Originally published: November 30, 2015
I recently watched the documentary film "Most Likely to Succeed". It's being hailed as "The best film ever done on the topic of school - both its past and its future."
I watched with great interest because not only do I work for an education technology company, but I attended and graduated (2001-2005) from High Tech High (HTH), the school featured in the film.
The film starts with an abridged history of grade school in the United States. It then presents a bleak future where machines replace the majority of blue collar jobs, making our current K-12 education model obsolete. The majority of the film focuses on HTH, a charter school that has radically reimagined what a modern high school can be. It values projects over tests, discussions over lectures, and presentations of learning over final exams.
The future of education is a highly debated topic. People of all professions have written books, blog posts, and tweet storms with the intent of getting us to reimagine our education system. Through all that noise we have HTH, a tangible working model of a modern school. With it's doors first opening in the year 2000, it has had 15 years to refine its product: a modern high school.As I watched the film I kept thinking about how each incoming freshmen class benefits from the collective experience of the classes that came before. 15 years of experimenting and soliciting feedback from students has resulted in a fine-tuned model where 98% of the students in the last graduating class were accepted into college.
One of HTH's biggest advantages is it's adaptability. Like a startup, HTH has the ability to experiment, build upon what works, and get rid of what doesn't. For example, during my first two years HTH had a great room. A large open room with computers that anyone could use for school work. Great room time was given during class time to work on projects. It turns out high school kids are pretty bad at managing free time so Great room time, although good in theory, was taken away. It's an example of the feedback loop that exists at HTH. Someone had a "what if we did this" idea, tried it, collected feedback, and made modifications.
Another example is how HTH flipped the order in which science classes are taken. At a typical high school freshmen take Biology, sophomores take Chemistry, and juniors/seniors take Physics. At HTH, freshmen take Physics & Engineering, sophomores take Chemistry, juniors take Biotech, and seniors can take Environmental Science or Advanced Physics. Why the different order? The founders of HTH felt that each subject builds on the next one, and that this order made more sense than the traditional high school order.
Experiment. Collect feedback. Adjust. The school's malleability is one of its biggest advantages. There is no way a traditional high school can experiment with education the way HTH can. If a traditional high school is like the taxi industry, HTH is Uber.
My goal with this post is to share my experience of being part of HTH's third graduating class. How attending HTH impacted my future and what traditional schools can learn from HTH. I'm very happy to have had the opportunity to attend HTH. It helped shape the person I am today and prepared me for success in college and beyond. Hopefully after reading this post you'll understand why.
And finally I really encourage you to watch "Most Likely to Succeed" because it provides a touching depiction of how transformative and forward-thinking a modern high school can be.
My dad discovered HTH through a local newspaper article. It was advertised as a different kind of high school with an emphasis on project based learning. With funding from the Jacobs family (founders of Qualcomm) and the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation, my dad was intrigued.
He asked if I'd be interested in applying and I said yes. Part of the reason was the school's emphasis on technology (I was a tech nerd already so this had great appeal), and I did not want to go to my local high school. It was overcrowded and other issues that created a school environment I did not want to be part of.
The application process was straightforward. Phase 1 was a paper application that included short essay questions like why I wanted to go to HTH and describe a project I was proud of. Phase 2 was an interview that took place on campus over the summer. It was a great opportunity to visit and get a feel for the school. HTH looks like a modern tech company office instead of a high school. It has a lot of open space and the classrooms are modern and inviting.
I was interviewed by a 9th grade math teacher. We covered all the standard interview questions. I told him about myself, my strengths, weaknesses, and why HTH should accept me. This was my first "real-world" interview. HTH was already giving me practical experience and I hadn't been accepted yet. We also talked about my comfort level of going to a school that lacked traditional high school components such as sports teams and AP classes (we didn't have PE my freshmen year because we didn't have the facilities for it).
Today HTH no longer conducts interviews as part of the application process. I cannot recall if my interview was required or optional, but it was very informal. It gave me a chance to ask questions about HTH, visit the school, and for the teacher to meet the student behind the application. It's not much different from a college application process (for example some universities offer an optional interview with an admissions counselor). Overall I felt good after my interview, and the experience solidified my desire to attend the school.
