Oracle's D.Tech High School: Teaching Students They Can Make the World a Better Place

Oracle's new high school, scheduled for completion in 2017, teaches its students reading, writing, arithmetic — and how to be effective people.

by / October 30, 2015
Rendering of a northwest view of Design Tech High School at sunset. Oracle Foundation

Oracle is building a high school on its campus in Redwood Shores, Calif., that challenges the traditions of public education.

Design Tech High School (d.tech), now housed in Burlingame, Calif., will move into the 64,000 sq. ft. LEED-certified facility when it's finished in fall 2017. The arrangement gives d.tech, a public charter school that applies human-centered design principles to its coursework, a place to call home — while Oracle gains first access to 550 of the nation's most creative and proactive students.

D.tech gives each student a Chromebook, and they have partnerships with local companies that grant students a preview of the work world. This is all well and good, but the distinguishing element of the school is its mission, explained Ken Montgomery, executive director and founder of the school.

"Our mission is to build in students that the world can be a better place, and they can be the ones to make that happen," Montgomery said.

D.tech's simple mission would sound like rhetoric if it weren't backed by Montgomery's track record. His students have, in fact, gone on to make the world a better place. Montgomery's professional success and accolades aren't a mistake (he was named teacher of the year at his first high school teaching job, and USA Today named him one of the nation's best teachers in 2003), but the methods that inform his school's philosophy were discovered by accident.

One of Montgomery's first students was Ryan Panchadsaram, who is now deputy chief technology officer for the White House. He was featured on the cover of Time magazine last year along with the rest of the team that helped fix Healthcare.gov. Another of Montgomery's students went on to become a Rhodes scholar, the first to attain a PhD in economics and a law degree simultaneously. Another opened a coding school in Omaha, Neb. Another is a successful internationally touring DJ. They were all in the same graduating class, and on the same speech and debate team that Montgomery started when he was an English teacher at Rancho Bernardo High School in San Diego.

That's where it began, Montgomery said, but at first, he wasn't sure how it happened — that his first speech and debate students all became impressively successful as adults. It could have been a chicken and egg situation — maybe those students would have been successful no matter what and they sought him out because that's what successful, proactive people do. But on the other hand, even the smartest eggs don't hatch unless they're provided a warm environment.

"I started asking these kids, 'Well, what is it?' I mean, speech and debate's a great activity, but it's not magic," Montgomery said. "They all said it was the act of creation."

Today's education system teaches students to receive the world, cope with their responsibilities the best they can, cobble together responses to the assignments they're given, and then wait for an authority figure to rate their work according to a rubric, and name the next task.

Montgomery's first speech and debate students got a different lesson. He told them he didn't want to create the team unless the students were prepared for greatness. They agreed, and greatness became a self-fulfilling prophecy. The first 15 students who approached Montgomery helped grow the club to 250 students in four years, and when they graduated, their team was the top speech and debate club in Southern California.

"It just created in them this mindset that that's how the world works," Montgomery said. "You don't just passively receive it, you actively design it."

Design Thinking

Modeled after the d.school, Stanford University's Institute of Design, D.tech applies the principle of proactive engagement to its core coursework. Students at the school, now only freshmen and sophomore classes, attend the usual courses like math, English and history, and they also attend a four-year design lab class that teaches what the school calls "Design Thinking."

The freshman students are assigned problems and encouraged to find human-centered solutions. One problem was to redesign Halloween. The students interviewed homeowners on a popular trick-or-treating street and discovered that while they liked the holiday, they didn't like the trash that inevitably found its way to their lawns. They also worried about the safety of all the children running around in the streets. The students came up with solutions like trash cans and crossing guards to solve those problems. There's nothing innovative about installing a trash can when someone complains about littering, but projects like that one prime the students for a pattern of thinking and initiative that runs through all their studies.

As the students get older, they'll be asked to find their own problems to solve at the lab, and the hope is that students will begin exhibiting the kind of creative and innovative behavior that's rewarded and appreciated in the adult world.

"That's the idea," Montgomery said, "that creativity can be taught as a mindset."

Easy Does It

D.Tech students work at their own pace in core classes. This is to encourage high-quality work, maximize learning and simulate the expectations of the work world -- where poor performance is not typically put aside and forgotten as it often is at school, Montgomery explained.

Usually, schools assign homework, students do the work and then move on to the next project, regardless of performance. Poor or mediocre students learn little from failing or middling on project after project, but when held to a standard, students often rise to the challenge. At d.tech, students continue working on projects until the work is determined to be good enough for the student to continue on to something else.

"For one, it's better for their learning, so they actually have to learn the material and they have to go deep," Montgomery said. "When they move, it's not based on the calendar. ... They're doing it because their learning shows that's what's next for them."

Creating Versus Using Technology

D.tech uses technology, like the school's 1:1 Chromebook program, to make learning personalized and efficient, Montgomery said, but technology isn't the focus. At d.tech, technology isn't held on a pedestal — and in 2015, it shouldn't be. Digital technology should be taken for granted in the classroom, just like it is everywhere else. A preoccupation with technology implies that that it's something beyond reach or nurturing. Having technology today means nothing more than breaking even, and without a substantive philosophy behind the equipment, no one learns anything, anyway.

The goal, Montgomery said, is not to have their students use technology, but to create it.

"It resonated with me that when we're teaching these kids, it's not just about the next four years, it's about the next 40," he said. "We should have that mindset — that we're preparing kids for an uncertain future where things are changing quickly and unpredictably."

When Montgomery started his school two years ago, it was six classrooms along a small hallway. They called it the "hallway high school."

For Montgomergy, it's exciting that his students are afforded a chance to move from that humble hallway to a state-of-the-art facility in the heart of Silicon Valley.

Colin Wood former staff writer

Colin wrote for Government Technology from 2010 through most of 2016.