School Culture Traps

I recently heard a missionary share a story about traps that correlated directly to how a school culture works. Often many times, we confuse tradition (Friday night lights) with culture (the lifeblood of a school) and the story resonated with me about how we must be constant in our protection and enhancement of that culture.  In the story, there were five traps identified that we must pay attention to:

Trap #1: The Common

At New Tech High, we fall back on three simple cultural principles – trust, respect, and responsibility.  However, 20+ years of something so simple can make it too common.  We become so familiar with the concepts that drive our culture, that it can actually paralyze us from moving it forward.  We hear the same words over and over, but struggle to actualize them in our day to day lives.

  • Tip for Trap #1:  When culture becomes common, identifying potential external metrics to measure the culture against can become pivotal.

Trap #2: Conceit

Many times when thinking about culture, we can become spoiled.  We can become our own worst enemies or we forget how special of a place that our school actually is.  When the trap of conceit comes into play, it can cripple the whole ecosystems ability to get out of its own way.

  • Tip for Trap #2: Keep It Simple Stupid.  Many times, when it comes to conceit, identifying a couple very small distinguishing elements of a culture and highlighting them can reinvigorate the whole school.

Trap #3: Complacent

Trap #3 is all about two facets: becoming too comfortable or thinking that’s not my problem.  This comfort or putting our hands up can cause the culture to become stagnate.  Little things like cleaning up after ourselves or respecting others belongings can begin to be chipped away at over time.

  • Tip for Trap #3: Identify a way to build collective capacity in the whole group.  A “Say Something, Do Something” campaign around a specific cultural topic can bring a whole group together and create opportunities for stakeholders to step up.

Trap #4: Coldness

For a lot of students and staff in schools, it is easier to follow at a distance.  This feeling of coldness can cause many members of the culture to disengage.  On both ends of the spectrum, both cultural stewards and cultural nomads, feel isolated and that their impact is minimized.

  • Tip for Trap #4: Consider setting up cultural entry points for all students.  It is really easy for students that live the culture to feel like others won’t listen to them and give up and for students that don’t understand the culture to not be able to grasp it and not engage.

Trap #5: The Challenge

Helping students or staff find their cultural flow is how to best optimize the collective agency of the group.  When students or staff don’t feel challenged or don’t have the skillset, it is easy for them to look for conflicting challenges to hitch their wagon too.

  • Tip for Trap #5: Create multiple cultural temperature checks throughout the year.  Whether it be through activities, lessons, or collecting data, these checkpoints can help you modify the challenge that is present for students to engage in.

Culture Is In Our DNA

No matter how we view school culture, two things are apparent:

  • We must start getting more students to recognize that school isn’t just a place they go, but that it’s a part of who they are.
  • We must acknowledge that each individual part is important, but that no individual part is better than the whole.

Not all five traps are present at all times for all stakeholders.  Can you identify what trap you struggle with the most?  I challenge you tomorrow to hit that trap head-on and explore ways your individual part can make the whole culture a better place.


The Math of Scaffolding

Effective scaffolding within project-based learning can be a tricky animal. Many times, we struggle finding the happy spot between a student-centered free for all and the worst monotonous traditional approach.  The difficulty with scaffolding effectively is many times it takes more time, creating scaffolds that you end up not using, differentiating and personalizing scaffolds, and having coherent project planning.

In order to challenge our thoughts on scaffolding, we must step away from the task itself and think about the scaffold from a meta level. We can do this by thinking of scaffold design like a math problem:

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Key Knowledge

This tends to be the area educators focus on the most and come easiest. Being able to articulate the key knowledge that comes from content standards is an essential part of the learning progression.  Educators are trained to be content experts, but unlocking key knowledge in scaffolding is a marriage between the art and science of teaching.  Questions to consider:

  • Have I identified what standards are essential, supporting, and tertiary?
  • What does key knowledge mastery look like in this scaffold?

