Designing New Schools

By David Jackson, Leadership and local systems

Recent blog posts have been marking out some stepping stones towards new school designs:

  • How might Innovation Unit build a movement around innovation in school design – using ‘Most Likely to Succeed’ as a springboard?
  • What can we learn from the best school-to-school collaboratives internationally that might inform the design of ambitious MATs?
  • Why does a healthy education system require an intentional innovation strategy focused on new models of schooling and learning?
  • Might our seemingly unpropitious times be exactly the right time for such innovation?

This post introduces two further more practical pieces of the jigsaw:

  1. the launch of a School Design Lab intended to support new schools to create designs to fit their ambitions and purposes, or existing school to transform themselves through intentional redesign
  2. an account of an interview with Rob Riordan, co-author of “The New Urban High School” and co-designer with Larry Rosenstock of High Tech High.

The School Design Lab can be researched further from the web site.  It has been prototyped with schools and projects in New York, Sierra Leone and the UK – and is prototyping a school of the future for the Qatar Foundation.  Its core purpose, though, is to support new schools and existing schools in the UK to reimagine both school design and student learning.  As stated in the last post in this series:

Our model of schooling is more than 100 years old and way, way, way out of date.  It’s a model that has failed to achieve equitable outcomes, or to address socio-economic disadvantage, or to engage the potentially disengaged learner (or to engage most learners, for that matter). Nor has it provided teachers with an intellectually challenging profession, or excited and involved parents about the experience of their children.  Effectively, this means that innovation has become limited to new ways of delivering the 60 minute subject-based lesson!

So that’s the first part.  Really short.

The second piece is longer and is well worth reading.  Richard Donnelly has pioneeredREAL Projects work at UCL Academy in London and was recently awarded a Churchill Fellowship to visit and study innovative new schools in the States. As a component of that visit, he has also interviewed Rob Riordan and written about it here as one in a series of illuminating  posts describing the schools and the learning along the way.  Richard has given permission to feature that interview here – and it is A PROFOUND READ.


Richard Donnelly @travelgeordie

Rob Riordan is co-founder of High Tech High, San Diego and President Emeritus of HTH Graduate School of Education.

Me: As a teacher who wants to practice project based learning, how can you make it work under the constraints of exams?

Rob: One way that I look at it is that when we’re in a class that is focused on important content, our aim ought to be, in my view, for students to in some way transform the content.  That it not be simply transmitted as inert knowledge, because if it’s inert it’s going to disappear pretty quickly.  I mean within a couple of weeks after the exam.

So if we’re interested in retention of important pieces of the content or significant meanings from the content, then it needs to be transformed in some way.

Alfred North Whitehead wrote about this 100 years ago.  He said that inert knowledge is not enough, and he also said, along the lines of the ancients, we should educate for the development of dispositions in the 20th century. Sadly, we have been reduced to teaching subjects.  So, the question for someone who is on an exam course is that those courses are about content but they should also be about the development of dispositions.  It’s a question about how do we balance the two. How do we ensure that our students are developing and growing around those dispositions of critical thinking, problem-solving and collaboration and so forth?

Me: Where there is high accountability, it is easier for a teacher to teach to the test, how do we overcome this?  

Rob: It’s a leap of faith in a way to say: ‘I can be more effective and my students will do better on exams if I engage in a pedagogy that is more likely to result in retention.’  I would also say that we are also under some of the same kind of constraints in this country (USA) around this testing mania that we’ve been living with for last 20 years or so and, ultimately, at some point the pressure calls for resistance.  It can be possible to at least explore ways in which to engage in a pedagogy that leads to transformation, even with exams and so forth.  But, tellingly, the reverse side of the question is: where is the evidence that our current pedagogy is the most effective way of preparing kids for the exams and more than the exams?  

Me: I have seen some wonderful work at HTH and Big Picture – the internship programme for example.

Rob: Larry Rosenstock and I worked in Cambridge, Mass for many years and I was his internship guy.  So we did internships with the kids and I would go out on sites and teach humanities with the kids.  It was basically a writing based exploration of their experience in the internship.  But internship stuff is really powerful stuff, life changing for kids.

MeWhat would you say are the 3 most important ‘must dos’ of designing a new school?  

Rob: I think it’s important to begin with is a conversation about teaching and learning and what is really significant about it, and how our new school might, in its faculty (staff) and its programmes, be a place where significant learning is happening all the time.  One can do that with a planning group simply by asking people to reflect on a period in which people really learned something in their own school experience or outside school and share those accounts, then extract from those accounts the elements of significant learning.  Then say: what kind of programme will we need to for it to be like this most of the time? The programme would probably involve things that talk about having the new school be a place where students have access to important audiences for their work; a place where students are engaged in work that connects with the community; a place where students are known well by faculty (staff) – which certainly would have implications for the timetable; and a place where everyone has standing, students and teachers, as members of the community.  Those are elements of significant learning and you can begin the design from there.

