Common features of innovative schools in California

This blog is a summary of some of the features I have observed over the last few weeks in California.  The aim is to help me reflect and think about how to write my final report to the Winston Churchill Trust.  Hopefully it is interesting to others too. I’ve added a couple of questions to each description, perhaps the reader can think of more and post a comment.  There are other features that could be added such as that they are small schools.  Any other suggestions would be welcomed.


The term internship implies something deep, experiential and meaningful for students.  In some schools such as Big Picture, students spend as much as two days a week on powerful internships. At High Tech, students spend about 4 weeks in 9th grade on an internship.  All with presentations of learning to parents on completion.  These schools have built solid databases of valuable locations for students to intern, based on student research.  They are powerful because the students actually have a key role to play in an organisation.  This is surely a deeper way for students to experience real adult life. Surely a powerful internship or job shadow with a thoughtful mentor should inspire them to realise what they need to achieve in school.

How can we make ‘work experience’ a valid and profound impact on our students?  

How can we make an internship work in the constraints of time in an already packed curriculum?


2. Timetable

Or rather the ‘un-timetable’.  In the UK as a teacher in a secondary school, many teachers are familiar with being spread thinly over several year groups and even several subject disciplines.  But learning (long term retention of knowledge and skills) that is deeper, interdisciplinary and meaningful is very difficult to achieve in the traditional model.  There are various models I have seen in California.  Some based on collaboration between teachers such as High Tech High’s teaching partners model; pairs of teachers teach the same two classes all of the time.  Others are based on mastery and students get more choice when they achieve a level of knowledge and skill in a subject area.  All of them will have huge elements of choice through exploratory and electives.  Sometimes Math is separate sometimes its integrated.  All of the timetables have allocated project and integrated subject learning.  Some have even stage not age approaches.  I’m not sure there is one best model, but those who dare…..

Do we need to teach all subject disciplines at the same time?    

Could re-designing the timetable be so difficult?

How can choice and opportunity be increased through careful timetable design?

How can subjects be effectively connected if they are taught in silo’s?


3. Community

The Re-Vision Project at HTHCV

We should want students to empathise with the issues their own communities are facing.  We also require students to be the future builders who can transform their learning and use it to solve the issues their communities and the global community are facing.  A truly liberated curriculum that allows students to have a critical understanding of reality and therefore be educated to do something about it is what should be strived for.  The schools I have visited are all porous to the outside world, be it internships, exhibitions or through projects.  John Bosselman’s projects and others at High Tech High Chula Vista are fine examples where students are transforming their learning to great effect through the Revision Project.  

Do schools in the UK really do enough to engage parents and the wider community?

How can we make schools more porous to the wider community?  


4. Exhibitions 

Exhibition night at HTM

Exhibitions are amazing when students can show off their wonderful work.  They are an accountability measure in terms of the final product, however, they are a crucial aspect of the process of reflection.  Weeks of hard effort can be rewarded by being able to show the work to the world rather than being hidden away in an exercise book. They can be a good measure of progress when interacting with students asking them to talk about the process behind their work.  Exhibitions are also engaging for students to make the them an event to be enjoyed.  Chris Wakefield’s class were making physics look so fun in a glow in the dark disco exhibition.  They can really raise a child’s self-esteem and confidence.  

Is there a need for reward systems other than a sense of pride in one’s own work?

What could students present in a traditional school setting?


5. Presentations of Learning

Presenting the Re-Vision project at HTHCV

POL’s are common in all of the schools I have visited in California. It gives a sense of accountability to students who have to present to parents, teachers and peers their learning.  These take different forms.  POL’s can be for projects they have undertaken within their advisory or following an internship.  They are also a passage to graduate where students demonstrate their academic progress.  Ron Berger’s book ‘Leaders of their own Learning’ is a must read for authentic assessment strategies such as POL’s.  

How can we make time and space for POL’s?

Are these a better alternative to parents evenings?

What is the point in parents evening, are they really that effective?


6. Advisory

The advisory is so much more than ‘form time’ that we have in the UK.  This is one area that could easily be implemented and is no doubt already being done well in the UK.  The difference in secondary school, is that in the schools I visited in California is that advisors really do have the space to really know their students.  This is especially true at Big Picture Learning schools where personalisation is at its core.  Students need their advisory to choose internships and they are also taught English by their advisors.  Some schools will complete projects within their advisory and be reactionary to issues that are happening in the world. At Big Picture, students write autobiographies, have cultural experiences and read lots of books.

How can we help teachers to really know their students?

