31 January 2017

The Low Tech of High Tech High

Photo Credit: Ewan MacIntosh

Last week I had the privilege of touring two of High Tech High’s three campuses (probably 8 or 9 of their 13 total schools in total). I had read about them for years, starting with Tony Wagner’s Global Achievement Gap back in 2009 or 2010. However excited I was, I still tried to go into the experience without a bunch of ill-conceived expectations. And I think I was relatively successful, except for one glaring exception: I expected to see “high technology” — re: the newest technological gadgets and digital devices.

On the face of it, expecting “high tech” at High Tech High seems like an easily forgivable if not entirely reasonable assumption to make — the concept is in the name itself.
That this was my expectation caught me off guard a bit; it came on more like an unearthed latent assumption that I had to really reflect on. In my mind I must have expected a brand-new 3 story high school, complete with new agile learning spaces, and classrooms and labs pimped out with all the latest and greatest #edtech.

On the face of it, expecting “high tech” at High Tech High seems like an easily forgivable if not entirely reasonable assumption to make — the concept is in the name itself.

But this latency goes deeper too — to the now near reflexive nature with which too many talk about school in popular culture: that high technology and high performing are almost necessarily linked. From Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates to personalized learning and STEM, we hear that high technology is both necessary and increasingly ubiquitous in the best schools, where students get the best preparation for the brave new world we are entering into.

However, my visit to HTH in many ways proved the opposite — the most impressive and pervasive technology I saw is probably the “lowest” form of technology there is: human to human relationships. What this low tech amounts to in practice is in an explicit focus on the relationships between the human beings who come there everyday to do awesome things.

What the humans are doing, not what the humans are using.


Focusing on the human relationships created and encouraged by the design of the school structures kept popping up, in both small and large ways.
This isn’t to say there isn’t high tech at HTH. I saw plenty of technology many schools would love to have (can every school pretty please get a laser cutter!), and saw plenty of semester projects based on awesome uses of tech (plus award winning robotics clubs). But I never once got into a conversation where the people there talked about the technology as being constituent of who they are and what they represent.

I also didn’t get the impression that VR sets, 3D printers, SMARTboards, or 1:1 programs were an organizational priority, and the majority of the classrooms I visited looked more like 20th century shop classes than 21st century learning spaces. In fact I probably saw more students with shop tools in their hands over my 3 day visit than I did with MacBooks or smart phones.

Focusing on the human relationships created and encouraged by the design of the school structures kept popping up, in both small and large ways.

Kaleb Rashad, the director of the Gary & Jerri-Ann Jacobs High Tech High School, explained this to me as the re-centering of education back to the human beings (true human-centered design), where the relationships we form and encourage are not mediated through metrics, evaluations, and credentialing (which so much of education is these days). That is the de-humanized approach, where once we align and standardize, anyone can do it. It de-humanizes our relationships and our work, and hence our educational goals and aims.

These human relationships — student to student, student to family, student to teacher, teacher to family, teacher to teacher, teacher to administrator, student to administrator, family to administrator, and administrator to administrator — instead form the very basis and act as the very rational for the work, not as a means to some further end, rather as the end in itself. A humanized approach.

• • •

The High Tech High network of schools are many things (big and small), and many of these things more schools should be trying to learn about, with and from them. However, even as oxymoronic as it sounds, one thing they are not is “high technology.”

And while they can be considered some of the original, intrepid pioneers of showing the world the educational power of Project-Based Learning as an organizing principle, to me that isn’t who they really came off as.

Who are they really? — Vanguards of the human-centered learning revolution.


(And expectation destroyers.)

And there within is the magic of the “low tech” of High Tech High.


Thanks to Kaleb Rashad, Mike Strong, and everyone else at High Tech High for their time while I was there. I am sure there will be many more personal reflections and unpacking in the future ;)

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