Editor’s Note: Technology advances are drastically changing the demands and training needed for careers of today and tomorrow. By the time today’s middle school students enter the job market, there will likely not be any job that does not require technological skills of some kind.
At the same time as technology is making the world smaller and more interconnected, the United States education system is losing rank against other countries, including China, Korea and Finland.
But those very same technology advances may also be offering pathways to change the way we are teaching our children. These changes may allow us to give our students the skills to not only compete on the world stage but also be engaged, creative, and innovative people building our future.
The New Tech High School model offers a unique vision for leveraging technology to teach today’s students to succeed in school, their jobs, and their lives. Manor New Tech High School is one of 62 schools across the country employing the New Tech High model. In this interview, Manor Independent School District Superintendent Andrew Kim discusses how technology can not only rebuild schools for the future, but also reboot the way we are teaching tomorrow’s leaders.
Forefront (FF): New Tech High School looks a lot different from other high schools. Why is that?
Andrew Kim (AK): Our whole idea was to make sure that functionality determined the form—rather than the other way around. Traditionally in school districts, we’ve let form determine functionality. We’ve got to switch it around.
Here at Manor New Tech High School, it was a conscious plan to determine how we wanted students to use their environment—what we wanted them to do within that environment—and then build the structure to accommodate that.
FF: What is it that you want students to do that is so different?
AK: We can’t kid ourselves that what students are going to need to succeed in the 21st century is the same as what we’ve been teaching them thus far—or that we’re not already falling behind.
The rules and expectations of our global economy are already demanding that our future workers are critical thinkers, capable of communication, collaboration, and creativity. These are things they are not going to get sitting in a traditional classroom, reading a textbook or reproducing what their teacher told them on a standardized test.
FF: So throw out the textbooks? Give everyone an iPad?
AK: No, that would just be a replacement. The New Tech model changes the way we ask kids to obtain, digest, and use information—some of that is through textbooks still, some of that is through digital information—but really what we need to do is teach students new ways of exploring, understanding, and interacting with their worlds.
We thought through how we want kids to learn, and created an entire curriculum and a new pedagogical approach that emphasize project-based learning. We aren’t asking kids to open a textbook, read, listen to a lecture, and reproduce it on a test. We are giving students projects that require them to work in teams, research, question, think, and communicate to solve or understand a problem.
Once we developed the curriculum to shift kids from textbooks to projects, we created the structure to support that.
FF: So how does the new form follow that function?
AK: On a superficial level, you can see how different it looks—we’ve opened it up, blown out the barriers if you will. It looks more industrial, open, and modern than traditional structures. But when you look closely, you can see that the openness is more than skin-deep—it serves some important functions. By removing the walls, we integrated students and subjects for collaboration and workflow. We’ve got two teachers teaching different subjects in the same room, facilitating crossover between the subjects and sparking new ideas and connections about how to apply those subjects’ concepts.
And from there flows the ability to integrate technology into the structure. In a traditional school structure, IT departments may drop some computers and printers into the classroom without telling teachers how to use them effectively. Are they for curriculum, grading, lesson plans? Then they might make a few computers available to students, again without a very clear purpose or outcome in mind.
I don’t think there’s been enough thought throughout the education community about how to really use technology as a tool. Some teachers may find a way to supplement existing curriculums, but it typically winds up being a substitution or add-on.
FF: A substitution for what?
AK: A number-two pencil was a great piece of technology back when it was invented—but it’s a substitution for chalk or a pen. A computer or an iPad is a technological advancement—but if it’s only used to take notes more quickly, it’s just a replacement for a pencil and paper.
Here, with our project-based learning curriculum, technology is a tool to support students’ work and development. Technology has moved from a replacement or substitute to serving as a catalyst or springboard for learning and growth.
FF: So what does that look like for project-based learning?
AK: Kids are given real-life projects to complete. For example, instead of reading about parabolas in their physics/algebra class, they are given a three-week project to learn about parabolas and create their own rollercoasters. They are divided into groups and provided with specific resources, and then they conduct the research, figure out how to execute the project, and present it to their peers.
