Mountain View Voice

News - April 26, 2013

MV Whisman looking forward

District administration lays out tentative plan for future

by Nick Veronin

The superintendent of the Mountain View Whisman School District wants students to put down their textbooks, pick up tablet computers and start spending much more time on hands-on projects of their own design. In a few years time, if Craig Goldman's vision is realized, elementary- and middle-schoolers will be less preoccupied with "rote" learning, and more involved with what he called a "21st century education."

On April 18, in a presentation to the board, Goldman and top district administrators Cathy Baur and Phyllis Rodgers discussed expanding the use of tablet computers and online educational tools; increasing the number of hands-on, project-based lessons; and preparing to make the switch from the California Standardized Test to the Common Core State Standards exam.

In an interview with the Voice after the meeting, Goldman explained what he means when he talks about a "21st century education" and many of the steps his district can take to get there.

"We're talking about building on the best of what we're already doing," Goldman said. The district is already moving to embrace high-tech educational tools. Many schools have tablet computers, and others have begun using Khan Academy and a program called ST Math to augment lesson plans.

In his presentation to the board, Goldman called for more technology in the classroom, but said that more tablets and education apps are only one piece of the puzzle. Another key component will be what is known as project-based learning — a mode of instruction that has scarcely been explored in Mountain View Whisman schools, he said.

For the better part of the 20th century, Goldman said, different education methods have come in and out of vogue. But, he said, if there is a common thread to be followed over the past 100 years, it's been that "rote learning and procedural skills" have dominated American public schools. This kind of learning — where a teacher or textbook lays out a problem and students are expected to follow a predetermined set of steps to arrive at an answer — doesn't teach critical thinking, he said.

Goldman wants students in MVWSD schools to start learning by emulating the surrounding community of start-up companies and high-tech giants. "We want them to be able to see problems as opportunities," he said. "We want them to be in an environment where they can work collaboratively and think creatively and critically to solve those problems."

If a student can learn those lessons in elementary and middle school, Goldman said, by the time they graduate from high school, they won't just be college ready, they'll be workplace ready.

To teach those lessons, Goldman wants teachers to begin thinking of ways they can get their kids to ask the questions, rather than the instructor. He would like to see students, under teacher supervision, come up with problems they would like to solve, and then apply grade-appropriate skills in the pursuit of coming up with a solution.

Examples of project-based learning include building robots, making a smart-phone app or creating an advertising campaign.

By combining cutting-edge educational technology with project-based learning, and adding that to the Explicit Direct Instruction teaching model the district began last year, Goldman said his district will be implementing an approach that is known as "blended," or "personalized" learning — where each individual student learns in their own idiosyncratic way.

Technology, like Khan Academy, allows students to work at their own pace; project-based learning allows kids to learn through pursuing hands-on activities that are interesting to them; and EDI is a method of teaching that helps teachers figure out what works for each of their students and what doesn't.

These new methods of instruction will help put the district on track with the new national Common Core curriculum standards. Initiated by President Barack Obama during his first term, 45 states have adopted the Common Core, with California signing on in 2010.

Updates to the California curriculum include reading requirements, which emphasize nonfiction, science and technical texts — intended to prepare kids for careers in science and technology. Additionally, a "staircase" approach to teaching is meant to ensure that students master lower-level concepts in greater depth before moving on to more advanced concepts.

The blended learning approach to education is ideal for preparing students for the Common Core, Goldman said.

Though the superintendent isn't entirely sure which pieces of the puzzle will go where, he is confident that he has the correct pieces to complete the big picture.

District trustees Christopher Chiang, Bill Lambert and Ellen Wheeler seemed to agree with Goldman at the April 18 meeting (trustees Steven Nelson and Phil Palmer were absent). Chiang and Lambert did press Goldman on how the district planned to accomplish all these goals.

A non-action item, the presentation was more of a loose plan, Goldman told the Voice after the meeting. However, he seemed confident that district officials would pursue his vision of a 21st century education.

"We're in a new frontier here," Goldman said. "What this really looks like, particularly on the project-based learning side, I don't think is really clear. But we're going to pilot it."

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