Adventures in Project Based Learning part 1: High Tech High

There are a few blogs I’ve been meaning to write over 2012, so as I’m about to hit 2013, I’m going to publish what I have instead of waiting for the time to do a nice polished job. Maybe that time is never coming! So here we go…


In 2012 I was lucky to be involved in a number of key exercises my school undertook in a bid to refresh the schoolwide approach to pedagogy. In June I was lucky enough to be chosen to participate in a field trip to High Tech High in San Diego. This trip was recommended by my friend David Price, founder of Musical Futures and Learning Futures in the UK who has been working with my school this year as we review our practise and look at how we can further innovate learning in the future.

David suggested to us that the model for project based learning wasn’t as well refined anywhere else in the world, and offered to meet us in San Diego to facilitate the trip.

What it ain’t

There’s a lot written about High Tech High (hereafter HTH) on its website, and you can also get a great idea for what their take on project based learning (hereafter PBL) looks like by reading Work That Matters (Patton & Robin 2012) which was jointly produced by Learning Futures and HTH.

High Tech NightHowever despite the fact I’d done all kinds of reading including the above, I had still made several incorrect assumptions, so I’ll start with those here. Firstly, High Tech High is more than one school. In fact, it’s 10 schools based on the same model. Five high schools, three middle schools, and two elementary (primary) schools. Each one is kept below the 500 student mark because it is believed that that is as many names as a teacher can remember.

And while the schools operate under the same principles (personalisation, adult world connection, common intellectual mission and teacher as designer), the ‘flavour’ of each was distinct. On the one campus the original High Tech High, High Tech High Media Arts and High Tech High International boasted a variety of work and variations on the central model (more on that later), and I also visited the Middle School on the same campus and the Chula Vista K-12 school near the Mexican border.

The next thing that High Tech High ain’t is High Tech. Or rather, I should say that the name implies that everything must revolve around technology, and that there must be cutting edge technology all over the school, and neither implication is true. The ‘tech’ element is that PBL involves a lot of making, and HTH teachers and students absorb the best tech on hand to do that making. Many students carry their own laptops, but in terms of technology on site, your average Sydney independent school would be way in front.

Does this mean HTH falls at the first step? No. It just turns out it has a pretty daggy name – I even heard a few teachers admit as much. That said, the use of mandated technology was interesting. Students were all given a portfolio space, and built their own (very varied) portfolios in HTML, WordPress or a number of other tools. Suprisingly, at Chula Vista all social media and even YouTube was blocked by the proxy server, which seemed an arcanely backward step when so much forward thinking was around you.

It seemed the school didn’t need to worry about names of students next to their work (or at least, you don’t have to dig very far to find it), but then the rules that apply to the rest of the US public education system don’t necessarily apply at HTH.

The Charter School thing

And HTH is able to get away with its own way of doing things, at least to some extent, because it is a charter school. Representing less than 10% of schools in America, charter schools have the freedom to do things their own way but with public funding, as long as they remain accountable to state and federal “standards”, and open to all (NAPCS 2012).

“Oh, the standards.”, Larry Rosenstock, CEO and founder of HT said. “You add a few letters and you have standardisation. I wish they called them “expectations”.


Despite the freedom given to charter schools, one could see that even working within these restrictions grated a little with CEO and founder Larry Rosenstock, who we met on our first day at HTH. “Oh, the standards.”, he said. “You add a few letters and you have standardisation. I wish they called them “expectations”.” I liked Larry. He despises everything that is systemically wrong with education worldwide, but has an incredibly optimism for what can be achieved if only people get things right. “The more rules you have the less oxygen you have.”, he told us, referring to the expectations that were placed on students at the HTH schools. “Maybe everybody doesn’t need to go to college.”

HTH Chula VistaBut High Tech High students do go to college. And it helps to have statistics like these to rely on: 100 percent of graduates were accepted to college in 2011, with 80% of those being to four-year institutions (High 2012). So the approach works. What was key? Knowing your students: “The key principle is that kids must be integrated”, Larry told us. This means there are no streamed classes, although students can elect to be “honors” or “regular” within any one class, and honors have higher expectations placed on them.

As mentioned, the schools are kept deliberately small, because it’s believed that teachers can remember names of up to 500 or so students, but no more (Californian High Schools often have 3,000 to 4,000 students). Where possible, teachers stick with a class for several years.

