I have had two incredible learning opportunities in the last few months: first, attending the Expeditionary Learning National Conference in early December, and second, visiting the High Tech High (HTH) network of schools in San Diego a few weeks ago with over 60 leaders from Christian schools in Ontario. (We also met some great people from Christian schools in both BC and Alberta!) Although I’m focusing this blog on the HTH trip, it is deeply influenced by Expeditionary Learning as well. I’m excited to share with you a bit of what we experienced there. Feel free to click on any of the thumbnail images to enlarge them.
There are a number of reasons why the HTH trip had such an impact on me. As a group of schools, High Tech High has been very clear about the importance of their design principles. All staff members in their schools understand them and have the space to pursue them through professional collaboration and with the encouragement to mix their own personal passions into the learning experience of children. We heard co-founders Rob Riordan and Larry Rosenstock tell the story of where these design principles came from, and then saw them embodied everywhere we went (and we were urged to go anywhere) over the next three days. You can read more about High Tech High’s design principles here, or see Larry Rosenstock discuss HTH’s vision on video here.
Three Dimensions of Student Achievement
Within these design principles, High Tech High also seems to embody “three dimensions of student achievement” as Expeditionary Learning School’s Ron Berger has articulated in this blog post. They are the mastery of knowledge and skills, character, and high quality student work. Just because one of these is much easier to assess than the others doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be devoting our energies to all three, Berger says. In fact, knowledge and skills find their true purpose and value only in the other two. These three dimensions are a very intentional focus for us in OACS schools too.
Although they are hesitant to support standards, (“you know what standards lead to? Standardization…”), and we had great discussions about their hesitancy, High Tech High is very serious about assessment and rigour. (Rob Riordan’s first job title was playfully identified as “Emperor of Rigor.”) It was reassuring for us to see that High Tech High Chula Vista was very much committed to pursuing the mastery of knowledge and core skills such as numeracy and literacy. Students are always reflecting on their own development in these core skills. You can see more of both of these integrated in the project gr. 2 “Toy Story” project highlighted below.
Second, Chula Vista is also very intentional in naming and pursuing the character traits they felt are important for all of us to embody as human beings.
And all High Tech High staff members that we met do embody them. We felt welcomed and honoured by any staff member we met. We were encouraged to enter any space, and each time we did both students and teachers made time to answer any of our questions. Teachers offered us resources on the spot. We took home handouts, samples of the teacher work that impressed us so much. The HTH campuses post their characteristics prominently on their walls; they build student reflection of these characteristics in their handouts to encourage the students to embody growth mindsets in pursuing them. In this handout, you can see both the presence of the learning targets the student is pursuing, you see the importance of the character traits they’ve committed to on the top of the page.
Third, the students are given time and tools to develop beautiful work. This is also highlighted in An Ethic of Excellence by Ron Berger, which we all read before our trip and which I reviewed in OCSAA’s The Rudder. A number of us were able to observe a staff meeting while they collaborated together in examining the actual work their students are creating—looking for qualities of complexity, craftsmanship, authenticity, and transformation—to evaluate how meaningful the learning is. We’re doing these collaborations as staffs in our schools too. I’d love to partner with you to pursue this more deeply.
High Tech High campuses put beautiful student work at the fore-front of their design. Everywhere we turned, we encountered diverse and beautiful work displayed on any and every available public space.
We constantly snapped photos of work that inspired us and urged us to ask more questions about what the students were learning and what they did with this learning to impact their larger culture. While we were there, grade four students invited us to a book launch they were hosting at a local bookstore—not only did they write the books they were selling, they took over the store for the launch, running the tills and helping customers.
But seeing evidence of these three areas—knowledge and skills, character, and beautiful work—is not the only core experience we came away with. What impacted us most powerfully was the empowerment of the students at Chula Vista to speak to us about their school and their learning in these three areas. After a very brief and gracious welcome by the school’s leadership team, the stage was immediately turned over to the children. We were divided in to small groups and partnered with excited student tour guides (from grades 3-8) to lead us through the building and to tell us about all of the projects they and other classes were doing. These students spoke honestly and with excitement about their own learning, the learning of their classmates, the beautiful work on the walls. This was also most clearly evident after the tours when grade two student Androy stood on a chair in front of all sixty of us to show us his own beautiful work—a book and toy that he designed and created to give to a pre-school friend he had made over five visits his class made to the pre-school. Androy designed the book and toy specifically and especially for Jose. He took pride in his beautiful work and the skills he had to develop in order to make it. He admitted that doing many drafts was exhausting. He told us that the last visit he made to Jose was hard, not because he had to give up his toy, but because it was his last visit to Jose at the pre-school.
What does it look like when we empower students with space and voice to own their own learning? I think it should look much like what we saw at Chula Vista. It’s full of rigour, whimsy, joy, open-ended questions, some mess, multiple drafts of meaningful work. But don’t take my word for it—the very same grade two students who we met have shared their beautiful work on video—you can hear it from them directly just as we did. In the video (7 mins. of time well spent!) the kids will reveal to you the same three areas I’ve been describing—core skills in numeracy and literacy, character, and beautiful work. They are empowered grade two kids that inspired us to consider how we can also dream bigger to empower our students to be “co-creators” of blessing in God’s beautiful world and his vision for it to flourish.
Notice that all of the students are invited to speak. Some seem supported with scripts, other speak “off the cuff.” All students are empowered to do good work. You see all of their prototypes on the back wall of the classroom, not just the select few that the teacher is most proud of. All of these grade two students give a beautiful sense of their excitement for purposeful learning: “real work that meets a real need for a real audience.” Colleagues and friends of mine—two educators from Surrey Christian School—have articulated all of this beautifully in a recent Comment article. If you find our visit to Chula Vista compelling and want to hear more about how it fits so powerfully within our Christian school tradition and Biblical narrative, I’d urge you to check their article out.
There are also numerous ways for you to continue deepening your learning and implementation of these three dimensions of achievement. One of the best opportunities is our annual Christian Teacher Academy in the third week of August.The stories of implemented projects that were designed there continue to be so exciting. You can also connect with me at any time about other opportunities.
Empowering students to pursue these three dimensions in our participation within the beautiful mystery of God creating and sustaining the universe is the core of my work here at the OACS. I was so privileged to join sixty others for a learning expedition to High Tech High. I come back inspired and determined to move forward with courage, implementing what we know are God-honouring educational best practices, always seeking to empower the students we are blessed to work with every day—beautiful children like Androy and the students in all of our learning communities. Let me finish with just another sampling of the beautiful student work we encountered. I wish I had time to tell you why I found each one so compelling!
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