30 minute interview with Rob Riordan

Rob Riordan is co-founder of High Tech High, San Diego and President Emeritus of HTH Graduate School of Education.  Rob kindly gave me some of his time and I asked him a few questions on my recent visit to San Diego as a Fellow of the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust.

Me: As a teacher who wants to practice project based learning, how can you make it work under the constraints of exams?

Rob: One way that I look at it is, that when we’re in a class that is focused on important content, our aim ought to be, in my view, for students to in some way transform the content.  That it not be simply transmitted as inert knowledge because if its inert it’s going to disappear pretty quickly.  I mean within a couple of weeks after the exam.

So if we’re interested in retention of important pieces of the content or significant meanings from the content, then it needs to be transformed in some way.

Alfred North Whitehead wrote about this 100 years ago.  He said that enough with inert knowledge and he also said along the lines of the ancients educated for the development of dispositions in the 20th century, sadly we have been reduced to teaching subjects.  So the question for someone who is on an exam course is that those courses are about content but they are also about the development of dispositions.  It’s a question about how do we balance the two and how do we assure that our students are developing and growing around those dispositions of critical thinking , problem solving and collaboration and so forth.  Me: Where there is high accountability, it is easier for a teacher to teach to the test, how do we overcome this?  Rob: It’s a leap of faith in a way to say that I can be more effective and my students do better on exams if I engage in a pedagogy which is more likely to result in retention.  I would also say that, we are also under some of the same kind of constraints in this country (USA) around this testing mania that we’ve been living with for last 20 years or so and ultimately at some point the pressure calls for resistance.  It can be possible to at least explore ways in which engages in this pedagogy that leads to transformation even with exams and so forth.  But the reverse side of the question is, where is the evidence that our current pedagogy is the most effective way of preparing kids for the exams and more than the exams.  Me: I have seen some wonderful work at HTH and Big picture, the internship programme for example.  Rob: Larry Rosenstock and I worked in Cambridge, Mass for many years and I was his internship guy.  So we did internships with the kids and I would go out on sites and teach humanities with the kids.  It was basically a writing based exploration of their experience in the internship.  But internship stuff is really powerful stuff, life changing for kids.

Me: What would you say are the 3 most important ‘must dos’ of designing a new school?  

Rob: I think its important to begin with is a conversation about teaching a learning and what is really significant and how might our new school in its facility and its programme be a place where significant learning is happening all the time.  One can do that with a planning group simply by asking people to reflect on a period in which people really learned something in their own school experience or outside of school and share those accounts, extract from those accounts the elements of significant learning then say what kind of programme will we need, the programme would probably involve things that talk about having the new school be a place where students have access to an important audiences for their work, a place where students are engaged in  work that connects with the community, a place where students are known well by faculty which certainly would have implications for the timetable and a place where everyone has standing, students and teachers as members of the community.  Those are elements of significant learning and to begin the design from there.  So number one would be to engage in conversations about learning and the kind of learning environment we want to have.  When we opened HTH this led us to insist that we would not separate out kids by perceived ability and that we were going to have an untracked learning environment for all of our kids.  A second one is really important to have a robust learning environment for the adults, so hows that going to happen, the way that happens here is that our teachers arrive at school an hour before the kids everyday.  Me: I’m blown away by the level of social capital there is, I attended a tuning and noticed a whole community of practice.  Rob: That was one of our design principles from the very beginning.  Me: I can see many benefits of your flat structure but what are the drawbacks?  Rob: That is a good question, I tend to think more of the benefits and think of the drawbacks of the hierarchical arrangement.  One drawback might be that sometimes it might be hard to know where authority rests and so it becomes an organisational task to figure out how decisions are both arrived at and implemented.  It is really important to figure out how informally and formally we are going to engage in governance, how we decide once we have decided to do something who is going to do it, needs a lot of attention because the hierarchy isn’t going to decide it for you.  On the other hand there are so many benefits, the big benefit of being horizontal is that everyone has standing. From the very beginning we also knew that we didn’t want isolate new teachers from veteran teachers that many schools do.  We want new teachers to be engaged with veteran teachers on the dilemmas of practice that they all face and those dilemmas for us are triggered by our commitment to equity and diversity.  We embrace this problem as opposed to when you separate out and the pernicious effect by separating kids out by perceived ability which often is a miss perception of ability.

