A month ago you may have seen the tweets about a series of tutorial videos I put out late at night showing my students some important concepts in iBooks Author that would be important for the kind of iBooks you’d want to make in Music Education.

I’ve put them all together in a single playlist, with the following content, and you can watch them all below…

0.  Stuff you probably know. The basic dragging of images, video and audio into iBooks Author.

  1. Score reading. Exporting multi-page scores from your notation software and reading them in iBooks while listening to a recording.
  2. Review quizzes. Not much good for assessment, but a great first step in getting some assessment into your iBook.
  3. Interactive marked up score. What it says!
  4. Fixed orientation. If you’ve played around with iBooks Author, and made it all look beautiful in the default landscape orientation only to find it looks terrible on your iPad when you’ve got it up portrait-way, this quick tip will save you lots of heartache!
  5. Shapes and guides. Essentially, this video is all about layout tips for iBooks Author. With a not-very-good example.
  6. Keynote files. You can get app-like behaviour inside your iBook by dropping in Keynote files with hyperlinks inside them. Tap a shape, word or image, and jump to more information or even an animation. This tutorial features a sloth.
  7. Bookry,com. Not the only extra plug-in site, but a good one. My favourite is the one that allows students to write reflections and email them to you right from within the iBook.

iBooksLast week my Sydney Conservatorium of Music Technology in Music Education (#SCMtech) students handed in their main project, worth 50% of the course marks. It’s an interactive iBook, designed for elementary or middle school music education, but also you’ll find they’ve shared equivalent resources to be printed or burned onto CD for schools that don’t have iBooks programs. The marking rubric puts the focus on content, but rewards design and presentation as well as innovative use of the technology.

The students are sharing the iBooks and other resources from their websites, also created as part of the course. You can download them for free and use them in your own teaching or to teach yourself/your students at their own pace. The following list represents hundreds of hours of work so please reward these talented students by posting feedback on their pages if you like their work.

Genre-based resourcesUnknown-3

Blues Guitar iBook by Nick

Celtic Music by Anna

Graphic Notation by Alexandra

Introduction to Rock Music by Lachlan

Introduction to 12 Bar Blues by Jay

Mash-ups by Mark

Musicals by Tim

New Music by LizGraphic Notation

Piano Music – Romantic to Pop by Merinda

Playing Guitar and the Blues by Edward

Jazz for year 8s, based on Summertime by Annabelle

Instrument-based resources

Guitar for beginners by Jordan

Introduction to Drums by Johnny

Playing Guitar and the Blues by Edward

Repertoire-based resources

Drum quizAntarctica by Nigel Westlake, by Erin

Autumn Leaves by Andrea

Feist’s by Iris

Coldplay’s Viva La Vida by Tyler

The Cup Song by Lexie

Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds by Joel

The Lord of the Rings soundtrack by Tom

Summertime by Annabelle

Disclaimer: As part of this course students learn about copyright, creative commons, correctly crediting authors and school licensing. The legal “hard-lines” are explained, and the “grey areas” too. Therefore there shouldn’t be any use of copyright material in the following resources, but if there is, it is the responsibility of the student who has published it, and educational use is assumed.

It will be no surprise to hear that I really relished the opportunity to rewrite the Sydney Conservatorium’s course Technology in Music Education this year. It was one of those tasks that was only difficult because I could write a 26 week course rather than a 13 week course (many of the 1h50m lectures have about 4 hours of material in them anyway), and it’s a three credit course, so I’ve had to wind back the challenges I wanted to set my lucky students. Well OK, not wind back, but make reasonable demands on them to pass, and still ask them to reach for the sky. Ethic of excellence, and all that.

If you’re interested in having a look at what’s in the course, you can see the outline here. I created this page as HTML5 in Hype, then worked out how to embed all the CSS and Javascript in Blackboard – email me if you would like me to make a tutorial… it makes the average Blackboard site look a little more interesting than usual!

Blackboard hack

I was rather pleased with my Blackboard hack, including animations and embedded media.

As you’ll see if you explore that site, we started off with some provocations about the goodness (or not) of technology in (music) education. After concluding that we need to be engaged with this field to remain relevant, but keep an eye on the research and not get carried away with any hype cycles, we undertook four weeks of skills training. We have looked at how DAWs/sequencers, notation software, recording processes, video editing, social media, gamifaction, self-publishing and more can be useful or even inspirational in music education, but it will be in the next four weeks that we’ll consider what this means in our lives as teachers and our students’ lives as 21st century citizens.

