F is for Exhibition

Ok sorry, got a bit carried away with the Fs for a moment. As promised, this is all about the whole-school exhibition that we attended on Thursday night. Take 20 mins outside in the sun (grrr), have a cup of tea (or something) and enjoy. Reading Mireia’s post is like being there.

Day two has been even more rewarding than the first as I can now start to home in on exactly what is is that I want to find out.

In two of the schools we were visiting they were getting ready for the exhibitions and the differences between the two schools were surprising. By lunchtime one of the schools was ready and happily rehearsing their explanations of what they had done, in the other students walking from room to room carrying tables, chairs and planks of wood transforming classrooms into art galleries. However, in both schools was once again the same relaxed but highly focused atmosphere that I had felt on the first day.
Really getting to talk one on one to teachers makes you realise that it is all down to relationships. The school is a community dedicated to working through projects together. One pair of teachers insisted that sometimes as they are making a prototype for their students project they are only one day ahead, and they work through it all as a whole class step by step. Another, although seeming a far more structured teacher, had the same attitude in that if they decide a project isn’t working it’s ok to start to change it with them. They trust each other implicitly and have the culture of embracing challenges, or even failure. Students see a disaster as an opportunity to re-start their project with hindsight and make it even better than what it would have been.
It was so exciting, and a bit nerve wracking, to see how all these changes in the work would be transferred to the exhibition night.
Then here it is…the exhibition.
After the chaos of the afternoon setting up, the professionalism when you walk into the exhibitions is outstanding. In spaces where only a few hours before we’d seen strips of paper and bags were now beautifully presented tables covered in art work and light with eager students at their side ready to tell you what they had learnt.
This aspect was what really impressed me about the exhibition. Yes, the work was beautiful and the content was evident, but on talking to the students their focus was not on the final product but what they had done to get to that point. What they had found out, how that had led them to the next concept, and the highest focus, what problems they had encountered and how they had been resolved. These reflections were truly inspiring and consistent across all the exhibitions. The articulation showed that these students had had comprehensive discussions with adults and were used to presenting their ideas in detail.
The work itself was far more attainable that I had expected it to be. Although it was to a very high standard, it is work that our students are more than capable of achieving and resources that we have access to. Paper, MDF, cloth and cardboard are all materials that were made into beautiful work and the most beautiful books were those that had been made by hand.
What I really want to get across too is how professional the students were, so much so that the teachers were happy to leave them to it and go have a look at the other projects around the schools. This is down to the ownership of their work, and how well rehearsed they were. They are excited about displaying their work to the public audience, and this is the incentive to make sure that everything they produce or discuss is to a high standard. I believe this professionalism from the students comes from the real work/real life ethos of the school.
Our exhibitions will of course be different to theirs. We at SBL are creative individuals too, but I think we would be helped by having specific protocols in how to carry out our exhibitions. Depending in what area of the school you were in it you can see that different teachers have different views on what exhibitions are and it would be good for us to take the passion and creativity but have a consistency of approach. Every project needs to be exhibited in a way that suits it, for example poetry readings need to have a very different space to a maths installation, but as you walk around we need to ensure that all exhibitions show the progress of learning and the ethos of our school.
I really have taken a wealth of ideas from the exhibitions we have been a part of. Not just ideas about all the different deliverables that you can end up with, but more so the ideas behind how to make them stand out.
I will never look at black table cloths and Christmas lights in the same way…
exhibition picClaire

Our exhibition experience started with an invitation to The Whole Meal Restaurant. This was the incredible culmination of a project where students research family histories related to food and followed a new healthy diet for 12 months. Sarah and I were booked in with The Vegetarian Diet team. This was a truly memorable experience. We sat at a ‘dressed’ table outside and were waited on by three Grade 11 boys who cooked our ‘meal’ of mixed greens salad, spaghetti squash and home grown yogurt in front of us. I loved the notion of eating one of the products of the project. They also showed us their narratives which they had bound into books and which made the parents laugh out loud as they were reading them. We were completely charmed by them and also by their parents. Whilst chatting to these parents their transparent trust and connection for the school and staff was moving.

We then moved on to the exhibitions inside High Tech Media Arts. I was impressed by the huge range of ideas displayed and the variety of exhibits. As I entered I walked past a piece of ‘live’ satire and then walked along a corridor filled with poetry and artistic representations of the students’ diverse neighbourhoods. The next room was filled with noise and lights and remarkable models that had been built to demonstrate symmetry. I found this room overwhelming but what is so wonderful about the exhibitions are that there is something for everyone. One of the parents that we had met over dinner recommended a humanities display where the students were dressed as abolitionists and then I walked into a space devoted to dystopia where you had to be accompanied by a tour guide who  explained the process and communicated their learning. I could go on and on and on and have lots of photos and stories to share once I return home.

I think the most surprising and exciting aspect of the evening was that the teachers were invisible; the evening was completely student led. It is also valuable to note that the work displayed reflected the full range of abilities and that there was no masking – or marking – of mistakes.

claire exhibition

 The next morning a teacher explained to me that the run-throughs and assessments had already taken place and so the exhibition should run itself. This then frees the teacher to visit other students’ work and to learn from other teachers’ projects. 

