Problem-solving and design thinking drive K12 tech school

By: | December 21, 2016

Ken Montgomery knows what his school looks like to outsiders.

“We have people who come in and say, ‘Oh, we could never do that,'” says Montgomery, executive director of Design Tech High School, or for short. But he says looks can be deceiving.

The charter school, which opened in 2014 and is authorized by California’s San Mateo Union High School District, commits to the concept of design thinking: Students learn to look for problems, understand the cause and empathize with people involved. Then they develop and test solutions, refine, try again, and share their findings.

Along the way they would likely pick up other skills, such as in engineering, entrepreneurship, coding, electronics and data analysis.

The students take a design lab all four years, but they also encounter design thinking in content-specific classes—the method lends itself well to science and humanities classes, though it can be a tougher fit in math classes, Montgomery says.

Teachers and staff at the school also use design thinking as a way to solve problems or makes changes.

The school has attracted a lot of attention, most notably from Oracle, which is building a permanent home for the school on its Redwood City campus, to open in 2018. also receives funding from the Oracle Education Foundation.

Students at the school develop a strong sense of self-efficacy, says Colleen Cassity, executive director of the foundation. “You are helping them develop creative confidence so that when they see an unmet need or a problem, they default to, ‘OK, let me do that,'” she says.

Anyone can do this

It all sounds great, but what if your district doesn’t have a charter school in Silicon Valley with the backing of a major technology company?

“Anything that we’re doing, particularly around design thinking, anyone could do without much cost” Montgomery says. “I think the biggest thing is getting over the mindset that you can’t be innovative, you can’t think outside the box.”

To get teachers on board, Montgomery suggests having them identify a problem at their school—the bell schedule, for instance—and solve it using the design process.

There are also professional development programs on the model, from in-person trainings to free online resources. The design school at Stanford University, called the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford, offers an interactive 90-minute online course that emphasizes learning by doing, while the design firm IDEO, a leader in design thinking, has a downloadable guide for teachers that details each step—how to define a problem, how to interpret findings, how to brainstorm solutions.

“Every school has to be doing something in this realm” says Jim Flanagan, chief learning services officer at ISTE, which includes “innovative designer” among its 2016 standards for students. “It shouldn’t start with the technology. It should start with the teacher and students thinking not just differently, but in a very purposeful, scientific way.