What happens when you ask a fish to climb a tree? A look at differentiation and the High Tech High model

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This assignment is a great example of how STEM and the Humanities can support one another by having students create authentic and engaging work.

Built into High Tech High’s design principles is the idea of personalization, which they define as “knowing students well, tapping into student experience and interests, and building a strong sense of community.” When you walk around the halls of HTH, one of the first things you notice is the many different projects on display. They act as a mosaic of the various students that make up the school, a collection of their different perspectives and talents.

During the morning, Brian and I were able to walk around and observe the principle of personalization in action, both on the walls and in the classrooms. In a project entitled “Makeshift Poetry,” students brought together STEM and the Humanities by using their engineering skills to create a mechanical representation of an original poem. In a Humanities classroom, we observed students working on creating a “20th century box,” an assignment that required them to research a topic of their choice, write a research paper and a short story, and find artifacts that related to their topic. I spoke to one student who was researching sports before and after the Civil Rights Movement. Another student was conducting research about the October Revolution. Speaking to them made me see the link between personalization and passion. The ownership they had over their learning was a direct result of their ability to have a choice in what they studied.

One of the coolest parts of the project was how the visual/mechanical representation of the poem could be moved by spinning the gears. For example, the bird all the way to the right would flap its wings (an activity that filled Brian with a sense of child-like wonder).

One of the coolest parts of the project was how the visual/mechanical representation of the poem could be moved by spinning the gears. For example, the bird all the way to the right would flap its wings (an activity that filled Brian with a sense of child-like wonder).

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A mosaic representing the HTH Class of 2015. Artwork like this is present on pretty much every wall in the school.

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I just had to share this. Students sell their artwork using an old cigarette machine.

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The famous spinning wheel of civilization. It mechanically represents the patterns identified by students that civilizations have in common.

 

 

In the afternoon, Brian and I attended a seminar on differentiation. The presenter, Rachel Amato, a Special Education teacher who had changed her job title to Resourcerer–a nod to the magic teachers work with students–discussed the importance of designing projects with multiple entry points for students. She began the workshop with a quote from Einstein: “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” She likened a well-designed project to a fisherman casting a wide net. The more learning styles a project taps into, the better chance you have to engage each student in your class. “Every kid has a talent,” she said, “and it’s our job to find that talent.” Differentiation, according to Amato, is a way to expand our teacher toolbox in order to help meet the needs of our students.

What those needs are depends on the student and their current stage of life. Amato talked about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and how it’s important to keep in mind where students are in terms of their mental and emotional development. She made one addendum to the hierarchy that I found really interesting. She showed us a pyramid with the hierarchy originally posited by Maslow:

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According to Maslow, human motivation follows a common trajectory. Only once our “Physiological” needs are met, for example, can we begin thinking of higher level needs such as “Safety.” In the new image, instead of “Self-Esteem” coming from a sense of “Belonging,” the opposite occurs.

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The new hierarchy asks an important question: Can a student’s achievements in school contribute to a sense of belonging? Often the accomplishments that occur within a classroom reverberate through many different aspects of a student’s life. Differentiation can be a powerful tool to help students foster a sense of accomplishment and purpose while ensuring they are being valued for their unique talents.

While the idea of multiple intelligences has been around for decades, incorporating them into our classrooms can be challenging. Teachers at High Tech High share their projects with one another in tuning protocols in order to get feedback and improve upon their ideas. Students also engage in a similar practice during preparation of their Presentation of Learning, a time for students to share what they’ve learned over the course of a semester or project and receive feedback from members of the community. A lot of the work teachers do seems to mirror the work students do, a culture that extends from the bottom-up to the top-down. I think that’s part of the reason why there is such a sense of community at each of the HTH schools I visited. Teachers and students are united by a common mission and set of practices that permeate the culture of the school.

With this in mind, I think it would be worthwhile for you to check out a video created by HTH teacher Jeff Robin about Project-based Learning. The video uses the metaphor of trying to put a square peg–in the video his name is Pablo–into a round hole. With PBL, Pablo has a chance to approach the curriculum from his own unique vantage point. I think this is one of the most powerful messages from HTH and it extends to teachers and education in general. No single model or teaching style should be adopted completely by any teacher or school district. Instead, it’s a matter of finding what works best for you and for your students. It’s a tough idea to buy into, mainly because it means there isn’t a single right answer in the world of education. But that can be liberating in and of itself.

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During the seminar on differentiation, Amato shared this political cartoon inspired by Einstein’s quote.

No matter what design principles you structure your school or class around, it’s important to remember the value of differentiation and that trying a one-size-fits-all approach might be akin to leaving a fish out of water. As far as I can tell, the only way to honor the differences of teachers and students is through using PBL. Advocating a single approach may sound like a paradox, but it certainly makes more sense than asking a fish to climb a tree.

 

 

 

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One Response to What happens when you ask a fish to climb a tree? A look at differentiation and the High Tech High model

  1. Pingback: #MustRead Shares (weekly) | it's about learning

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