Please be involved!

If you’ve looked through the assessments the students undertake, you’ll see that the very first task is to establish an online presence and take part in social media as part of their study in this course. This is where I’d like your help. Below is a list of their mostly newly-established websites. You should find, at the very least, a blog from each lecture and what they thought about it. A few of them (and all of them ultimately, hopefully), will have looked beyond the lectures, found more information online, and summarised their own opinions, perhaps challenging mine or augmenting the information I have provided in that short 1h50m each week. Please choose a few at “random”, follow them, comment on their blogs, mentor them, ask them for their Twitter handle… whatever you can. Please welcome to the the community of international music education that is so vibrant online.

(Some students are still just finding their feet. I’ve put an asterisk after the name of students who have blogged about most of our lectures/discussions, so they’ve said plenty you could comment on.)

NB because some students don’t want to partake in social media, if their website URL or landing page doesn’t give away their name, I have removed it from the list. Oh, and we’re discussing stuff with the Twitter hashtag #SCMtech (Sydney Conservatorium of Music Technology), as the title might suggest, so please ambush that online too!

Thanks for your help!

Something that has troubled me for over a decade as an educator is finding the best format to publish my resources in. Three years ago it troubled me so much I even wrote a blog about it. Nowadays when I’m teaching students about creating their own resources I simply encourage them to create the resources in common, non-proprietry formats and collect those in a folder so they can easily be published anywhere.

Building music education resources in 2013


Paul Stanhope and the Metropolitan Orchestra at Australian Music Day in 2012

For example, my wonderful third year music education students are currently creating some really fantastic resources on Australian works of the last 25 years that will be featured in this year’s Australian Music Day. Essentially their resources fit into five categories:

  1. Text
  2. Images
  3. Audio
  4. Video
  5. Proprietary file formats (templates or worksheets as Sibelius files, PDFs, GarageBand files, etc.)

Because this is music education, their images may contain score excerpts, photos of composers, instruments, and so on. Audio and video may be excerpts from the studied score (made by the student, not copied from commercial recordings of course), but video could be much more – a demonstration of a playing technique, a video analysis, a composition task, a how-to software tutorial. Text strings all of this together.

The Apple ecosphere and the cloud

These media can now be published quickly in a number of ways. As most of those reading this blog know, I’m an Apple Distinguished Educator and have taught in the Apple “ecosphere” for over a decade (while the University of Sydney is not an all Apple campus, the Conservatorium where I now teach is heavily Mac-biased), so I have expertise in products for the Apple platforms, and of course products in the cloud.

Hype logoTherefore, I know that I can very quickly and easily create an engaging multimedia book with the wonderful iBooks Author simply by dragging and dropping the above media in (proprietary file formats can be linked-to). If I want to aim for a cross-platform audience, my offline tool of choice is currently Hype for publishing interactive Flash-like HTML5 websites, although if I’m keen for an eBook output Pages also does a pretty good job of making multimedia playback (though note: whether all media will playback depends on your eBook reading software). And naturally all of those media could be quickly put together in any number of website-building packages in the cloud (I prefer WordPress, because it powers so many websites online and so is a great tool to model for your students, but you could use something like Wix or Google Sites, or a hip new CMS or LMS like edcanvas or Schoology).

Icing metaphor 1

In other words, I don’t prepare a single solution or a single format, I prepare some engaging resources and publish them in one or more formats that seems to fit. It’s also important that the software that I use to do this, whether in the cloud or on my desktop (i.e. able to be used offline), is really easy to use. Drag n drop easy. Because the power of the resource is in the media, and the presentation is icing.

The Windows solution

Recently, while teaching the end of one course and preparing for another (Technology in Music Education – next semester), it occurred to me that I may be disadvantaging my students who use Windows OS computers, because everything I was teaching them and the models I made for them were made exclusively on my Mac or in the Cloud. They can use the (Mac) lab to get their work done, but if they want to work at home, and their home is in the estimated <8% of Australian homes that don’t have internet access (ABS 2010-11), how can they work offline?

