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Understanding New Tech

November 11, 2011

Coppell ISD offers many options to engage gifted high school students: International Baccalaureate (IB), Advanced Placement (AP), Gifted/Talented (GT), the Academies, project-based learning, dual credit, online options, and so forth. The issue is not “which one is best,” but instead, “which one is the best fit for me?” For example, from an instructional standpoint, some students prefer independent work much more than group work. Others may desire a balance of traditional teacher-led instruction and/or student-directed learning. Yet others may prefer to be in GT-only classes like they participated in during middle school. In addition, issues beyond students’ learning preferences should be considered such as electives or programs.

New Tech High School’s Instructional Approach to Education

The purpose of this article is to give an overview of New Tech High School’s approach to educating students. We would like to offer a special thanks to Deana Harrell, the New Tech principal (called “Director”), current and former students we visited with, and parents that gave us input.

What Makes New Tech Unique?

As part of the nationally-based New Tech Network, Coppell ISD’s New Tech High School emphasizes 21st century learning through one-to-one technology, project-based learning, a small learning community, dual credit courses, and real-life work experiences.

One to one technology. All students at New Tech are issued laptops, which are used as tools for managing a variety of projects, completing student work, communicating with students and teachers, and so forth.

Project-based learning. Student-centered, self-directed learning is central to New Tech’s educational approach. Rather than the traditional model where teachers “own” and “spoon feed” students information, New Tech teachers (called “facilitators”) “craft” projects that require students (called “learners”) to use inquiry-based learning skills to deepen content knowledge and apply newly acquired knowledge to real-world situations. Assigned projects are meticulously planned, managed, and assessed to ensure students master content, utilize 21st century skills such as effective collaboration and communication, and produce quality end products. Teachers must ensure that all Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) are covered across projects within a course but have flexibility to teach the TEKS in any order they choose. Most projects at New Tech are group projects; however, some individual projects are assigned as well.

Students follow specific steps each time they are assigned a project. First, students view the entry document, which explains project requirements. Next, they create a list of “knows” and “need to knows” followed by “next steps” to “knock out” the “need to knows” and meet project expectations. A problem statement is developed to keep students focused on the big picture of the project. In addition, students craft a social contract that specifies detailed group member expectations. Scaffolding activities are part of all projects. For example, a facilitator may decide to have students extend their learning or fill in gaps in their research; students may request that the teacher conduct a “workshop” or mini lecture on a specific concept to help build background knowledge or to ease confusion. Students are given a rubric at the beginning of a project, so that they know exactly what they need to accomplish to receive a specific grade; rubrics are tied directly to New Tech’s seven learning outcomes, which include:

  • content literacy,
  • collaboration,
  • innovation and evaluation,
  • global citizenship,
  • professional ethics,
  • oral communication, and
  • written communication.

Small learning community. Due to the small size of the campus and the built-in interaction through group work, New Tech serves as a personalized, small learning community that helps students build student-to-student and student-to-teacher relationships. Students noted that they know everyone in their grade level as well as the teachers.

Dual credit courses. All New Tech students are required to complete at least 12 dual credit hours, which allows them to prepare for college while earning joint high school and college credit.

Real-world work experiences. New Tech students job shadow during their junior year for a minimum of 10 hours and intern during their senior year for a minimum of 15 hours. Students’ job shadowing and internship experiences are key parts of the required Senior Capstone Project.

How Does the New Tech Approach to Learning Benefit Students?

The staff and students we visited with are very passionate about New Tech and believe students can succeed if they put forth their best effort and want a non-traditional high school experience. Specifically, they view the following as benefits of a New Tech education. While not related to gifted students specifically, each of these positives could benefit gifted students as well.

Natural differentiation. Research shows that inquiry-based learning provides natural differentiation for students because students can tailor projects to their interests and work at their own level. Deana Harrell agrees that project-based learning at New Tech allows students to expand their inquiry to areas of interest and to build depth into their learning that will help them retain knowledge over time. She further notes that teachers can scaffold the learning to meet state standards while differentiating to students’ individual learning styles and ability levels. For example, she emphasizes that differentiation is included in all aspects of project-based learning including working on a project, producing a final product, and researching within the curriculum itself. A recent GT New Tech graduate especially valued the individual projects that were part of senior year English and Creative Writing classes and reported that the individual projects “sparked a passion inside me for the subject and for writing itself.” The student went on to say that “the individual projects are where we are able to thrive” because students can “put as much or little into it….without group members to limit you at all.”

Distinguished Achievement Plan. Based on web site information, all students at New Tech are placed on the Distinguished Achievement Plan (DAP), which is the most demanding high school diploma program in the state of Texas.

