Tag Archives: stem

“We hope to be half as good as the world thinks we are”

In 2015, in the first year of our progressive middle school, we screened the film Most Likely to Succeed at the movie theater in our Swiss village. I remember being delighted with the positive reception of the film’s ideas by many of my colleagues. 

Students at Leysin American School designed and built marble runs in the Edge program’s Da Vinci Lab. Their ideas, their work. As it should be.

The film critiques the current state of K-12 education: the type of school that we can all readily imagine, no matter where we are in the world, since schools are so strikingly homogenous. Students are divided by age, then assigned to a narrow and predictable set of subjects and taught by a single teacher in a model that is mostly transmission of facts. The curriculum is more often than not determined before the teacher meets the students, sometimes locally, sometimes by the national government. As Kurt Vonnegut wrote over and over in Slaughterhouse 5, “And so it goes.” 

And so it goes indeed. But not at High Tech High, which the film presented as an antidote to all that seems a bit toxic about education today. Students learn how to learn with a focus on deeper learning, accompanied by highly transferable skills. They take fewer subjects at one time, going into greater depth, favoring collaborative group work and Socratic seminars over teacher lecture. They create projects which they share publicly. 

In the film, one highly motivated boy ultimately learns about collaboration, from failing to collaborate, and one timid girl blossoms as the director of a play, caught up in her leadership role. Her mom cries when reflecting on her growth. I cried right along with the mom. If I weren’t sitting here with my laptop at Gate B51 in the San Diego airport, I might let myself cry right now, just remembering the impact those scenes had on me.

That is education. That’s how good it can be. 

But so often it is not.

I wanted our middle school to have an environment like I saw portrayed in that movie. We didn’t try to become High Tech High, of course. Our setting was different, the constraints were different, a lot was different. But we created our own brand of progressive education and I’m proud of what we accomplished. Unfortunately, the effort lasted three years before various forces molded the middle school back into traditional school – the kind you’d recognize anywhere. 

Out of its hubris we had the chance to start another program. Feeling wiser, I dared a bit more, no longer hiding that subject content was a secondary goal. We were going after constructs like collaboration and imagination instead. Where we had softened grades in middle school, we now ditched them entirely. We openly talked to students and parents about why we did things differently. We shared with other educators in conferences and meetings. 

And then COVID.

Perhaps there’s a bit of irony that my visit to High Tech High, something I’ve dreamed of for years, came in the context of one of the first face-to-face post-COVID (knock on wood) visits they hosted for outsiders. Sadly, it was also post middle school and, at least for me, post experimental programs after middle school. The sudden work stoppage due to COVID served to reorient me, like many of us, and I ultimately passed the progressive torch to others. I was worn out, simply put. Too much like wading in mud, no matter how convinced I still am that it is the right thing for kids and education. 

But there I was, at High Tech High, my lighthouse, my north star. I listened with interest to our host, Kelly, who introduced our agenda and then quickly moved us out into school visits. I went with the group going to the original school, since I figured it was the one in the film. Whether I should be embarrassed about it or not, I felt a bit like I was stepping across the threshold of a religious shrine as we stepped into the school.

The walls were covered in projects. Through the glass on my left a class was in session. Or maybe on break, it was hard to tell. We stepped down the hall and into a biology classroom that quacked so much like a makerspace that it was a makerspace. Biology wasn’t visible in the student project of building self-designed wooden tables, but the teacher assured us there were connections. Who cares, really, these students were working together on some pretty good looking tables. That is, most were working, some were sort of tagging along, and a few were on their phones. They could have been researching wood or tensile strength or something else table-like, I didn’t ask them. 

We view through our own lenses no matter what, I guess, and I jumped right away to the conclusion that this looked very much like the makerspace created by my colleague, Tom, at our school.  When the teacher said that they would sell their tables, I thought of Tom’s student, Ola, who sold her table this semester. Tom doesn’t claim to be teaching biology. He does claim to be teaching student agency, something the High Tech High teacher is deliberately doing, too. 

I know he and his colleagues are teaching agency because my tour guide, a sophomore, explains in her ultra mature and friendly manner that while there may be a few gaps here or there in her subject knowledge, she is sure that High Tech High is providing her the soft skills she’ll need to succeed later. She is walking proof of what she says: articulate, poised, professional, and 16 years old. Exactly what I would like for my own daughters, my own students. The knowledge gaps, if there are some, can be addressed with tutoring or classes as needed, our tour guide tells us. I absolutely agree. Soft skills would be harder to address later, because they are habits, ways of being.