Powerpoint 2013To cut a long story short, I found many solutions for them, but none that came close to iBooks Author, Pages or Hype for making really cool, distributable content in a simple interface. The winner hands-down was Powerpoint, which when exported correctly can include its media and do some pretty app-like stuff (jumping from slide of content to slide of content based on buttons you select, playing media based on choices you make, and so on, just like Hype or Flash). It can only be played on a computer running Powerpoint, however: you can get XPS (a format Powerpoint exports) viewers that maintain clickable links and so on, but Powerpoint seems to drop the audio and video so it’s not a solution in this case.

Of course, this is hardly any less proprietary than iBooks Author’s iBooks format, which can only be read on an iPad and – soon – a Mac, but those programs are free, and when you couple this with the fact that Powerpoint’s media handling is quite limited (I can understand it not supporting Quicktime formats, but surely MP3 and MP4 should be supported out-of-the-box?) it’s just not as robust a solution. The Adobe CS solutions on Windows can do anything and a million times more than the mentioned apps for Mac OSX, but they also have too steep a learning curve for your average school teacher to start throwing resources together in that drag n drop manner.

iBooks Author

iBooks Author – free software for Macs, but is there a Windows equivalent to this or something like Tumult Hype?

Now I’m not making a Mac vs PC (or to be more accurate a Mac OS vs Windows) judgment here. To be honest, I’m someone who just loves good tech, and I really really want to find a solution for all of my students. I acknowledge that there may be a lot of software for Windows out there that I don’t know about, but I have spent night after night the last three weeks trawling search engines, online groups and Tweeting back and forth, and have found nothing that fits the simple criteria:

  • Free or cheap software
  • Drag and drop simplicity; no knowledge of HTML, CSS, or graphic design nomenclature necessary
  • Handles all common media types (e.g. jpg, png, gif, bmp, mp4, mp3 – happy to add in wav, avi and mov too)
  • Outputs in a non-proprietary or at least free-to-download-a-reader format

I would really welcome a discussion of this topic in the comments below, even if it means lambasting my ignorance of Windows software in education! In fact, if you can provide me with a few titles, this blog was really worth writing.

And that out of the way, excuse me, but I need to thank Apple. No really.

Thank you Apple. No really, I mean it – you listened to teachers and you delivered.


iBooks for iOS – not available for MacOS until now (well, soon).

When Apple launched iBooks Author over a year ago, its reception among educators I knew was a resounding this-is-brilliant-but-please-can-we-open-these-books-on-our-Macs? There was only a thinly veiled subtext if you read or listened to what Apple said about iBooks Author: it was intended to be the clincher for putting iPads rather than other devices in students’ hands. Make it easy for teachers/departments/education boards to make amazing content, and lock it to Apple’s consuming (not consumer, in this case) device.

It made complete sense, but what about schools that had already invested heavily in Apple laptops and desktops? Were they to get rid of these, or were the students supposed to carry iPads and MacBooks in their already-heavy schoolbags? [Actually, we looked at that option at my school at the time, and if we could have made it fly financially, we’d have done it - but we couldn’t.] And if an educational-clincher was needed, there were a few of us who looked at iBooks Author and thought “bugger making stuff for the students, I want to see what they can make for me!”.

iBooks again

And that’s exactly how it has been in my limited experience. iBooks Author is so easy to use and enables such beautiful results that students are engaged and super-motivated. You’re less likely to make a poorly-lit, unscripted music video with terrible audio if it’s going to sit inside a beautiful multimedia book. In this case, the icing is raising the expectations of the filling, because the filling will taste even worse if it’s badly mixed, undercooked and oozing over the plate.

(That was icing metaphor 2)

And Apple listened. Heck maybe it was always part of their strategy, although it didn’t feel like it in 2012. Either way, today they announced that their next version of OSX (“Mavericks”) will include an iBooks reader and it will read iBooks Author-ed books.


iBooks MacOS

The new icon for iBooks for MacOS.

