Hacking High School

HackHighScholl Sticker720Somewhere this spring, I quietly changed this blog’s name. We needed to find a new ID for the ideas and opportunities discussed here. Something that indicated large change; change and opportunity for all teens.

Indeed, at the time unknown to me, Ohio’s Superintendent of Schools had also come to this conclusion. Nowhere near enough kids were taking advantage of our credit flexibility law; no where near enough community organizations and workplaces were participating; nowhere near enough innovation was happening in the learning lives of teens.

Part of this year’s policy work in Ohio is to be the expansion and re-branding of the Credit Flex options. Middle school students will also be included. The name will be changed.

What that name will be, I don’t yet know. But I’d already decided on a name change here. We’d try a little more radical name. We’d call it something that hints at the true power available to teens. It’s not an escape tool. It’s not just for fun and diversion. It’s a path toward fundamentally rebuilding how, what, when, and why teens learn.

It’s about change the size of the transition from 1970’s mainframe computers to an iPhone/iPad/Apple Watch ecology. It’s about moving from “Expect 6-8 weeks for delivery” to “Order by 3AM get it by 10AM”. It’s about living for years with a walker and pain vs arthroscopic and laparoscopic surgeries via a network of outpatient surgical centers.

Thus ‘hacking high school’.

More shortly. Much more.

The Year That Saved High School


You may not see it come the CNN 2015 year-end reviews. A working example might be a hike from where you live. Still, it will have begun. The new American high school is under design and under way.

It’s a pretty exciting place to be.

Gone first is a 20 year obsession with college. That needed and well-met focus served it’s time. Yet skilled machinists make over $50k a year, even food service demands increasingly complex skills. The academy has yet to uniquely guarantee good citizenship.  Our cars, homes and bodies need increasingly complex repairs. Computers and robots run the shops of the land even as the ‘Internet of things’ has barely begun. More college is not the answer.

Gone, too, is the idea that HS can be completed inside a HS building.

Much is added to create the new high school.

Firstly including pedagogy often known as ‘deeper learning‘. Deeper learning in itself, as Carri Schneider recently highlighted, may certainly have other ‘____-learning’ components such as blended and mastery. And it evokes old approaches long practiced in Montessori and similar schools.

Yet rote and muscle learning will find new succor. People like being good at skills. IF they’re ready to learn and are not forced into mastering them.

What will be fundamentally different are two things:

  1. The degree to which HS students choose their own source, method, subject, means, and pace of learning.
  2. The degree to which the larger world contributes to that learning.

That is, the driver and the road of learning both change.

Connected learning is key to resourcing the new American high school. It just cant be done with the same set of funds, teaching positions, tech budgets, and physical spaces that high schools have to work with. Ohio alone has 830 high schools. Each is a $40-60 million physical investment, many in rural areas. Even a 10% physical expansion would cost $4 billion dollars–4x the state’s annual budget.

The new high school says we don’t just turn to community colleges to ‘fix’ learning for half our population. We look to all our neighbors and community institutions to pitch in on the coaching, mentorship, and sometimes assessment aspects. We use the Internet to powerfully match human connections.

The new high school uses advances in credentialing, aka Openbadges, to package learning into bite-sized chunks. We have to make big advances in implementing this in our high schools this year. [Let’s start with teacher PD. Let’s start with every @edcamp and edu-conference attendee in 2015 getting an @openbadge.] Obviously, at BadgeOH|BadgeHS, we’ve pledged our part to work the problem of badges for student learning.

The new high school envisions students working in long-lasting teams. For a half- or full semester or longer. On topics, even entire classes, of the team’s choice and direction.

The new high school is where students drive each day’s learning, yet where mastery steadily and purposefully increases.

The turning point is here. We can tell by who has already changed direction. 2014 saw big names in education policy shift from their obsession with college.

2015 will change how we look at high school.

Ask a Bigger Question. Edison Did.

The inventor of the phonograph was Thomas Edison? Not by twenty years.

The proof is solid. The song “Au Clair de la Lune”, recorded in 1860, is still here today. Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville, a Frenchman, typesetter, and tinkerer, is the man who captured those sounds for posterity.

Where did de Martinville go wrong?

