In May 2017, I had the pleasure of travelling to California to tour two High Tech High Schools and attend the Bay Area Maker Faire. I was traveling with Jamie O'Toole (Subject Area Coordinator, ASD- N), François-Léonce Charron (Development Officer, Place aux compétences) and Jacob Lingley (Program Director, Brilliant Labs).
On our first full day in San Diego, we had scheduled student led tours at two different High Tech High campuses. High Tech High is a network of public charter schools with approximately 5300 students in grades K-12 across three campuses. Students are admitted through a geography based lottery system in an effort to build a demographically-diverse school community.
The first stop on our trip was High Tech High in Chula Vista. We were given a tour of the school by Grade 10 student,Tegan.
Tegan took us on a tour of each wing of the school. What immediately stood out was how every interior wall and window was being used as a canvas to display student work generated as the result of a big project.
Tegan was able to talk about the projects with an insight and a sense of pride, even though she was only personally involved in a couple of the projects.
Towards the end of our time with Tegan, she shared a story about a mural project that a group of juniors had completed. She began her story by saying this is always the hardest part of the tour for me. She proceeded to tell us that the mural project was a memorial to Sean Fuchs, a Chula Vista student who was a victim of a murder- suicide.
One of the students wanted to create a special memorial mural dedicated to their classmate.
Using a poem written by Sean as inspiration, over fifty students worked on the project. Local artists from the community also provided input. The mural was painted onto six separate panels displayed near the entrance of the school. The mural symbolized the effect that Sean's positive attitude had on the world around him. Time and time again, I've seen tragedies pull school communities together but I have never seen a fellow student honoured a in such a poignant, lasting way.
After this event, students were inspired to do even more. A group of 45 students decided to create a documentary called Beyond The Crossfire. They were looking to answer the question: “How can we reduce the amount of gun violence in our country?” Needless to say, we left Chula Vista in awe and inspired.
In the afternoon, we had another student led tour, this time at the original High Tech High in Point Loma. Walking through the High Tech High campus, we overheard two students discussing their senior project. These students were having a real conversation about their learning. It wasn't a conversation about whether or not they did their homework or how nervous they were about an upcoming test.
The teachers that we spoke to all seemed on board with the project based learning philosophy. They admitted that it was sometimes messy but the students benefited from owning their learning.
On our tour of the HTH Point Loma, we got an opportunity to talk to several of the HTH teachers. We talked to teachers John and Pat who worked collaboratively with students in a cross curricular project. The students in their classes wrote an environmental science textbook and built a traditional fishing dory.
We also visited a chemistry class where students were learning about the chemistry of epoxy and polymerization as they applied an epoxy coating to large scale photographs that they had taken and developed themselves in a makeshift darkroom.
The students who led our tours and the openness of all students & teachers was very impressive. We were welcomed into classrooms, doors weren't closed on us and teachers & students were proud of the messiness of the learning that was taking place.
I have to admit that I was a little skeptical about what we were going to witness on our High Tech High tours. We anticipated seeing student learning being facilitated by state of the art technology and facilities that could only be possible with philanthropic or corporate sponsorship. The reality was, we saw very little in the way of technology. What we did see were classroom spaces that looked more like workshops. We saw teachers that were working with students instead of delivering lectures. We saw students engaged in real world projects. We saw students who owned their learning.
I was fully expecting to leave thinking, "Yeah that's awesome, but we can't do that in New Brunswick because... ". Instead I left thinking we can do this and in many cases we are already doing this. It is just a matter of scaling best practices and removing barriers, both real and perceived.
We also left asking the question, what would our classrooms look like if our students and teachers spent most of their days working on projects that address real challenges in our community, country and planet.
On our way from San Diego to San Mateo (the Maker Faire location) we stopped at Stanford
University to visit the Stanford d.school. The d.school was different from any university space that I had visited or learned in. It felt more like a workshop than a classroom. The designers of the d.School feel that space, furniture, tools, and technology promote creativity, collaboration and experimentation.
We spoke to Scott Doorley, the Creative Director of the d.school. Doorley was involved in the
design and layout of the d.space. He talked about how they wanted the space flexible. They designed a track system that allowed whiteboard panels to be used as walls to create flexible work spaces. Students who use the space are encouraged to display their ideas and work in progress.
The d.school also has one teaching space called a studio. Doorley said that people were on board from a philosophical perspective from the start but it took a while for people to ‘figure it out’. Professors were unsure how to use the studio space initially. It is intentionally designed to not be a lecture hall.
Now professors are asking to teach non-design courses in the space. After speaking with Doorley, we walked in on a class that was in the studio and it was just like a casual gathering of people.
Our visit to the d.school really started us thinking about the the role the physical classroom environment can play in either promoting or stifling collaboration, problem solving and creativity.
In New Brunswick, we have recently seen many libraries being transformed into collaborative learning spaces but the reality is that we are still building schools with rectangular classrooms that accommodate 30 traditional student desks.
On Saturday morning we got up early and headed for Maker Faire. We were amongst thousands of people who flocked to see giant robots, drone wars, cupcake cars and lightning bolts being shot from 30 foot tall Tesla coils.
We would spend the next two days viewing maker projects big and small. The energy and camaraderie in the crowd was absolutely incredible. Every vendor and exhibitor we spoke with, from start-up CEO to DIY enthusiast, was willing to share insight, advice and resources.
Two of the massive tents were dedicated to young makers. Several local schools participated as exhibitors. These teachers and students were doing some really innovative things. The real take away for me was that our New Brunswick teachers and students are every bit as innovative as these featured exhibitors. We can compete with the world in terms of innovation and we are already doing it in pockets. It is a matter of identifying, celebrating, sharing and scaling these innovative initiatives & best practices.
On Sunday, Adam Savage, from Mythbusters fame, delivered what he called his Sunday Sermon. In his message, he talked about failure. “When we're talking about failure, we mean it with a small f and what we mean is 'things not going according to plan'. Nothing ever goes according to plan.” I think we need to give our students opportunities to fail with a small "f". Opportunities to fail, analyze what went wrong, learn from that failure and try again. They need chances to recover when things don’t go according to plan. Students need opportunities to develop persistent problem solving skills. I think these skills will be vital and valued in workplaces of the future.
Read more Brilliant Labs stories like this in our Fall Online Magazine at https://www.brilliantlabs.ca/fall