Having been listened-to, or at least perceiving it that way, I can’t resist pointing out what an opportunity for Apple my latest experiences cross-platform are. If Windows doesn’t have a free easy-to-use multimedia publishing app, why not make iBooks Author for Windows? And even if that seems unlikely (and, I know, it does), what about turning this baby around? iBooks‘ main competitor Kindle still has several key advantages over iBooks, which are:

  1. If you publish to Kindle or shop from the Kindle store, you can read your Kindle books on practically any device (not just the hardware Kindle), because the Kindle app works on Mac OS X, Windows XP, 7 and 8, Windows Phone, iOS, Windows 8 for tablets, Android, Blackberry and even as a cloud reader (which should keep Linux users happy I guess).
  2. In education, the Kindle apps have one killer feature that should be easy for iBooks to include: if you highlight a section, it is copied to your user account on the Amazon website. This saves you copying citations out longhand and saves hours and hours of time even just for high school students writing essays. In iBooks you can highlight sections and you can annotate, but highlighted sections can only be seen within the book (I’m assuming this will be the same in the new version for OSX).

So, we had iBooks for iOS. Now we have iBooks for OSX. Give us iBooks for all the other popular OSes, and in iBooks Author (even if it’s only available for OSX) you have the perfect authoring tool for hundreds of thousand more educational institutions – even some schools running BYOD systems where a tablet or a laptop (rather than a smartphone or iPod) is required.

iWork cloud

Apple’s iWork apps will soon work “in the cloud” – right on your web browser, in any OS.

And what would the punchline be? Yep, you got it – today Apple showed they can bring their productivity suite (iWork) to the cloud, so why not bring iBooks and iBooks Author to the cloud too? I think that’s all bases covered.

Long time no blog – but that’s what happens when you take a new job! Since March I’ve been working at the Sydney Conservatorium as a full time lecturer in Music Education. I’m loving it, and I’m exhausted.

Website image

My new website at http://www.composerhome.com, designed by Joni-Leigh Doran and coded by yours truly.

This blog post is mostly to draw your attention to the many changes I’ve made at my website, if you only follow my work via my blog. Hopefully some of you have already noticed that my website at www.composerhome.com had a major overhaul in January. Back then the “Concert Music“, “Education Music” and “About” pages were completely re-made, with many new recordings and scores or score samples uploaded. The design was by Joni-Leigh Doran, and I coded every little bit of the site myself in xHTML using some new HTML5 tags and CSS3.

Soundcloud logoThe annoying thing about going with the HTML5 audio tag was that it really isn’t reliable cross-browser. Internet Explorer users, even those up to date, weren’t going to be able to listen, and there were off and on problems on most of the Windows browsers. I spent HOURS on it. All the Mac browsers were fine, although the latest few releases of Firefox have seemed really flaky to me. Anyway, long story short, last week I took all the music to SoundCloud and embedded it from there – for me, this has the benefit of being able to track plays of each track, but also a financial impact of paying SoundCloud for hosting (and it does seem a ridiculous cost when you compare it to something like a Dropbox subscription!: the sooner Dropbox add embed code and play counts to media in the cloud they will be the best online tool for a music educator that there is).

I like the SoundCloud miniplayer, and that’s what you’ll find on the concert music pages, but didn’t realise until it was too late that while the normal SoundCloud player is a nice <iframe> that can call javascript, HTML5 tags or Flash as required, the miniplayer is Flash only. So until I have time to change that, no playback on mobile devices. On the other hand, the education music pages have the nice <iframe> player. Hint if you’d like to do this on your own site – uncheck the image option when you grab the embed code on the SoundCloud website, then edit the height of the embed code to 68px, and you get something a little closer to the miniplayer.

Free course?

Remix unit When Doves CryOK, so that’s the bit that got to you read this, right? Well, the latest updates on my website are to my Resources pages. I haven’t re-authored some of the units that have been up there for years (although if you haven’t seen the funky HTML5 version of my old When Doves Cry remix unit, you should check it out!), but they’re now nicely organised, and my “lots more” page has got much more information about my academic output than there used to be, including new sections on my research into how composer Malcolm Williamson modified his compositional approach when writing for musically-untrained children. It also lists books and articles I’ve written.

