OACS News Service
With a financial contribution of $25,000 from the OACS, the group of mostly administrators spent Jan. 22-26 walking the halls of High Tech High, a complex of elementary and secondary schools, speaking with students and teachers and observing the schools’ innovative design principles in practice.
“I saw at High Tech High an approach to schools, to learning and to education that is profoundly honouring of students,” says OACS learning consultant Gary VanArragon, reflecting on what excited him most about the possibilities he saw in the High Tech High environment for OACS members.
“That’s one thing that High Tech High does extremely well. They engage their students in their learning; they respect them and they really give students a lot of control over how and what they do and how and what they learn.
“This is not teacher-directed learning,” he says.
“The beauty of the system, and that was the most exciting part, is that it really does engage teachers and students together in seeking the best possible approach to learning.”
What this experience can yield, the group saw firsthand, and perhaps most profoundly, in an exchange between one of the visiting principals and two High Tech Elementary Grade 4 students.
Asked what they were working on, the nine-year-olds proceeded to explain their project — without teacher support or prompting — why they were doing it, what they hoped to learn and how this fit into the mission and vision of the school.
The two ended their talk by jumping out of their seats and offering to show the principal around the school, which they did — the teacher didn’t bat an eyelid — chattering as they went about what each group in the school was doing and why.
It’s the teachers, VanArragon suggests that are the “secret sauce” in High Tech High creating the experience it does. These are “passionate teachers, teachers who are committed to engaging students, to empowering students and to challenging students to take responsibility for their own learning, who are willing to step back and say, ‘This is not all about me; this is about the kids.’ ”
Also integral to the success of the school are the students themselves, VanArragon says, adding it’s noteworthy that High Tech High isn’t an elite private school allowing only the brightest to attend, as one might expect. In fact, the school is a publicly funded charter school where students are admitted on the basis of a lottery system, ensuring a complete demographic of people from the area.
Though High Tech High is distinct for a whole list of reasons — starting with its recognition that even the language used to describe schooling needs to change — a top magnet for many is its project-based learning.
VanArragon notes the big draw for the OACS members — some of whom have already introduced project-based learning with success — is that this model is proving to be a powerful way to engage students in what’s come to be called authentic learning, that is, learning that engages students in the world as they experience it.
In the faith-based schools context, to engage in authentic learning is to explore what learning means to students as they live as Christian citizens in their local communities and beyond.
Toronto District Christian High (TDCH) School vice-principal Tim Bentum was amongst those who made the trek to High Tech High.
He describes the trip as transformational in many ways, perhaps most significantly because it was done as a group of OACS constituents — he has visited High Tech High before with a small TDCH crew.
That learning as a group, hearing about one another’s unique contexts and the various ideas for application in those contexts was especially valuable, he says.
While TDCH has been offering project-based learning for some time, it is seeking to deepen its understanding around this approach, as well as to turn it into something that’s more than a tool but what Bentum calls a “full-school delivery mode.”
The touring group has since committed itself to further conversation, exploration and collaboration in order to implement project-based learning in more OACS schools. Two subsequent events for the year are planned. One, spearheaded by the Christian teachers’ association Edifide, is a three-day workshop facilitated by Buck Institute for Education from California to further deepen understanding of project-based learning. Hamilton Christian High School is also hosting a hands-on workshop on how to do project-based learning and create the kind of instructional environment seen at High Tech High that is appropriate to OACS members.
Bentum says he sees these kinds of follow-up opportunities as the most important next step for the application of project-based learning in OACS schools. Educators will find transformational value in collaborating with others similarly passionate about the approach, as well as learning from professionals in the industry.
“It’s one thing for a group of administrators to go down and catch a vision. It’s another for teachers to do the same,” he says.
The shift underway to project-based learning will have a significant impact on the OACS curriculum development, curriculum publications, professional development for teachers and Christian educators conferences for years to come, particularly at the high school level but likely also sifting down to the elementary schools, VanArragon says.
To learn more about High Tech High, click here.
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