Launching the Workshop School: How technology can support radical redesign

Article Highlights

  • The Workshop's goal is for student projects to address a problem that is important to the student and society.

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  • If you want students to be creative, then you need to stop organizing school around solving problems that only have one right answer.

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  • If students understand that it is their school rather than something adults are forcing on them, then they will play a productive role in maintaining and sustaining it.

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It was late August, and our staff had just moved into the building the district had assigned us. We were just a few weeks away from opening a new high school within the School District of Philadelphia. To our surprise, some desktop computers had been left behind in one of the labs. They appeared to be in good condition, so I fired one up and logged in as a student. I started by launching Google Chrome, mostly to see whether the browser and plug-ins needed updating. No luck; students were not authorized to use that particular application. I got a different browser to open, only to be denied when I tried to go to Google’s website.

I stared at the message on the screen, dumbstruck. It informed me that as a student, I had a choice of exactly two websites I was allowed to visit: the School District of Philadelphia, and a remedial online literacy program. A $1,000 computer in a dedicated lab, and all I could use it for was remedial online reading.

That pretty much sums up the pitfalls of online learning and technology in schools in general. We school reformers want all of the bells and whistles around personalization and differentiation, but at the end of the day we are still telling students what to think, where they can and cannot go, what they should and should not know, and how they should spend their time. Reformers talk about moving the teacher away from the front of the classroom to play more of a facilitator role, yet many are uncomfortable with the implications of doing so. We say we want students to own their learning. We use words like “authoring” and “curating.” But most of us are apprehensive about giving up control. What if instead of delving into personalized, differentiated, mastery-based literacy or mathematics, students were to spend all day listening to the new Drake record, or watching homemade videos of people beating each other up?

I can tell you first hand that many do and will. If you give high-school students access to technology, they will waste an ungodly amount of time with it. They will make some terrible choices. You will occasionally see things on screens that make your skin crawl. You can look at this behavior in two ways. One is to decide that these things are distractions from the “real” work of learning to read and do math. In this case, it makes sense to cut off students’ access to diversions or inappropriate content.

Or you could take a different view. We teach high-school students. When they graduate, they enter into a world where the Internet is unfiltered, where distractions abound, and where they will have the freedom to make terrible decisions, some of which could get them fired, kicked out of college, or worse. Learning to stay focused even when buffeted by distractions and learning to distinguish between what content is appropriate and what is not is every bit as important to their long-term success as learning to read more words or calculate more efficiently. Traditionally, however, schools do not teach these skills. Reading and math (measured by test scores, of course) are the real skills we are supposed to teach; everything else is secondary.

The sense that maybe schools teach the wrong things—or teach the right things in the wrong ways—is what gave rise to the Workshop School (the Workshop), a new high school in Philadelphia. The Workshop opened in September 2013 with an inaugural class of nearly 100 students in grades 9–12. The curriculum is organized around projects rather than subjects, and students build content knowledge through their project work. Equally important, they learn how to decide what work needs to get done and create a plan for doing it. They learn how to work together and to be aware of themselves inside the classroom and out—when they are at their best and when they struggle. This awareness is what helps them grow and self-correct. Ultimately, it is what will help them choose Google Drive over YouTube.

This paper focuses on the role of technology at the Workshop, of which I am a cofounder. After briefly discussing the school’s background, I first describe our mission, core principles, and design, with an emphasis on the role of technology in bringing that design to life. I then focus on some of the lessons we have learned about what technology can and cannot do within our design, and what others might learn from our experience.

I make three main points. First, I argue that the starting point for finding or developing effective technology is generally not hardware and software, but rather a clear understanding of school design and what kind of work (on the part of students and teachers) is supposed to be happening within that design. Second, I discuss a few rules of thumb that I have used when thinking about whether and how to employ technology within our model. Finally, I suggest that the noncognitive benefits of technology use may actually have the greatest impact on students.

Matthew Riggan ([email protected]) is a cofounder of the Workshop School in Philadelphia and a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education.

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