. I left on a high, inspired by the power of equity, personalization, authentic work, and collaborative design to impact learning. It truly is a school where teachers and students co-exist, co-create and co-learn.

Both Laura and Randy will be presenting at EC17 in Melbourne, which I implore you to check out. Visit www.educhange.com.au for more information.

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