The following is an edited transcript of an interview with Laura McBain and Ryan Gallagher of High-Tech High, a public charter school based in San Diego, on their upcoming MOOC, “Deeper Learning”, hosted by P2PU starting January 20, 2014. Interview by Charlie Chung of Class Central, a comprehensive MOOC listings directory.
Laura McBain, Director of External Relations, has been with High Tech High 10 years and runs an online hybrid program for adults and external schools, using online technology to bring educators together to talk about their practices. Ryan Gallagher has been teaching science at High Tech High for 10 years, having received his Masters through High Tech’s graduate school of education.
Can you tell me about High-tech High, what that school and program are all about?
High Tech High is a public charter school in San Diego County that has been around for 13 years. We have twelve K-12 schools in Southern California and our focus is on project-based learning, with the lens of equity and social justice. We use a zip code-based lottery to bring in a diverse population from different backgrounds and social classes. With our emphasis on social justice, we think project-based learning is a pedagogy that allows that to happen.
We started our graduate school of education in 2007. We wanted to make a bigger impact, and rather than opening more schools, we thought a graduate school would have an exponentially bigger impact on educators in their practice. We have two programs, school leadership and teacher leadership, and our schools are really the clinical sites for our graduate school.
We’re one of the only graduate schools in the country that is housed in a K-12 setting, so we have teachers doing action research, observing students, doing qualitative quantitative research, and thinking of themselves as leaders in progressive change.
What is the connection between project-based learning and social justice?
Project-based learning allows for differentiated instruction, what we call “voice and choice”. Within our projects we allow for differentiation because we have kids from different skill levels (we have untracked, mixed ability classrooms). One project, narrowly defined, is not going to work for all kids, so we’re allowing them to access materials in different and unique ways, and that’s one way we try to create equity in our classrooms. These take two of High Tech High’s four design principles to heart: Personalization and Teacher as Designer.
What are the other two design principles?
Common Intellectual Mission, that is, 21st century skills, deeper learning skills, communication, common ideas that cut across all of our schools. And the other is maintaining an Adult World Connection.
What exactly is ‘Deeper Learning’?
There are quite a few buzzwords that are tossed around that are hinting at the same thing. You may have heard of it as 21st Century skills, or noncognitive skills. The Hewlett Foundation in particular has been driving initiatives to disseminate the concept of deeper learning. For us, it’s really about kids spending time to get at deep real-world problems and not just rushing through some standard curriculum.
Deeper learning occurs when kids realize that there’s a world beyond the classroom, they are connecting to things, and connecting to the world around them. It relies on critical thinking, collaboration, and problem-solving. What deeper learning adds to 21st Century skills is a sense of agency, of learning how to learn. It is going through an integral, reflective process, where you use drive or grit to get through something (The Raikes Foundation, a supporter, often talks about academic mindsets). We believe that project-based learning is a way to get at deeper learning.
Is deeper learning necessarily project-based?
No, not necessarily. Even in our deeper learning MOOC collaboration of 10 schools, not all are project-based. Deeper learning can bring in multiple pedagogies, not just project-based learning, and it is more accessible than the latter. If you go into any school around the country and say “I want my students to learn deeply”, it’s kind of tough to argue with that.
If you don’t pursue a content checklist approach and try to pursue deeper learning, don’t some things fall off the plate?
Some parents ask about that and our response is that for this generation of students, their access to content has never been quicker. So it’s not about accessing content, those aren’t the skills that are going to be important for the jobs that we are trying to prepare our kids for. It’s about what you do with that content. Are you able to transform it? Repurpose it? Use it in novel situations? These kinds of skills are at the heart of deeper learning and we need to spend the time to develop those skills in students.
How does deeper learning intersect with new standards that are coming out, the Common Core, next generation standards, etc.?
That’s a great question. One of the things in this course we’re really excited about is how we use deeper learning to map to the common core and to science standards, because for us deeper learning is a collection of strategies & resources that can help students master the Common Core, and help get at some of the meta-cognitive skills. Some of the cross-cutting concepts in the NGSS (Next Generation Science Standards), such as engineering & design principles, align really well with deeper learning. In some sense the standards are catching up to the pedagogy, not the other way around.
Why did you decide on a MOOC?
We want to impact teacher practices, and the best way to do that is to have a conversation. But we know that not everyone can attend a conference. MOOCs are a great way to form a community of practice and through this we can impact teachers locally and have a conversation that’s focused on their practices. One of the things that is different about this MOOC is that although we’re hosting it, we are also bringing in collaborators. We don’t want this to be a one-way transmission of information, because that’s not what’s great about the MOOC platform.
This is a connectivist MOOC. We want people to engage with each other in ways that are meaningful. We don’t want to sit here and tout “this is the way you should teach every student”, but rather “here are some wonderful ideas in education that you may not know about, or you may have heard a little bit about, and here’s some great schools that are practicing in unique and interesting ways”.
On the spectrum of being lecture-heavy and pushing out a lot of content to being an unstructured sharing of random best practices, where does this MOOC fall on this scale?
I actually think we’re somewhere in the middle. The way we’ll structure the MOOC, on Mondays we have a panel discussion where we bring in educators in the field, and people can pose questions and have follow-up conversations. On Thursdays, we’ll have educators on the ground provide a lens into the classroom, using protocols (a School Reform Initiative) to have a guided conversation and engage in dialog. Thus, each week will include a little bit of panel content and guided conversation about a practice or inquiry. To be transparent, this is a new experience for us, and we’re going to learn as we go.
Who are the target audiences for this MOOC and what can they expect to get out of it?
Our primary audience would be the K-12 teacher and college teacher. With that said, we think there’s something for everyone. We’re going to have a wide spectrum of classroom-setting teachers, administrators, teacher trainers, policymakers, etc. Knowing that we’re going to have such a wide range of participants, we’re trying to aim the course to allow people to do different things in different settings. We want to have schools sign up teams, so that people can have greater engagement with each other. We also want to enable people to bring elements of this back to their staff or teams, whether it be resource links or whole modules.
As for what attendees will get out of this, each week we want there to be some aspect or lesson that they can bring back to your classroom. Also, there’s a bigger discussion about what’s happening in education and sometimes as a classroom teacher you are removed from the policy discussion. So we want to say here is this policy and the important research during the Monday conversation, and then on Thursday talk about how it looks in practice. We want to help teachers see the big picture and make them feel more connected and more powerful.
We’re excited about this MOOC because we’ve seen schools out there doing some really cool things, and we want more teachers to have access to some of these progressive practices from around the country.
Deeper Learning: A Definition And A Free Course For Teachers; image attribution flickr user iskme