Skill Development

Often times we hear people talk about how important 21st Century or “soft skills” are, but lack a framework for implementation or intentional skill development.  Having student “do” something isn’t enough.  When designing scaffolds, it is imperative that we articulate the specific skills (for example, instead of just having students talk, we focus on developing appropriate language and style) that we intend for students to master.  Questions to consider:

  • Do I have a specific subset of skills identified for each 21st Century skill students will utilize?
  • How will the develop of skills spiral from scaffold to scaffold? Project to project?

Learning Processes

We often define the learning processes we use as instructional practices. There are two simple approaches when identifying appropriate learning processes for scaffolds: the Goldilocks model or the 10,000 Hour model.  The Goldilocks model focuses on identifying the right learning process for appropriate time and place (i.e. one might be “too cold” or “too hot” for the desired outcomes of a scaffold).  The 10,000 Hour model focuses on identifying learning processes that students will deliberately practice over and over again.  There is no right answer for what model works better, but it is necessary to have clarity around the purpose for using specific learning processes.  Questions to consider:

  • Do I have a core set of learning processes that students will engage in over and over in scaffolds?
  • What learning processes have the highest yield when it comes to student learning?

Habits of Mind

Costa and Kallick identified 16 habits of mind in their 2000 book. When designing scaffolding activities, these habits of mind can be the thread that is woven throughout an experience.  For example, striving for accuracy might not be an explicit desired outcome of a scaffold.  However, there is intentional design in the experience to include the habit of mind to increase clarity of learning and quality of learning for students.  Questions to consider:

  • Will students experience all habits of mind in breadth or go in depth with a few throughout a project experience?
  • Is there correlation between the habits of mind in one scaffold to the next?

The Glue, Context

It is no secret that I value context as much, if not more than content. My beliefs fall on the spectrum that if their is not a place for authentic application and transfer of knowledge, then what purpose does the acquisition of that knowledge have? Having clarity around how a specific scaffold relates to the context of learning within a project experience can help educators ensure both the validity and appropriateness of that scaffold.

Pulling it all Together

It might seem like more work, but having intentionality in both individual scaffolding design and the progression of scaffolds throughout a project experience can be transformative for the student learning experience.  For example, when designing a scaffold for a project on World War II, it might look like:

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By thinking about the math behind the scaffolding we use in project experiences, we can answer the simple questions, “does the task match the ask?” and “is it necessary for students to be successful in this project experience?”.


Project-based Mindset

One of the biggest hurdles of living in a project-based world is the stereotypical view of education. Rightfully so, many educators and schools can’t see outside the proverbial view of what we think “schooling” is. With that, it’s time to start approaching our work with a project-based mindset and not just thinking that we are doing project-based learning.

We must START treating PBL as a lifestyle and not an instructional strategy.

We must START thinking of teachers as project designers.

We must START building project-based skills and belief systems in educators and students alike.

We must STOP calling everything under the sun PBL.

We must STOP letting project-based experiences be watered down because of fear or misconceptions.

Having a project-based mindset is BOTH a means and an ends game. It is more complex than not, but let’s not confuse complexity with difficulty. It’s more than doing fake projects, more than doing dessert projects and it’s more than doing project-based learning. But sometimes more is better.

The Marriage of Skills & Standards

For ten years, I have lived a world where the scaffolding and assessing of skills and standards matters equally, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

However, I have also experienced the hurdles of trying to unlock the power of the relationship of the two. This post isn’t meant to bash the “traditional way”, but I’ve seen many struggle to see the value in assessing skills because it adds a complex layer. Many times, there is an assumption that assigned grades = standards covered in a traditional setting. The degree at which the validity of that statement is true generally lies at the skill set of the teacher.

In our school, we have 5 schoolwide learning outcomes (skills) that are just as valuable and important as any content standard. We have grappled with assessing both for 20+ years now, but when formulating success criteria it all boils down to a simple math equation.

When assessing both skills and standards, the success criteria is the relationship of the two. The skill is the VEHICLE in which content knowledge can be DEMONSTRATED.

For the example above, you can successful identify how well a student was able to define appropriate quantities for the purpose of descriptive modeling (standard) by their ability to verbally demonstrate their understanding (skill). Now if we track both growth and mastery in standards and skills, we can begin to unlock student potential in various ways and have a better understanding of the relationship between the two as students progress.