The evening is an incredibly uplifting end to the school year and was an inspiring demonstration of student learning, engagement and parental pride.


It showed me the importance of thinking about where the final products of the projects are going to be displayed before they have been created and the importance of sharing this with the students early in the project so that they can visualise their final space. It also showed me that you can display work in unexpected spaces – there were posters on the floor and words stuck to the ceiling, one of my favourites being “THINK BIG”.

claire exhibition 2


What were you not prepared for?

The ‘invisibility’ of the teaching staff – the exhibitions were all about the students celebrating, them having ownership of their work and sharing their learning and success with friends, families, peers, their own teachers and staff from other HTH schools.

What impressed you most?

How readily students wanted to talk about their work. They confidently answered impromptu questions from me about any aspect of the project they were exhibiting, whilst at the same time being honest if they weren’t sure of something – they weren’t fazed by the unexpected. The depth of understanding, self reflection and learning that they articulated clearly demonstrated the high level of engagement that had been achieved through them doing the project.

What I’d like to share

Firstly, the importance of thorough preparation and rehearsal. Students were well rehearsed and fully understood what was expected of them when interacting with their audience. Our students will need to feel very secure in what, for some, might be quite a threatening experience.

Secondly, the way that a project is displayed affects how the audience reacts to it – the use of cloths to cover tables, darkened rooms, lighting, interactive exhibits, even a whole 3 room installation with tour guides constantly changed the way the audience engaged with what was in front of them.


What might we do differently?

Clear signage – it was sometimes unclear where things were located. I would have missed some exhibits had they not been pointed out by a parent. As students were manning their exhibits, the onus was on their audience to find them, we want to make sure they see everything!

…and anything else?

Having viewed two whole school exhibitions and one small scale exhibition it’s clear to me that as a community SBL staff and students have the skills, understanding and creativity to mount a whole school exhibition ourselves – it is do-able. What is going to be key is having a clear protocol which underpins the organisational factors of such a big event and ensures that our students and staff are well-informed and well-prepared, and that the focus is on us as facilitators supporting our students in celebrating their learning.


Pat sums up…

I was told the exhibition evening would be ‘electric.’ I’ve never eaten a three course dinner based on a Paleolithic diet before, but that’s just how the evening started. Last semester  the class had been working on a project to research different diets then plan and cook a dinner. This being California, it was of course served outside. Sat at tables with parents and friends, the students cooked the food and explained their menu – then served it with more enthusiasm than a professional chef. Then it was time to go inside to see more projects being exhibited.

The way students talked about their work and talked through their own learning was incredibly inspiring. Though emphasis was placed on the final outcome, the process of getting there was also on show. Students were able to talk with confidence about the way in which they had worked and been responsible for their own learning. Everywhere the work was displayed and presented to an extremely high level. Though our exhibitions will be different, I finished the evening certain that our students can do just as good a job of exhibiting work.

Next morning we joined the high school staff meeting. Partly professional development, partly operational business, I loved the relaxed yet business-like atmosphere. Then time to reflect more on staging the exhibition and tuning projects.

Much of what we have reflected on this week has been the idea of embracing failure. Feeling secure enough to accept that things don’t always work, things might need a few attempts or problems and challenges might need different ways of looking at them. And that’s something I’ll take away as we prepare our own project based learning work at SBL. Before I always thought that failure was a bad thing, not something to be embraced by schools. Not now. It’s one of the things I’ll be sharing with people back at school – along with the other thing I realised during this visit; we can do this, that project based learning at SBL is possible and achievable.

This last sentiment of Pat’s is echoed by Maz, and shared by us all:

If I was to take only one thing away from this visit it would be how far SBL has come since we started on this road to PBL, and in particular how much my mind set has developed since that first training with Chris. We are far closer to the practices at High Tech High than we imagine us to be and as we move forward we are taking so many strengths with us.


This is perfectly put. Think of the best of our own showcases of work: the Art exhibitions in Giotto, the exhibits in the DT atrium, our annual NIPA performances, our Maths Challenges, our Christmas and Summer concerts. Now think of our speaking and listening assessments, our final drafts of Literature or Humanities coursework, our science projects, our media filmwork and our sports competitions. These are all the products of our students’ best achievements that they are asked to produce for a grade or a level. Don’t get me wrong – there’s nothing bad about producing work for a grade or a level – but what if everything that the students produced was driven not only by the need for assessment, but by the desire to produce something that could be used, played with, read for pleasure, experimented with, touched, switched on or off, eaten (??) and ….. used. What if primary schools owned our students’ work? What if local businesses could be involved? What if not-so-local businesses could be involved? What if local universities could be involved? As soon as we switch the audience of our students’ work from the teacher or the exam board, and explore other authentic audiences to complement peer and parent audiences for their achievements, the possibilities open up. Local authors? University science departments? Graphic illustrators? Film-makers?


See the photo gallery tab for as many photos as I can fit in before the end of Saturday (varying in quality but you’ll get the idea – I still take photos of my face on the ipad) (won’t publish those). Thanks for reading this long post – we really wanted to share this with you as we really do, in this instance, wish you were here. 


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