Phase 3 was the lottery. A randomized process that selected a group of about 100 students that became the class of 2005. I remember the day I received my acceptance letter in the mail. Just like a college acceptance letter I had no idea if I would or would not get in. I tore apart the letter and remember feeling tremendous joy and excitement for having been accepted.
That acceptance letter veered my life into a new direction.
When I started at HTH I anticipated spending a lot of time working on projects. What I did not expect was the variety of projects I'd work on. Here are some that stood out:
Throughout my four years I worked on group projects. Individual projects. Artistic/creative projects. And technical projects. Each one had challenges, ups and downs, and valuable takeaways. Each project helped me develop important intangible skills that I wouldn't have developed just reading a textbook.
For example The Ancient Olympics film helped foster my leadership skills. As the leader of my team it was my duty to ensure we released a good product on time. Giving 4 freshmen a camera and multiple class periods to work on a project can have mixed results. I was able to bring our team together and we produced a very entertaining film.
My entrance to the San Diego Science Fair gave me the opportunity to present to the scientific community in a tradeshow like setting. It also exposed me to the world of scientific research and biotechnology. And even though I did not develop a passion for these fields, I gained valuable experience and had fun competing in the Science Fair.
My junior year internship at Randall Lamb gave me first-hand experience on working in the "real-world". It increased my confidence and I got a chance to network with working professionals. My senior year I got to teach a music theory class. I had multiple responsibilities including marketing my course to get students to enroll. Coming up with lessons, homework assignments, projects, and exams.
For my English class I worked on a group project where we conducted a large study on the perception of AP versus standard high school classes. My group came up with the study, survey questions, and organized school visits where we observed and surveyed students in Math and English classes across 5 different schools in San Diego. To say this was a large scale project would be an understatement. It required creativity, accountability (we were four high school seniors that would leave campus un-chaperoned), patience (we were four type A personalities), and resilience.
"Most Likely to Succeed" has a great quote by Larry Rosenstock (HTH CEO) on the feeling students have regarding the family night showcase (an evening where students present their best projects): "I made this and everyone is coming to look at it."
When I worked hard on a project, I was excited to show it. To talk about what I made and what I learned. It's like Seth Godin likes to say, here, I made this. I didn't just learn a fact for a test. I made something that did not exist in the world.
By focusing on projects HTH is creating a culture of makers. Students who get excited about building stuff and are comfortable with failure. Not all projects are homeruns. Some don't come together at the right moment. But HTH's culture is built around trying, embracing (not fearing) failure, and trying again. HTH students are encouraged to be ambitious. To question the status-quo. Sound familiar? Through project-based learning HTH is fostering the same creative culture that is seen in many top Silicon Valley startups.
A common criticism against HTH's project-based learning model is that students will not do well on standardized tests. This includes end of the year state tests and college entrance exams (SAT, ACT). I strongly disagree with this criticism. I consider myself an average standardized test taker. I don't struggle, but also don't breeze through them. And yet as my results show HTH equipped me with the knowledge to perform well on these tests.
(Author's note: In my original version of this post I had screenshots of my state test scores. I have since misplaced those and thus I do not have them in this version to share. My conclusion from the original post was that I did just fine on my California state exams across all subjects (Math, Reading, Science). I was not hindered by HTH in my performance on these exams.)
I recently read "Readicide: How Schools Are Killing Reading and What You Can Do About It" by Kelly Gallagher. Gallagher argues that schools do not need to teach "to the test" in order for students to do well on standardized tests. He references a study by Judith A. Langer (author, professor, and literacy researcher):
Langer found that schools exhibit three distinct instructional approaches, patterns she has named (1) separated, (2) simulated, and (3) integrated. Separated instruction is the direct instruction of isolated skills, often used to “cover” curriculum. Simulated instruction “involves the application of these concepts and rules within a targeted unit of reading, writing, or oral language” (Langer 2002, 13). This might include, for example, exercises that are often found in packaged teaching materials. Integrated instruction “takes place when students are expected to use their skills and knowledge within the embedded context of a large and purposeful activity,” such as writing a research paper or editing the school newspaper (Langer 2002, 14)
In short, effective schools did not rely heavily on any given approach, often blending all three types of instruction.
