During a trip to High Tech High in San Diego at the end of January, representatives of the Sea to Sky School District found both positives and negatives.
"It seemed to be about studying how that model worked, what the good things and bad things were," said Whistler Secondary School (WSS) teacher Thomas Mortensen, of the trip.
"Not necessarily thinking, how could we change our school into that model, more along the lines of, what can we take from it to make it better?"
High Tech High is comprised of 12 schools — five high schools, four middle schools, and three elementary schools — at three locations. There are about 5,000 students. Its mission is to develop and support innovative public schools where all students develop the academic, workplace, and citizenship skills for postsecondary success.
Sea to Sky teachers, and leaders, have been visiting the sites over the last several years to gain insight into best practices that are transferable to local schools.
WSS's team found many positives during the trip including shining examples of project-based learning — or "authentic" learning — and collaboration.
"I liked the way that they ran the projects... the amount of things that were involved in each project, and what they got out of them," Mortensen said.
"I would like to become more educated on effective ways of building projects to get the most out of them, how to dissect them, and as a teacher, be able to set it up so that you can kind of steer the kids to find those things that they need to know by themselves."
WSS vice principal Jody Nelson agreed.
"That's where the collaboration is so helpful, when you can put two or three heads together and then come back to the table with the protocol and then fine-tune the project by following this protocol," Nelson said.
But there were aspects of the High Tech High model that just wouldn't work in Whistler, said WSS teacher and counsellor Kevin Titus.
"(While) they're very free to do a lot of different stuff in class because they're doing project-based learning, they don't actually have a lot of freedom in what they choose to do," Titus said.
"We want students to have more choice in their electives, and the model that we have — and most of B.C. has — doesn't really fit in to having students not have choice in what they want to do for electives. We think that's pretty important."
The High Tech High model also doesn't include any physical education — something that would never fly in a sports-oriented town like Whistler.
"We had a staff meeting the other day and we were talking about the High Tech High model, and some people were sort of concerned that we were going to try and replicate it," Titus said.
"When we refer to High Tech High, we're referring to the parts of it that we think are good and that we think are beneficial. We're never going to be totally like they are, because we don't want to be like they are. We want to take the best of what they do and then use it here."
There are already some examples of project-based learning taking place at WSS.
Teaching woodworks and tech, Mortensen said he uses mostly projects, including one where students are tasked with designing and building their own hovercraft.
"They start out getting the idea of the design, and then they have to go off and research what a hovercraft is, what makes it work, and how do they get lift out of these things?" Mortensen said.
"So they do a bit of upfront learning of that, and then they have to build the project themselves. There's electrical circuitry that's involved in there, and they get to the point that they have to connect the power somehow, so now they have to go learn how to do this circuitry and apply it to their project."
The result is an authentic learning experience in which students develop and utilize skills and knowledge in a realistic, applicable way.
So far, this type of instruction has been a hit with students.
"I can say unequivocally they love it," Nelson said.
At a recent school board meeting, district student reps presented to the board, making an appeal for more project-based learning.
"The students took that forth and said, 'We want to see more... we are getting more out of this,'" Nelson said.
The transition from more traditional learning models is not unique to WSS.
In January, the Ministry of Education updated its Education Plan focusing on "personalized learning."
"Personalized learning combines the 'how' and 'what' of learning," the plan says.
"A personalized approach recognizes that there are still core requirements and expectations. A strong focus must remain on foundational skills — reading, writing, oral language and numeracy — and there will still be a required body of knowledge in various subjects or disciplines. However, with personalized learning there will be increased emphasis on competencies."
The plan aims to help learners develop skills like critical thinking and problem-solving, collaboration and leadership, communication and digital literacy, personal and social responsibility, creativity and innovation and global and cultural understanding.
The update to the plan can be found at www.bcedplan.ca/assets/pdf/bcs_education_plan_2015.pdf.
In a world that is changing faster than ever before, teaching the broad skills listed above is perhaps more important than the basic memorization that has characterized education for the past century.
"Memorization will only get you so far, especially today in the Information Age... because everything that we can teach you right now in five years will probably be obsolete," Mortensen said.
"What we could really teach the kids that will benefit them most is how to find information easily and for them to think about what they do read."
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