Sibelius 7 book

My lovely book/CD/tutorial videos for Sibelius 7

Talking of books and articles I’ve written, I haven’t actually every written a blog about my book “Sibelius 7 Music Notation Essentials”, a project-based learning course for Sibelius which is the official Avid-endorsed course. Originally, all the resources for this course (Sibelius files, PDFs, other music, audio and video files) and the tutorial videos (some 31 of them!) were supposed to be password-protected, but my publisher never got around to doing that. So I’ve made a new page on my website suggesting that you can actually do much more than just sample the course by using those tutorials and videos: you can actually do much of the course online. And for free! Now, of course, I really actually want you to buy my book, but I have a feeling if you do the course online for nothing, you’ll probably realise that it’s such great quality, you’ll want the book anyway. And it’ll look great on your bookshelves, I promise you. I’ll sign out with a video I made showing how the course works…

In my last blog I outlined some of what I learned from spending a week observing and even participating a little at High Tech High in San Diego last June. Naturally, the intention of such a big trip was not only to watch and document, but to give this process a go ourselves. And so I came back, co-authored a unit of work, “did the project myself” and then ran it with two year 8 classes.

With mixed results. Which explains why the first blog didn’t get published until now, and why I haven’t exactly rushed to write about this experience either. But then teachers can learn from their mistakes too, right? The other big problem is that we started designing this unit of work while we were still in HTH Chula Vista with three faculties involved: it was only half way through the 5 weeks of work that we realised one of those faculties had dropped out. This greatly affected the success of the project because students were being told one thing, and then another, and ingredients to the final product we had planned were missing.

High Tech High in San Diego

High Tech High in San Diego

That said, I won’t do finger pointing here for two reasons. Firstly, while we started planning in the US, we did most of the actual preparation very late. So for us teachers there wasn’t a great period of showing what we’d prepared, making the project, and doing proper evaluation between us. We stayed firmly in our silos most of the time, with a Google Doc to share ideas (if you’re interested to read that document, it may make more sense after you’ve read this blog).

All of the HTH teachers would tell you how important preparation and evaluation is, and we proved that: without investing time in confirming and concreting what we were going to do as a group of teachers, one teacher wasn’t properly invested and it all got too hard. Secondly, despite recognising the fault we made at that early point, it’s very tempting to look at the poor work samples from students at the end and blame them on the faculty that didn’t deliver: then Jeff Robin’s blog reminds me that “If you ever say, “I want to collaborate with other teachers but all my partners are bad”, you are the one that is hard to work with.”

I was lucky to be joined in Music by a practicum student, Tim, from the Sydney Conservatorium, and we were working together with Science. The project, originally designed by the head of Science, was simply called What Does It Mean To Be Green? I was pretty excited about this topic and so very eager to be involved. With the recent introduction of the Carbon Tax in Australia it was a great time to ask students to think critically about the information that bombarded them from every side on the topic of “being green”. The government opposition were running a campaign intended to make the Australian taxpayer believe they were going to be much poorer with no environmental gain, so there was political interest as well as scientific.

While the science faculty were busy getting students to think about these kind of things and what their point of view was, my job was to help them ‘sell’ their eventual message, learning key music outcomes in the process. The overall project was to be delivered in a video, so the focus of time in music would be looking at models where sound is used to enforce an environmental or political message, and experimenting with pitched and unpitched sounds, samples and effects in the process. As directed by Jeff Robin, I made the project myself, and then realised that given so little time (only five 50-minute lessons) the models needed to be really clear. Tim also did the project himself, and we shared the teaching and tutoring in the lessons. Tim uniquely had time to attend some of the science classes, and as you’ll see, did some very important work collecting student feedback at the end of the unit.

The SinkingThe first lesson was a guided listening lesson old-school style, with The Sinking of the Rainbow Warrior by Colin Bright and Amanda Stewart as the model. This work uses mixed media of all the above types, and students could easily identify what kinds of sounds were used to gain what effect. The use of drone and a simple pentatonic scale in the first movement provided starting material for students’ own work, and these became core concepts that the students would learn. Scaffolding was also provided in the school LMS (Schoology), with material such as links to find good sample-able content on the topic:

The next four weeks were all about improvisation, composition, and learning the technological skills required to complete the task. I broke these skills down in my own project, which then became the second model for students. I created a rough tutorial video for each skill so that students could either prepare flipped-classroom style, or revise/catch up where necessary. Tim created a worksheet showing how to play a number of different pentatonic modes in Garageband. We taught classrooms “from the back” as much as possible, by which I mean that only the first 5 minutes were instruction or reminding students what had to be done, and the rest of the time working with individual students on their actual projects. Here are the four (be forgiving, I said they’re rough!) tutorial videos:

The most positive aspect of the resulting work was that having a self-contained project within music which was then to be expanded into their videos that would be shown at the final POL (presentation of learning, to which their parents and the school principal were invited) meant that I had some assessable work that I wouldn’t have if I had only asked them to produce the final video: more of that in a moment. However, the rate of completion of the unit (.4 failed to submit) was much lower than all other units of work in year 8 (a range of .11 to .14 failed to submit). It is possible to equate the low completion rate with the fact that this was the last unit for the year, most students were not planning to continue music in year 9, and reports had already been written so consequences for not completing work were perceived low.