Langer’s study, and the many others cited in this chapter, leads to an inescapable conclusion: if students are taught to read and write well, they will do fine on mandated reading tests. But if they are only taught to be test-takers, they will never learn to read and write well. A terrible price is paid when schools value the development of test-takers more than they value the development of readers.
I have two takeaways from this. First is the value of blending three types of instructional approaches. Second is if students have a solid foundation, they will do fine on standardized tests.
HTH is a blended instructional environment. Most of my classes had a daily lecture that covered a specific curriculum topic. People unfamiliar with the school imagine a textbook free environment where students are working on projects and then reflecting on how they feel about them. The latter certainly happens, but it's not what HTH is solely about. It doesn't happen at the expense of learning. Like a traditional school HTH has tests, mid-terms, final exams, and grades. Some classes (like Math) used textbooks to supplement learning. I had a GPA at the end of every semester.
If you were to walk into a HTH lecture (not knowing anything about the school), you'd think you were in a normal high school (well maybe not quite normal, but kind of). You'd see a teacher lecturing, a white board, and students taking notes. The separated instructional approach Langer described is utilized at HTH. This approach ensured that I gained foundational knowledge (algebra, world war 2, cells, etc.) high school is meant to deliver. It was the reason for my success on the standardized tests I shared above.
Instruction also included a simulated approach. In a Math or Science class this meant doing exercises from textbooks (gasp, textbooks?! Yes, it did make sense to practice with exercises from a textbook in Math class, so we used them). We also had mini-projects on specific curriculum topics, such as writing a one page reflection on a current event topic for Humanities, or investigating a Biotechnology topic through a small team activity. Again this is not far off from what you would see at a traditional high school.
And HTH certainly utilizes an integrated instructional approach. The output of this approach are the projects I highlighted in the previous section of this post. This is the approach that makes HTH standout from other schools. It empowers students to be bold, curious, and to dream big. It creates an environment where it is OK to fail as long as you learned something.
A question often posed to a startup company is what are they best in the world at? The integrated instructional approach is what HTH is best in the world at. I touched on this earlier, but as of 2015 HTH has had 15 years of practice. 15 years of iterating and refining the model to stay current and effective. To experiment and do more of the things that work and less of those that don't.
You may be curious of the percentage breakdown of the three instructional approaches at HTH. My experience was that it changed every week. Some weeks the split was even, 1/3 separated, 1/3 simulated, and 1/3 integrated. Other weeks could be 50% integrated and 50% separated. We weren't restricted to a fixed distribution of approaches. This kept things interesting because each week brought a new learning experience. I couldn't fall into a rhythm that would allow me to mindlessly flow through school, because the instructional approach could drastically change from one week to the next.
During the film viewers are taken inside Marc Aguirre's 9th grade humanities class. It's the first day of school and Marc assigns students a basic task: arrange the tables and chairs based on the drawing on the board. He leaves the room. The following scene is a classroom of kids looking around in bewilderment. You can see them thinking, did he really just leave? Should I speak up? I can't believe he didn't give us step-by-step instructions. What do I do?!
Marc sees the students struggling and steps in. They ask what they should do. You can't blame them, their entire school career has been built on the idea that teachers are gatekeepers. Teachers tell you what to do. They show you the door, open it, hold your hand, and walk you through it. HTH is different. Teachers show you the door, but it's up to the student to open and walk through it. Marc provides some guidance, but ends with three life-changing words: "It's your decision."
These three words encompass what HTH is about. Empowerment. Accountability. Taking risks and being comfortable with the outcome. Transforming students into independent thinkers.
With this exercise and those three words Marc created a "real-world" learning moment. A moment where students practice and learn skills that don't come from a textbook. Skills like creativity, independent thinking, collaboration, and presentation skills. These moments also help develop "intangibles" like confidence, comfort with uncertainty, openness to other perspectives, and leadership.
Although arranging classroom furniture may seem like a trivial task, for those freshmen the exercise began their transformation into independent, confident, and creative students. Remember that most students are coming from traditional school environments. Environments where teachers provide step-by-step directions and don't leave the classroom. Environments where passing the test is of highest importance.
A student will participate in many "real-world" learning moments throughout their four years at HTH. These moments make HTH special. My list of moments included being a leader in countless group projects. Presenting projects in front of my class (or even the school in a few cases). Debating for and against creationism vs. evolution with my classmates. Even small things like setting up our desks to be facing each other, and discussing current events or an article we all read. These moments got me comfortable with listening and interacting with my classmates. To hear and appreciate opposing views. To practice communicating ideas. To build my confidence as a leader.