So, number one would be to engage in conversations about learning and the kind of learning environment we want to have.  When we opened HTH this led us to insist that we would not separate out kids by perceived ability and that we were going to have an untracked (un-setted) learning environment for all our kids.  A second outcome is that it becomes really important to have a robust learning environment for the adults. So how is that going to happen? The way that happens here is that our teachers arrive at school an hour before the kids every day and engage in learning activities together.

Me: I’m blown away by the level of social capital there is at HTH. I attended a tuning and noticed a whole community of practice. 

Rob: That was one of our design principles from the very beginning.

Me: I can see many benefits of your flat structure but what are the drawbacks?  

Rob: That is a good question. I tend to think more of the benefits and think of the drawbacks being in traditional hierarchical arrangement.  One drawback might be that sometimes it might be hard to know where authority rests and so it becomes an organisational task to figure out how decisions are both arrived at and implemented.  It is really important to figure out how informally and formally we are going to engage in governance, how we decide and, once we have decided to do something, who is going to do it. That needs a lot of attention because the hierarchy isn’t going to decide it for you.  On the other hand there are so many benefits. The big benefit of being horizontal is that everyone has standing.

From the very beginning we also knew that we didn’t want to isolate new teachers from veteran teachers in the way that many schools do.  We want new teachers to be engaged with veteran teachers on the dilemmas of practice that they all face, and those dilemmas for us are triggered by our commitment to equity and diversity.  We embrace this problem as opposed to when you separate them out, and the pernicious effect of separating kids out by perceived ability – which often is a mis-perception of ability.

Me: What would you say to a traditional senior leader with fixed values on disciplinary knowledge? How do you mitigate the mentality of teachers who have ingrained values on the transmission of knowledge?  

Rob: The teacher selection process is vitally important, so raises the question as to what you are looking for.  Changing ones leadership approach is a very difficult process and requires a couple of different things.  One is to try to engineer a change in context so that people can see things in a new way. This can be done through simulations or through initial meetings where the leadership is distributed or rotated.  Meetings where there are group norms (or protocols) around how the group operates, ones which include equal sharing of the air and stuff like that also helps.  It’s a long process.  It involves deep conversations about what we want as a school. If we’re after significant learning that may imply a change in practice and what does that imply for teachers, and then how as a leader might one foster such a robust learning community.

You can’t mandate an adult learning community; you have to build it through consensual processes and processes of dialogue.  Dialogical leadership is what we need to aspire to. How we get there is a challenge, though, especially from a background where it is seen as critical and effective to assume a hierarchical position.  There are lots of leaders who could not function at HTH but who are very good leaders in other contexts.  It’s a matter of matching as well, you wouldn’t want to bring in a good hierarchical, charismatic guy and ask him to shift the way he deals with things and lead us at HTH, it’s not going to work.

Me: So the second part of the question for example was about a teacher having a passion about their subject, e.g. History, and feeling students need to have certain aspects of Historical knowledge.  

Rob: What follows is kind of a joke, in a way, so it’s not serious – but it is.

Every year we ask our directors in a meeting to think about their own teachers and to rank them on a four point scale:  4 is someone who is indispensable; 3 is someone who is a really solid contributor; a 2 is someone who is growing; and a 1 is someone who the place would be better off without.  No names, nothing like that, but what does your staff look like, how many 3s do you have and so forth.  In one meeting, as a joke, I said: “Well in terms of the History teachers, if you’re a 4 your students are making History, if you’re a 3 your students are doing History, in other words being Historians, if you’re a 2 your students are learning History, if you’re a 1 you are History.”

Someone who is really passionate about content, that’s a really good quality that can lead us to interesting projects with kids because kids can get swept along with teacher passion. If the passion is only about the content and not about the process of doing History then we get into trouble a bit.  We want teachers who are interested in engaging students as Historians, doing oral History etc.  There is another way of looking at it.  When we bring in candidates for a position, they teach demonstration lessons.  What I’m looking for is someone who wants to know what and how kids think, as opposed to someone who has some content that he/she wants to transmit. The lesson with a bit of content and a bit of a quiz or test at the end, that teacher is not going to work well at HTH.  If we find a teacher who engages kids in conversation, maybe doesn’t have a lot of classroom management skills, whatever, we hire for attitude and train for skills.

Secondly, for building a new school, it’s critical for the adults to work together well in order to create a healthy environment and also to model that for kids.  When we are hiring, we will bring in 40 teachers on a day and at the end of the day put them in groups of four around tables.  We give them a provocative text to read and say: “Your job as a small group here is to understand the text more deeply and share the air.”  We rotate into the empty chairs and listen to the conversations. It is really important for us for our teachers to be good collaborators.  We have had some competent teachers but with little relationship skill or agency with colleagues, who were disruptive early on in the school. They were not rehired.

