“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.

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