High Tech High: A Visual Feast, An Inquiry Journey, A Relational World

Some of the best professional development we can ever do is to visit other schools, classrooms, and teachers. We can do this in our own district and in our own region. Sometimes we are also fortunate to be able to do it further afield. The Kwantlen Park Secondary principal, Rick Breen, and Inter-A teachers, Melanie Skelin and Anthony Jay, joined me to visit two High Tech High (HTH) Schools in San Diego. The tour was a fascinating look at the school, student learning, teacher pedagogy and the principles providing the foundation. There were many things I learned (I could easily write a second post); however, I will touch on five themes here.

1. Learning is a visual feast.

Even the alcove into the washroom is a display space

Everywhere you looked, evidence of student learning was on display. Hallways and classrooms were an explosion of projects, books, models, posters, banners, sculptures, collages, photos and more.  Displays of student work provided a visual feast and a window into the learning. Assignments were accompanied with either an artist’s note or an explanation and the requirements of the project itself. I felt like I had been transported into an art school. I was reliving my own childhood growing up in Nelson, B.C. and following my dad around the Kootenay School of Art where he taught art classes and managed an art gallery. It touched me at the core of my being in a way that only art can. For me, the projects themselves were fascinating and powerful because the visual element was woven into the work. The school felt like it was alive and pulsating with learning.

2. Learning is inquiry-based.

In the elementary school, essential questions were visible on classroom doors, hallway windows and posted beside bulletin boards. The focus of student learning was clear. These questions were woven together by the students in the context of the learning objectives.

Projects are explained and exhibited

Excerpt of student work on exhibit

At the secondary school, we asked, “What’s the curriculum?” The response, “It’s taking risks.” Teachers focus on getting students to be in shape to be learners and to be curious. “Students are motivated because they choose their own path. We ask what they want to know, and what they already know. We are not crushing their souls and their creativity. With project based learning students are very invested in their work and their work becomes a labour of love,” is how Rachel Nichols, a HTH teacher, described the student engagement.

The teacher commitment to project based learning is substantial. New teachers attend a boot camp where they learn about the model and how to collaborate with other staff. They think about projects they might want to try with their students and share their ideas with other staff to find out which teachers might want to team together on the project with them. Teachers meet every week so they can turn their teaching, the learning and the projects on a dime. It’s a culture where everyone is coached and/or coaching someone else. “It is a lot of work to do PBL and make learning more interesting. We are a really committed staff that are passionate about learning.”

3. Learning is relational.

“There is one thing that makes or breaks education for kids, it’s teachers,” declared Jennifer, the HTH Biology Teacher.  The teachers all have advisory groups and they keep the same students for the life of their time at HTH. Some advisory groups meet once a week and others twice a week. There is no typical advisory group. They all are a reflection of the teacher. In some, the grade 12 students lead them. In others, the focus can be on an academic check-in. “We are adhoc parents. Sometimes we know them better than their parents.” And teachers are not just connected to those in their advisory groups. The nature of student learning and the work students produce can be potent, particularly with writing assignments in English. Rachel, an English teacher, stated that, “The intimacy with faculty and students is intense.”

4. Learning is community-based.

The school is committed to creating learning opportunities connected to the community. One of HTH’s guiding principles is to have an Adult World Connection. Projects are authentic, real and deliverable.  Students are involved in internships, field studies and community projects. Visiting professionals contribute to the classroom learning and mentoring relationships are often established with outsiders. When we visited, students were working with a scientist from a local university to collect biological specimens from their home. What were they examining? How is urbanization affecting pollinization in San Diego? All students in grade 12 go out for a six-week internship in their senior year. Prior to the internship they attend workshops to prep, learn about resumes, and even how to shake hands. The internship is the time to do an authentic project on behalf of the hosting organization. The seniors will do a summative presentation at the end of the internship at the intern site itself and other students come to watch. The seniors frequently give presentations to outside audiences and their peers.

 5. Teachers are deeply engaged in their learning.

Foundational beliefs posted on school walls

“I am driven by the very fact that I can do anything I am interested in. Teach to your passions and take risks. I learn 100 times more than the students. It is exhilarating and exhausting here. Somehow keeping the balance is the challenge,” explained Rachel Nichol. When someone asked about burnout, she replied, “I wouldn’t call it burnout here because it is so exciting. People could do a better job of home/life balance but burnout means being bored. We aren’t bored. Like marathoners we need stamina.”

Real projects, real books, on display

When we were touring the school, we were invited to ask questions of any students or staff. I was curious how a student might describe his experience. I interviewed Spencer, one of our gracious student guides, and asked him what three things he liked best about High Tech High. He didn’t hesitate in his response. Most important for him was his relationship with his teachers. Second, the ability to be creative with his schoolwork was key. Third, he loved the ability to choose the work. Spencer was deeply invested in the school, clearly thriving in the environment and finding joy in learning. And truly, isn’t that what we want for all students?

Thank you to the Kwantlen staff for joining me on this venture. Thanks as well to the High Tech High teachers and students for opening their doors to us and providing us a window into their learning.

6 responses to “High Tech High: A Visual Feast, An Inquiry Journey, A Relational World

  1. Thanks so much for sharing this journey with us, Elisa! I have ventured into the world of Inquiry learning with my students and I am always looking for more information about the process. My students love to investigate their wonders and develop understanding of issues that are important to them. They are actively learning and are eager to come to school everyday! My dream would be to work in a school where Inquiry learning was the norm rather than the exception!


    • innovativelearningdesigns

      It was really refreshing to be in a school again, to see students and really beautiful and thought-provoking student work. At one of the schools we visited (they have several campuses), the students were painting hallway pillars into “totems” reflecting their own personal stories of overcoming challenges. Everywhere you walked there was learning either in action or on display. Very inspiring.

  2. Hi Elisa,

    Wow! I would love to see this type of school in action. It sounds absolutely inspiring – to everyone. It would be incredible to have everyone on the same page like that – as Robyn said, as the ‘norm’, not the exception. What powerful learning opportunities for everyone!

    Did the staff talk about how they collaborated? Did they have built-in collaboration time to meet, discuss, and plan?

    As you said, isn’t that an environment that we want for all our students? I would agree, but I would go a step further – isn’t that the type of learning environment we’d want for our own kids? We need to start thinking of all of our students as our own children and what we’d want for our own children.

    I wonder if that would make any difference in the way we taught and in the way we lead?

    Thanks for sharing your visit with us. I look forward to seeing similar learning in Calgary in May.


    • innovativelearningdesigns

      Hi Tia, thanks for the comment. And yes, they do collaborate all the time with both built in time to meet and ongoing conversations. I think one of the key pieces, however, is that when you are first hired to the school you undergo summer bootcamp and so your transition into the school as a staff member brings along with it clear expectations (and excitement) about how the collaborative culture works.

  3. Anne-Marie Middleton

    I can only imagine the energy that must be flowing through the halls of schools like HTH. What a great experience it must have been to see this in action. This school and its Project Based Learning education has been of interest to me since I heard about it a few years back.
    To work in this environment, where all staff is on the same page, have the same goals and are willing to work collaboratively to make it happen, is a dream.
    Thank you for sharing this experience and reminding us this type of education IS possible.

    • innovativelearningdesigns

      Thank you for the comment Anne-Marie. Yes, it was really amazing…both the student work, and the staff commitment.

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