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On this episode of the Getting Smart Podcast Tom sits down with Briony Chown (@BrionyChown), Director of High Tech High Elementary Explorer.

Briony is a seasoned educator who is passionate about creating a better future of elementary education. She is going into her sixth year as Director of High Tech Elementary Explorer and her ninth year with the Explorer team.

Let’s listen in as Tom and Briony chat what elementary schools could be, the outstanding student work at High Tech High, international approaches to learning and community connected projects for young learners.

Briony has been dedicated to helping children become deep thinkers from an early age and often found herself asking the question “How can I help people do truly meaningful work?” This is rooted in a commitment to curiosity and discovering the world around them.

After teaching in London for 6 years, Briony heard about High Tech High from her husband, an education consultant. Together, they came to High Tech High where her husband taught 11th Grade Humanities and Briony moved into 4th grade teaching. Leading elementary education for one of the most famous high schools on the planet comes with tons of possibility — it has the supports in place to try big ideas that she was only able to scratch the surface of in London.

Briony now is the Director of High Tech High Elementary Explorer — a space that prepares educators and teaches them how to co-author learning experiences with students while sharing equity, personalization and other core tenants with High Tech High.

According to Briony, learning priorities should be self-actualized. This means they must be authentic to the learners and their community (both local and global).”Every student has what it takes to meet learning priorities. The youngest children know how to learn already. We disregard the learning that children can do on their own and replace it with learning that doesnt start from the child.”

Many of these priorities are arranged into learning experiences that starts with the real world. One recent example of this is that “third graders were unhappy with lack of playground equipment. So they designed and built their own equipment.” To do this they “had to communicate and had to persuade me and the community to pitch in as well.”

Another recent example was a city planning project where children talked with waste management experts and city planning experts and transit experts. They created a rubric of what success would look like and made sure it matched what the community needed. “We always want to make sure there is some kind of product, an exhibition. They have to defend their work as well.” This has manifested in numerous ways at High Tech High, including student publications.

When you walk into a classroom it can be challenging to find where the teacher is. “Students go to each other looking for critique, asking for advice and feedback”

On the role of a teacher:

  • It’s your passions + student passions;
  • You never want to switch off because the work is so close to your heart;
  • It’s collaborative work;
  • Teachers need to define the what of their classroom as well as the why of the classroom;
  • Every project we do should encompass the genius of the whole school.

On engaging parents: When a new family joins us, the relationship deepens after attending a student exhibition. We also love to bring parents in as experts. Recently, some parents came in as woodworking experts. We heard from both students and parents about how transformational the experience was.

To understand whether or not elementary school is working you have to “love hearing the questions children are asking” and “trust yourself, visit the schools — see what is on the wall. Does it value identical work or highly individualized work? Ask them what they’re doing and why when visiting.”

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