Without scaffolding and assessing skills, why can’t a student just show up on day 1 with a binder of worksheets covering content standards, hand it in, and walk out?


Innovating the Innovative

New Tech High is a very special place. It has always been seen as an innovative place, somewhat of a unicorn. Only a few fully public high schools have been able to not only sustain, but thrive outside the norm of traditional education after 20+ years of launching. Many times, I have heard, “well that is great, but we can’t do that” or “we’ve always done it that way and our test scores are good”. New Tech High has stayed true to its core of having a student-led culture, implementing wall-to-wall project-based learning, performance skill-based assessment and embedded college, career, and service opportunities despite the ebbs and flows of public funding and resource allotment. Enrollment is at its highest level ever.

New Tech High has shown you can live outside the walls of “traditional” education and albeit, students can still go to amazing universities and get amazing jobs, often more ready. As well, it has seen nearly 200 schools follow in it’s footsteps via the new Tech Network and hosted nearly 50,000 visitors since opening its doors in 1996.

However, complacency is the enemy of excellence.

Over the last two years as a school, we have explored what the next iteration of our model looks like. We are excited to continue to push the boundaries of how the lines between “school” and the “real world” are blurred. This year, our 9th graders experience has been transformed to continue to push us into the future and we know many of these elements by themselves are not revolutionary, but as a school that has been leading the school reform movement, it is possible to innovate the innovative.


Subject matter plays an important role in our learning, however, without meaningful application it is all for nothing. Integrated courses have always been at the bedrock of our design, but silos of learning still existed.  Freshman have had to generally navigate FIVE completely separate projects at any given time. Our goal moving forward is to ask the question, “What does it look like to solve problems that matter?”. In doing so, we have worked to streamline both student learning and teacher collaboration around ONE  driving projects at a time. This means that Art, Computer Science & Design, Science, Math, English, PE & Health, and Spanish subject matter will be learned together via an integrated project-experience in a real world context. Our goal is to streamline the workload, but also challenge ourselves and students to engage in projects that change their lives, the lives of others, our local community, and the greater world.

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In a traditional school, the algorithm of the master schedule dictates when you learn what (and in some cases for us too). Our goal is to breakdown the barrier of time and space. Students will still be at a specific place at a specific time and attendance tracked, but having math at 8:00 am on M, W, F because the schedule says so is a thing of the past. Our goal is to let the learning and project needs drive the course of what happens when. For example, on Monday, you might be with the Math teacher at 8:30 am for a workshop. But then on Tuesday, you are with the Math teacher and Science teacher at 1:30 pm for a data analysis lab. The relevance of the work and needs of the student drive the schedule.


Assessment in education can always be a tricky topic. For many, it is the gatekeeper to what opportunities they will be afforded after high school. In a goal to make assessment more transparent and feedback more persistent, assessment will look different for your students. At New Tech High, our FIVE schoolwide learning outcomes are the vehicle in which academic knowledge is unlocked. In each subject matter, students will be assessed on their ability to apply the content standards via agency, collaboration, oral communication, written communication, and knowledge & thinking. Students’ mastery in both content standards and skills will be tracked and visible for each separate subject area. Our goal is to promote an assessment culture that is built upon BOTH mastery and growth versus one that is built on compliance, grade hunting, and punishment.

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As stated above, at New Tech High, developing skills, processes, and habits of mind are equally as important as developing content knowledge. Throughout your students project experiences, they will engage in scaffolds that challenge them to push their skill development outside their comfort zone, use industry standard processes such as agile management, design thinking, and scrum meetings, and build habits of mind such as empathy, thinking flexibly, and striving for accuracy. All of these things transcend one content area or one moment in time and for many New Tech High alumni, it is what sets them apart from the rest.


Supporting the whole child is one of the many reasons New Tech High is appealing to families. Most of the time, when a student needs socio-emotional supports, it is in lieu of something else. They get pulled from class, have to miss something important, etc. As we cannot guarantee that that won’t ever happen, our goal is to continue to innovate at how we provide holistic supports for all students that are embedded in the project experience. Through wellness practices, non-violent communication training, mentorships, and more, students have access to opportunities to strengthen their mind and spirit as part of their core experience, not in addition too.

