Learning how to learn | November 14, 2012 | Almanac | Almanac Online |



Cover Story - November 14, 2012

Learning how to learn

Small school in Portola Valley is lab for innovative education

by Barbara Wood

The tiny school, tucked into a ramshackle former insurance office at the back of the Portola Valley Village Square shopping complex, doesn't look from the outside like a showcase for state-of-the-art 21st century education.

But the parents and teachers who set up the Creekside 21st Century Learning Lab say it is just that. The school, they say, is an experiment in learning that others can emulate to teach students the skills most needed to thrive in today's complex and fast-moving world, and in ways suited to the myriad of different learning styles children possess.

Creekside has only 14 students — seven boys and seven girls — and only a fifth-grade class level. And, it may well last only this school year. A group of Portola Valley School District parents started the school when they found out last spring that one of their favorite teachers, Marcy Barton, was retiring from teaching fifth grade at Corte Madera School.

They wanted to allow their children to experience Ms. Barton's innovative teaching methods, and they wanted a place where others could see those methods in action.

"We don't want to just make a change for 14 kids. We want to make sure all kids have an opportunity for this type of education," says Linda Yates, one of the school's co-founders. The parents wanted "to take what some of our best and brightest teachers are doing already and showcase it," she says.

The time was also right for Ms. Barton, who started teaching in 1969. She decided in December to take an early retirement offer from the district, and thought she would spend more time sharing the integrated, exploratory approach to learning she had adopted.

In 2010, she wrote a book, called "Classroom for the Conceptual Age," for other teachers who wanted to use some of her methods. She had been asked to speak at more and more conferences, often to standing-room-only audiences.

"People want to hear this," Ms. Barton says. "I needed a bigger platform for these ideas, and they are ideas whose time has come."

A new way of teaching is needed, those involved in the school say, because traditional methods come from another era. "The (current) educational model was born out of need driven by the industrial revolution," Ms. Yates says. "It's just not relevant in the 21st century any more."

The teaching methods used at the school are not new — some are decades old, and Ms. Barton had been using many of them at Corte Madera for several years. In addition to teaching at Creekside, which she does for four and a half days a week, Ms. Barton has started a consulting company called ie21 to help others adopt her teaching methods.

Creekside students study the traditional subjects — including math, writing, science, art, foreign languages and social studies — but as part of integrated projects centered around what Ms. Barton calls "Big Questions."

The students' first project was "Who Am I?" Hung around the classroom are the results of that investigation — giant posters that include information about each student, including the results of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator tests that show their preferred learning and interacting styles, plus photos, drawings and essays that tell the teachers, the other students, and the students themselves, a lot about what motivates and interests them.

With the knowledge gained from that exercise, students can better understand what "tools" they need so they can learn," and develop their own tool belt," Ms. Yates says, which they can use the rest of their lives.

The current big question is: "How do we live in a sustainable environment?"

Learning at the school is self-directed, with children taking responsibility for their own learning, guided by their teachers, whom they call by their first names.

Students work with Ms. Barton three and a half days a week. Science and art teachers come in to work with the students on Fridays, while Thursday afternoons are devoted to "academies," four- to six-week-long classes in areas of special interest such as woodworking or building Lego robots.

In order to "dissolve the walls of the classroom," more than 20 field trips are planned for the year— from trips to Stanford to look at art or visit the design school, to Jasper Ridge, and to Boston and Williamsburg to study American history.

The school makes copious use of technology. Each student has a laptop and uses the resources of the Internet continuously. At home, if they have time, they are invited to add to a classroom blog. Their work is saved in a digital portfolio.

Because projects are flexible, different learning styles that might be labeled a disability in another school are simply adapted into the program. Traditional education is "highly differentiated," Ms. Yates says.

"All kids learn differently," she says. In the class of 14, students found they had 12 (out of the 16 possible) different learning styles when they took the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator tests. "We need to create educational institutions that can be flexible," she says.

So the teaching methods used at the school use "universal design" so "all kids can learn," Ms. Yates says.

Because the school is not part of the public school system, students do not have to take standardized tests and classes do not have to fit the traditional schedule. Students will, however, take the Independent Schools Entrance Exam this spring.

Students helped to design the school. They also designed and made a school flag, and wrote a school pledge. And it was the students who came up with the school's name, although parents added 21st Century as part of the official name.

Parents pitched in to renovate the old cottage the school is housed in, tearing out carpeting and tearing down at least one interior wall. Parent Suki Eyre helped Ms. Barton design the school to her vision. In the "Science Room," a former kitchen with a concrete floor, they made a flaw into a feature using floor paint.

"I said, 'Marcy let's do something on this floor,'" Ms. Eyre says. "It's like a canvas — what do you want to do?" Ms. Barton responded, "Gosh, if you could put the world on the floor that would be great."

So, after five days of work, the world, complete with currents, land masses and their climates, took shape on the floor. The children can use it as a learning tool for a current project, which is about world explorers, "so it makes sense why the explorers went the way they went," Ms. Eyre explains.

