What a Difference a School Makes: Notes from High Tech High

I spent last week in a residency at High Tech High in San Diego (www.hightechhigh.org), the premier project-based learning school in the country. It was great to see the fruits of the project-based approach – the dozens of students I talked with about their high school experiences.

There was something different about these kids. They weren’t your normal bunch of high school students. They looked like any other group of teenagers you’d find in thousands of high schools across the US. But when they opened their mouths and began to speak, the ways in which this group of students was “not normal” became immediately clear.

For starters, their poise and self-confidence exceeded that of many of the adult teachers in the residency. These were kids who were at ease interacting with adults: they asked great questions, and were as curious about the visitors in their midst as we were about them. And you could tell that for them, high school was not a four-year purgatory that they had to “get through” before they could go to college. On the contrary, for the High Tech High students, high school was a place where they were already getting real, important work done.

Like the group of kids who had worked on genetic sequencing before going to Africa to tackle the problem of cross-species infection. Or the class who spent the semester designing, prototyping, and then building (in the school parking lot) an actual working house, complete with all its systems (and a turf roof), as part of their study of sustainable development and environmentally sound home design.

Another trait I couldn’t help noticing was how thoughtful and reflective the High Tech High students were about their educational experiences. And when asked about their own academic and personal development, they emphasized similar themes. They talked about doing work that really had a purpose, for them and for the world; about making real world connections between high school and their community; and about the close, collegial relationships they developed with their teachers. Importantly, they also emphasized the critical skill set they had learned in their very special high school: collaboration, empathy, resilience, and creative problem solving.

These are the very skills we’re committed to teaching at The New School. And we’re excited to have the teachers (and students) at High Tech High advising us as we prepare to open our doors to our first group of creative problem solvers and innovators next fall.