Friday, May 23, 2014

Working With High Tech High - Part 1

Several months ago, we hatched the idea of a school of unique and innovative teaching and learning.  The driving vision for this school is “Sa-Hali Secondary School will be an exemplary learning environment for students, teachers, and future teachers. Through innovative educational practices, we will design and implement meaningful, problem-based learning tasks that, through their real-life application, require learners to demonstrate and apply our collaboratively-developed attributes that will prepare them for an ever-changing future.”  As a staff, we have been working towards realizing this vision on a variety of fronts:  we examined the importance of deeper learning, we have been crafting our attributes, and have begun the process of increasing our understanding of task analysis, ‘learning to see and unlearning to judge’ and the collection of descriptive observational data to allow us to scale up innovative deeper learning practices in our building and our district.

Inasmuch as we have made great strides, naturally there have been many questions and concerns about what our journey to create this environment of deeper learning could look like.  To help us along this pathway, our professional development committee determined that we needed some exemplars of learning environments that modeled deeper learning.  After a great deal of planning, we were able to bring High Tech High teachers Chris Wakefield and Anthony Conwright to our school this past week for our May Professional Development day to introduce us to the practicalities of PBL.  And if there was one word to describe the session that our staff had with Chris and Anthony, it would be ‘outstanding’.  

The session was incredibly dynamic.  There were ice-breakers, followed by short instructional bursts and demonstrations interspersed with small and large group activities.  There were exemplars of projects and ‘beautiful work’ throughout the library for each of us to touch, pick up, and examine.  There were multiple opportunities for reflection.  And ultimately, small groups were taken through the process of creating and tuning projects that we will use in our classrooms.  We learned the work by doing the work.

Personally, I had several takeaways from our session, including:

  1. We need to give students training in giving critique and multiple opportunities for revision.
  2. Our collaboration model needs to evolve to utilize the expertise of multiple departments.
  3. The tuning protocol used by HTH has multiple applications, especially for administrators.
  4. We have numerous artificial constructs that inhibit creativity.
  5. We are limited only by our imagination when it comes to PBL.

Over the next couple of weeks I need to unpack each of these separately.   But I am going to start with the first one.

We need to give students training in giving/receiving critique along with multiple opportunities for revision

When I was a teaching senior biology on the Copernican timetable, we did a lab nearly every day.  Within those labs, students would have to do a practical, hands-on piece such as a dissection, document the process they used, and explain their findings using a combination of drawings and written description.  The students would do these lab write-ups using a template that I had given to them at the start of the year.  Armed with a big new red pen, I would pick a night during the week and strap myself in with a big pile of student work and begin marking.  And much to my chagrin, I would often see work that was messy, inaccurate, and often times incomplete.  I would find myself making the same comments over and over--’where is your evidence?’, or ‘you labelled this incorrectly’, or ‘it’s “gizzard”, not “blizzard”’.  

I would return the work with a big “10 out of 15” on the front, and to my surprise, a large percentage of students would look at that big red mark on the front, shrug their shoulders, fire it in their binder (or the trash), and move on to the next lab.

And make the same mistakes again.  And again.  And again.  And guess who was to blame?  


Guess who was getting better at giving specific feedback?  Guess who was getting the benefit of looking at great (and sometimes not so great) drawings and insightful answers?  Truthfully, guess who was getting better at doing labs?


One of the things that Chris and Anthony from High Tech High stressed was the importance of public critique and providing students with multiple opportunities for revision.

They began by showing a video called “Austin’s Butterfly”:  this video shows Ron Berger (Chief Program Officer of Expeditionary Learning Schools and a leading advocate for ‘beautiful work’, working with primary and intermediate students on the concept of kind, specific, helpful feedback and multiple revisions.  Take 6 minutes and watch this (if you haven’t seen it already).

Then, Chris and Anthony gave our staff multiple progressions of a project, and had our staff practice giving kind, specific, helpful feedback that would make the project better and better.  The small groups discussed each progression and saw first hand how their feedback could make the project better and better.

This process was powerful in a few different ways.  The small groups saw the project getting better as a result of the feedback, as one might expect.  But these critique groups learned together--they learned about giving kind and helpful feedback, they learned from each other’s comments, they saw their comments build on themselves and get even more specific and meaningful, and they learned that by giving students multiple opportunities for feedback in a public setting, the products and producers improved immensely.

I look back now on my time as a biology teacher and shake my head at myself.  Wow, could I have done things differently.  I could have had the students working in small groups (and then larger ones) to give each other this kind, specific and helpful feedback.  They would have been able to improve each other’s work in a kind and non-threatening manner, and would be able to look at their own work more critically at the same time.  And in the end, when their work came to me, it would have gone through multiple revisions and a couple of dozen different sets of eyes.  

If we compared the consistent quality of work that students would produce using this approach to the work from the “one and done” (set of eyes AND opportunity) approach that I used, well, there would likely be no comparison.

As a staff, we need to design and implement activities that utilize multiple revisions and public, kind, specific and helpful feedback for our students.  As an administrator, I need to use a similar approach to the things that I do with staff.  We have great collaborative team leaders and a very knowledgeable faculty.  Like our teachers, I need to ensure that I use the collective knowledge of the group to give me kind, specific and helpful feedback on multiple iterations of projects that we will undertake as a staff so that in the end, we have ‘beautiful work’ of our own.

Part 2 Next Week - Our collaboration model needs to evolve to utilize the expertise of multiple departments.