Literally, phono-graph means ‘sound | something written’. And that’s what de Martinville set out to do. He succeeded brilliantly. Yet we don’t know him.

Edison asked a different, further, question. He asked , ‘how might people hear the sounds that have been written?’

Today we have iPods, DVD’s, and feature films in Dolby 5.1 surround sound; and every fifth grader knows Edison, not de Martinville, as the father of recorded words and music.

de Martinville never even thought about playing the sounds back. It simply wasn’t his aim. Why?

He lived and worked in a time when self government and parliamentary bodies and scientific investigations were exploding. Thinking men were searching for faster ways to record proceedings and events of all kind–on paper. Even Brigham Young, early leader of the Mormon church and Utah, pushed a unique Mormon alphabet that would be more phonetically accurate and easier to use than our Latin letters.

de Martiniville’s error was a critical one many would-be inventors make. He asked the wrong, too limited, question. De Martinville asked how to make a tool that made an existing process better. Edison asked, ‘what new process do people really want?’

BadgeOhio|BadgeHS asks you to work with us on a whole new process. To ask one question beyond what most in education are asking.

Unleashing Innovation.

What was the real innovation of the ’80’s that led to the .com and tech revolutions?

If you said the microchip, you’re less than a third right.

What allowed exponential change was largely a change in the legal climate that came with the breaking up of the AT&T like monopolies. It’s hard to imagine today, a ten minute phone call might cost $5 or more; forget about third party innovation getting around Bell.

And one more huge change, a change in our view of the problem space. A re-envisioning of the constraints that held back entrepreneurs and inventors. An awakening of the marketplace for innovation.

Michael Milken in 1984 essentially invented the financing of tech as we know it. So radical was his innovation that the status-quo pundits and regulators felt compelled to persecute, then prosecute him for his re-envisioning of the tech financial markets. He took what was once an auction-place for bonds of nearly-failed companies, and re-envisioned a marketplace for high risk, high yield securities of projects years from their hoped-for payoffs. These speculative grade bonds he used to fund companies like MCI unleashed huge sources of capital. New capital, in turn, gave us the competitive backbone infrastructure upon which the Internet age was born and grew.

Education needs such a 1984 moment. It needs a coupling of newly relaxed law with a re-envisioning of how everyday providers and consumers interact with the system as a whole. Just as we stopped seeing Ma Bell and her operators as the linch-pin connection to others, we today must totally rethink the role of the District and the teacher in connecting us with learning.

And we do need the District teachers and admins. Charter schools sometimes have advocates who see them as replacing District classrooms. Those advocates have not factored in rural voters in small towns where the high school is the center of the community, their very identity at times. Nor to they full appreciate the political power that will remain as the urban education establishment for years to come.

AT&T and the RBOCs are still with us, often bigger. Yet we’ve unbundled the phone call and repackaged it as a stream of data packets handled by perhaps dozens of companies cooperating companies between you and your niece in Peoria.

High school learning is deeply in need of such unbundling and rearranging. And deeply in need of the increased flow of resources (ideas, help, and money) that will arrive with such a new design.

This isn’t an “I wish” abstraction. It is doable, now. This fall. The law change and re-envisioning are done. The pieces are in place, merely awaiting time and resources to scale.

It is, in fact, right here.

Larger Literacies

Iframing actually call them ‘Frameworks’, but ‘Literacies’ is good, too. Students deserve much greater access to words and structures that ease thinking. In all sorts of domains.

We hear much of ‘New Literacies’. ‘Coding’ (computer programming) was big in the past year. I agree: far more people should understand these machines around us, machines that grow smarter every day.

Before that, ’21st century skills’ was (still is?) a big topic. These essentially mean the literacies and framework of digital file manipulation, media editing, text formatting, social networking etc. Again, good stuff.

What about OLD literacies? Some long faded from the curriculum; others never seen in our schools? Could we think about them, too? Latin, one of the older ones, could now be much more accessible. Suddenly a basic intro to Latin is a real possibility for any student, without forgoing an entire year or even semester of some other class. (At least some legal/medical/etymological/even theological basework.)

Design Thinking is a literacy/framework that was old hat to creatives; it’s been packaged anew and given fresh visual and verbal identity. Why can’t more high school students be given this? We think they can.