It's been widely accepted that the jobs of tomorrow will require a different set of skills than those taught at a traditional school. This point was emphasized at the start of the documentary. Anything that can be automated or outsourced to a machine, will be. This leaves a job market where those who are comfortable with uncertainty, with failure, have a willingness to experiment and take risks, will succeed. Those who get really good at taking tests and are dependent on step-by-step instructions from teachers will struggle.
HTH is built on the vision of project-based learning. A vision of producing independent thinkers and global citizens. It achieves this by giving students four years worth of real-world learning moments. And it all starts with three words: it's your decision.
HTH has impressive statistics when it comes to student college acceptance. Over 90% of my graduating class were accepted to a university. Our acceptance list included top schools like: Stanford, UCLA, UC Berkeley, UCSD, and USC.
I attended and graduated from Chapman University, a mid-sized private liberal arts school in Orange County California. I selected the school for two primary reasons: their business program and an academic scholarship I received. For me the transition from HTH to Chapman was seamless. The increased college workload was uncomfortable at first, but it wasn't overwhelming. I adapted and was even able to successfully complete 19 units my second semester of freshmen year.
The skills I picked up at HTH fit nicely into a college classroom. For example at HTH I developed a comfort with speaking up, and I carried this over to Chapman. Whether it's a question or a differing perspective from what the instructor is presenting, I had no reservation to speak my mind. I would also be a frequent attendee of professor's office hours. Having grown accustomed to constant interaction with my teachers at HTH, I sought the same at Chapman. Getting to know my professors served me well throughout college. I not only built strong professional relationships (for things like mentorship and job recommendations) but it also made for a rewarding classroom experience. Professors knew me on a first-name basis and had a vested interest in my success in their class.
If you were to walk into a college freshmen class I believe you'd see a clear difference between a HTH and traditional high-school student. The reason being a difference in educational models. A traditional high-school tends to have a "one-way" communication model. This is especially true in some AP classes. There is so much content to cover in a short amount of time, that the teacher has no time to waste. The goal is to push as much content to students as possible, so they can score high on the AP exam. The idea being that this "trains" students for college workloads, because they will need to process even more content in a shorter amount of time.
HTH has a more fluid and organic model. Communication is "two-way", where it's often back and fourth between instructor and students. It's natural and it flows. It keeps students engaged and an expectation of this is how education should be develops. It's difficult to go back to the one-way model once you've been exposed to the two-way model. The classes I most enjoyed at Chapman were based on the two-way model (and naturally the one-way model classes were my least favorite). I felt as though I had a bit of an advantage in these classes because they were so prominent at HTH. They were an extension of the teaching model I had gotten used to.
Not all members of my graduating class had such a seamless transition to college. Two of my friends attended UC Berkeley and pursued science degrees. At first they were overwhelmed and felt underprepared. While I was in a business classroom of 30-40 students, they were in a 500+ student auditorium listening to a one-way Organic Chemistry lecture. It was like an AP class on steroids. Having not been trained to manage the onslaught of content their grades suffered that first year. But things got better. They adapted to the course load and their grades improved.
They told me that HTH did not prepare them for the first two years of a Science undergraduate degree program. However they did feel HTH gave them an advantage in the latter two years of the program, because the coursework became more practical (e.g. lab work) and less textbook memorization. HTH students enter college with legitimate lab experience (thanks to the Biotechnology lab on campus), and some gained additional experience through their internship. Even though my two friends did not have the same book smarts compared to AP students, they had tangible lab experience that many of their peers did not have.
So did HTH prepare me for college? It did. Do I feel I missed out not having AP classes? I do not. Is this perspective shared by all HTH graduates? It's not. But I believe that attending HTH will not put you at a disadvantage when compared to a traditional high school student. I believe you are at an advantage. The increased workload, one-way lectures, exams, you'll be able to figure those out. It's the intangible skills you'll develop at HTH that will give you an advantage over your peers and make the overall college experience much richer.
