Friday a dozen of us from St. Gregory flew to Dallas for a six hour visit to New Tech HS @Coppell, and had a great experience.    The Principal and her team were incredibly warm, welcoming, and hospitable.   The school, only in its second year and thoroughly renovated in Summer 2008, was an attractive, shiny, comfortable, tech-ie, environment, in a palette or mostly blacks and white with occasional splashes of red thrown in.   Our visit was composed of two lengthy, 90 minutes conversations with the principal and some of her teachers, bookended around an hour-long tour led  by a student.

Principal Tabitha Branum:  You have to change instruction when you put laptops in place, and you have to see the program change where kids are empowered to use laptops to inquire, you have to give them good projects and good hooks and good needs to knows, so they can then go and research and discover and learn.

If you don’t change the culture of the school and the classroom, if you don’t change the way kids are learning, laptops are more engaging than the lecturing teacher, and laptops then don’t help learning.  But if you use them in an environment where kids are challenged by needs to knows they go and do it.

Things that struck me (many of them tweets I posted during the visit):

1. There are no teachers and students here, only facilitators and learners.

2. New Tech HS 3 principles: small learning community; emphasis on technology use for learning; and project based learning

3. New Tech HS principal says she hates the school’s name. She says they are not for tech-centric kids, but for all kids, and tech is not what they are learning, rather, it serves learning.

4. At NewTech HS, “kids never have to ask why are we learning this; or when will ever use this.” Here the purpose is manifest.

5. At NewTech HS, there is no blocking and kids can/do use facebook,etc in school, so as to learn how to manage the distraction now as students.

6. NTHS PBL steps: entry document; knows & need to knows; driving questions; group social contract; next steps; scaffolding activities; rubrics.

7. NTHS critical friends process for every teacher & student project: feedback on “what I like,” “what I wonder about,” & “what next steps are suggested.”

8. PBL challenges to students, and the rubrics they use, effectively “externalize the enemy” so that teachers can act as coaches and empowerers, but not so much as judges and evaluators.

The students with whom we spoke were great, proud of their school, and serious about project based learning.  They were highly metacognitive, speaking to us about the skills they had to develop as organizers and collaborators and communicators in order to succeed here and how different these requirements were from the normal high school.

I have now spent two entire days at two different New Tech campuses, (something I am proud of), and I saw many things in common among the two: the terminology, the classroom cultures, the seriousness of purpose, the consistent recognition of the students of the relevance of what they were doing.  The Sacramento campus of New Tech was in its 7th or 8th year of operation, and it had a different sort of energy in some ways– more established, more experienced with the PBL program, more confident in its execution, more settled in its routines.   The Coppell folks radiated more of a start-up energy: impassioned, exhilarated, exhausted, evangelical.

Some of the most interesting conversations we had were as follows:

1. Homework:  We asked Tabitha about the homework load of students, and she reported to us it was not very heavy, and it had all to do with the way students organized their time: 3 week projects could sometimes be largely accomplished in class, but sometimes required a good deal of work at home too.  The load could be heavier too when multiple projects come due at the same time.   But, she said the attitude toward homework is very different: it is not done to satisfy a teacher’s demands, but done as an integral part of a project they are invested in, and, it is often done as part of a responsibility to the group with which they are completing the project– that they are doing so under obligation to their classmates and project team-mates, and this makes homework a very different animal.

2.  Importance of relevance for students.


Kids here never ask why are we doing this, when am I ever going to have to use this—they see consistently the ultimate purpose of their learning and the applicability.   The learning is consistently meaningful and purposeful to them—and that motivates them.   The idealism of learning for its own sake may be a luxury in that though it has value for some kids, for many more kids we must make sure they have clear vision of the significance of what they are learning.

This is something we debated: there is a lovely ideal of learning for its own sake, and many of our teachers do because we ourselves experienced that feeling, and want to share it with students, strongly or even desperately.   We believe, fervently, that all students, if properly inspired, can feel that call, that passion for intellectual development with no obvious rewards.   But, Tabitha is right too: we cannot let our idealism get in the way of our students’ learning, and if some or many students will learn more if they feel more engagement, more meaning, more relevance, more pertinence, more utility in what they are studying, how can not seek to provide that for them?

3. College Preparation:  Tabitha reports that NTHS grads go to MIT, Stanford, Harvard, USC, etc..    Our group inquired, as many do, what happens when they go to college?  Will the result of their project based learning in high school mean they will be less well prepared for more traditional learning in college?   Tabitha says the the answer is a two-fold No.

One, more and more colleges are themselves are becoming more about project based learning, such as the Naval Academy, but also, students who are much more used to organizing their learning, planning their projects,  pursuing their interests, researching and investigating their subjects are well prepared for any kind of college and university.

4.  Liberal Arts education vs. Professional Skill development: Not an entirely unrelated issue to the above number 2, but the question is: does a traditional, excellent, and rigorous liberal arts education, such as majoring in an English department steeped in Shakespeare, Austen, Eliot and Pound, prepare a graduate fully for the workplace?  Tabitha argues it does not, and cited an example of a Harvard graduate joining a mortgage brokerage and utterly failing in his job performance.   But there is a strong case for the historical strength and the portability of a trained and disciplined mind, and many of us in education, perhaps especially (perhaps) independent college preparatory education, to privilege the liberal arts adn take great pride in their excellence.   And yet, I think, an ability to use contemporary technology powerfully and effectively to communicate, present, persuade, collaborate, research, investigate, create and publish are skills that are invaluable in the workplace and as a citizen and leader.    Perhaps, though, these are entirely reconcilable: why can’t we have both?   Tabitha agrees too: a successful New Technology student learns Shakespeare deeply, and learns Shakespeare by projects managed to elucidate and critique Hamlet.

5. Evolutionary Implementation of PBL: Is it possible? NTHS has a highly developed, articulated, and protocol-driven project based learning with technology curriculum.  (shouldn’t there be a term, PBLT, for this?).    The question for any observer is whether it can be borrowed from piecemeal, or whether it can only be applied wholesale?    Can we take specific elements we especially like, such as the entry document, the social group contract, the rubrics for assessment, and the scaffolding, and use them for one or two 3 week projects a year?   I suggested as much, during one of our conversations, and Tabitha and one of her teachers began shaking their head, with anxiety that no, we could not.  Why not?  Mostly because PBLT is so difficult, so challenging, that it has to be done very intentionally, very thoroughly, and very consistently and repeatedly.   First time, second time, even third time projects are often not highly successful, and the inference taken, again and again, from one-time or two time experiments with PBLT is that they are not successful, and, hence, should not be repeated.   Tabitha spoke of the October wall: schools often find by October that they desperately want to discontinue projects and go back to normal.   But by February, and yes, that is a long time, the adjustments  have been made, protocols set,  the norms and attitudes reset, and the program soars.   So the caution was clear; don’t partially commit.   But,  I still believe that we can make a commitment to implementation and sustainability of the program without wholesale adoption.