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Learning that Happens Online and Off, In and Out of School

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Urban School students work in groups.
By Kyle Palmer

Field trips have always been a staple – some might say the best part of -- school. But those trips are typically special occasions and happen only a few times a year, if budgets and schedules allow for them.

At the Urban School, an independent high school in San Francisco, off-site learning is going to be a core part of a few of the classes next year.  For students who take statistics and elections  the classes will incorporate a chunk of time spent at companies and organizations that are relevant to the class topic.

For example, in the statistics class, Urban School staff is looking to partner with companies and organizations that have data they’d be willing to open up to classes to analyze. For the elections class, students would ideally work in local field offices.

Time spent in the field would be part of a broader, comprehensive curriculum that includes time spent in class, project work with other schools – perhaps even in other cities and countries that will eventually become part of a larger network, guest lectures and speakers, group work, and online work done at home.

Taken all together, it’s a combination of “flipped,” “blended,” “experiential,” “authentic,” and some of the other buzz words we hear in education circles. This experiment for Urban is what some educators envision would exemplify the future school day: learning that happens outside of fixed boundaries, in fluid environments, applying real-world applications to concepts and theories.


“Imagine a kid in a math class working on a project,” said David Bill, the Director of Educational Technology. “Several times a week, they don’t have to be in class, but they can go out and work with a company to get data sets for a unit. It’s a more real-world experience.”


This kind of experimentation is not unusual for a school like Urban, which has long had a forward-thinking reputation. The school opened in 1966 and quickly gained notoriety for its progressive pedagogy, which focused on rigorous academics and service learning. The school pioneered the use of block scheduling in the 1970s, and until recently, students were not shown their grades.

Art class incorporates tactile and digital techniques.

Urban introduced its one-to-one laptop program a little more than a decade ago. “We’re trying to find the sweet spot between traditional school methods that have a face-to-face community and making space for this rich learning content that can be accessed digitally,” said Dean of Faculty Jonathan Howland.

Head of School Mark Salkind explained that Urban officials wanted to go beyond the traditional computer lab approach.

“In real life, you don’t have to schedule in time to use your computer,” he said. “Our goal was to have the laptops disappear – that is, become so integrated into what we do that they were not seen as anything special.”

The nearly 400 students at Urban currently use MacBook Air laptops and pay for them in yearly installments that’s included in their annual tuition fees, which can top $35,000.

Senior Brett Klapper said he uses his laptop in nearly every class. “I think it introduces us to the way of life we’ll be leading in college and as adults,” he said.

Junior Tanisha Rai said that having a laptop for schoolwork makes her more organized but admitted that she sometimes feels over-reliant on her computer.

“All my assignments, all my homework, my calendar: they’re all on my laptop,” she said. “I wouldn’t be able to survive a day here without my computer.”

Several students as well as teachers noted how much freedom the Urban School allows students in their use of technology.

“With technology, we start with ‘yes’ and then put boundaries on it, instead of starting with ‘no’ and having censorship,” said Charlotte Worsley, the Assistant Head of School for Student Life.

Every student at Urban gets a Macbook Air laptop.

Klapper, who will graduate in June and plans to attend Wesleyan University in the fall, said he appreciates the “trust” implicit in Urban’s approach -- not just in the use of technology, but to the curriculum in general.

“As a student, you feel so respected here,” he said. “Not all schools would trust kids to let us do some of the things we do in our classes.”

Klapper led an HIV-testing drive at the school as part of a service learning class called “Projects.” He said he got some guidance from teachers but was allowed to do most of the work on his own.

“What we want to do is make education ‘asynchronous,’ not where everybody is asked to do the same thing all at once,” Howland said.

The school is pushing teachers to use technology in ways that enhance project-based learning and inquiry. “In the future, we could have teachers put a lot of their basic content online for kids to review at home,” he said. “And actual class time is used for the extension of that basic knowledge or for field trips or service projects.”

At Urban, perhaps the future is here.


Clarification: The current post reflects that, as of now, only the statistics and elections classes at Urban will be working with off-site organizations.

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