“We try to start by assuming good intent in kids”


What we would refer to as pastoral care at my school is taken care of in ‘advisory groups’ at HTH. Ben Daley, Chief Academic Officer (who thinks of the US “standards” about as highly as Larry does), told us “We try to start by assuming good intent in kids”. Each teacher is connected to 15 students in an advisory group and a couple of times a year goes to that student’s home to meet with their family and discuss how they are going on their own turf.

“Families love it”, Larry told us. “They make an effort. They’re proud to invite the teacher into their home. Sometimes they make them a meal.” The students at HTH are from a wide range of socio-economic backgrounds. 8600 students apply for 200 places each year, Larry told us, and they’re chosen by lottery based on postcode, so the chances of getting in if you live in a rich suburb are the same as if you live in a poor one.

Teachers meet at 7:30am every morning for an hour before school starts to discuss how projects are going and flag any issues with individual students. In return for the investment the teachers make in the students, the students invest in school. The maturity they present to visitors and their work was incredible, and a feeling of goodwill and fortune to be there was present in every class I visited. Ben told us “the students interview prospective teachers too. You’d be amazed how seriously they take it – if they hire a poor teacher they really regret it down the track.”

That latter point is less of a problem for High Tech High than Australian schools like mine, though. Their policy is that every teacher is on a one year contract, and all principals review and rate their teachers every year and report up. If a teacher isn’t performing, they can get professional development from the school’s own graduate program, or they can be moved on. There were a lot of young teachers.

What PBL might or might not be

And then there were the institutions. My colleague’s report that Jeff Robin offered him a beer from under his desk during class was legend as soon as it passed his lips on the first day, but when we met with Jeff, self-proclaimed guru of Project Based Learning – the High Tech High way – you could see why everyone is both wary and in awe of him. I liked Jeff and awful lot. Just about everything he said rang a chord with something I believed or taught me something.

He often offered black and white accounts of how things needed to work, wore his principles on his sleeve, but not as a tyrant – as a passionate educator who cares about nothing more than his students’ work. The number one lesson we learnt from Jeff about PBL was the importance of doing the project yourself first. Jeff taught us that every hour it takes him to make a project will be about a day for a class of students. He designs units of work with another teacher from another faculty (Larry told us Visual Arts, Jeff’s subject, has proven better combined with the sciences than maths), and then takes time to do every part of that project himself.

NewtonThe program of work can then be reverse-engineered; the teacher knowing every step and what skills a student will learn, the outcomes that can be assessed, and so on. But there’s a second benefit: you’ll have designed a project you’re passionate enough about to do yourself, and so you’ll have a great model and energy about teaching it. Models are important to Jeff – he refers the projects to the models he uses and shares then with the students: “Everybody has to have a master”, as he put it. It’s impossible to summarise everything that Jeff taught me here, but he has made a series of videos on his website (Robin 2012) that all of my MTeach students will be watching next year.

The other principle that we saw again and again at HTH was the importance of a showcase at the end of each project. Being there at the end of the school year we were lucky enough to attend poetry readings, exhibitions of medieval machinery, and POLs (Presentations of Learning). The latter are summaries of what a student has achieved over a longer time period, such as the whole year, and are given to two or more teachers and their classmates at once.

Students don’t just list off the projects they completed; they discuss their personal attributes, their strengths, and how they worked on their weaknesses over the year. No wonder they come across so mature. I was lucky enough to be in attendance in a Media Arts POL with my partner teacher Blair Hatch where they were one teacher short. I stepped in, asking students about their work – not to try to catch them out, but genuinely out of interest to find out how they had made artifacts, what their models were, and why.

And we learned more at HTH. I must share with you the process teachers go through to critique each others’ work, the cross-curricular unit of work I created with the HTH framework (yes, I’ve done it myself first), and also the discussions I had with HTH teachers and administrators about music education. That will have to be another blog.

3 responses to “Adventures in Project Based Learning part 1: High Tech High”

  1. I might have offered your friend a beer after school, but not during class and I used your Blog as a warning to my students about what you do or say might come back to you on the internet. It is a good lesson. Come back to San Diego and I’ll get you a beer too. Jeff

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