The film Most Likely to Succeed (2015), directed by Greg Whiteley, documents High Tech High, a school with an alternative approach to education. High Tech High operates under the belief that not all students learn the same way and that what students need to know is not the same as it was in previous generations. They do this by focusing less on work sheets, text books, and testing and present students with bigger projects that encapsulate the learning outcomes. The film generally depicts the school as forward thinking and leading students to the same or greater levels of success as other institutions. Overall they depict the school in a very positive light.
It should be noted that the Most Likely to Succeed does have some flaws worth pointing out. Firstly, the story mainly focuses on two students, one who succeeds and the other who initially does not meet his projects due date but then eventually manages to complete his work. The school presents all the students as being as equally dedicated to their work but, based on my teaching experience, I find it difficult to believe that all students meet the same success shown in the film. Secondly, the school is a charter school which may allow them to pick and choose their students which is not the reality of the Canadian schooling system.
In the Technology Education courses I teach (woodwork, electronics, robotics), I already employ many of the teaching methods that High Tech High uses, such as inquiry and project based learning. Students are presented with a project or goal and then we work towards achieving it. For example, in grade 9 Woodwork, students are challenged to make a cutting board. We spend time researching design ideas and each student comes up with their own. From there we learn about shop safety, machine use, and techniques needed to make the project. This is all done hands on and with entire class participation. From their the students work to make their project with guidance when required. When we reach the end of the project students walk away with a new custom cutting board to bring home and they have learned how to use almost all the wood shops machines. They might not know it then, but they have learned a great deal in a relatively short project which will come into play for nearly every other project they make. This knowledge will help them think more critically when attempting future work.
Most Likely to Succeed talks about High Tech High’s focus on the soft skills, such as critical thinking, collaboration, learning from criticism, good work ethic, and how to work on your own. All these skills are encouraged and developed in my classroom to the best of my ability. It is extremely important to me that my students can overcome challenges on their own and in groups. They need to work with respect for themselves, others, and the equipment they work with (which can be extremely dangerous). A short coming of mine when helping students develop soft skills is that I often give answers too readily instead of allowing students work through the problem. This is often due to time restraints. I am getting better at not doing this, but I still catch myself giving students the easy road from time to time.
In the film there is some criticism about what High Tech High is doing. Many parents are concerned about students doing well on academic tests that open doors to post secondary education. I don’t believe this is nearly as much a problem in Canada as it is in the USA, but I can understand their worry. They want their children to do well and go onto a successful career and low-test scores can hold you back. Personally, I am not a believer in heavily weighted testing. I have met too many smart people in their field who do terribly on tests to believe them to be a great indicator of knowledge learned. That is further compounded by students cramming information before a test and then immediately forgetting it almost immediately after. I have done this myself. I consider myself lucky to teach a discipline (Technology Education) that rarely requires testing in the traditional sense. I find that having a student build and work on a project to completion is a test in and of itself and is often far more fun and rewarding for the students and teacher.
One thing that it appears High Tech High does well is cross curricular education. I have been searching for ways to do that with other teachers in my school, but it has been difficult to do with rotating blocks and a structured bell structure. This coming school year I hope to team up with my school’s foods/sustainability teacher in making an automated garden with his classes and my robotics/electronics classes.