Posts Tagged real-world skills

The Long Overdue Death of 19th-Century Education

Published by — If all the information is becoming accessible on-line, let’s shift the balance to helping kids acquire skills.


The recent Greg Whiteley film Most Likely to Succeed looks deeply into the workings of a school that has turned its back on traditional education.  Gone are the rows of desks, the “cells and bells” (the prison of the 6, 7-period day), “drill and kill” test prep, and the glazed look in the eyes of passive learners.  Instead we see high school students in groups wrestling with design problems, and individuals riveted to the product they’re producing on the rich array of machinery the school makes accessible to them.  Kids are busy, engaged.  The school didn’t tinker around the edges, but built with a new strategy from the ground up.

It’s a refreshing welcome departure from education that seems more interested in teaching compliance and obedience than a love of learning.

The film focuses on High Tech High (HTH) in San Diego, California.  The filmmakers concede that it’s not the only radical school experiment that’s now in full flower.  But they shot footage there for a year because it shows a clear image of what else education might be.  Ed revolutionaries like Sal Khan of Khan Academy and Sir Ken Robinson, a guru of creativity, talk about how the current education system came about in the 19th century and how badly outmoded it’s become.  For example, if a job can be automated, it will be, and soon.  So the ability to be compliant to repetitive-task jobs that depend on an unchanging knowledge base is a fast-fading reality.  Far more important are creativity, collaboration and self-starting, characteristics highly valued by HTH.

Theoretically, education maintains a balance between content and skills.

Contrary to its name, High Tech High (HTH) is not a vocational school steeped in computer and software technology – like the excellent Advanced Math and Science Academy in Massachusetts.  Instead, HTH’s idea of “tech” is that young people now grow up in a world where all information is accessible through the internet.  The key, then, is to shift the balance to helping kids acquire skills, including knowing how to dig content out of cyberspace and make good sense of it.

So HTH is entirely “project-based.”  Student groups design the project and then divvy up the work among leaders of sub-teams responsible for, say, the costumes, set, or lighting.  On “Project Night” at the end of each semester, they present their work to friends, family and community.  One grade immersed itself in 5th century Greece and a group of them took on the task of interpreting Euripides’ Trojan Women in the contemporary setting of modern Pakistan.

The HTH teachers’ role is to inform, suggest, set broad expectations, and keep the projects from going off the rails.  Content-area teachers seem to pair off in odd couplings, like history and engineering (Physics).  One teacher pair charged their group with digesting certain documents, politics, arts, and social history into a theory of the rise and fall of civilizations — an intellectual reach to say the least.  Having created their theory, backed by historical research, each group then worked with the engineering teacher to build a device that will represent their theory.  I didn’t understand the connection, but the finished device in motion was gorgeous.

Larry Rosen, the school’s CEO (principal) says, there’s just nothing like “making something that wasn’t there before.”

Does High Tech High school “work?”

Despite the film’s competitive title, that question runs through the minds of everyone committed to the experiment.  But what does “work” mean?

HTH’s teachers and especially the parents worry that the school might fail at getting kids into college.  They might stumble on career paths that still depend on credentialing.   A HTH math teacher concedes that his students learn perhaps 40% of the content taught in a conventional math course.  Will that be okay?  The film’s experts argue that higher education needs an overhaul at least as badly as K-12 to accommodate the values of the new workplace.  Probably so, but good luck with that.

If “work” means that the school beats the expectations the education industry currently obsesses over, HTH students test about 10% higher and graduate 10% more seniors than state average.  This is not a soaring achievement, but it does show that engagement gets more content into the kids’ heads than the California average.  And is that important?  National test-score evidence shows that traditional schools aren’t making much headway on basic skills either, so do those schools “work?”  Those metrics might only measure the percent of kids with supportive families or a high tolerance to sitting.

The time has come to rethink what we want from education and to recalibrate the metrics when we know.  In the meantime it’s horrible to watch schooling dim the curiosity and engagement every baby is born with.  The people in the film do not claim to have the answer.  New school experiments haven’t been around long enough to produce long-term outcomes.  Likely we’re only at the very beginning of the journey out of the 19th century legacy of teaching and learning.

But it’s about time.


Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see or contact her at or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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Economy Tells Youth to Make Their Own Jobs

Published by — Project Breaker uses building a social-venture business as the center of their learning experience.

“School is often divorced from the real world. And Millennials believe they have to follow their passions, so they’re very frustrated. So how do we help kids create value (paid work) by learning the skills they need in order to follow their passion? Because young people are realizing that in this economy, they might have to create the job of their dreams for themselves.”

Juliette LaMontagne, long time educator and Ted Talk fellow, was A Better Word By Design’s keynote speaker. This conference is for innovators who believe that like the scientific process, the design process can reliably help anyone work a problem through a series of iterative steps to solution. LaMontagne concedes that she once knew little to nothing about design or business thinking. But what she did know, deep down, was that our education system is failing the students who find sitting in classrooms all day full-on painful.

For 15 years LaMontagne had a promising career with the New York City schools. She walked away in abject frustration. She couldn’t be part of schools that treat students as “empty vessels to be filled” with knowledge and skills, passively, compliantly. Teachers can’t be innovators; they get a curriculum and instruction in how to get the kids to “learn” to arrive at right answers. Instead of enjoying the peak of their youthful vigor and energy, students are parked in chairs and expected to receive learning. Wake me when it’s over!

LaMontagne says, “I have a bias towards action and a willingness to experiment.” So she turned education on its head with a project called Breaker. (Yes, an odd name) Home-based in New York City — though with projects elsewhere — Breaker assembles interdisciplinary teams to “drive social innovation and collaborative learning.” Breaker leaders pose social problems, like increasing literacy or inventing urban farming techniques, and invites young people (who apply) to work with experts who have relevant practical skills. Together, the team uses an open-source IDEO design toolkit which lays out a process for collecting information, brainstorming ideas and testing solutions. The point is to create a sustainable business that solves the problem on an on-going basis, if possible.

So instead of a kid learning enough math, engineering, social science, communications skills to build something useful or remarkable later on, maybe, someday in the future, when there’s a job — build now. Learn the necessary skills along the way. Yes, this is project-based learning, which is not a radically new idea. But Breaker’s problem-solving business is at the center of the work. Actually fix something. Don’t invent a little hands-on project intended to reinforce a lesson. Focus for real on designing a necessary product, service, business.

LaMontagne’s favorite team member was a high-school dropout who had terrific communication and community-organizing skills, and horrible academic skills. As the people-person best able to negotiate with businesses and the community, he was well respected by the team, and thus motivated — at last! — to learn what traditional classrooms made impossible.

LaMontagne’s TED talk describes the project he worked on. The question was how to bring more garden space to inner-city areas, so people could grow their own fresh food. The team assembled in Breaker’s New York City space and started collecting data. They discovered that U.S. urban areas have about a million acres of unused land that could be converted into farmland. But lots of these areas are stalled construction projects that lost funding during the recession. So the garden plots needed to be temporary, able to be moved relatively quickly when the owner or the Department of Transportation finally got around to needing the land back. The project became a business called “Farm Blocks,” which manufactures lightweight containers that become modular, raised planting beds.

Some of the Farm Blocks team stayed on to work at what had become a viable business. Others were content with Breaker’s rich learning experience, and moved on.

Currently, Breaker reaches out mainly to 18-24-year-olds, a group whose 15.1% unemployment rate is twice the nation’s 7.3% rate. But as a frustrated K-12 educator, LaMontagne passionately recommends that schools adopt this go-getter entrepreneurial technique for K-12 kids maddened by educational passivity. “Students say I wish I were out in the real world making something happen. Have students decide what question to ask. The teacher becomes the facilitator. The product is the evaluation.”

She adds, “Imagine the collective impact of non-empty vessels, and instead engines of innovation. Imagine moving from centralized schools to learning distribution networks with community stakeholders strongly invested in the issues.”

Imagine how much better communities might look and feel when youth is out solving neighborhood problems with the support of educators.

Btw: nationally, student achievement has barely budged in many years. The nation’s flat SAT scores are the most recent evidence. Our current educational methods are obviously not working for a good portion of the nation’s students — I’d ballpark it at a third. Why not let more of them try their hand at business, especially since many will have to invent their own jobs anyway?

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at and She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street.

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