Ever since I joined the Innovation Lab team, I’ve heard about High Tech High (HTH), a network of public charter schools in San Diego. The other InLab team members who visited last year described it in quasi-religious language, a mythical place, as if it was the Oz of the education world. With that in mind, I set out to California to pull back the curtain and see for myself what the High Tech High model has to offer GHS.
I think a good place to start my blog posts about HTH is with where the idea for the school originated and where ideas come from in general. One of the most frequently asked questions about Innovation Lab has to do with the reasons we’re creating the program. Isn’t GHS a high-performing district? Don’t we already have an incredible amount of opportunities at the high school? Simply look at the number of AP classes taken by students, the results from the most recent Intel Science Fair, and a variety of other indicators that directly or tangentially measure school success and you’ll know the impetus for Innovation Lab didn’t come from any deficiency in the district. Granted, I work in the high school, so I’m obviously biased (and untenured). But I think we may be looking for the why in the wrong place. Innovation Lab doesn’t start with the premise that the high school is broken or lacking in any subject area. The truly innovative thing about Innovation Lab is that it’s based on a recombination of things that already occur at GHS and schools around the country. So then, what exactly is new about Innovation Lab?
First, let’s take a step back and discuss the central tenets of innovation. In his book, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, Steven Johnson writes about how and why change occurs in individuals, systems, and the world at large. Look at the index of the book and you’ll find an array of innovative ideas that include the pencil in 1560, infant incubators in 1881, and the programmable computer in 1837 (no that’s not a misprint, though the technology wouldn’t catch up until the next century ). Johnson traces the patterns that these innovations have in common, in essence creating a blueprint for how people can push the boundaries of the present. One of the key concepts Johnson mentions is what’s known as the “adjacent possible,” the number of available combinations of the “parts” readily available at any given time in history. “What the adjacent possible tells us,” Johnson writes, “is that at any moment the world is capable of extraordinary change, but only certain changes can happen.” This principle holds true regardless of whether you’re discussing cellular combinations or the creation of YouTube. Innovation, according to Johnson, doesn’t just appear out of thin air; instead, it’s a process of combining and recombining the available technology and ideas in order to create something new. From these changes, the adjacent possible expands and new combinations become available.
Many of the people I’ve come into contact with describe HTH as a sort of adjacent possible for education in the 21st century. Rob Riordan, the President of HTH (a demotion, he joked, from his old role as Emperor of Rigor) began the first day of the workshop by giving a brief overview of the origins of HTH. The thing that struck me most about his story was his admission that there was nothing really new about what HTH was doing. “It’s the way we put it together that’s new,” Riordan said. Like most of the innovations profiled in Johnson’s book, the idea came from combining two seemingly disconnected “parts”: when Riordan, a writing teacher, partnered with the carpentry teacher at his high school, current CEO of HTH Larry Rosenstock, and created a cohesive English curriculum around the experience students were having on their vocational internships. The two began to explore other ideas in the world of education and brought them together in a set of core principles, what Riordan called a “pastiche” of the practices he saw in schools around the country. (I’ll be writing a post about HTH’s design principles and how they incorporate Project-based Learning later this week).
After attending the first day of the conference, I realized that I see Innovation Lab in the same way that Riordan sees the founding of HTH: at its core, Innovation Lab is an exploration of the adjacent possible. The work we’ve done on InLab has also been like a “pastiche,” connecting ideas that have been around for decades and placing them in a new context: an environment dedicated to Project-based Learning, metacognitive reflection, adult world connections, mentoring, and interdisciplinary learning. Towards the end of Riordan’s presentation, he clicked to a Powerpoint slide with a picture of John Dewey. “Understanding derives from activity,” the slide read. I smiled, realizing the old axiom I tell my students about history is only partially true. We don’t only study the past so we don’t repeat it; we study it so we can create the future.