Geography is an old literacy that’s been given short shrift the past ~50 years. Yet we talk often of global citizenship, or global awareness. What if when we read news stories as teens and young adults, we knew something about these places? The exciting thing is, great tools make this easier than ever. Third graders can Skype with students in Israel one day and Egypt the next, and begin to put human faces on places far away in space and culture. Flight simulators let you take off from Istanbul, and fly low-level past Aleppo, over Tabriz and Tblisi, with a nice landing in Donetz if we please. In high school, we can really begin to fill in more details of the world; begin to add some real history, begin to understand 1000 year old tensions, and also grasp brand-new opportunities.

Citizenship, too, has literacies. The situation with ISIS in Iraq was seen very differently by those with a national security literacy as opposed to those who had no such framework to learn and build upon. So too with the domestic justice system.

Even musical literacies could help us. If I’m a student of a poor zip code, but I know something of Jazz, Gospel, and Mozart, I have something that gives me a place to go where I feel intellectual. Someplace where I can go to talk with a new acquaintance and show some sophistication and connectedness to the larger cultural world.


Beyond these ‘academic’ literacies/frameworks, vocabularies of craftsmanship and building are of great value. too. A box-wrench vs. a combination wrench. A plumb-line. A bobbin. A jig-saw. Diagonal cutters. A derrick. In my rural area, we grew up with these. In other neighborhoods, maybe not so much.

Evolving, more technologically equipped maker-spaces will bring in vocabularies of a much newer and greatly expanded flavor. Additive manufacturing, anyone? Negative space, bitmap, color palettes?

Fitting these and more literacies into the old school model is getting tougher and tougher. We need a new model.

Here it is.

It’s About Tribes

Above all, high school students want to belong. Let’s let them test tribes that might deeply engage them.

Today a small tribe is growing into a Design Thinking movement. Will that be a tribe students join? (Even if they’re in a 300-student high school in rural Appalachia? How could we help them do that? How could current DT students do that?)

The maker movement is a growing tribe. Should it be confined to wealthy suburban districts? Or can we help spread it to any school where students want to do that?

What about the Western-, Eastern-, or World- history tribes? The Arabic-learning tribe? The tribe of robotics programmers? The Latin, art history, Jazz, or Mediterranean foods tribes?

Maybe the tribe is one student and a teacher who will help them follow a passion. Or two students and an adult cross-state who will guide them through learning and a project.


Maybe the tribe is the large group of Ohioans who actively help the people in up-mountain Haiti to get food, medical care, building materials, and jobs.

We all have deep needs to belong. For many students, the tribe they join in high school may determine what happens after school ends.

Many tribes besides Algebra, Chemistry, and English have a rich, deep, engaging base of knowledge, a canon of thought and thought-frameworks that can stretch and mold students minds. (Advanced-manufacturing concepts? Small business essentials?)

Let’s give them 100 more options to join tribes.

It’s About Doing More

How many hours did you spend in a classroom where you could barely keep your eyes open? Or had no clue what the person in front was droning on about?

Hundreds, maybe thousands of educators have banded around approaches that have domoreedustudents doing more. The maker-ed movement is one of these approaches. Design Thinking is another.

We need to scale. To go from scores of schools across the country to tens of thousands of schools.

We also need more approaches to #doing. Continue reading

It’s Not About Gender-Gaps. (Unless,…).

But it could be if you want it to be.

I personally feel the whole US STEM gender-gap thing overstates the case. I want to talk about boys AND girls being denied education, rights, full nutrition, dignity, limbs, and even life in places like Nigeria, Guatemala, Sudan. These are complex topics.

Yet that’s the beauty. If you want to focus on girls in tech, this is a way to do it. I love RailsGirls and GirlsWhoCode and GirlDevelopIt. Now, take it to the next level.

Beyond evenings or the odd weekend. Make it part of the regular academic school-day. For as many girls as you possibly can.

It’s Not Just About Ohio

The work here is for students (and teachers) everywhere.

The biggest aim here is to identify and develop really high quality connected learning experiences. We frame those around badges, and the badges are tied to high school credit, and some subtle details are tailored to fit Ohio’s Credit Flex approach, but… any teacher should be able to use these curricula with great groups of students.

Efforts are also underway to bring course choice to all states.