Before I refer to marks, let me explain that these marks may seem very low, but that I am privileged to work in a department that teaches well above the expectations of the NSW BoS syllabus, and so a mark close to 100% would reflect the ability of students many years in advance of state expectations in music. The two classes (of six total year 8 classes) involved in this unit had only a handful of students who might be expected to gain high marks based on their prior musical education and pretests. The marks that I cite are used only for internal assessment: student feedback shows not these marks but descriptors for outcomes (not evident, developing, satisfactory and high) aligned with BoS outcomes. Nonetheless the marking is entirely consistent and very useful for comparing progress over the year and response to different material and styles of teaching.

Of the assessable outcomes, marks (39% average) were much lower in this unit of work than the two proceeding units (average 54%) for the class which had at the start of the year done better in their pre-test; while marks improved slightly (35% average from a previous 29.5% over the year) for students who had done least well in the pre-test. One could conclude that the students with lower ability were more engaged by the project based learning task.

Non-completion of the task also influences comparison with earlier units of work. Therefore, marks of students who submitted marks in each unit only were also compared across both classes as a whole. When non-completions were not taken into account, students across the two classes showed a slight overall improvement over the two previous units of work, up from a range of 51-58% to 60% in the What Does It Mean To Be Green unit. In addition, some students who had not achieved good marks before did for the first time in this unit. Here is one example:

These results suggest that the PBL unit at the very least maintained their levels of engagement and successfully introduced understanding of new concepts. However it must be noted that these results were gained from marking the music-only task which was designed to be a prototype for the students’ own eventual work. Instead, of the seven films submitted at the POL, only two included any music composed by the students at all, despite notice that students would be assessed on the final music in their videos.

Finally, Tim created a survey in which students were asked to anonymously reflect on the process of a single unit shared between science and art. He shared the results with me, which I’d be happy to share with anyone in full (they’d make this blog a bit long), so here are the highlights:

What motivated you?
Parents and principal being there – 5 (presenting)
Getting a good mark – 7
Keeping up with the group – 2
Having fun
What part of the project did you enjoy the most? Why?
iStop movie – 4
Videoing/filming – 4
The choice of freedom because to everyone “what does it meant o be green” is intepreted differently
Working with two motivated classmates  (in a group) – 2
Presenting and listening to feedback
Working with play dough
What part of the project did you least enjoy? Explain
Writing music – 3
Meeting time limit
Research – 2
Finding time to do our project and working together because in every group there is a person who does not co-operate, but we worked around it
iStop movie – took so long
Did you feel Music and Science fitted together in a way that helped you learn or produce a better final product?
Yes  – 6
Only did Science segment – 5
Would this project have been better or worse if it was just taught in Science? Why/Why not?
No because it gave us the freedom of learning about the part of the project you liked
Worse, there wouldn’t have been that extra push or motivation
Worse – both skills were needed to create a good product
Would have been easier without music
Better if just one subject
Do you prefer working on a project over several weeks or being taught more traditionally toward a test or exam?
Project Method – 6
Traditional Test Method
A combination of both – 2
Please give some feedback or suggestions
Longer period of time, broader time frame
Something I’ve never done before, lots of fun but stressful
The only firm conclusions I can come up with following the experience of teaching this unit was that:
  1. Following High Tech High’s procedures for collaborating with other faculties would at the very least increase the chances of creating a successful unit of work. We made time for one 7:30am meeting halfway through the unit, but we really needed that time every week. In the future, this will be supported by the school with structural changes to timetabling.
  2. It is very important for students to see the same expectations from all the different staff of different faculties.
  3. Some students were more motivated in this unit than previous units and did better work.
  4. Projects need to run on a whole-class or whole-year basis where there aren’t some students just in one class and some just in another. Rather than de-streaming classes, faculties can look for similarities in classes and timetabling, or faculties can agree to run projects in every single class in a particular year.