How can we better structure form time to make it more like an advisory?


7. Writing for a purpose

Biomimicry project at HTM

All the work produced in innovative schools is of an authentic nature.  Students are encouraged and engaged to write well because it is for a purpose and not something contrived and hidden in an exercise book.  Think of internships, students are writing real letters of application and sending real emails to people.  In interdisciplinary projects they are writing real poetry or explanations that are going to be read by an audience.  They are transforming their writing into a new medium such as plays and performances.

How can we get students to write for a real purpose all of the time?  

Should be get rid of the exercise book?


8. Strong relationships

The culture of these schools is of strong relationships between students and their teachers.  These relationships are natural and authentic rather than one built on compliance as we see in many other classrooms including my own.  Something I really need to think about.  This is linked to a strong culture of equity as well as high engagement because the learning is so well designed.

How can we build strong and authentic relationships that benefit our students?

How can we ensure equity? 


9. Distributed leadership

Cross curricular collaboration through a charrette protocol at HTHCV

We hear the terms ‘distributed leadership’ and ‘trust’ bandied about a lot, but is it really happening?  At schools such as Thrive, they have a strong vision of distributed leadership.  All of the schools I visited have huge teacher agency and autonomy.  This is achieved through fairly horizontal leadership arrangements.  At High Tech High, I witnessed strong social capital and synergy amongst the teachers there.  They meet and work very closely together to design effective learning sequences that are based on strong principles of equity, engagement and rigour.  There are pros and cons to this approach but surely worth investigating and trying further in the UK.  Teachers are genuinely trusted and it works.  Being involved in a charrette (a protocol to delve deeply into a learning dilemma) really highlighted to me the depth that goes into the planning of projects at schools such as High Tech High.

Why do we need hierarchical structures?  

Could a horizontal approach work in the UK?  

Do teachers have to follow the traditional promotion routes?  


10. Problem solving

Working on a physics problem and exhibition at HTHMA

All of these schools have aspects of problem solving.  In some, students are building robots, making, coding and tinkering to actually build something that works.  Authentic problems are given to students to work to on various scales.  It is the opportunity to allow students the time and space to think that leads to transformative knowledge that does not become inert.  

How can teachers design effective problem based learning approaches?


11. Personalisation

Personalisation is highly effective and what makes these schools the success stories that they are.  The majority of students go onto 3 and 4 year college degrees way above schools in the same district and state.  Personalisation takes all sorts of form, from student choice, to personalised mastery learning to stage not age approaches.  In one school there was a fourth grader learning alongside 8th graders!  

Are we really personalising learning?

What does it mean to personalise learning?


12. Blended learning

Class of 60 students with 2 teachers in a blended learning ‘American Studies’ classroom at Bulldog Tech, San Jose

In some cases blended learning is being used to assess students progress.  This was particularly evident at Thrive. This was being used to assess the extent to which students had mastered content.  I guess this is just good teaching and learning but the use of tech can really support this next level of differentiation.  Technology really needs to be used to enhance the instruction and learning.  In my own practice I like the use of technology to liberate through choice and research but also need to investigate how I can use it more effectively to assess for mastery and personalise lessons.  We don’t need to see all students staring at ipads all the time.

How can technology be used effectively to enhance learning?

What are the best hardware and software to help track student progress and use in a blended and PBL classroom model?      


13. Authentic assessment

Assessment in these schools is about improvement and moving students forward because they always have a final product that is being exhibited. It is natural and there is a culture of natural feedback between students and teachers (using some norms such as ‘kind, helpful, specific ‘etc).  This is opposed to the UK when we tend to use fairly contrived approaches to feedback.  Why would a child want to improve their work if it is sitting in an exercise book?  Make the work more authentic and then perhaps students will engage in follow up to feedback more effectively and honestly.  

How can we make our students follow up and reflection to their feedback less contrived?

Is written feedback by the teacher always the best method?


14. Human centred design

Empathy is really hard to ‘teach’.  Students really need to experience and understand other perspectives.  Using design thinking and particularly, Human Centred Design can really structure students to investigate the heart of a problem using ethnography and coming up with a final solution, prototyping and iterating.  Design Tech High is based on this model, students are working on problems directly applying their academic KUS but through a design thinking process.  The field guide is a must read.  At HTHCV students are using the field guide to come up with real solutions to problems in the local community. Design is also the mantra of building the school curriculum itself.  Curriculum design in great schools is an iterative process and constantly moving forward to deeper learning for the students.  The students are at the heart of the design of innovative curriculums based on equity.  

