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Faces of Learning San Diego — High Tech High

A little over a month ago, I spent a few days on the campus of High Tech High (HTH), a remarkable network of schools in San Diego that are, simply, among the best examples of public education our country has to offer.

As you can see from the video, what distinguishes HTH is its ability to think differently about what a public education should look like — and accomplish. The schools are all housed in former Navy barracks, giving the school and its hallways an airy, open, almost half-finished sort of feel. Student artwork is EVERYWHERE, as are engineering and design projects, from robots to a whole wall of bicycle wheels, all connected via a long, single chain. It’s impossible not to feel creative — or at least to want to try something new.

Beyond the aesthetics, I asked Ben Daley, HTH’s Chief Operating Officer, to help me understand the keys to their special sauce. “We make sure our teachers have time to plan with each other,” he began. “Their day always starts earlier than the students, so there’s built-in time for teachers to coordinate what they’re doing and provide the kids a more integrated learning experience. We’re also doing a lot with videos of our own teaching, so we can study our own practices and find better ways to improve our teaching. And of course we have our own graduate school of education, so the overall learning culture for adults is of such a quality that it can’t help but be passed down to our kids.”

Indeed, HTH is the first school I’ve ever visited that literally houses its own graduate program on site. (Could anything be more logical?) As Ben and I talked, we ran into Stacy Caillier, who runs the program. Smiling as she spoke, Stacy explained what makes the program distinct. “For over 75 years, the average American High School has followed three critical assumptions that have become deeply ingrained in our understanding of what school needs to look like: segregate students by class, race, gender, or perceived academic ability; separate academic from technical learning; and separate adolescents from the adult world they are about to enter. Here, we try to overturn all of these tenets — we group students heterogeneously; we integrate our curriculum; and we embed students in the adult world of work and learning. By extension, our graduate program is designed to prepare educators to both design and assume leadership in this sort of learning environment, and to do so in a learning community that is collaborative, challenging, and very much grounded in the day-to-day world of the classroom.”

As part of its missionary spirit, HTH had spent the previous months building an impressive and eclectic local coalition of individuals and organizations, as the San Diego manifestation of the Faces of Learning campaign. I was in town to bear witness to its first public gathering, an impressive evening of storytelling and strategic planning.

Interested in learning more? Check out this short video of the event — and join us in imagining the possibilities of a movement of adults and young people — in search of better places to work and learn.

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Here Comes the Judgment

On the fourth day of a two-week summer institute, in the haze of post-lunch hour fatigue, I watched something magical and uncomfortable transpire. And I don’t think I’ll ever see the role of the teacher the same way again.

Center for Inspired Teaching founder Aleta Margolis, the lead facilitator for the institute, brought the 28 participants to the middle of the room, with each person seated in a circle.  “We’re going to start back up with a simple group exercise,” she began. “Our goal is to bring the group closer together, sharpen our individual awareness, undertake a significant challenge together – and count as high as we can as a group.”

A few people tilted their heads inquisitively. Did she just say we’re going to do a counting game? “There’s only one rule,” Aleta continued. “When two people speak at once, we have to start over as a group. OK. Let’s begin.”

Despite several attempts, the group could climb no higher than six. Awkward laughter filled the room with each failed attempt, and more than one person shifted embarrassingly. Each time this happened, Aleta, in the same measured voice, calmly and clearly repeated the same opening line.

“Ready, one.”

Eventually, after a few more rounds of frustration, the group happened upon an innovation – people raised their hands when they were ready to say a number. The results improved, but still the group could get no higher than fifteen. Then the group ad-libbed another innovation – simply going in a circle.

In seconds, the group reached 100. Mission accomplished! Or was it? No one seemed to feel much of a sense of accomplishment. “That way is no fun,” said one woman. “There’s no challenge at all.”

Aleta asked another question of the group. “When does it enhance the experience to make something easier, and when does it enhance the experience to make something more difficult?”

A young teacher volunteered an idea. “If our goal is simply to count as high as we can, going in a circle is clearly the most efficient way. If it isn’t, however, this method inhibits our ability to achieve other goals.”

“It’s like with test scores,” added someone else. “If that’s our only goal, we can take some short cuts to raise our numbers.  But if we have other goals, it’s more complicated. We can’t only focus on one thing.”

Aleta returned the focus to the game, but not before adding a few more rules – no hand signals, and no patterns allowed. “Let’s see what happens, and let’s see what skills it takes this time.”

As the game resumed and frustration mounted, I found myself becoming more aware of how subtly but relentlessly the activities of the Inspired Teaching Institute are designed to build in the participants the skills of close and careful observation – and a form of observation that can occur without judgment. What difference did it make, after all, how high the group could count? The point was simply to see what the exercise could reveal about human behavior. And yet I watched the ways in which, for whatever reason, this simple afternoon warm up activity had provided the perfect platform for the participants to grapple with the challenge of closely observing something, and participating in it, without judgment.

“What skills are you needing to use to be successful at the game?” Aleta asked.

“Restraint.”

“Self control.”

“Focus.”

“Anticipation. “

One participant articulated a growing mood of discomfort in the room. “I don’t like this game anymore,” she shared, “because I spoke twice when someone else spoke, and I feel like I’m letting the group down.”

“What skill might it take to get yourself back in the game?” Aleta asked.

“I think you need to feel like you’re in an environment that makes it safe to take risks and make mistakes, and that’s hard to do,” said another participant.

“Let’s try playing again in a moment,” Aleta added, “but before we do I want everyone to have the following questions in mind: First, what skill does it take to get to a position of fearless participation as a learner? And second, when it comes to this game in particular, how do you know when to go?”

The game resumed, and familiar challenges returned; the group could still count no higher than 15. “Why can’t we do this?” screamed the body language of several participants, clearly frustrated with the slow pace of their progress.

Aleta, sensing the rising level of anxiety, asked everyone to take two deep audible breaths. “Now let’s consider those two questions.”

“I think the essential skill is not getting angry at yourself if you screw up,” said one woman, before another wondered aloud: “If we had simplified the game, how might that have changed the tenor of this conversation we’re having? Would it be more or less rich?”

I typed furiously, struggling to keep up with the comments and the collective effort to unlock what was leaving people feeling so frustrated. As I did, I thought how notable it was that even on the fourth day of an institute that has intentionally and steadily given a group of adults myriad opportunities to work intimately with each other and develop a trusting climate, the default emotion the game evoked was the fear of being judged for “failing”.

“I’m starting to wonder if my role as a teacher needs to be more about staying open,” opined one teacher, “so I can be more receptive to everything that happens in my classroom. It doesn’t mean there stops being right and wrong answers. But maybe it means I need to shift the way I view the pursuit of knowledge itself, and allow in my own mind for a greater possibility of interpretation. If I do this, will it help my children feel safer to be more curious and fearless about what we study?”

Aleta wrapped up the activity by writing a short statement on a piece of butcher paper: Uncomfortable v. unsafe.

“This is the most uncomfortable you’ve been since we started our work together,” she offered. “But look at how rich the conversation has been. Just remember – in this institute and in your own classrooms there’s a crucial distinction between feeling uncomfortable, which is the space where real learning occurs, and feeling unsafe, which is the space where we shut down and no learning occurs.”

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