Contribution and Context Matter More than Content and Courses

In this perplexing and promising new era, it is contribution that matters — the willingness and ability to step forward and take action to address these challenges, to deliver value, to make a difference. Contribution requires personal leadership, strength of character, and an entrepreneurial mindset. It’s as much about problem finding as it is about problem-solving.

— Tom Vander Ark & Emily Liebtag; Difference Making at the Heart of Learning

As we roll into the second full month of school at Design Tech, we have been impressed by the contributions that our students are making to the world. Unfortunately most of the headlines about school involve arguments over mask mandates and vaccines. Fortunately for us our students focus more on how they can contribute to the world. We recently had one of our students featured on “Good Morning America” for his ‘Buddies Without Borders” club. You can see the full story here: Buddies without Borders on Good Morning America.

17-year old Krikor ‘Koko’ Kevranian, a senior at Design Tech High School in Redwood City Zooming with another 17-year old, half a world away

This is one of several positive stories about our students this year, and while the credit for this club goes to Koko, we are reflecting on some of things that we have in place as a school to support his success. We regularly evaluate our learning environment because we follow the research of Todd Rose and the context principle. The context principle argues that traits are a myth and instead of assigning traits to people we should use “if-then” reasoning to think about behavior. All of this basically means that context matters, and everyone can achieve a measure of success if they are given the right context. So each week we are going to look at some of our student successes and discuss the context we tried to develop for them at our school.

The Purpose of School: We are unequivocal in our belief that all high school students can make a difference. We are not about preparing our students for future participation in the world around them; we are about helping students make a contribution now. Our mission is clear: Develop people who believe that the world can be a better place and that they can be the ones to make it happen. We try to align everything around this mission. We are clear with parents that life after Design Tech is about finding the best fit, not about getting their kids into a college that gives them something to talk about a cocktail party.

We don’t rank students; we don’t have an honor roll. Instead of A.P. or I.B. tests we offer students an Innovation Diploma. We don’t have student body elections — every one is expected to play a leadership role in making the school better. We encourage students to start clubs, do internships, or even teach a course. Some of our most popular courses have been taught by the older students at d.tech. While each of these examples might be small by themselves, collectively they send the message that our purpose is to contribute, not chase down a G.P.A or some other ephemeral prize. Contribution as the expectation is most clearly embedded in our four year Design Lab requirement. In Design Lab, students learn a human-centered creative problem solving process and are expected to apply it toward solving a real problem. More than any specific process or policy, Design Tech is the belief that high school students matter and can make a real difference if given the right context.

Flexible Scheduling and WYN time: While our values and beliefs provide the foundation for student success, “Buddies Without Borders” was part of our WYN time at the beginning of the year. WYN stands for “what you need”. It is two hours every day for students to get what they need, and in a school of 550 students the needs can vary a lot. (We use Formation Learning to manage WYN time). Typically students do one of the following during WYN time: meet with a teacher, participate with their club, get physical activity, work in our Maker Space, or just work independently. If you want the best out of students you have to create a learning environment that operates on trust and openness rather than fear and control. Just as unstructured play has proven beneficial for child development, we believe that unstructured time in school can prove beneficial for student development. When we give students the space to slow down and explore, what they come up with is both surprising and inspiring. Of course students are not always 100% productive when they are allowed to choose their own schedules every day, but I don’t think we as adults are all 100% productive every minute at work either. We also know that students just spent the past 18 months doing their school work with almost maximum flexibility, so we think that they’ve earned the right to have control over two hours of their school day every day.

“Buddies without Borders” is just one example of what can happen when you consistently ask students to think about their contribution to the world and give them time and space to find their path.

A place to find all of the good stuff and wonder why these things aren’t on the main menu.