The Urban School was founded in 1966 and prides itself on its use of technology and innovation. The school has adopted blended learning models, offering courses through a LMS and video conferencing but also maintaining teaching contact time. They were also in the middle of constructing a new lab. This was my first exposure to listening about how they developed and implemented their STEM curriculum which they cleverly market under the name ‘Urban X Labs’.


During the presentation I found myself reflecting on how our curriculum differs. Urban School offers courses on electronics, coding, robotics and graphic design. Courses we would offer under a Design and Technology learning area but they also include Physics and Science under their X Labs umbrella. It sparked in me a rethink of how we resource each of our learning areas. Most schools have Science Labs with Science Lab Technicians. A Materials and Design and Technology Department with its own unique equipment and Technicians. It became increasingly apparent that by creating a flexible lab equipped with resources from multiple learning areas it creates an opportunity to blend, innovate and develop cross curricular activities that promote critical thinking, problem solving and higher order thinking. It would provide these connections in such an organic way.

Whilst we didn’t see it in action, I was happy to see that the curriculum leaders has a chance to develop courses and commit to project based learning (PBL) activities all before they designed and built their lab.

It reminded me of a powerful image I once saw at a conference about a garden with beautiful lawns where students had ignored paved paths, wearing away the lawn and trodden through garden beds. A contemporary thinker would have planted grass everywhere and after seeing where people walk then plan out where to place paths and garden beds.

This contemporary thinking was evident at Urban School and we heard of how other local schools funded amazing labs only for them to be empty.

What a great way to start the tour.

The Urban School – Where Innovation is Tradition


Like every school we are visiting, The Urban School is set in sunny San Francisco.  A city that is famous for its rolling hills, awesome architecture and even more more awesome food.  It is perhaps most famously known for its landmarks such as the Golden Gate Bridge and the notorious Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary.

It is a city that holds a rich cultural history in the arts, but also a place that has been greatly impacted by the constant innovation of the brilliant minds who flock to Silicon Valley; the home of many tech companies that have changed the world as we know it.

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It is perhaps fitting then, that the Urban School is an institution that is symbolic of everything that is San Francisco.  It is a place where innovation is indeed the tradition of the school.  Where the forward thinking philosophies of the founders in 1966 continue to shape the school as it continues to grow.

It is a school that is exemplary in its use of technology.  Whether it is the implementation of Blend-Ed techniques or the development of the current Urban X Labs, technology has a genuine purpose at The Urban School.  Where every decision is carefully crafted to benefit the student.

However, it is not the use of technology that has impressed me.  Rather, it is their unique teaching culture that I was most interested in.  I found myself taking more notes on how they approach education and their philosophy of education itself.  Not how they have implemented technology, which was the main purpose of my visit…or so I thought.


One of the many collaborative learning spaces at The Urban School

Geoff Ruth, The Urban School’s Academic Dean, described their teachers as ‘relational leaders’ and not the traditional ‘seminar leader’.  Incase you didn’t already know, this is brilliant.  A teacher that has a personal connection to their student will work harder for their students and vice versa.  He tells us that:

The Pedagogy has to be different, it needs to be different to make it work

An example of this is their use of a ‘Digital Innovators Group’.  This group is made of people involved in the school community including: teachers, administrators and most importantly, students.  This group has a variety of roles such as creating assessments that are engaging and relevant to the students, whilst covering all necessary curriculum outcomes.  An idea that I will be adopting in my own personal journey in education.

From this, the use of technology arises.  It becomes relevant. It becomes purposeful. It becomes organic.

I myself am envious of the teaching culture that is so easily found throughout The Urban School.  It is something that I will be taking back with me to reflect on.  But until then, I will continue to enjoy the sunny days of San Francisco and marvel at everything this wonderful city has to offer.




UrbanX a bit like our T&E Depts

The STEM lab at The Urban School seemed to be based on principles very close to what good T&E teachers in Australia have been doing for a long time –

  • giving students well-structured design briefs within which students have freedom to pursue their own choice of projects
  • mentoring students as they work independently on their own projects
  • insisting on students maintaining comprehensive journals/logs/portfolios of investigations, planning documents, sketches, photos, diagrams and time management procedures – both paper and digital
  • including aspects of the tasks involving group work, cooperation, discussion and justifying decisions and choices of tools and materials
  • providing opportunities for ongoing reflection, self assessment, peer assessment and showcasing work
  • including and valuing (often even in-task assessing) skills from other subject areas – english, maths, science, social science, history
  • supporting students to build and create – the “head+hands+heart” Learning Area!

Way to go T&E!! Mixing the theory with the practical application and then getting right “in the thick of it” to work on projects with the kids has always been such a great way to teach, assess and understand your students! UrbanX kids will thrive on it.


Day 1 – The Urban School


urban_xlabs_color_200pxThis morning, after a short briefing, we headed just down the road to The Urban School. It is a relatively small school based right in the heart of the suburbs. It is for 14 – 17 year olds and is academically selective and costs around $42,000 USD a year to attend. There are 55 staff (approx half are 0.5 FTE) and average class size is 14.

After a short tour by the Dean of Academics, Geoff Ruth, we were led to a Maths (Math) classroom  and we had a talk / chat session with both Geoff and the Dean of Faculty, Jonathan Howland, joined later by Bethany who is a teacher but also helps teachers integrate IT into their courses, later we met Igor, IT Support Manager, and the website designer (whose name I didn’t catch). They are a mac school, with teachers and students using the same 13 inch retina pro on a 4 year cycle, the school purchases the laptop and then after 4 years students can keep them. The machines are all imaged to be identical and students have admin rights, in order to keep this updated etc. Before the start of the school year students return their laptop, it gets re-imaged ready for the year ahead.

We are all coming to this tour from various backgrounds, primary, secondary, teachers, managers, Headmistress, Chief Knowledge offer and many other areas of expertise and interest so we all have different queries and questions. Every question was answered thoroughly, although that tended to lead to more questions.

They run a very different timetable to most of us, with just 4 subjects at most per day and that is something they are looking to reduce. The teachers don’t teach the same class all year but rather teach a class for 12 weeks (1 trimester) and then they get a new class.

Interestingly to me was the lack of parental control that was being given. The parents don’t have access to the LMS, don’t have access to student grades, in fact they never get a percentage, only a final grade. The reports are done twice a trimester and involve a written comment from teacher but also student which I’ve never seen before.

The school offers a good range of academic subject but their most innovative courses come from their Urban X courses. These include many subjects you’d consider STEM and many are multi-disciplinary. They are currently renovating a room so that they have a dedicated space that can be utilised more easily. They will kit this room out with a wide variety of tools, 3D printers, laser cutters etc. The course is assessed with regular skills tests and the last 3/5 weeks of the trimester is spent creating a project, which offer the students a lot of freedom.

Urban x

They may seem like a forward thinking school, but they describe themselves as conservative and refused to jump on the STEM makerspace & fab lab bandwagon just so they could say they do it. Instead they waited and built a syllabus first and then thought what to build after that. They have run the courses the last few years and now they know their success, they are investing more into infrastructure. The also acknowledge that not every subject or course is suited to project based learning but they do think many more could use it than currently does. They feel a number of staff have the opinion that the older ways are working fine so why would they bother doing anything different.

The time flew by and we had to rush away to our next activity but it was fantastic and I’d like to thank everyone at The Urban School, who took time off from their holidays, to talk to us and answer all our questions.

I’d recommend their website The Urban School for futher information.