Challenging coursework. Most New Tech courses are Level 3, which is equivalent to a pre-AP or GT pre-AP class at a traditional high school. In addition, New Tech offers some Level 4 AP classes such as AP English IV, AP Calculus, and AP United States History. Courses are coded as pre-AP or AP on a student’s transcript for college purposes; however, unlike pre-AP and AP courses taught at traditional high schools, all New Tech courses follow the project-based learning model. As mentioned above, in addition to New Tech project-based coursework, students are required to complete 12 dual credit hours as well as the Senior Capstone Project. Students describe their class work as “very rigorous” and note that students hold each other to high standards on everything they do; they were quick to point out that New Tech was not an easy school.

Application of knowledge to real-life experiences. New Tech projects require students to deepen their content knowledge and to use the newly acquired content in an applied manner. In some cases, students work to investigate and seek solutions to pressing concerns frequently discussed in local media such as Barnett Shale fracking and Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) issues. Students benefit from seeing real-life application in all they learn; as a result, the students mentioned that they never have to ask why they are learning certain content or if they will ever use the information in their lives.

Development of “soft” 21st century life skills. New Tech seeks to prepare students for the demands of the 21st century work force by helping students learn to communicate effectively, solve real-life problems, and work successfully with others. Students feel that New Tech prepares them for the future through team work and through the development of technology, time management, and communication skills.

College preparation and acceptance. The students and principal report that last year’s New Tech students, the first group of graduating seniors, were accepted to all types of universities. Those interviewed believe students are college ready due to the rigor of project-based learning, development of real life skills, and participation in dual credit college courses.

Key Considerations for the Gifted Learner: Mixed Ability Grouping and Personality Type

The use of mixed ability grouping at New Tech can be an important consideration when choosing the best fit for a GT child’s high school education. Occasionally, teachers group students by ability level at New Tech, which means GT students are sometimes placed with other high-ability learners. However, most New Tech group projects include students of mixed ability levels. This is very different from the group projects students experience in middle and high school GT classes where they are grouped with other high-level learners. As a result, we asked a few parents to give us their perceptions of mixed ability grouping as it related to their GT New Tech child.

The parents we interacted with emphasize the real-world nature of mixed ability groups and how students are able to realistically experience what it is like to work with all types of students. In other words, mixed ability grouping fits with New Tech’s emphasis on preparing students for a work force comprised of people with varying ability levels and backgrounds. According to one parent, students quickly learn the need to write good contracts. That way, the group can hold group members accountable for specific expectations and can “fire” or remove a student that does not “pull his or her weight.” In spite of occasional frustration, parents believe the students grow from working with all types of students. One parent sent the following quote along from her recently graduated student:

New Tech’s main focus is real world learning and putting students in situations they’ll be in once out of school. Being a GT student, my challenge was more in the collaboration than in the material itself [the] majority of times. I’m a freshman in college now and feel more prepared than most in group work and in presenting material. I was stretched personally at New Tech and I’m thankful for it. It allowed me to see the bigger picture rather than just that chapter of material. Working in groups at times was certainly frustrating and collaboration was challenging. Many times I ended up doing more than my fair share of the work due to other students’ lack of motivation or care, but other times the group work opened my eyes to an eclectic range of strengths that I wouldn’t have thought to bring to the table in the past. It’s a skill I’ve gained that is so valuable: working with those different than myself.

Interestingly, when asked about mixed ability grouping, all but one of the parents we spoke with stressed that the child’s personality type is the most important factor to consider. For example, one parent said, “I think group project frustration is more personality related than necessarily gifted related. Kids who are more control oriented, whether gifted or not, get very frustrated because they don’t like their grade being dependent on others.” Others note that some GT students find themselves unintentionally in leadership roles. Although some love the leadership role, others display a high amount of “self pressure” that leads to unhealthy stress; this “self pressure” can be especially high if a student takes on a leadership role for numerous projects. In contrast, some believe the built in structure and accountability is helpful for some GT students. One parent said, “Gifted kids that tend to have trouble staying on task because their brains are spinning so fast probably benefit by the accountability to others and the freedom and creativity allowed by project-based learning.” The parent then added, “I think whether or not a student is extroverted or introverted is a big factor in whether or not they enjoy having to work with others extensively.” Another parent agreed that the small school environment added accountability and said, “One of the big positives for my kids has been the smaller school environment and the fact that the facilitators and staff really get to know the kids and help to personalize their education. Along with this comes the accountability factor – the kids cannot blend into the crowd as easily…most everyone knows you and with this comes responsibility.” The list could go on.

This article is limited to the educational approach used at New Tech and does not cover other details that could impact a gifted student’s decision to attend New Tech. If you want to learn more about New Tech, you can visit the web site, participate in a campus tour, and/or attend one of the school’s upcoming information meetings.

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