Yesterday, I was fortunate to attend a screening of Most Likely to Succeed, hosted by the Colorado Education Initiative (CEI). The film is a thought-provoking documentary about our education system with a look at project-based, student-driven learning at a charter school in San Diego.
After the film, our CEI hosts asked the audience to think about where we stand on a one-to-ten scale for keeping the current teaching model or scaling the High Tech High model across the U.S. public school system.
As a parent, the film hit me emotionally, and my answer is conflicted. But as a human being, I wanted to transport myself to High Tech High and relive ninth grade.
I have a seventh grader. Next fall, we will be looking at high schools, helping him decide where he would be happiest, and then applying to a mix of private, public and parochial. In the back of my mind, I favor schools most like the one I went to. I know that there he will read plenty of Shakespeare, survive Calculus and have a strong grasp of History. All the teachers will know him by name. I will get to know most families.
But will that school – the school of my childhood – inspire him to engage wholeheartedly in learning?
What I do know is that I was happiest at school when I was connecting the dots between classes, working on projects, or deep in debate with my classmates. I remember what I learned in 8th grade Social Studies because I can still see the poster my friends and I created about the 1960s hanging on the classroom wall. I remember getting excited about our ideas, working together, and worrying that our teacher would be mad that we burned a flag. I will never forget our independent Senior Project, when six of us wrote and performed a musical. I still have the script in a ratty green folder.
At High Tech High, the ninth graders are tasked with creating a group engineering project that illustrates their views on why civilizations rise and fall. They built a floor-to-ceiling masterpiece on exhibit for the entire community after working in small groups for months. Imagine what they will remember 30 years from now.
What impressed me was that High Tech High is teaching a love for learning, igniting curiosity and creativity, and empowering students to collaborate and lead. I am not sure that the more traditional approach achieves that for most kids, but I still see it as necessary because it did for me.
On a philosophical level, Most Likely to Succeed asks us if the role of the classroom is to teach our children equations, trivia, maps and stories? Or is it to inspire them to think and give them the tools to pursue the life-long education that makes them want to keep on learning? Can you do that without a strong baseline of knowledge? Does the fact that answers to almost anything are on the Internet change what we have to hold in our brains? Can you take any kid, drop them into High Tech High and watch them take off?
As a former student successfully educated under the old model with dips into project-based and experiential learning, I am tied to that tradition. It is my comfort zone. It is what I expected to pass on to my children. But then, if I could go back to high school, I would go to High Tech High in a heartbeat.