How can we implement and integrate aspects of Human Centred Design into our curriculum?

What are the most effective ways for students to empathise with others?

How can we ensure key stage 3 is not neglected because we need to concentrate on ‘exam classes’?


15. Equity

These schools strive for equity in their approaches to curriculum and assessment.  This is

‘Beyond the Crossfire’ project at HTHCV.  Engaging issues really close to home for students such as gun violence and mental health. 

slightly different to the term ‘differentiation’, which for me makes me think of less challenging work or over scaffolding for the weaker student and something contrived for the ‘gifted’ students and not much change for the in between.  A traditional approach or one size fits all with a bit of differentiation is inequitable.  Equity goes beyond and considers, race, gender, ethnicity and class.  The schools in California have curriculums and lesson with a wider range of choice that allow a wider scope for a range of skills and talents to be pursued.  It’s about making these experiences the best learning experiences for all students.

Why do we label students gifted and talented?

Is it possible to design a truly equitable curriculum?


16. Enquiry

All units are supported by well designed driving questions either teacher or student derived.  This is what gives a focus to student led enquiry.  Enquiry is liberating and allows students to discover their own path and also serendipitous knowledge on the way.  Helping students to unpack this knowledge and have a deeper meaning of the world is what makes a great teacher.  

How can enquiry be structured to keep students engaged and also experiencing deep academic learning?

How can enquiry be built to help students be great investigators but also good at exams?


17. Oracy and rhetoric

At Design Tech High, in ‘The Hanger’, I saw an impromptu dance performance.  It was wonderful to see all students involved, boys and girls, totally uninhibited.  These schools offer students a huge choice to perform and through various mediums.  Although some students will be introverted, most students are confident and remain confident through their high school time at these schools.  It is way more fun to have the opportunity to change knowledge into something different.  

How can we bring elements of dance, music, drama and other mediums across the curriculum?

How can we promote the arts or STEAM?


18. Accountability

The quality of work students produce is how staff are ultimately accountable.  Some schools have more focus in the aesthetics while others on the rigour.  These schools will use protocols to look at student work and work collaboratively to move the work forward and even deeper.  I would say that these schools are moving even further ahead because of these highly effective procedures.  This is alongside some of the other accountability measures you’d expect such as observation.  Students are accountable because their work is so visible.  

Is the lesson observation the only way to make teachers accountable?

How can we facilitate students to produce beautiful and academically rigorous work?


19. Space

The ‘hanger’ at Design Tech High, San Mateo

At Design Tech High and High Tech High in particular, students really own their spaces.  At D Tech they have a ‘hanger’ which is essentially a huge open space.  At High Tech, the classrooms are designed in pods but their are wide corridors and spaces for students to break out and work collaboratively also.  Space itself can be a challenge but teachers who can problem solve and work in teams can use these spaces effectively. I’ve written about using space a couple of times before here and here.  I really enjoy working and designing learning spaces.  Make Space: How to Set the Stage for Creative Collaboration is a book well worth reading.

How can we use classroom and open spaces effectively to enhance student learning?

Would student ownership of space lead to positive outcomes?


20. Deeper learning through Project Based Learning

Scott Swaaley & Mike Stong, Apocolypto project at HTH

Project Based Learning when done well leads to deeper learning.  For this to happen pretty much all of the above are happening.  To truly liberate students thinking and to allow them to transform knowledge, new school design needs to incorporate all of the above.  We need to find solutions to make this work in the UK context.  

How can we make deeper learning work in both existing and new schools in the UK?


The blog is inspired by;

High Tech High, San Diego, CA

Big Picture Learning, Global

Design Tech High, San Mateo, CA

Nueva School, San Mateo, CA

Aveson Charter School, Altadena, CA

Da Vinci Schools, Hawthorne, CA

EL Schools, USA wide

Summit Schools, CA

Thrive, San Diego, CA


5 thoughts on “Common features of innovative schools in California

    1. Good question David. I think ultimately if we want deeper learning, the timetable needs to enable students to spend time on cross discipline enquiry. The time and space to allow teachers to work collaboratively on design of learning experiences across disciplines is also paramount. From here the other aspects of deeper learning can possibly grow organically. There are many models that could inspire innovative approaches within the constraints of high stakes testing in the the UK. The IU’s School Design Lab is going to be interesting to look at different models and how they might be applied in the UK.

    1. In your context in a sixth form college they really should do powerful internships. Can really highlight to students the qualifications and hard work they need to put in for specific jobs.

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