We are excited about what the future holds for the 9th grade class and the course they will help set for the future of our project-based culture at New Tech High.  As project-based learning gets more popular across the country, there is also the danger that what we allow to be called PBL is water downed.  At New Tech High, we know not every project we have done or do is perfect, but we refuse to let OUR project-based learning become another buzzword for someone else.  We know that the road we are paving for all students is something we can be proud of and will help us take project-based learning into a new world. Our goal is to truly challenge ourselves to co-create opportunities with our students and families to solve problems that matter beyond the four walls of the classroom.  We have been doing it, but must refuse to be complacent that good is good enough.


The Surface, Deep, & Transfer of PBL

I’ve been blessed to know Michael McDowell for some time now. Michael previously taught at New Technology High School, worked for New Tech Network, and is now currently the Superintendent of Ross School District in Marin County and author of Rigorous PBL by Design.  Recently, our Center for Excellence, a professional development program that provides educators, schools, and districts project-based learning training and support, decided to partner with Michael to offer an innovative professional learning opportunity for educators around the facets of his book, with more to come in the Spring.

In Rigorous PBL by Design, McDowell argues that for PBL to be successful students must be competent in learning on three levels: surface, deep, and transfer.  Summarizing, the surface level is the use of facts and skills within a discipline, the deep level is the relation of facts and skills within a discipline, and the transfer level is the ability to extend those ideas to other disciplines (McDowell, pg. 14).

At New Tech High, we decided that we were going to push our thinking around our project design by applying these three levels to what high-quality PBL can and should look like.  By doing this, we have effectively been able to better articulate what is our baseline norm as a school for our project implementation (surface), how to extend those norms across contexts (deep), and how to transform what we know as project-based learning to a new norm of project-based living (transfer).

HQPBL @ New Tech High

In order for us to wrap our mind around how to apply the surface, deep, and transfer approach to our project design, implementation, and revision, it was necessary for us to articulate some key examples that could move through the progression.  Below you can find two simple articulations of applying the surface, deep, and transfer approach to project elements.

Example 1) Group Contracts

SURFACE – On the most simplistic level, group contracts can be used to help a team create norms, explore strengths & weaknesses, and determine project guidelines.  At the surface level, group contracts are implemented at the beginning of the project during the project launch.

DEEP – To extend the use of group contracts, the teacher must successful scaffold the use of that group contract continuously throughout the project.  Teams must have multiple times to re-engage, re-negotiate, and refine how their contract helps them productively work through the need to knows and next steps of the project.

TRANSFER – To move beyond students feeling like their contract is just a document, the transfer level means that project management is redefined using industry standard tools.  Whether it be through scrum meetings, kanban boards, or project management apps like Trello, student teams navigate their norms and project guidelines via tools used outside the confines of what we know as school.


Example 2) Audience

SURFACE – Many times we talk about the importance of an authentic audience, but we don’t articulate how to progress through the continuum of adult connections.  At the surface level, many times the audience is the student’s peers.  This is and can be perfectly acceptable if the context is appropriate.  For example, students might present their ideas for restoring a local watershed to the class.

DEEP – To extend the role of the audience beyond the classroom, the teacher engages with industry professionals to come in to evaluate the watershed ideas.  They might bring in a member of the county commission, a local non-profit with environmental protection, and a environmentalist.  The audience lives in the same context that the problem being solved does.

TRANSFER – To transfer the view of what a project culmination can be, the students actually work with the local organizations to implement their watershed restoration ideas in the field.  The work moves beyond just formulating ideas and sharing, to actually doing.  Many times we get stuck in the “simulation” or “modeling” of real world work that we forget we can actually do it.  The transfer level is hard becomes it takes creativity, time, and rethinking what we actually define “school” as.

