Leader Spotlight: Riley Johnson on New Tech High School 2.0

May 11, 2017

This year New Technology High School celebrated its 20th anniversary. We sat down with Riley Johnson, Principal New Technology High School, to discuss the school’s future and its focus on Design Thinking.


NTN: Hi Riley. Thanks for talking with us! You’ve said you and the faculty are working on the next generation of the school. What does this mean and why do you feel it is necessary?

This year is our 20th anniversary and it has really allowed us to reflect on past, present and future implementation. We believe that PBL is not what we do, it’s who we are. It’s time for us to really explore what the future of PBL looks like in a school that has done project-based learning for 20 years.

The two things that really drive our work are:

  1. Ensuring that projects lead what we do instead of classes. The project must become the driver instead of subjects. For us, we believe the future of our PBL implementation looks at going one step further than integrated courses.
  2. Knowing that if projects are the driver, we need to rethink how we structure our day. We need to design our schedule to support that work.

Those things together are what we’re looking at in terms of how we can better integrate skills, content knowledge and process into more authentic project experiences where multiple subjects are supporting one project.

NTN: We’ve heard that your school has started using the Design Thinking process. Can you tell us more about this work and how are you using Design Thinking at New Technology High School?

Our work with Design Thinking began when a group of my staff participated in Design Thinking workshops with Stanford d.School. We very quickly realized we couldn’t approach Design Thinking as an “add-on” or as “another thing.” We knew that rooting Design Thinking deeply into PBL would let us approach the 6 A’s, which we use for project design, with a lot more clarity. As a result, the past two school years have been dedicated to marrying design thinking and PBL and last year we decided to launch our school year with Design Thinking as a main focus.

There are three major ways we are using Design Thinking:

  1. To create authentic projects around problems our community is facing. We’ve done three school-wide challenges where we had students identify problems they, our community or our society is facing. All 400 students, through an empathy process, were able to find common interests and form cross-grade groups. We had one group of freshman girls develop a solution for mobile distraction to address smart-phone temptation. This project is still ongoing and there are students still processing app development ideas. We had another group of students look at water usage in vineyards. They reached out to local wineries and were able to go on site to do field work to look at how water management could be better digitized.
  2. To focus on empathy. Focusing on empathy has allowed us to focus on the context in which we’re working. We do not want to pretend like we’re living in a context that we’re not. It’s ok to do scenario-based projects. It’s ok if it the project isn’t resulting in an actual physical change in a community partner’s life. But we need to really identify and be authentic within that context. One example is when our psychology and game design classes collaborated on a project about raising teen mental health awareness. They created different types of games to teach people about the effects of various mental illness disorders. In their project design, the first thing they did was ethnographic interviews with people that actually struggled with these disorders. The project was rooted in the human-centered aspect and led the authenticity. The games were created and now 2 local health organizations are using them with their clients.
  3. To redefine prototyping. When you think about the PBL process the one thing that throws people for a loop is that the culminating event still happens at the end. By focusing on iteration and prototyping, we have had a lot of success with students and teachers developing culmination throughout the course of the project and not just waiting until scaffolding is done to put the presentation together. We now place culmination earlier in the process. For example, our seniors are working on a semester long entrepreneurship project in political studies. They presented their first prototype at week four and received feedback from a public audience 20% into the scope of the project. As a result, they have been able to iterate multiple times. By using the Design Thinking mindset, the revision and refine process is starting to become stronger.

NTN: How does Design Thinking complement PBL?

What we have seen is that instead of trying to force Design Thinking and PBL together, we have really focused on how Design Thinking can organically support PBL and how the components sit alongside PBL in the appropriate places in projects. We believe Design Thinking can unlock the “high quality” of the project.

The discussion around high quality PBL is focused on how you marry school work and the reality of life outside of school. We can’t just say “we don’t have bells, therefore we’re like the real world.” That’s where a lot of people trip up in the work. The learning doesn’t model real-world learning. That has been a big push for our staff. How are we using the project cycle and Design Thinking to ensure that the learning is reflective of reality?

NTN: Can you describe a specific example where Design Thinking was used to solve a problem your school was facing?

Our staff and students used Design Thinking to re-examine our portfolio process. We had noticed that although our portfolio was something that was really valuable to the core of who we were as a school, the way it was designed was becoming a “checklist.” Students would wait until right before it was due and then try to get all the things on the list checked off and be done with it.

We had the staff and a focus group of students use Design Thinking to get to the root of what we wanted to get out of our portfolio experience. We embarked on a nine month design process of ensuring that our portfolio is designed to be human-centered and aligned with what we were looking for and what students needed it to be.

The result was a shift from a static web-page design to a comprehensive four year blogging portfolio experience. We moved from “here is your rubric and what you need to finish” to finding authentic opportunities to reflect and share learning. Our portfolio now lives with students throughout the four years and beyond. I just talked to an alumni that is at Parsons School of Design in NY and he said that his portfolio landed him an internship in college. Instead of being a “check-box” in high school, it became part of how he celebrated his growth as a person and highlighted his skill-set.

NTN: What does Design Thinking mean for you as a school leader?

As a school leader, Design Thinking is a process to get to creative solutions for complex problems. Design Thinking provides a framework to match various stakeholders’ needs with desired outcomes. Design thinking, for us, has been a way to illicit the human component of designing the academic or cultural outcomes of our school.

NTN: Why is Design Thinking important for your students’ future?

We, as a school, are big believers in the gig economy; the idea that the role of post high school life is becoming more project-based. We believe that marrying PBL and Design Thinking provides a framework to ensure that no matter what students do after high school, they have the appropriate skill-set and processing ability. Design Thinking is not industry or concept specific and neither is PBL. By sharpening and putting more tools in their toolkit, we feel like we’re setting up our students to have the opportunity to be successful no matter what they do.

NTN: Thank you Riley! We are inspired by your school and congratulations on 20 years!


You can read more about New Technology High School’s 20th anniversary here.

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