On Deadline: Will a 'high school of the future' mean not another Cubberley? | July 22, 2011 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - July 22, 2011

On Deadline: Will a 'high school of the future' mean not another Cubberley?

by Jay Thorwaldson

When it came time in the early 1960s to build a third high school in Palo Alto — Gunn High — a group of "PTA moms" went into action with a demand that it "not be another Cubberley."

One of the moms, the late Lois Hogle, cited her work with Ruth Spangenberg and others, when the flat-roofed Cubberley (just opened in 1957) was suggested as a model for Gunn.

No way, they said, citing the then new-Foothill College with its rustic, open feeling.

That's why Gunn today resembles Foothill, not Cubberley. Ironically, Foothill may relocate its "Palo Alto Campus" of 4,000 or so students now at Cubberley to Sunnyvale, given the City Council's decision not to sell its 8 acres. The school board says it may need all of the site's 35 acres, including the city's portion, for a third high school or high- and middle-school combination.

Both city and school officials say that this fall they'll discuss what to do about better maintenance of the deteriorating campus and its long-term future as a new school.

It will almost certainly "not be another Cubberley" in its design — or function.

Today there's a new basis for considering what a high school of the future might be, in which the function may be more important than its appearance.

The electronic revolution has literally changed the world in which we live. E-mail, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and an unthinkably diverse range of high-tech gadgetry and gizmos have changed how people of all ages communicate, and even think.

There are vast changes in how we learn, such as the remarkable work of Salman Khan of Mountain View and his Khan Academy (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Khan_Academy)— featured last week as the Weekly's cover story: www.paloaltoonline.com/weekly/story.php?story_id=15218.

YouTube videos are Khan's classroom. What started as a way to help a young relative learn math has gone viral and worldwide.

His secret is deceptively simple: Make learning interesting, fun, relevant and personal.

That notion dates back more than a century to educational reformer John Dewey. But when Dewey's message resulted by mid-century in dumbed-down content some protested that he never advocated watering down solids in favor of recess kickball games.

Despite much lip-service about making education interesting — and some great successes in some classes and schools — one of the single greatest educational revolutions in my time was the emergence of Sesame Street (just in time for my sons).

The missing element, of course, was the guidance, coaching, inspiration, discipline, pacing and testing/monitoring that a good teacher can provide — along with the indefinable value of knowing, talking with and caring about individual students.

But in Palo Alto this fall the dialogue will focus on 35 acres. For the near term simply being better landlords will be a major step in the right direction. Yet for the longer term, assuming continued growth in the school-age population, city and school officials will have to confront the core issues of what a high school should be.

Will an Internet-generation high school look like one designed 60 or more years ago?

Is sitting in a classroom the best way to obtain knowledge and understanding (as opposed to accessing information)? The latter question is particularly relevant for a generation of students who have difficulty sitting through even moderate-length presentations as opposed to PowerPoint bullets or website pages.

And is a textbook-based curriculum the best way to inspire students to relish the seeking of knowledge and insights?

This is not new stuff, and inspiration is key: "A teacher who is attempting to teach, without inspiring the pupil with a desire to learn, is hammering on a cold iron," Horace Mann observed in the early 1800s. I once shared that quote with one of my son's high school teachers (not from Palo Alto).

Yet established patterns within institutions are tricky. There are many toes that don't like getting stepped on. "The only kind of change people like is the kind that jingles in their pockets," an anonymous observation contends.

In education, jobs are at stake, investments in buildings have been made, the textbook industry is huge, defensive and slow to change — despite research dating back more than 40 years that shows there may be better alternatives than slogging through an expensive, heavy textbook toward midterms and finals.

Administrators sometimes fear the wrath of parents, as in efforts to modify the math curriculum in Palo Alto schools in recent years.

There are local factors that may make a city/school dialogue or collaboration especially challenging. In the late 1990s, school officials proposed joining with the city to create a state-of-the-art combination library and media center at Gunn. But after some initial staff-level interest the city rebuffed the proposal in a manner that left some members of the school board incensed.

Some echoes of that failed collaboration may still linger.

There have been remarkable successes, particularly in the city's implementation of a "utility users' tax" that flowed millions of dollars to schools in payments that prevented the district from having to sell off some school sites.

Yet relations have always been touchy — I covered some of the early meetings of the "City-School Liaison Committee" back in the late 1960s for the Palo Alto Times, and there were plenty of issues.

As for today's communications revolution, I wrote articles for the San Jose Mercury in the 1980s about an upstart new "university" based on the Internet: the University of Phoenix. I interviewed a woman who taught a masters program in marketing to students from around the nation and world, using text-only communication. I spoke with some students, including a mother who lived in the hills above Scott's Valley, who told me she could never dream of getting out to a class at a regular college.

Then there's Terry Beaubois, a longtime Palo Alto-based architect who now heads the Creative Research Lab at Montana State University. When faced with the need to meet with clients in Palo Alto, he developed a real-time "avatar" class based on the Second Life program so he could teach his class from Palo Alto, literally.

"You mean you have giant lizards and Viking warriors sitting in your class?" I asked. No, each avatar must resemble the student. His resembles himself, complete with shock of white hair. He calls the innovations "Metaverse Technology." In a YouTube interview recorded at Stanford University in 2008, he was asked if there were barriers Metaverse Technology could not overcome.

"Closed-mindedness," he instantly replied.

Weekly Editor (retired) Jay Thorwaldson can be emailed at jthorwaldson@paweekly.com. His blogs are at www.PaloAltoOnline.com under Town Square.


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