Students focus on fewer classes, with more time for each, with an intentional interdisciplinary focus. Collaboration and creativity are nurtured. I see students in traditional looking classes, students in small groups, students reading individually. I also see many young teachers. The two teachers I speak with tell me that they have lots of freedom with the curriculum and lots of freedom with how they teach. Their students tell me that they have lots of voice, that their opinions about what they are learning and how they are learning matter. I think about a social studies teacher I knew that created a semester-long simulation of countries vying for economic and political power … and the criticism he had to fend off for going off script. That wouldn’t happen here. I think about a student I know who, after discovering during COVID that she had learned more online and enjoyed online learning more than her previous experience of face-to-face learning, was told she couldn’t continue with a self-designed hybrid of in-class and online learning because “she had to learn to learn she wasn’t special.” I don’t think that would happen here at High Tech High, either. At the very least, student input would be taken seriously. Perhaps that alone makes the school standout.

I didn’t leave at the end of the day ready to apply for a teaching job at High Tech High. (I had worried that I might be so compelled by my visit that I might not be happy unless I applied for a job!) In fact, in a strange way, it was comforting to see that within our traditional school mindset we have been able to emulate, in our own style, some of the ideals of High Tech High. It seems even High Tech High has to be content with more or less the same measure. As Kelly said, quoting one of the influential founders of the school, We hope to be half as good as the world thinks we are.” 

I hope High Tech High keeps striving to meet our expectations – I think they can be as good as we think they are. And you and I need to keep trying to be half as good as they are. Our students deserve it.

STEAM/STEM Core Skills

By: Tony DePrato | Follow me on Twitter @tdeprato

Developing STEM and STEAM programs (Science Technology Engineering/Art Mathematics) is very exciting, but I have noticed recently there is a lack of cohesive standards to measure progress.

Like many people, I am working on building a set of standards. Some are customized, and some are licensed.

In my research, and through various networking engagements, I have settled on a set of core skills that need to be incorporated throughout the STEAM environment. The standards are being built around these skills.

I have found more engagement among students if the skills are presented first. The skills tend to fuel the desire for hands on work. I also want students to not focus on grades and common rubric models. I want them to focus on creating and going through the design process.

These skills have been developed by the MIT FabLab Program. The FabLab has been operating for well over a decade, and many FabLab partners have developed programs for younger students as well.

The overall philosophy is to learn the skills at every level, but increase the difficulty and complexity within the projects as students gain experience.

The List


Looking at this list, it might seem impossible to imagine a Grade 3 or even Grade 8 students accomplishing these in a meaningful way. I would argue that all are achievable at least at the planning and design thinking stage. Most of these are achievable with the correct level or equipment and/or some creative outsourcing.

The Game

Gamification has been a buzzword at conferences for some time. I have finally found an fairly universal way to “gamify” the list and formally track progress.

As students learn a core skill at different levels, their progress as a class or individual can be color coded.

Sample Using Colors

For better analysis, the color bands can also connect to numeric values. There are many ways to approach tracking. Even curriculum mapping systems can do this.

The best part about this structure, is each school can decide what their levels mean for their students.

I look at this as age independent. It is very possible for a grade 5 student to be a beginner in many skills, and have completed others at a level. It is also very likely that many older students who have never attempted STEAM topics, would fine they can quickly master Levels 1-3, while struggling with the final two levels.

As a student, I would like to see this type of grid and work towards being in the all green club :).

As a teacher, I would like to have students be all green, and after the smiles settle, add Level 6.

If you are inclined, share how you are measuring STEAM and STEM skills or standards. You can do this in the comments, or email me directly. I will post all ideas and give you full credit. ~ [email protected]

Inverse Relationships: Project Based Subjects and Class Size

By: Tony DePrato | Follow me on Twitter @tdeprato

A classroom containing 18–24 students appears to be the ideal number. Anything less and you lose the unique excitement that comes from a critical mass of engaged students. ~A Commentary and Review of Malcom Gladwell’s research on small class sizes; David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants by Malcolm Gladwell

The Hattie Research

I was introduced to Visible Learning by John Hattie   a few years ago. After studying the data, and doing a course that focused on the data, I was forced to reflect on my beliefs and practices as an educator.