And guess what? Yes, I’m designing the next cross faculty PBL and this time it’s with Maths, the subject that even HTH have found impossible to teach in projects all the time. More on that in a future blog… In the meantime, if you’d like to adapt this unit of work yourself or see how it aligned with BoS outcomes, here it is.

There are a few blogs I’ve been meaning to write over 2012, so as I’m about to hit 2013, I’m going to publish what I have instead of waiting for the time to do a nice polished job. Maybe that time is never coming! So here we go…


In 2012 I was lucky to be involved in a number of key exercises my school undertook in a bid to refresh the schoolwide approach to pedagogy. In June I was lucky enough to be chosen to participate in a field trip to High Tech High in San Diego. This trip was recommended by my friend David Price, founder of Musical Futures and Learning Futures in the UK who has been working with my school this year as we review our practise and look at how we can further innovate learning in the future.

David suggested to us that the model for project based learning wasn’t as well refined anywhere else in the world, and offered to meet us in San Diego to facilitate the trip.

What it ain’t

There’s a lot written about High Tech High (hereafter HTH) on its website, and you can also get a great idea for what their take on project based learning (hereafter PBL) looks like by reading Work That Matters (Patton & Robin 2012) which was jointly produced by Learning Futures and HTH.

High Tech NightHowever despite the fact I’d done all kinds of reading including the above, I had still made several incorrect assumptions, so I’ll start with those here. Firstly, High Tech High is more than one school. In fact, it’s 10 schools based on the same model. Five high schools, three middle schools, and two elementary (primary) schools. Each one is kept below the 500 student mark because it is believed that that is as many names as a teacher can remember.

And while the schools operate under the same principles (personalisation, adult world connection, common intellectual mission and teacher as designer), the ‘flavour’ of each was distinct. On the one campus the original High Tech High, High Tech High Media Arts and High Tech High International boasted a variety of work and variations on the central model (more on that later), and I also visited the Middle School on the same campus and the Chula Vista K-12 school near the Mexican border.

The next thing that High Tech High ain’t is High Tech. Or rather, I should say that the name implies that everything must revolve around technology, and that there must be cutting edge technology all over the school, and neither implication is true. The ‘tech’ element is that PBL involves a lot of making, and HTH teachers and students absorb the best tech on hand to do that making. Many students carry their own laptops, but in terms of technology on site, your average Sydney independent school would be way in front.

Does this mean HTH falls at the first step? No. It just turns out it has a pretty daggy name – I even heard a few teachers admit as much. That said, the use of mandated technology was interesting. Students were all given a portfolio space, and built their own (very varied) portfolios in HTML, WordPress or a number of other tools. Suprisingly, at Chula Vista all social media and even YouTube was blocked by the proxy server, which seemed an arcanely backward step when so much forward thinking was around you.

It seemed the school didn’t need to worry about names of students next to their work (or at least, you don’t have to dig very far to find it), but then the rules that apply to the rest of the US public education system don’t necessarily apply at HTH.

The Charter School thing

And HTH is able to get away with its own way of doing things, at least to some extent, because it is a charter school. Representing less than 10% of schools in America, charter schools have the freedom to do things their own way but with public funding, as long as they remain accountable to state and federal “standards”, and open to all (NAPCS 2012).

“Oh, the standards.”, Larry Rosenstock, CEO and founder of HT said. “You add a few letters and you have standardisation. I wish they called them “expectations”.


Despite the freedom given to charter schools, one could see that even working within these restrictions grated a little with CEO and founder Larry Rosenstock, who we met on our first day at HTH. “Oh, the standards.”, he said. “You add a few letters and you have standardisation. I wish they called them “expectations”.” I liked Larry. He despises everything that is systemically wrong with education worldwide, but has an incredibly optimism for what can be achieved if only people get things right. “The more rules you have the less oxygen you have.”, he told us, referring to the expectations that were placed on students at the HTH schools. “Maybe everybody doesn’t need to go to college.”

HTH Chula VistaBut High Tech High students do go to college. And it helps to have statistics like these to rely on: 100 percent of graduates were accepted to college in 2011, with 80% of those being to four-year institutions (High 2012). So the approach works. What was key? Knowing your students: “The key principle is that kids must be integrated”, Larry told us. This means there are no streamed classes, although students can elect to be “honors” or “regular” within any one class, and honors have higher expectations placed on them.

