Dirk Knemeyer

The Digitial Life #276: Innovating High School

This week on The Digital Life, our guest is Pam Pedersen, Principal of Innovations Early College High School in Salt Lake City, Utah. There’s perhaps no better way to invest in the future than in preparing students for their life and careers ahead. How that may be best achieved, however, is subject to debate. It’s clear that the US educational system is ripe for change. But what teaching philosophies or methodologies are best? Innovations Early College High School is designed to facilitate blended learning and to allow for flexibility in order to best meet the academic goals of each individual student. It’s an approach far different from the typical high school. Join us as we discuss.

Innovations Early College High School



Jon: Welcome to Episode 276 of “The Digital Life,” a show about our insights into the future of innovation, design, and technology. I’m your host, Jon Follett, and with me is founder and co-host Dirk Knemeyer.

Dirk: Greetings, listeners.

Jon: Our special guest this week is Pam Pederson, Principal of Innovations Early College High School in Salt Lake City Utah. Pam, welcome to the show.

Pam: Thank you for having me, Jon and Dirk.

Jon: We’re going to talk a little bit today with Pam about all of the wonderful new ways of learning and methodologies that they’re practicing over at Innovations Early College High School in Salt Lake. To do that, I believe that Dirk has a list of questions for Pam that we’re going to dig into right now. Dirk?

Dirk: Yeah, so Pam, it’s wonderful to have you on. Thank you so much for being here.

Pam: Thank you.

Dirk: For starters, take us through what does a school day look for a typical student at Innovations Early College High School?

Pam: Well, a typical day is pretty flexible. Our school is based on a flex model of blended learning. Students have an opportunity to arrive at fairly flexible times. They have time with their mentor teacher in some various classrooms here at school. Many students go to concurrent enrollment college classes, and so they’re coming and going with their college schedule, and they’re working on other high school requirements through the day.

Dirk: You mentioned flexibility a couple times, flexible time. And you know, growing up, I’m in my 40s, and so I grew up in a “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” world where bells ring and you better be where you need to be. What does that flexibility look like? I mean, are students able to come in at 1:00 in the afternoon, for example? How flexible is this?

Pam: Well, there is some limit to the flexibility. Students are supposed to be at school six and a half hours a day, but when that starts and ends is probably where the flexibility is. But again, some students we don’t see very often because they’re full-time college students even though they’re still in high school. The flexibility of where they’re working and the things they’re working on, because they don’t have bells, is probably what is more noticeable to people coming on.

Dirk: I see. Students are in college classes as well. What grade does this start in? 9th grade or 12th grade? Where do we start?

Pam: Our school is 9 through 12. Some students start concurrent enrollment college classes second semester of their sophomore year, but we really are expecting students in general to start their 11th grade year if they’re on that track.

Dirk: I see, I see. How about for teachers? What does the teacher experience look like?

Pam: Our teachers have an incredible opportunity. They mentor students from 9th grade through graduation. They get to be kind of part of the family, and they oversee a whole educational and sometimes emotional experience for students, and really, really impact their lives in a positive way.

Dirk: How would this be similar or different to a typical teacher? I can just tell in the language that it’s radically different, but of course, in the typical model that I’m familiar with, a teacher has their own room and then a bell will ring, and a group of students will come in, 20 plus usually. The bell will ring again, the students will leave, and then a whole nother group will come in. What is it like for your teachers?

Pam: Well, they do, we have a little bit more … We have flexibility but also a little more structure this year where teachers do see their mentee students in the morning, in general, and spend time having meetings with them, creating educational plans, checking on the students’ progress through those plans.
They do have curriculum that they’re in charge of. They’re a language arts teacher or a reading teaching or a science teacher. But instead of saying, “I teach science,” they say, “I have mentee students that I help through high school.” It’s a very different mindset.

Dirk: I see. So it’s almost more like a university professor conducting professional office hours in a certain way? Is that metaphor way?

Pam: They do have a lot of office hours and they would say they don’t have enough time for their office hours, really. And then they do have a little more structured periods, especially math this year, where students are asked to go through math in a little more traditional way so that they absolutely get the concepts and can show how smart they have in really important ways like on the ACT.

Dirk: I see. Now, how will Innovations better prepare students for their life ahead compared to a more traditional program?

Pam: Well, in our system, in our blended learning or flex model system, with the exposure to college classes really on and with exposure to our Canvas system, which is the way that professors and students talk to each other and get lessons back and forth and turn things in, all of our universities and colleges mostly in Utah use Canvas. Our students learn that as well while they’re in high school. That’s really helpful.
Also, I think being self-directed and learning how to say, “Boy, I need to get these 10 things done today and how should I do it?” They learn that really well here at Innovations. I think, to be a college student or to be an adult, they’re much more ready and prepared.

Dirk: Interesting. What is the philosophy or principles upon which your approach is based?

Pam: Well, I mentioned a blended learning, which means there’s a lot of different kinds of learning that can happen. The flex part of that means that students have some say in the time, space, pace, and place that they’re doing their learning. That’s a very, very important-

Dirk: Time, space, pace – time, space, place. Time, space, pace, and place.

Pam: Pace and place. It’s a mouthful to say, but it’s-

Dirk: You’ve got it down though Pam, you’ve got it down.

Pam: Well, parents and students are very verbal and very outspoken about making sure those four tenants are kept in place and that students are able to take advantage of those things.

Dirk: It sounds like what’s being done is structural, but our show focuses a lot on technology. I’m curious what is the role of technology in the school, in your process? Are there specific technologies that help to make what you’re doing possible? What are the how’s and why’s?

Pam: Well, we have a ton – a ton – a ton of computers. That sounds not very professional, but we have full classrooms of laptops and desktop computers in every room. We have projectors in every room. Students have the ability to use a lot of other technology online that helps them to reach their goals. Pretty well kids are all walking around all day with their own laptops or school laptops.
We have a really high-speed internet connection and we have really good wireless. So kids are just spoiled. They just go all around our space and even outside of our space and get their work done.

Dirk: Yeah, you mentioned the kids with laptops. Is Innovations a public or a private school?

Pam: We are a choice school in Utah, which it has a lot of similarities to a charter school. We are part of our school district, but as a choice school, we have some differences in funding. We actually probably have more computers than a lot of other schools do as well.

Dirk: That’s interesting. Are there any technologies that you’ve heard about or you imagine could be, in the future if you could dream them up, that you think would have a significant impact on Innovations in the future on the learning process in the future?

Pam: You know, this may sound dumb, but the whole 3-D putting a headset on your head and being somewhere else, I thought that if, in some ways, especially with history and in a lot of subjects, even looking at molecular models and things, that if kids could be in a space and explore spaces or explore those molecular models that, when they’re learning about those things in other ways, that they would have a more powerful understanding of what it was. I don’t know if that makes sense.

Dirk: Oh yeah, amen. I love that vision. That’s smart and I love the immersive nature of what you have in mind there.

Pam: I gotta say this too. The whole “Star Trek” thing of let’s project something, even in the air, right in front of you, and use your hands to move the model and to make it larger or smaller or to explore something right there, would be incredible. I’m looking forward to that here at Innovations.

Dirk: Oh, amen. Me too. That sounds great. That’s not just for the kids; that’s for the big kid over here as well.

Pam: Yeah, yeah, exactly. Here too.

Dirk: So how do you see the school and its curriculum evolving in the years or even in the decades ahead?

Pam: Well, even from what I can see us doing now, we’re trying to fine tune how students learn different things. There are some, I had a parent meeting last night and described to parents that, if you’re learning reading and writing, it’s kind of a circular, repeating thing. You can go back and forth into it and you can leave it for a while and come back and say, “Yeah, that novel or this character or this essay,” and it’s okay to take some time off. The learning there is very different.
I think with math, math and science, it’s hard to take time off from math and not learn a lot of math in a very sequential, focused way. I think we’re going to get better about learning how to teach different things and to teach different students that need it in a different way so that everyone stays on top of things and can graduate on time and can reach their fullest potential.

Dirk: So more customized to the individual?

Pam: Yes.

Dirk: Nice. You know, for other schools who are hearing about this or who we could just connect the information to who want to better serve their students and communities, what are some simple or achievable things they can take from what you’re doing and implement? Particularly, without a large capital expense or something like school board approval. How can Innovations help rise the tide for everyone?

Pam: Well, schools have gotten much better at having big computer labs and more technology and the ability for teachers to understand it and be able to help students learn in different ways. I think to have a school within a school, which is kind of an old … That idea’s been around for a long time, but to use school within a school, not maybe for kids who are having trouble, but for kids who needs to go faster and who are ready to just soar off into college and be our leaders of tomorrow.
We have the ability already in our schools and we have the space, we have the people, and we obviously have the kids who make that possible where kids can do more, more quickly, in a different way. It’s not hard.

Dirk: Are there any specific, particularly for public school systems and maybe ones that don’t have good funding, are there any specific even small, concrete steps that you can recommend?

Pam: I think, as a teacher, if I saw a kid and if I was a teacher right now, if I saw a kid who was really interested, really excited, I would probably approach that one kid and say, “Hey, let’s design a way for you to get through this whole year of curriculum as fast as you want. We’re going to design some independent study projects. I’m going to give you some things to read. I’m going to give you websites to explore. We’re going to meet once a week and you’re going to tell me what you’ve learned and you’re going to get through this and have your whole credit done.” That’s easy, we can do that.

Dirk: Absolutely, that’s great advice. You know, Pam, I’m really inspired by what you’re doing and the future, our living in a world that is one that we want to live in and are proud of and is safe and wonderful depends on education and learning. I just really admire the efforts that you, the team at Innovations, and frankly, teachers everywhere, are putting in to educate our next generation.
So thank you so much, not only for being on the show, but for being part of a process of making for a better future.

Pam: You are so very welcome. It’s a pleasure to serve our community in this way. It is.

Jon: Listeners, remember that while you’re listening to the show, you can follow along with all the things that we’re mentioning here in real time. Just head over to thedigitalife.com – that’s just one L in the digitalife – and go to the page for this episode.
We’ve included links to pretty much everything mentioned by everyone, so it’s rich information resource to take advantage of while you’re listening, or afterward if you’re trying to remember something that you liked. You can find “The Digital Life” on iTunes, Sound Cloud, Stitcher, Player FM, and Google Play.
And if you’d like follow us outside of the show, you can follow me on Twitter @JonFollett, that’s J-O-N-F-O-L-L-E-T-T. Of course, the whole show is brought to you by GoInvo, a studio designing the future of healthcare and emerging technologies, which you can check out at goinvo.com. That’s G-O-I-N-V-O dot come.

Dirk: You can follow me on Twitter @DKnemeyer, that’s @ D-K-N-E-M-E-Y-E-R. Thanks so much for listening.
Pam, how can our listeners find out more about Innovations and get in touch with you?

Pam: On Facebook, we have, if you search “Innovations High School Salt Lake City,” you’ll get our website. I’m hoping we’ll be able to link this podcast onto there when it’s done. Our website is innovationshigh.org. We’re working on the website. Technology isn’t instant over here but we’re getting a better website and it’ll be great to check in with us there.

Jon: Excellent. So that’s it for Episode 276 of “The Digital Life.” For Dirk Knemeyer, I’m Jon Follett, and we’ll see you next time.

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