As an IT professional that actually uses meta data to make decisions, I knew the power of data about data.

I think the one point that must be made is that the data and analysis used by Hattie is what is known as long-tail data. Hattie did not find a “smoking gun” or a “big reveal”. He found a collection of things, that when working in combination, make a difference in learning out comes.

This data, when studied, must be studied as a collection. Focusing on a single point, and believing doing “that one thing” will make a difference, is a mistake.

The Hattie data can be viewed here. 

The following image focuses on the areas addressed in this post.


The Class Size Issue in Project Based Subjects

The relationship between class size and project based subjects is inverse compared to studies that look at traditional courses where instruction is rote, and the differentiation needs to be very focused.

Of the top 22 Hattie indicators, 10 connect directly to courses that at project based:

  • Self Report Grades
  • Piagetian Programs
  • Response to Intervention
  • Cognitive Task Analysis
  • Classroom Discussion
  • Teacher Clarity (Students Questioning Teacher Instruction)
  • Reciprocal Teaching (6 Facets of Understanding)
  • Feedback
  • Formative Evaluation
  • Self Questioning

Class size has been a central focus in nearly every school improvement plan I have been connect with. In fact, I recently helped build a schedule that was nearly solely dictated by class size.

As some one who solely works in project based subjects, team driven contests, and peer reviewed assessment I can attest that small classes are detrimental to learning in these environments.

When a class falls below 12 students, the student input, instances of serendipitous discoveries, the diversity of teams, and the needed conflict to fuel trial and error scenarios  all diminish. To be clear: the class becomes boring and stagnant.

Students need to be formed and re-formed into teams and groups in a project based environment. They need variety of opinion. They need to take the lead and be the teacher; they need to lead their peers; and they need their peers to explain “what went wrong” when failure happens. And failure will happen more often than trophies are presented.

If a class size is too small, this process (learning spiral) becomes repetitive and predictable. In my experience, small classes can be a stimulus for groupthink.

As a teacher, I can entertain and keep the energy going. As a believer in a student-centered environment where there is no “front of the room”, being the center of attention undermines that belief.

Successful Projects are Busy and Messy

I recently visited three MIT powered Fablabs. All the labs were busy, messy, and had learners ranging in age from 16-60.

These people were working on entrepreneurial projects, or science projects. The work is difficult at every turn, and the skills are interdisciplinary. In fact, I doubt it is possible for a single person to do their entire project alone. There is collaboration, and exchange of work and ideas, and a general consensus that failure is going to be very common.

These labs run programs and open work days based on simple metrics:

  1. The capacity of the room
  2. The availability of the staff/instructors to help people with specialized equipment

They do not balance sessions to keep the number of people to an optimal level of learning, because they know that having a variety of people means having a variety of talents and ideas.

Project based subjects are not about giving everyone an opinion or platform for an idea. These subjects revolve around taking an idea and making it a reality. Students not only have a variety of known talents, they also have a hidden talents.

Engaging students with a group of people they may not socialize with; allowing them to team up to offset each other’s weaknesses; and scaffolding peer/self criticism into every project is the secret to unlocking a students potential. New potential will lead students to see new opportunities.

Creating opportunity for students should always supersede creating small classes for the sake of creating small classes.




download1By Tony DePrato | Follow me on Twitter @tdeprato

School administrators are often faced with complex decisions about curriculum, assessment, and the oversight of both. There is a myopic condition that can occur as conversations lead people into a spiral of good intentions full of false understanding. This condition is the belief that learning is a one-to-one relationship, and that content is related to a course or single field of study. The truth is learning, real learning, is a one-to-many relationship where content can connect to an unpredictable number of areas if it is allowed to develop organically and time as a constant is removed.

Understanding One-to-Many Relationships

A one-to-many relationship is often used in database development. It is normally defined as a situation where an element of A may be linked to many elements of B, but a member of B is linked to only one element of A. For instance, think of A as mothers, and B as children. A mother can have several children, but a child can have only one mother.[1]

In terms of education and learning, a one-to-many relationship is created when something learned in one context becomes relevant in another context. For example, a student in a math course learns about sample size. Then when they are working on a psychology research paper they apply that concept to their survey initiatives. I used math and psychology as examples because I have often spoken with students who enjoy psychology, but claim they are not skilled in math. Flipping the relationship, if students studied sample size mathematics in psychology I wonder if they would feel the same about their computational abilities?