Each room in the tiny school serves multiple purposes. The Reading Room, for example, has a built-in bench that can be used for reading, or for sitting at a table, and has the schools' files underneath it. Salvaged bookshelves line the walls and a curtain allows the room to be used as a theater or to divide it into two small, cozy rooms.

Because the budget was limited, "we used a lot of things that were being given away, (and) we used a lot of IKEA," Ms. Eyre says.

Ms. Eyre's son Ned is in the school. "It is magical," she says. "It just shows you how, without constraints, they get to follow things and they get to focus on personal interests they have. It's exciting for the kids."

Her son, she says, is "bubblier" than he was last year, and is even doing better at topics he has always struggled with. "Ned's not a natural writer," Ms. Eyre says, but with his class work, including the school blog, "it's just getting easier and easier."

While the children say they love not having homework, Ms. Eyre says that they actually do have it — they just don't realize it. "I don't think they think about it the rote way they're used to" she says.

One of the joys at Creekside, she says, is the fact that the students get large chunks of time to work on projects, rather than the traditional chopped-up school day.

Ms. Eyre says she hopes the experiment will not end with the school year, because she has a third-grader who wants to experience it.

Next year parents will either return their children to Corte Madera to finish middle school, or go on to a private school.

The Portola Valley School District did not lose any funding when the 14 children left, the founders say, because it is a basic aid district that gets a set amount of money not based on student count.


School website: CreeksideLearningLab.org

Marcy Barton website: ie21.org

Resouce list on 21st century learning: tinyurl.com/Learn-114

A pledge, in their own words

I pledge to our flag, representing Creekside School.

We are the pollywogs and the hawks,

Who respect their friends and teachers,

The environment and materials.

We may not be like everyone else,

But we are the best we can be.

We grow together and learn together

As one big family.

Written by the students and signed by each student.


Like this comment
Posted by Richard
a resident of Portola Valley: Central Portola Valley
on Nov 14, 2012 at 12:48 pm

How can you publish this fawning puff piece? Did you ask a single hard question? Is the school acredited? Do they comply with the state's standards for 5th grade? Is there any research suggesting this is a better way to learn? Why are they not working through the public schools to impliment these ideas? What is the financial effect on their home public schools?

Like this comment
Posted by Choice in education!
a resident of Woodside: other
on Nov 14, 2012 at 8:39 pm

The posingt above apparently didn't read the entire article. Please, before being so critical and negative, see that the article says" does not lose any funding". In fact, because the district enjoys basic aid, the district BENEFITS financially from these kids leaving the district school who no longer has the expense of educating them, but gets to keep all the basic aid money.
The teachers can innovate, pick the texts and materials instead of the cookie cutter curriculum that teavhes to the test. these children are so fortunate to have innovation, and no unionized and Ed Code restrictions that are drowning public schools across the state and nation. I applaude these parents for taking positive and effective action to better the education of their students-- they should be an example to all schools of what is possible -- at least what is possible without the unions owning and cannibalizing our public schools. BTW, I have no interest, students or even know the people involved in this school. I just pore the community to embrace their existence and read and check facts before being so negative.

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Posted by Educator
a resident of Woodside: Woodside Heights
on Nov 15, 2012 at 12:30 pm

Educator is a registered user.

The California public K-12 education system is based on an 1850 model designed to train factory workers, and has changed very little in the past century and a half. In general, public schools are not interested in making broad changes to teaching and learning...especially changes that include technology, blended learning, or flipped classroom models....they are either too scary, too costly, or too much work. Having a school like Creekside step up and show parents, students, and educators how well these new 21st century teaching and learning techniques can actually transform learning, is an asset to our community and to our nation. Take a look at the changes being integrated into higher education (university) and you will see that the Creekside model IS the future and IS what colleges are looking for. As indicated by Choice in education, the cost is a net positive to the PV school district. It appears that this school is based on significant research data developed by a broad range of educators and higher learning organizations. To develop a better grasp of where education is and could be, check out Tony Wagner's "Global Achievement Gap". It is a fascinating read. As a matter of disclosure, I have no affiliation with Creekside.

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Posted by Larry Tesler
a resident of Portola Valley: Central Portola Valley
on Nov 18, 2012 at 10:31 am

Richard, you asked whether Creekside's fifth grade program is accredited. I am not aware of a middle school, high school, college or employer that would turn down an applicant on the grounds that the fifth grade program they attended was not accredited.

You asked whether Creekside complies with the state's standards for fifth grade education. Ms. Barton's curriculum planning methodology ensures that every standard required in public schools is covered during the year. I know because I assisted her with technical aspects of the methodology.

You asked why these parents and teachers are not working through the public schools to implement these ideas. They did that for several years and the results were positive. When Ms. Barton announced her retirement last year, several parents who had hoped their fourth graders would have an opportunity to experience her fifth grade program this year joined together to fund the experiment.

Finally, you asked whether any research suggests that this is a better way to learn. You can find research citations in Ms. Barton's book (see the article), in "The One World Schoolhouse: Education Reimagined" by Salman Khan (founder of Khan Academy), and many other places.