It’s Not About Badges

Oh, yes! We use badges. Open Badges. They’re core to how we organized learning for students, parents, and teachers to find.

They’re rallying points for diverse community-members to view, contribute to, review, aImagend design. They’re port-keys for connected learning.

Our badges will be extremely transparent. So you know exactly what learning has been undertaken. (Or will be undertaken.)

You’ll know, too, that our badges have real significance. They’ll map directly to credit needed for high school graduation. So not a worry at all if they’ll help you go to college or get a job. Absolutely.

Yet it’s not about badges. It’s about packaging up all kinds of extended learning experiences.


It’s About Transparency

What’s the entire testing thing about? Unless you’re into conspiracy theories (and many pundits are), the “testing mania” is really just about transparency.

A huge majority of Black and urban students (and plenty of rural southern students–and pockets of students everywhere else) weren’t graduating. Many were graduating, but were functionally illiterate, couldn’t calculate, couldn’t speak or write cogently.

There was lots of finger-pointing.

Testing was an attempt to sort out who was teaching what. Testing helped show who wasn’t learning the basics. It also showed some other weaknesses. It made much that wasn’t visible, more transparent.

Alas, what testing couldn’t show is, “Who is getting educated?” “Who’s ready for the world as it is?” (I think I borrowed that phrase).

Nothing can ever completely show that. Yet we can do much better. An entire set of tools are available; we should be creating more.

Meanwhile, we can also dramatically increase the options of what students learn, as well as how, how much, where, when, and from whom.

It’s About Everybody

We’re building on Ohio’s Credit Flexibility law. Most who know of the law (and they are few) think it’s something for a handful of students. The very brightest who will do some research and invent cold fusion. Or the most talented who will use it to join the world youth orchestra. Or the slowest who need saved in economics in order to make the football squad.

It’s about every student. Every student.

If they don’t take a credit flex option, they’ll benefit from the added time teachers have while the most aggressive students are doing credit flex options.

But we think every student will come to find several options that make high school much better, richer, deeper, and more fun.

Some Music, Maestro?

A ‘perfect’ example of a badge blueprint might just teach music.

Not playing jazz, or writing symphonies. Though many young people are indeed teaching themselves to play guitar and piano via iPad apps and other means.

Rather, might we see a blueprint for first hearing, and then learning an academic framework of, music?

How many students might choose to learn more history through music? Or study the biographies of some of the great musicians, and what they accomplished, and how?

I’m thinking a mash-up of the Rails Blueprint and SmArtHistory, only with notes and clefs and  Mozart’s and maybe a little bit of Winton Marsalis’ Jazz Master classes or the Jazz Academy video series? Should it include the Abyssinian Mass? Maybe!

What would be the connected learning component of this? Some large symphonies have digital outreach, of course. Who else could be tapped in to?

We Need A Hundred of These

They’re certainly not perfect. They’re not even in the sweet spot as far as number oBadgeBlueprintf students reachable, ease of reading,

Yet this badge blueprint is good enough to show us the way.


The way to what, you ask? Well, personalized learning. Relevant learning. Competency-based-; Connected learning.

Student-based learning.


We’ll talk later about some of the elements that make this a good-enough example to build a library from.

For now, know that it represents 60-75 hours of work: half a Carnegie unit in most states.

It’s pretty demanding work. Continue reading

Saving High School?

Keil School Ruins, courtesy of Leslie Barrie

Keil School Ruins, courtesy of Leslie Barrie

Is High School disintegrating?

I don’t think so. And yet, we know it’s the education sector most often mentioned as needing substantial change.

Mention high school to business leaders and it’s not uncommon to hear them say, “throw it out”.  And increasingly, students are throwing parts or all of it out. Before she’d even left elementary, my niece was already assured that she’d leave high school early to collect college credits. Both nephews spent half of their last two years in classes at the nearby community college. It’s an accelerating trend.

Charter or community schools have also been taking increasing numbers of students from the larger public schools. Meanwhile, we’re told that ‘gifted’ students and ‘hands-on’ students alike are not being well-served. And, as we’ve mentioned, over half of Black young men still leave high school before they are done.

Should sending young people to college early be the standard approach? Should community college be de facto mandatory Continue reading