Unlike the database model, there is no real restriction on the relationships between knowledge. An idea (a child) can form new paths and ideas and become a parent.

Supporting the Unpredictable

As administrators debate, decide, and set policy they should consider that the best outcomes are often unpredictable. The history of invention has taught the human race this lesson, yet we seem to constantly try to create outcomes instead of observing what is happening without constant intervention.

The only true way for students to experience one-to-many relationships is to set guidelines for teachers that stress a continuum of learning around a single topic. Most topics have many layers, and as students spiral through the topic they can experience connections to other topics.

The concept of mastery becomes a single question: Have I gone as far as I can go?

Each time a student re-enters the topic they move closer and closer to the answer to that question. They may never reach the end, but they will reach a satisfactory point where they can justify saying, “For now, I am finished.”


Supporting this type of learning is difficult. It requires the administration to discourage small unit based learning and timed slices of activities. School leadership also has to set policies and procedures that allow students to constantly revise and revisit previous projects and topics for additional credit and potential accolades.

From the top level down to the classroom, many aspects of daily life must change to accommodate the organic nature of a continuum of learning. One barrier many students face is an appointed single subject resource. Textbooks, websites, and other pre-selected and filtered materials box students into silo of information. Inside of a silo, they may not see connections to other ideas, and students may dislike the format(s). Department leaders need to be required, not requested, to diversify the options to allow students some choice in the formal materials required to meet the curriculum requirements.

One might think the internet allows for unlimited access to learning. Unfortunately unstructured materials are just as bad as a limited materials. Teachers are subject experts, and they need to help students make smart choices. Having diversity in resources, does not omit the need for standards.

As a computer science teacher I would often have three to four textbooks students could use. I did not set units of work with books, I set projects that I knew could be supported with all the books. Each book was structured differently and had an appeal to different students. Never forget, the medium is the message.[1]

Large scale change to improve learning does not require administrators to sit in a room and write dozens of standards. Developing core concepts that people can understand and support creates a mission everyone can support. And ‘people’, must include students.

When you push students towards an endless formative outcome, the stress and pressure are as real as preparing for an all encompassing summative assessment. The only difference is the student(s) will work until they find the end, and not stop because someone has told them the end is now.

I had a STREAME(L)

I had a STEM, I mean STEAM, I mean STREAM, oh heck, I mean STREAME(L). It’s what happens when innovation meets institutions. We come up with catchy phrases and then glom everything onto it so it’s impossible to figure out (Read: global citizen).


Yes, it was a good move to integrate the arts into the hard sciences. It gave STEM more complexity and makes it sound less “sputniky” and more “21st century(ee). (For you youngins, Sputnik was Russian launching of Earth’s first satellite in 1957 that catapulted America into the space race and gave birth to a generation of engineers and scientists). So, we have evolved to some extent from guys with tape in the middle of their glasses to girls coding with their MacBook Air.

Having said that, schools are still missing the point. Doing more stuff isn’t innovation, it’s annihilation. Of your teachers, your resources, and your time. When are we going to start doing things differently? Is anyone eliminating their science programs altogether and creating a new STEAM platform? Of course not, we’re hiring a coordinator and hoping that he or she can catch up and integrate it into a jam packed IB curriculum (and don’t you dare let those scores drop).

The best schools in the world are creating separate R&D branches that allow the time and space for prototyping STEAM and other initiatives (before they lose steam). It’s a bold move for those with the time and resources to do so. It’s bold because it speaks not only to program development but the entire scope of how we do business, not just creating new positions that will eventually be cut or turned into something else.

But how to integrate those ideas into fixed, existing structures built on high risk/reward (getting high paying clients into the best colleges) is not something for the faint of heart. And in a leadership culture where int’l heads tend to move on average every three years before innovation can take root, therein lies an endemic roadblock to change.

So, it’s not about STEM or STEAM, STREAM, or my favorite STREAME(L). It’s not about institutional fixes (i.e. creating positions) to complex institutional problems. It’s about what the best athletes in the world can do, and that is to slow down the game so that they can see it unfolding before them, then making the move.

Hey, what do you want from me? Nobody Said It Was Easy!