Me: What would you say to a traditional senior leader with fixed values on disciplinary knowledge? How do you mitigate the mentality of teachers who have ingrained values on the transmission of knowledge?  

Rob: The teacher selection process is vitally important, so raises the question as to what you are looking for.  Changing ones leadership approach is a very difficult process and requires a couple of different things.  One is to try to engineer a change in context so that people can see things in a new way. Through simulations or through initial meetings where the leadership is distributed or rotated.  Meetings where there are group norms around how the group operates which includes sharing the air and stuff like that.  It’s a long process.  It involves deep conversations about what do we want as a school. If we’re after significant learning that may imply a change in practice and what does that imply as for teachers and how as a leader might one foster a robust learning community.  You can’t mandate an adult learning community you have to build it through consensual processes and processes of dialogue.  Dialogical leadership is what we need to aspire to, how we get there with set ways perhaps from a background where it is critical and effective to assume a hierarchical position?  There are lots of leaders who could not function at HTH but who are very good leaders in other contexts.  Its a matter of matching as well, you wouldn’t want to bring in a good hierarchical, charismatic guy and ask him to shift the way he deals with things and lead us at HTH, it’s not going to work.  Me: So the second part of the question for example was about a teacher having a passion about their subject e.g. History and feeling students need to have certain aspects of Historical knowledge.  Rob: This is of kind of a joke in a way, so it’s not serious but it is.

Every year we ask our directors in a meeting to think about their own teachers and to rank them on a four point scale.  4 is someone who is indispensible, 3 is someone who is a really solid contributor, a 2 someone who is growing and a 1 is someone who the place would be better off without.  No names nothing like that, what does your staff look like, how many 3s do you have and so forth.  In one meeting as a joke I said well in terms of the History teachers, if you’re a 4 your students are making History, if you’re a 3 your students are doing History, in other words being Historians, if you’re a 2 your students are learning History, if you’re a 1 you are History.

Someone who is really passionate about content that’s a really good quality that can lead us to interesting projects with kids because kids can get swept along with teacher passion.  If the passion is only about the content and not about the process of doing History then we get into trouble a bit.  We want teachers who are interested in engaging students as Historians, doing oral History etc.  Another way of looking at it, when we bring in candidates for a position they teach demonstration lessons.  I’m looking for is someone who wants to know what and how kids think.  As opposed to someone who has some content that he/she wants to transmit. The lesson with a bit of content and a bit of a quiz at the end, that teacher is not going to work well at HTH.  If we find a teacher who engages kids in conversation, maybe doesn’t have a lot of classroom management skills whatever, we hire for attitude and train for skills.  Secondly, for building a new school, its critical for the adults to work together well in order to create a healthy environment and also to model that for kids.  We also when we are hiring, we will bring in 40 teachers on a day and at the end of the day put them in groups of four around tables.  We give them a provocative text to read and say your job as a small group here is to understand the text more deeply and share the air.  We rotate into the empty chairs and listen to the conversations, it is really important for us for our teachers to be good collaborators.  We have had some competent teachers but with little relationship skill or agency with colleagues, who were disruptive early on in the school.  She was not rehired.  Me: I guess that is a pro of having the one year contracts, I wonder if that would work in the UK with unions.  Rob: Here even with unions, a school hires a teacher, it takes 3 years to get tenure and essentially they are on a one year contract.  They can be terminated after the first year.  Our contract is an at will contract, so people can be let go without any intensive process.  If we’re not a good match it is not working, and we have a lot of evidence in terms of observation and what colleagues are saying and in terms of the work your kids are doing.

Me: Where does your title ’emperor of rigour’ come from?