As mentioned, the schools are kept deliberately small, because it’s believed that teachers can remember names of up to 500 or so students, but no more (Californian High Schools often have 3,000 to 4,000 students). Where possible, teachers stick with a class for several years.

“We try to start by assuming good intent in kids”


What we would refer to as pastoral care at my school is taken care of in ‘advisory groups’ at HTH. Ben Daley, Chief Academic Officer (who thinks of the US “standards” about as highly as Larry does), told us “We try to start by assuming good intent in kids”. Each teacher is connected to 15 students in an advisory group and a couple of times a year goes to that student’s home to meet with their family and discuss how they are going on their own turf.

“Families love it”, Larry told us. “They make an effort. They’re proud to invite the teacher into their home. Sometimes they make them a meal.” The students at HTH are from a wide range of socio-economic backgrounds. 8600 students apply for 200 places each year, Larry told us, and they’re chosen by lottery based on postcode, so the chances of getting in if you live in a rich suburb are the same as if you live in a poor one.

Teachers meet at 7:30am every morning for an hour before school starts to discuss how projects are going and flag any issues with individual students. In return for the investment the teachers make in the students, the students invest in school. The maturity they present to visitors and their work was incredible, and a feeling of goodwill and fortune to be there was present in every class I visited. Ben told us “the students interview prospective teachers too. You’d be amazed how seriously they take it – if they hire a poor teacher they really regret it down the track.”

That latter point is less of a problem for High Tech High than Australian schools like mine, though. Their policy is that every teacher is on a one year contract, and all principals review and rate their teachers every year and report up. If a teacher isn’t performing, they can get professional development from the school’s own graduate program, or they can be moved on. There were a lot of young teachers.

What PBL might or might not be

And then there were the institutions. My colleague’s report that Jeff Robin offered him a beer from under his desk during class was legend as soon as it passed his lips on the first day, but when we met with Jeff, self-proclaimed guru of Project Based Learning – the High Tech High way – you could see why everyone is both wary and in awe of him. I liked Jeff and awful lot. Just about everything he said rang a chord with something I believed or taught me something.

He often offered black and white accounts of how things needed to work, wore his principles on his sleeve, but not as a tyrant – as a passionate educator who cares about nothing more than his students’ work. The number one lesson we learnt from Jeff about PBL was the importance of doing the project yourself first. Jeff taught us that every hour it takes him to make a project will be about a day for a class of students. He designs units of work with another teacher from another faculty (Larry told us Visual Arts, Jeff’s subject, has proven better combined with the sciences than maths), and then takes time to do every part of that project himself.

NewtonThe program of work can then be reverse-engineered; the teacher knowing every step and what skills a student will learn, the outcomes that can be assessed, and so on. But there’s a second benefit: you’ll have designed a project you’re passionate enough about to do yourself, and so you’ll have a great model and energy about teaching it. Models are important to Jeff – he refers the projects to the models he uses and shares then with the students: “Everybody has to have a master”, as he put it. It’s impossible to summarise everything that Jeff taught me here, but he has made a series of videos on his website (Robin 2012) that all of my MTeach students will be watching next year.

The other principle that we saw again and again at HTH was the importance of a showcase at the end of each project. Being there at the end of the school year we were lucky enough to attend poetry readings, exhibitions of medieval machinery, and POLs (Presentations of Learning). The latter are summaries of what a student has achieved over a longer time period, such as the whole year, and are given to two or more teachers and their classmates at once.

Students don’t just list off the projects they completed; they discuss their personal attributes, their strengths, and how they worked on their weaknesses over the year. No wonder they come across so mature. I was lucky enough to be in attendance in a Media Arts POL with my partner teacher Blair Hatch where they were one teacher short. I stepped in, asking students about their work – not to try to catch them out, but genuinely out of interest to find out how they had made artifacts, what their models were, and why.

And we learned more at HTH. I must share with you the process teachers go through to critique each others’ work, the cross-curricular unit of work I created with the HTH framework (yes, I’ve done it myself first), and also the discussions I had with HTH teachers and administrators about music education. That will have to be another blog.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,489 other followers

%d bloggers like this: