The Harbour School

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What is personalisation, really?

  • 2021
  • High School
  • Leadership
Peter Hawksworth, High School Principal

A pertinent question that parents often raise with me is how does personalisation work in THS High School as that is one of the key differentiators of our high school offering which separates us from the rest in the field. Without giving away too much of our “secret sauce” so to speak, I will explain broadly about how we at THS High School are able to individualise for every one of our high school students so that they achieve their personal goals, pursue their passions and get into their top choice of college.

This is part three of a series of blogs [see Part 1 and Part 2] I wrote to explain the differences between the three main pre-university qualifications most commonly offered by international schools in Hong Kong namely Cambridge A Levels, IB, and the US High School diploma which we offer at THS. 

To re-cap, the US High School education is based on the principle of keeping the curriculum as broad as possible.  Unlike the English system - discussed in a previous blog and I would encourage you to read in order to understand the context - where students typically study three subjects in depth for the last two years of school and abandon everything else, the US approach to high school education generally requires students to study a broad range of subjects in order to graduate.  These subjects have different relative weightings on the High School Diploma and different states and schools within states may do things slightly differently.

At THS, students require 22 credits to graduate.  A credit typically comprises 140-160 hours of study and so some courses offer partial credits.  However, the 20 credits must include 4 credits of English, 3 of Math, 3 of Science, 2 of Social Studies, 2 of Languages and 1 of Art.  Students must also complete an Independent Study Module each year (worth 0.5 credits each year) in which they investigate an area of interest to them.  This means that there are five credits left that are ‘elective’ and contribute to the distinctive and individual flavour of each student’s diploma.  

In addition, students who want to stretch themselves by taking on a heavier course load may apply and take on additional, external courses, take THS courses offered at the honours level, and/or apply for internship opportunities offered at the school. 

Hence, we actually have a situation at THS where there is a very high level of personalisation and every single student curates their own curriculum.  This academic model offers flexible pathways for students to progress toward a diploma in ways that are personally meaningful. True, there is overlap for some students, but the system is structured to allow for individuals to ‘curate their own curriculum’ via teacher advisors. Our team of High School advisors and college counsellor guide our students, through multiple 1 on 1 discussions to connect, reflect and share, help them develop their personal pathway that will enable them to achieve their personal goals and aspirations, moving on to their preferred destination beyond THS.  

This model of flexible pathways, we’ve found, gives our students control over their own learning, allows them to develop their sense of agency, find their voice and be their authentic self. 

Some courses, such as those in ‘Pure’ Math, may see students follow a fairly traditional, clearly marked pathway.  Placement tests would identify the best starting point, maybe Algebra I or Geometry, and students could work through progressively from year to year.  Those with a flair or love for Math may study the subject for 4 years and gain 4 full credits in pure Math, possibly completing the Calculus course and maybe even sitting for an Advanced Placement test in Calculus (more details on AP below).  Science courses in Biology, Chemistry and Physics will be offered in a similar way from next year, enabling students interested in pathways in STEM to dive deeply.  Credits earned above the requirement in Math or Science count towards the ‘elective’ modules. 

We want our students to be able to connect their learning across disciplines as well as to connect learning from outside the classroom, with the learning that occurs in class.  A feature of our courses is to, as much as possible, enable active learning through project based learning, experiential, experimentation and other hands-on learning. Alongside the “pure” Maths and Science courses, we offer a catalog of challenging and innovative applied courses.  These are typically interdisciplinary and allow students to develop a clear understanding of how the different academic disciplines interconnect.  A course on Addiction last year blended Science and English, with students studying the biological factors underpinning addiction before going on to study the script of Trainspotting.  A course on Seas that Shaped History this year examined the way human history has been shaped by our relationship with the sea and the science that sits behind this, for example the way monsoon winds work and how they enabled the growth of trade routes.  This course was available for credit in Science or Social Studies.

Students at the THS High School learn that knowledge and skills do not fit into neat boxes, that the learning process is about taking something from one place and applying it in a new context.  As faculty members, we are acutely aware of the need to support students in developing skills for the twenty-first century, for jobs that may not exist yet.  The best research suggests that the most important skills for jobs moving forward will be really human skills such as empathy, understanding, critical thinking, collaboration and communication.  Our program in the High School at THS supports students to develop these skills alongside more rigorous academic pursuits.

An area that non-US families often get confused with is Advanced Placement tests.  APs were introduced in the 1950s and offer students the chance to study at a College level whilst still in school.  APs are offered in a range of subjects including pure Sciences, Calculus at two different levels, foreign languages (for example Chinese Language and Culture) and Social Studies (for example Modern World History). Whilst many schools in the US have moved away from AP for entirely valid reasons - they do not necessarily offer a terribly modern or insightful way of studying and assessing a subject - they are often important for THS students who wish to apply to university in the UK, Australia or Ireland.  In those instances we support students to ‘enhance’ their THS Diploma with these additional tests (UK universities typically want three good APs in addition to the Diploma) though for most students applying to US schools we suggest demonstrating additional rigour through honors courses within the existing program.

Our planning and support for students taking AP courses is one of the reasons we are so successful as a school in supporting students into universities from multiple education systems.  Each system has its own peculiarities, but the THS High School Diploma supports students to access all of them as a result of our academic model which offers flexible pathways that suit the individual requirements of each student.  This year we have students with offers from prestigious universities in the US, Canada, England, Scotland, Ireland and Hong Kong, with others set to apply to Australian universities in August.  The breadth of the success internationally demonstrates the high regard universities across the globe have for our students and their achievements.

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