In Southern California schools are zoned. This means every zip code has a public high school that serves students living there. If you are unhappy with your designated high school, your only option is to move to a zip code that is covered by the high school you'd like to attend. HTH is a charter school. This means HTH is both state and privately funded. It also means a student can live in any zip code in San Diego and still attend the school. I knew some students who had over hour long commutes (one-way) to get to school. Accepting students from all across San Diego created a diverse (demographically and socioeconomically) student body. It gave me the opportunity to meet and friend people I would have not met otherwise.
When you walk into HTH you don't feel that you've entered a high school. The school is devoid of lockers, bungalows, or other things found in many Southern California schools. The school is one building and feels as though you've evented the office of a top silicon valley startup (a la Facebook). Student projects and artwork are proudly displayed throughout the entire school. Some classes are open fishbowls, while others are more traditional. Every classroom has at least one window (some windows may only face the inner hallways, but the majority have an outside facing window). This may seem like a minor detail, but compared to other schools that have depressing windowless classrooms, HTH creates a comfortable and inspiring learning environment for students.
HTH students give a lot of presentations. I remember in 8th grade I had to give a presentation about my family for Spanish class. It lasted several minutes and I was terrified. At the end of the presentation my friend told me that my hands shook the entire time. It wasn't because I had to give a presentation in Spanish, it was because I had to give a presentation in front of people. By the end of my freshmen year at HTH my hands no longer shook when I gave presentations. I had done so many of them that I started getting used to them. I'd still get nervous, but I had so much practice that my confidence increased after each one.
The student to teacher dynamic is noticeably different from a traditional high school. I recall only a few cases where I had a typical teacher to student relationship. In most cases I was on a first-name basis with my teachers and administrators. I felt that they had a genuine interest in my success as a student. They viewed us as being on a journey together. It wasn't like a conveyer belt model where a teacher gets a group of students, feeds them a bunch of information, sends them to the next grade, gets a new group, and does it all over again. It was about back-and-fourth conversation. About challenging us to not only master the material, but to work on projects so that we grow as students and individuals.
At the end of every trimester/semester we received report cards with our grades. Each teacher would write what we covered in class and a personalized message with things the student did well and areas for improvement.
With such transparency I looked at my teachers as mentors. I felt comfortable approaching them if I was struggling with something in class. I felt comfortable challenging them if I had a differing perspective (I got more comfortable speaking up my junior and senior years). HTH teachers made me feel comfortable with the person I was, and challenged me to constantly improve as a student.
HTH does not segment students across classes. There are no honors or AP classes. Everyone takes the same class. Teachers have the flexibility to segment the class as they see fit. For example in my senior year math class, our teacher gave us the option to either take Finance or Calculus. She divided the class in a non-disruptive way. While one group was getting a lecture, the other group worked on exercises or projects.
I was warned before I enrolled at HTH that if high school sports were important to me, HTH would not be a good fit. I was active outside of school so this was not a big deal for me. And I know today things are different (I recently received an invite to attend the HTH's women's volleyball game). But sports were not a priority at HTH when I was a student there.
All students are required to do an internship their junior year. This is huge. Some college graduates don't even have internship experience. And there I was, a junior in high school getting legitimate work experience. My internship at Randall Lamb took place twice a week (half-days), and lasted a semester. That's quite a bit of foregone instructional time, but as my state testing scores indicate it had no adverse impact on my education.
My internship, like all at HTH was randomly assigned. But I got to pick the department for my internship (I chose Marketing). I was paired with a mentor and she assigned various projects for me to work on. At the end of the internship we had a "demo evening" at school. All interns setup a booth (think trade show) and shared what they worked on at their internship. This is an open to the public event so our audience included parents, classmates, friends, and business professionals from the community.
A group of interns were selected to share a story from their internship with all attendees. After opening remarks from Gary Jacobs (the schools co-founder) I got to share my story with the community. Thanks to experiences like this one, HTH helped me find confidence in my public speaking abilities.
During my freshmen year I had a classmate (I'll call him Joe) in my physics class. Joe fit the stereotype of skater/punk dude who wasn't excited about school. He would turn in his homework late (or just not do it), wouldn't answer questions when called upon, and was most likely to be called out by the teacher for talking during a lecture. I'm sure most of us remember a student like Joe from high school.