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There are positives of being at all three levels.  There is high-quality surface level PBL and there is really bad transfer level PBL.  By being able to begin to articulate what elements of our project design and implementation live at what level, we have begun to better understand what high-quality PBL looks like at New Tech High and what our next steps for transforming our world to truly begin project-based living.


Collaborative Groupings in PBL

I’ve written before about the difference between collaboration and group work. The impact of focusing on collaboration seems to be one of the major sticking points from critics of PBL, as well as, a hurdle for educators in implementing effective projects.

Whether it be the argument that collaborative work can reduce academic rigor, the challenge of effectively scaffolding and assessing both individuals and the team, or building skill sets in students to overcome some of the barriers of collaboration, it’s vital that we think about the role the structure of collaborative grouping plays in project dynamics and success.

There is years of research available on what makes teams successful, whether it be at Google, MIT, or the work of J. Richard Hackman, but unlocking this in a project can be tricky. Many times we get too caught up in how we group students versus why we group students. The how is the easy part.  There are many strategies for HOW we group students:

  • Student choice, ability, heterogeneous, homogeneous, age, likes, topics, etc.

We must move beyond how we put students in groups and begin to concentrate on the collaborative grouping structures that bind deeper learning through a project.

Below are some structures to consider in the course of a project cycle to maximize collaborative grouping too it’s fullest.

1. Start to Finish

As always, this is the most typical collaborative grouping strategy used in projects.  Students start on Day A in a group and finish Day Z in that same group. Now, throughout the course of the project their might be scaffolds that jigsaw students or utilize peer feedback, but for 99.9% of the project, the students are in the same grouping.  When used appropriately, it can be highly effective.  However, I believe the heavy reliance on this strategy has only fueled the fire of many project-based learning critics.


2. Start and Finish

In Start AND Finish, students enter the project and culminate the project in the same groupings, but various arrangements occur in-between.  For example, in a project examining voter registration laws, students might ideate in Group #1.  However, for research, students conduct this phase of the project individually.  The next phase has students doing community focus groups in Group #2 and then Group #1 comes back together to share their proposals.  This collaborative grouping strategy can be highly effective when you want multiple perspectives to influence the original groups product(s).


3. Catch and Release
The next grouping focuses on establishing a strong team core that individuals can then work off of.  For example, in a project students are creating art pieces for a museum exhibit around social justice.  To start the project students are in groups to build key content knowledge, learn various art modalities, and explore social justice issues.  However, the final scaffolds are based off of each individual students choice and focus and each student creates an individual final product to be displayed.  This grouping strategy can be effective when you want to develop shared knowledge, skills, and habits of mind, but allow for individual students to display their understanding via their final product.


4. Release and Catch

This is obviously the opposite of the previous strategy.  For example, in a project students are working to redesign an urban space that is sparsely used.  To start the project, scaffolds, benchmarks, and reflections are pursued individually.  The focus is on developing key knowledge, skills, and processes for each student.  When ready, groups are formed to ideate and design their plans for the urban space.  When done properly this grouping strategy can allow for key aspects of personalization to happen prior to groups being formed.  Groups then build upon each individuals development at the beginning of the project cylce.


5. The Maze

The fifth collaborative grouping strategy highlighted can be intimidating even to the most seasoned PBL practitioner.  This strategy highlights the agility and adaptability of the project-based learning environment.  Each phase of the project takes on it’s own unique grouping identity.  For example, in a singular project, students might start in Group #1, then work individually, then work in Group #2 and Group #3, move back to Group #1, culminate the project in Group #2, and then reflect upon the project individually.  In this instance, the purpose of the phase dictate the type of grouping that occurs.  Students might be grouped based off of need, type of scaffold, or even to develop a specific collaborative skill highlighted in a tool like the New Tech Network collaboration rubrics.  Collaboration becomes a driver and not just something we hope happens because we are in a group.


It is always important to note that individual assessment and differentiation can occur while students are in various grouping structures AND collaborative skills can be built while students are working on an individual aspect of a project.  They are not mutually exclusive.  Unlocking the WHY behind collaborative grouping must be the next step for an educator to deepen their PBL practices.  It’s time to stop worrying about drawing names on popsicle sticks to put students in groups.