Another example is a recent English/history project. Students were reading Phillip Marlowe’s play Dr. Faustus. But rather than simply write an essay on the play, they were asked to write their own play imagining a meeting with Dr. Faustus and other historic figures such as Galileo and Aristotle. They researched the various figures, wrote the script, performed and filmed the play, and edited the video to place on the Manor ISD’s YouTube channel.
FF: Sounds like fun. But what about TAKS and Texas state testing requirements?
AK: We are held to exactly the same standards as every other school in the state—and our students are meeting or beating benchmarks.
They are learning the content they need, but they are learning it in more engaging ways, and they are simultaneously mastering skills they will need in the 21st century. We grade our students on nine learning outcomes: content, collaboration, written communication, oral communication, work ethic, global and community engagement, numeracy, technology literacy, and critical thinking.
FF: But the principles for project-based learning are general—you don’t need technology to create that type of curriculum. So why are you “New Tech High” and not “New Project High?”
AK: Technology has let us turn traditional classrooms into learning labs that can deliver a project-based model efficiently and effectively. It’s allowed us to create a really vibrant portal right here in Manor, TX, that facilitates our kids in making connections, working independently yet with supervision, finding resources, collaborating, and learning in ways that we couldn’t support without technology. Our model lets students connect with researchers, teachers, and sources in real time and interactively—imagine being able to interview an expert via Skype or stream video of a play or demonstration. This capacity is furthering learning by bringing more immediacy and connectedness to the process; it is not just entertainment or a diversion.
The content we use—and that our kids will need to use—is not linear or singular. It’s multidisciplinary and multidimensional. We are using technology to bring that multidimensionality to our students fingertips.
But rather than just give the kids the tools and let them head down the nearest search-engine rabbit hole, we’re providing concrete guidance and parameters for that work, so that kids are getting content and skills that are valuable and meaningful.
FF: So does each child have a computer?
AK: No, in fact that would be counter-productive. We don’t want kids sitting next to each other typing away at their computers without talking.
What we typically see are teams three or four computers that serve specific functions—one for creativity, one for research, one for presentation, and one for production. This mirrors how they structure themselves within the teams as well. Their processes then tend to be more organic and self-directed.
FF: Where are the teachers in this equation?
AK: They are likely not at the front of a classroom lecturing to a bunch of snoozing students. They are not the lone information source—rather, they are the facilitator who helps students find and engage with the information themselves.
With project-based learning, work for teachers is more front-loaded—they spend many more hours designing projects that will allow students to master content and processes than they might have spent creating a traditional lesson plan. But once a project is underway, they shift to being advisors, coaches, and evaluators.
FF: How have teachers reacted?
AK: At first, there’s trepidation or resistance. Sometimes there’s even mourning for the old way of doing things.
We’re challenging a lot of the ways that teachers have been trained. But once they see the value of it, their approaches are changed forever. Since opening New Tech High School in 2007, only four teachers have left. Two had their first child, one moved out of state, and one went back to graduate school for her second graduate degree.
FF: How is this being scaled?
AK: Manor New Tech High is an incubator for not only its own students, but also the whole district. Within Manor ISD, we are bringing faculty from middle and elementary schools in for training so that students are becoming more familiar with project-based learning and ways to use technology successfully before they arrive at the high-school level.
And we have teachers asking to come here. We’ve created the Think Forward Institute here at Manor New Tech High, which trains Manor ISD faculty in project-based learning and offers training to teachers from around the state.
FF: Sixty-two schools throughout the country are based on the New Tech High Model. Why do more schools need to adopt this model?
AK: Our kids are learning without us—in school and out of school. They are using the latest gadgets and the newest technologies. If we aren’t supporting that in schools, they may abandon us.
Schools have been a monopoly for a long time, but that’s changing. Homeschoolers are the fastest growing segment of the education system in Texas. More high-school kids are enrolled in two-credit-hour courses in Florida Virtual High School than there are kids in the entire Dallas ISD from pre-K through 12th grade.
There is still so much students must learn—content, collaboration, communication, creativity—to succeed in the 21st century. Schools have got to figure out how to provide that learning in a way that will resonate with students and serve our communities long into the future.
Technology is changing the expectations for our society. It’s also changing the way we can meet those changing expectations. We’ve got to explore these unique connections sooner rather than later. At Manor New Tech High School, we’re examining that very question on a daily basis.