How can schools be fit for purpose? High Tech High – passion, creativity, aesthetics #PBL

SMH 22 May 2013It’s one thing to say tech geniuses don’t need degrees. After all, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg all dropped out of college. But now we’ve got David Karp, who doesn’t even have a high school diploma. Karp, 26, founded Tumblr, the online blogging forum, and sold it to Yahoo for $US1.1 billion. (full article)

While not every student is a Bill, Steve, Mark or even a David, the message in the media, since the Yahoo! deal with Tumblr has been that the cream of entrepreneurs in the 21stC made their own way. Formal education constrained them and their intellect and creativity drove them.

Karp’s mother gave him the option of home-schooling when he was 14, after he completed his freshman year at the Bronx High School of Science, an elite New York City public school that only admits students who score well on a difficult entrance exam. Karp took Japanese classes and had a math tutor while continuing with an internship at an animation production company, but by age 16, he was working for a website and was on his way to become a tech entrepreneur. He never did get his diploma. Karp’s mother told the AP that she let him leave school because she realised “he needed the time in the day in order to create”(emphasis mine)

These were and are unique young people, and while this is not a model of learning for all, we can learn from their experiences. This is a quote from a mother who allowed her son to ‘drop out’ of 11th grade:

“I could see how much of the work he was doing at school wasn’t relevant to what he wanted to learn… He always wanted to learn more than what the schools wanted to teach him. At times it was very frustrating. I was fortunate to find people that were able to teach him more, but he has gone beyond what high school could ever give him.” (emphasis mine)

He wanted to learn… learn more…gone beyond

School wasn’t relevant… schools wanted to teach

Who was owning the learning?

I have just returned from a study tour to North America along with some colleagues from SCIL. The last couple of days of the tour was spent at HTH in Point Loma and Chula Vista. Around us were examples of deep thinking, rigour, visible learning, high quality relationships, freedom and trust. These were exemplified on the walls and in the amazing students who hosted us.

Green roof dog house project“How can you learn by sitting at a desk all day?”

This was the answer our host, Dominique, gave when we asked about the comparison between traditional learning and project-based-learning that occurs at HTH. Dominique, is in her final weeks of school at Chula Vista. She explained some of the challenging and engaging projects that shaped her learning.

I asked Dominique if she will take a year off before starting college and her answer was definite:

“No, getting straight back into it” (it = learning)

There was no sense that she needed a break from studying, because her school experience was relevant, engaging and student driven. 99% of students at HTH gain college entry and in the fall Dominique will commence her college (university) education, studying pharmacology at University of San Diego.


We asked “Do you have homework?” of the student hosts at HTH Point Loma.


“What do you do in the evening”

“I work on my project.” (It’s not homework)

The scaffolding for each of the projects is presented as the content, skills and learning required for completion, guided and led by the teachers, but the learning is owned by the students. The compelling questions to be solved are real and engaging, so the students are immersed in their activity.  At one school, the class was preparing their project about coral reefs for presentation at the local Marine Centre on the weekend – they had a real audience, beyond the school.

What were some of my take-aways from the last few weeks?

  • Kids want to learn – given the right conditions

  • Student-led/driven learning opportunities bring meaning and purpose

  • Engaging projects mix up the disciplines – break down silos
  • Educators must know their students and appeal to their interest, creativity and intellect

  • If we only pitch content at the ‘so-called’ middle we dampen spark and engagement

  • Present quality work in aesthetically pleasing ways

  • Great things can happen when we loosen constraints and trust the educators

  • School today doesn’t need to look like school of the past

  • Be real with kids – loving, showing empathy, but telling it like it is

  • Laughing, fun, connection and silliness as a community matter

  • We must help parents to embrace change

Homeschooling was once the domain of parents seeking to reinforce a particular faith, ethos or philosophy that they felt school would contradict. But more and more it is becoming the education of choice for young people whose gift, skill, interest, intellect and passion is not being served by conventional school.

So why not make school fit for purpose?

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