I recently had a chance to complete a residency at High Tech High (http://www.hightechhigh.org/) . This school has become a model of education highlighted globally for its ability to increase relevancy, student engagement, and student achievement.
The first thing you notice about going to High Tech High is that it really isn't high tech. Instead, what you see more closely resembles an artisan working community where learners are huddled together, working on various large and small projects, and getting ready to share their learning with anyone that comes near. The projects are sophisticated and certainly leverage technology, but rarely are the projects technology only.
High Tech High is in its 12th year of existence and is proud to offer education to the full range of students in the San Diego community. HTH prides itself on its college preparation, with over 80% of the students attending four year post-secondary programs; yet the school is the furthest possible reflection of a traditional college preparatory school.
All the learning starts from projects and then builds on the knowledge. Developing the skills of the students comes before the learning outcomes. Projects don't occur at the end of the unit to show the teacher what they learned; the units are the projects and the teacher draws out the learning in the context of the project. Students say if it is work worth doing, then they work hard to do their best. Motivation doesn't seem to be a big issue.
Projects are completed to the best of the student's ability, not to the completion date. To draw out the best possible work, the school has created "critique protocols" that provide real feedback from a variety of sources. Students keep going on their projects and "tune" them to reflect deeper and more meaningful connections. At the end of projects students always demonstrate their learning to "real audiences." Throughout the process students document their learning, encouraged to erase or delete nothing.
Can all schools replicate HTH's success? CEO and founder Larry Rosenstock doesn't believe that the school should be packaged and replicated. Instead, he encouraged the educators in attendance to think about the design elements of our schools and reflect on what makes the most difference to student learning. Certainly we can take pieces of the HTH story into our schools and weave them into the wonderful work that underway and ongoing. If I learned from HTH anything, it is that the art of learning is continually moving and growing and that "tuning" our practice and our schools is central to being a learning organization.