I recently returned to Sydney after two months of travelling through The United States, Canada and Mexico. During my time overseas I made the journey to the Napa Valley in California to visit the offices of the Newtech Network and gain some insight into where the Parramatta Marist High style of project-based learning was born. I was lucky enough to be put in contact with Krista Clark, the Director of Communications at NewTech and I spent the day in deep discussion with her about our mutual love of education and all things project-based learning (PBL).
The Newtech Network (NTN) is a non-profit organisation that helps students gain the knowledge and deeper learning skills they need to succeed in life, college, and the careers of tomorrow. NTN is a leading design partner for comprehensive school change as they work closely with schools to create innovative learning environments. At the heart of the NTN is project-based learning- a model of teaching that empowers students become problem solvers and critical thinkers. According to their website, they encourage teachers to design projects that are authentic, complex and challenging and require students to collaborate with their peers and teachers, communicate and take responsibility for their own learning. (New Tech Network, 2017)
The school I have worked at in Sydney for the past few years has been part of the NTN since 2008 when we first started implementing PBL in our classrooms. Over the years Parramatta Marist High School has strengthened their relationship with NTN and is now an official training hub for other schools around Australia who are interested in learning more about PBL. We have established the Centre for Deeper Learning on campus and teachers and principals from schools all of Australia come to complete courses in developing PBL projects as well as participate in ‘immersion days’ where they have the chance to observe classes in action. I understand that the idea of project- based learning pedagogy may be confronting for teachers who are more comfortable in a traditional classrooms and prefer a more explicit approach to teaching. It is very difficult to have a real understanding of how it works without seeing it practically implemented- these courses provide that opportunity.
During my brief visit to Napa Valley, Krista guided me around the offices and introduced me to some of the pioneers of the NewTech Network. It was surreal seeing the whiteboard walls covered in notes about familiar things like Echo, the online learning platform I’ve been using to teach my students for the past three years. It was quite bizarre finding myself in the place that helped shape my teaching style and essentially changed the direction of my life with its innovative and exciting approach to education (see my post New Kid in the Staffroom). It was clear that an incredible amount of collaboration and creativity happens in that space.
Another core aim of the NTN is to prepare students for the ‘real-world’ and ensure they are college and career ready when they graduate from high school. Part of this is the meaningful use of technology in the classroom by teachers and students. They have designed and created a PBL specific ‘web based learning management system’ that allows projects to be created and delivered to students. “Echo is designed to facilitate project based learning and support a network which helps students, teachers, and parents connect to each other and to student projects across the country [and world].” (NTN Student Outcomes Report 2014) Recently, NTN has updated the original Echo site and launched Echo 2.0 to reflect their ever developing learning process. There are many improvements to the site- particularly the introduction of many functions that support personalised learning.
I really like the New Tech Network’s PBL model because it encourages teachers to adopt the role of ‘facilitator’ rather than ‘instructor’ and therefore each class becomes like a team rather than a traditional ‘us vs. them’ approach. Teachers rarely stand at the front of the classroom instructing the whole class while they sit in silence and they are not seen as ‘experts in everything’. Rather, teachers are seen as active participants in the learning and are responsible for guiding students through the content, skills and challenges. This can be a intimidating and confronting shift in the traditional role of a teacher but it is necessary for a successful student-centred PBL classroom. I really encourage you to read more about the role of a PBL teacher on this fantastic blog by Michelle Berkelely.
Interestingly, even we as teachers follow the PBL model in things like the project design process where we collaborate with other teachers and faculties as well as engage in thorough peer to peer feedback (called Critical Friends protocol), knows and need to knows etc. We are empowered to be creative and think outside the box when developing engaging and authentic projects- something that I really love.
I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to visit the New Tech Network offices in Napa Valley, California and it has definitely fuelled my passion for innovative teaching even further. I am very much looking forward to visiting and teaching at more schools around the world to learn about the inspiring and impressive work happening to revolutionise education in the 21st century.
Thank you again to the wonderful Krista Clark for your hospitality and time!
I will be posting more blogs about my subsequent visit to New Technology High and the universality of PBL so keep an eye open!