An interesting thing happened in that physics class. Our teacher introduced us to programming in Flash . Our project was to take the principals we were learning in class, and create a fully functioning video game using Flash. Our only constraint was we had to apply physics concepts we were learning into the game. The project was open ended and the game could be as elaborate as we wanted.
Guess who produced the most elaborate and epic game in the class? Joe.
The lectures, homework, exams, these things didn't inspire Joe. I shared other classes with him (Math, English, Humanities) and the same attitude carried across them. But something about building this game struck a nerve and inspired him. He could use his innate creativity, and apply his technical prowess (turns out he was learning the physics concepts) to make something he dreamed up.
Not only was he building something tangible (instead of doing throwaway worksheet homework exercises), he was building something he wanted to exist. While most of us worked in pairs, Joe worked solo. While most of us were at lunch, Joe was working on his game. Before class, after class, Joe was building. He was making the game more elaborate with more levels and better graphics. My partner and I were good students. We did well on exams and turned in our homework on time. Our game at most reached 20% of the "impressiveness" that Joe's game reached. Before the game I'd describe Joe as lazy, disruptive, and not a good student. After the game I changed my adjectives to hard-working, talented, and inspiring,
I share this story because I believe it's a perfect example that supports my theory on the goal of school: to expose kids to as many subjects/topics/concepts as possible and give them an opportunity to apply them. The aphorism "you don't know what you don't know" sums up the problem schools can solve. By exposing kids to a wide variety of subjects and content, we not only develop well-rounded students, but we give them a chance to discover passions they may not have known they had.
Tim Ferriss, a world-famous author and startup investor has an excellent podcast where he interviews top-performers in their respective fields. One of the questions he asks most guests is: when you hear the word successful, who is the first person that comes to mind? For me, it's anyone who has discovered their passion. A person who has found that one thing they must get better at (sport, instrument, dance, etc.) or create (book, song, company, etc.). And when they are working on it, nothing else matters. It's like finding the book you can't put down. You can't wait to get to the next page. Money and success becomes a byproduct. Even if you get neither, you are still satisfied with what it is you are working on, because it's your passion.
In order for kids to discover their passions, they need to be exposed to a wide-range of topics, and given the opportunity to apply them. Just like Joe's discovery of building games in Flash in 9th grade physics. If not during school, when will kids have such an opportunity? School is a low-stakes environment. It's an ideal place to experiment. What's the worst that can happen? Your project didn't work but you learned a ton. You don't have a mortgage or a family to support. All you have is a limited amount of time to just try stuff. HTH fosters such an environment so students can build games. Write and act in a play. Be part of teams. Film movies. Do internships. Work with circuits. Work with plants. Find their passions.
So should all high schools get rid of textbooks, school bells, and model themselves after HTH? I'm a realist and I know this can't happen. But I believe all schools in the US can learn and apply some of the principals that make HTH a great school. For example putting a greater emphasis on student projects over test scores is a great first step. Empowering students to drive classroom discussions and giving them more opportunities to practice being leaders and independent thinkers. Giving kids more opportunities to apply the things they are learning in creative ways. Remember the three words: it's your decision. It starts with teachers empowering their students, and getting their administrators to welcome such approaches to education.
Today our education system is based on an assembly line formula. It definitely scaled, and worked for a certain period. And yet so many teachers strive to go beyond the assembly line formula. They do things in their classrooms that do not scale. They go above and beyond what their job descriptions entail so their students can succeed. They motivate and inspire students, push them to look beyond a test score. HTH is a school filled with such teachers. It's about doing things that are difficult to standardize and scale. The focus is on students and what they learn from the projects they work on, not their test scores. To borrow from the documentary, education is about people, it should be organic, not robotic. Students are not machines, and the assembly line formula is no longer viable in the 21st century. Students need to be inspired, challenged, and driven in ways beyond a GPA or a score on a test.
Many have debated and fantasized about what a school of the future could be like. Gone would be the assembly line formula. It would be replaced by projects, independent thinking, and development of skills for jobs in the 21st century. This is what the future may hold if we rethought and redid our educational system. And yet 15 years ago a charter school opened it's doors in San Diego California. With a bold vision it deviated from the standard public education model. And with every graduating class it adds validation that their model is working. As a proud graduate I can tell you that the future of school is already here, it's called High Tech High.