Rob: Ha, that’s a self-administered title. Me: What does it mean to be an emperor of rigour, what does rigour look like in PBL?  Rob: I had a position here before I became Dean of the GSE, I was a roving critical friend.  I taught for 25 years, I was in classrooms all the time talking about what I saw and then during video and that kind of work to take to the directors to raise questions not just about how we teach but how do we talk about teaching. So, as a roving critical friend nobody reported to me, I didn’t report to anybody and at one point some conversation said well what is your title? So I said ‘Emperor of Rigour’, Emperor because its kind of an eyebrow raiser around the notion that people who come here around hierarchy.  We are very flat so if its hierarchy you’re expecting then im the emperor.  It was just a joke in a way.  I wanted to engage people in discussions about rigour and that rigour is not about complexity of content or volume of content.  It’s about the decisions students make moment to moment, to go deeper.  It’s a process issue, not a content issue.  My rules for rigour;

  • No rigour without engagement
  • No rigour without ownership
  • No rigour without exemplars
  • No rigour without audiences
  • No rigour without purpose
  • No rigour without dreams
  • No rigour without courage
  • No rigour without fun

I think these are the pre-conditions for rigorous work.  Thats why I call myself emperor of rigour because I want to engage people in what it means.

Me: In the UK our students have an exercise book where all their notes are written. They are often assessed through an essay for example.  Some teachers will spend an inordinate amount of time marking and giving feedback, www’s ebi’s etc.  Students will then be expected to ‘follow up’ on the feedback with a green pen for example.  How do you think students should write and how should feedback be given?  

Rob:  I certainly think that students should have thorough and thoughtful feedback on their work. I think also that we are trying to develop self-directed learners, reflective learners.  We are trying to enhance students metacognitive capacities and that comes about through practice.  If we’re doing learning 2.0, why would we want to assess it using the means of assessment 1.0 and what would assessment 2.0 look like?  It’s about reflection and dialogue.  It doesn’t mean kids never write essays but when we talk about our learning environment and the learning kids are doing, its important to us that we engage in dialogical assessment.  I encourage people to let the assessment start with a statement by the student and to let the assessment not to only include the performance of the student but also the context in which that performance took place.   The first item on the assessment sheet, a student led comment, should be ‘what in this experience worked well for you and what didn’t work well?  And then tell us about your performance, what was your best work, what your strengths were, what your needs are etc.  Students write that up and then the teacher responds and agrees, disagrees, adds other comments that the students hadn’t considered.  In some cases here, that document goes to parents, the google docs and the parents are invited.  It’s a cycle of dialogue that is initiated by the student.  Thats my thought on how we might get to thorough and thoughtful feedback but in a dialogical mode that fosters self-direction.

Me: Along your journey of starting HTH would there be anything you would have done differently or any mistakes you have made?

I think of it less in terms of mistakes and more in choices and roads taken which meant that other roads were not taken.  One choice we made early on in the interests of an equitable environment was that we would do age grading.  I taught for many years in which we did not group kids in that way and I would have 9th and 12th graders in the same classroom and could not have imagined teaching in another way.  Sometimes I’d have 9th graders who were quicker or more experienced in some respects than some of the 12th graders.  We did age grading here but the way to get rid of this is to have an elective system where students choose courses.  We felt that if students chose courses then they would self segregate and that males would take courses in mainly tech etc.  We decided we were going to have Humanities 1,2,3,4 and all the students were going to take them.  We would move choice inside the courses.  What it meant was that we didn’t do as much as we might have around cross-age learning.  I’m happy with our choice around all of our students doing internships in 11th grade.  We chose this because that especially for students whose parents had not gone to university, it is in the internship that they realise that they are going to college.  Working alongside a mentor and realising they need to go to college to achieve that position. When the mentor says it, that’s when it sinks in.  Internships is better college prep than college prep.  Plus, first generation kids at this age is when they are beginning to form their adult world networks that more affluent kids already have.  The internship is a way for those kids to form connections, their mentor will write recommendations for them into university, they are going to connect them to other job possibilities and so on.  The decision to do internships was the right decision, we did not structure them in a way we might have.  It took us a long time. We did it two afternoons a week and the kids were not coming back saying their lives had been changed.  If they went on a two-week trip to Ecuador, they would come back and tell us about it.  We were not getting that kind of testimony and we realised, about 7 years in, we needed to make the internships an immersion.  So we changed it to 3 weeks or 4 weeks where the kid goes to the workplace and doesn’t come to school.  Now we are getting that testimony because the kids are there, experiencing it. We hold mentor luncheons about work and life in the adult world and how to align with the kind of questions we ask them.  Students also create a project and expectation of some serious and significant work out of the internship and also have a 1-1 mentor.


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