MeWhat does your title mean, emperor of rigour?  And what does rigour look like in PBL?

Rob: I had a position here before I became Dean of the Graduate School of Education. I was a roving critical friend.  I taught for 25 years.  I was in classrooms all the time, talking about what I saw and then doing video and that kind of work to take to the directors to raise questions – not just about how we teach but also how we talk about teaching. So, as a roving critical friend nobody reported to me, I didn’t report to anybody, and at one point some conversation said ‘well what is your title?’ So I said ‘Emperor of Rigour’, Emperor because it’s kind of an eyebrow raiser around the notion that people have around hierarchy.  We are very flat so if it’s hierarchy you’re expecting then I’m the emperor.  It was just a joke in a way.  I wanted to engage people in discussions about rigour and that rigour is not about complexity of content, or volume of content.  It’s about the decisions students make moment to moment, to go deeper.  It’s a process issue, not a content issue.  My rules for rigour are:

  • No rigour without engagement
  • No rigour without ownership
  • No rigour without exemplars
  • No rigour without audiences
  • No rigour without purpose
  • No rigour without dreams
  • No rigour without courage
  • No rigour without fun.

I think these are the pre-conditions for rigorous work.  That’s why I call myself ‘emperor of rigour’, because I want to engage people in what it means.

MeIn the UK our students have an exercise book where all their notes are written.  Some teachers will spend an inordinate amount of time marking and giving feedback, www’s ebi’s etc.  Students might then be expected to ‘follow up’ on the feedback with a green pen.  How do you think students should write and how should feedback be given?  

Rob:  I certainly think that students should have thorough and thoughtful feedback on their work. I think also that we are trying to develop self-directed learners, reflective learners.  We are trying to enhance students’ metacognitive capacities and that comes about through practice.  If we’re doing learning 2.0, why would we want to assess it using the means of assessment 1.0 and what would assessment 2.0 look like?  It’s about reflection and dialogue.  It doesn’t mean kids never write essays, but when we talk about our learning environment and the learning kids are doing, its important to us that we engage in dialogical assessment.

I encourage people to let the assessment start with a statement by the student and to let the assessment not only include the performance of the student but also the context in which that performance took place.   The first item on the assessment sheet, a student led comment, should be ‘What in this experience worked well for you and what didn’t work well?  And then tell us about your performance, what was your best work, what your strengths were, what your needs are etc’.  Students write that up and then the teacher responds and agrees, disagrees, adds other comments that the student hadn’t considered. In some cases here, that document goes to parents, through google.docsand the parents are invited to comment.  It’s a cycle of dialogue that is initiated by the student.  That’s my thought on how we might get to thorough and thoughtful feedback but in a dialogical mode that fosters self-direction.

Me: Along your journey of starting HTH would there be anything you would have done differently or any mistakes you have made?

I think of it less in terms of mistakes and more in choices and roads taken which meant that other roads were not taken.  One choice we made early on in the interests of an equitable environment was that we would do age grading.  I taught for many years in which we did not group kids in that way and I would have 9th and 12th graders in the same classroom and could not have imagined teaching in another way.  Sometimes I’d have 9th graders who were quicker or more experienced in some respects than some of the 12th graders.  We did age grading here but one way to get rid of this is to have an elective system where students choose courses.  However, we felt that if students chose courses then they would self-segregate and that males would take courses in mainly tech etc.  We decided we were going to have Humanities 1,2,3,4 and all the students were going to take them.  We would move choice inside the courses.  What it meant was that we didn’t do as much as we might have around cross-age learning.

I’m happy with our choice around all of our students doing internships in 11th grade.  We chose this because, especially for students whose parents had not gone to university, it is in the internship that they realise that they want to and need to go to college.  Working alongside a mentor they realise they need to go to college to achieve that position. When the mentor says it, that’s when it sinks in.  Internships are better college prep than college prep.  Plus, for first generation kids it is at this age that they are beginning to form their adult world networks that more affluent kids already have.  The internship is a way for those kids to form connections. Their mentor will write recommendations for them into university, they are going to connect them to other job possibilities and so on.  The decision to do internships was the right decision, but we did not structure them in the way we might have.  It took us a long time. We originally did it two afternoons a week and the kids were not coming back saying their lives had been changed.  If they went on a two-week trip to Ecuador, they would come back and tell us about it.  We were not getting that kind of testimony and we realised, about 7 years in, we needed to make the internships an immersion.  So we changed it to 3 weeks or 4 weeks where the kid goes to the workplace and doesn’t come to school.  Now we are getting that testimony because the kids are there, experiencing it. We hold mentor luncheons about work and life in the adult world and how to align with the kind of questions we ask them.  Students also create a project and expectation of some serious and significant work out of the internship and also have a 1-1 mentor.