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Saturday, Aug. 2, 2008 | Cross Bill Gates with the Parent Teacher Association, and you might get someone like Matt Spathas, the enthusiastic dad who has prodded San Diego schools to radically revise education for the 21st century. His mark is evident in Point Loma schools, where he helped spearhead a technological makeover called Project Light Speed that poured laptop computers and free online tutoring into classrooms.

Spathas spends his days working at a technologically savvy real estate firm and serving as CEO of Bandwidth Now, which remakes commercial buildings with wireless internet; his nights are consumed by school meetings and campaigning for San Diego Unified’s new facilities bond, which includes a smattering of high-tech upgrades. A Bluetooth is frequently nestled in his ear as he holds forth on the hallmarks of a 21st century education — a shift he calls “transformation.”

voiceofsandiego.org joined Spathas at his downtown office to talk about technology, what’s wrong with most San Diego classrooms, and what Asia gets that the United States doesn’t.

Imagine you’re walking into an ordinary classroom in a San Diego Unified school. What do you see — and what do you see that’s wrong?

When you walk into a classroom, it’s teacher-driven as opposed to student-empowering. … Schools today really look like prisons, to be honest. There are bells ringing every 50 minutes, single subjects being taught each period, delivered by an instructor.

Schools of the future will look more like a Starbucks — collaborative and creative and comfortable. Every student will have a device (an individual computer) and we’ll move curriculum and assessment to the web. That puts the teacher in a different role. Rather than delivering a message, they’re a facilitator and guide and coach and mentor.

Now they’re coming to a completely different kind of a school that will have coaches and mentors throughout the school, assigned to lead and encourage and nurture kids. … The school of the future will look and feel more like a living room — a place that is fun for kids to go to, not that they dread going to.

How does that change what students need to know?

We’ve got to refresh what we’re teaching our kids. Probably less history and more future. We’ve got to carefully consider what is relevant knowledge. In the factoid delivery system for the last 150 years, it’s been important for kids to memorize facts. We all know the brain has limited capacity for remembering facts and the reality is we forget those very quickly after we learn them.

But in the future, the answer is in our hands. Google can text-message us an answer within a few seconds. We move away from knowing answers to knowing the questions. That will be the important element of critical thinking: kids knowing what is the question, and how do we solve the problem?

What would a real 21st century lesson look like, compared to how we do it today?

Say, a unit on American Indian tribes of California.

Well, I don’t know how much time I’d spend on American tribes in California. Historically, we’ve spent a lot of time on history because we haven’t been connected to the rest of the world. So information is based on scarcity. We learn what’s in the book, and we could only go as deep as the book.

Today we have an abundance of information. Maybe we go shallower for more subjects and more material. Relevance is going to be a key question and a complicated question. How is it going to prepare students for the workplace of the 21st century, a global world and economy? How is what they’re learning relevant to that?

… We know that one out of three students today drop out, and for minority students, it’s one out of two. We also know that maybe 80 percent of those who do drop out having passing grades when they drop out. The educational system is broken at the high school level. So how do we engage and empower the students?

Bill Gates calls it the “crossing the desert syndrome.” If you cross the desert, I’ll tell you why after you cross the desert. What students want to know is, why do I have to learn this? We need to answer that question. If we can’t, it’s probably not relevant that they learn it.

If schools aren’t transformed, what’s at stake? What do our kids lose?

They’re at risk in global competition. When I came back from traveling in Asia, I told my kids they’re not competing against kids down the hall or even kids in San Diego. They’re competing against 4 billion people who want what they have, who are hungry and are passionate and knowledge-thirsty. When I came back to the United States I felt like I’d landed in the Department of Complacency, where there’s no sense of urgency. We all need to have the sense of urgency to change and become lifelong learners.

What changed in your own household? Did you, say, change homework routines when you came back?

We tried to focus on them being digital-savvy, always going to the net first. Understanding what are relevant sources and not-relevant sources. You don’t need to wait for someone to help you. … And kids know how to solicit help in the digital world. It’s our generation, the adults, who are slowing them down.

How are we doing now in San Diego Unified schools? How far along are we, and what more needs to be done?

I’m really excited about the new superintendent. I think he’s very forward-thinking, very progressive, innovative — he wants change and he’s very supportive of a transformation agenda, as is our school board.

… I want to see us enable A through E as the platform for 21st century delivery. A is for Applications (such as computer programs). B is Broadband — making sure every student has broadband (internet) at home. We feed their bellies with food if they can’t afford that, we need to feed their minds with broadband, too, and solve the digital divide.

The C is curriculum: making all curriculum web-based so it’s engaging and bilingual and personalized to the learner. We’ve got to get there. … It’s better than handing students a 6-year-old textbook. D is for a Device in every student’s hand — but the device without the curriculum is just an Internet scavenger hunt, and that’s the wrong way to go.

And then the E is Education — we have to retrain everybody. This is a paradigm shift. It’s disruptive to the current teaching system. We need everybody energized behind the new delivery.

What’s stopping schools right now? Why isn’t it happening?

It’s a generational issue. It’s not a technological issue and it’s really not a budget issue. Transformation doesn’t cost more. I think it actually costs less. … But it’s not what we’re used to. It’s not what we remember. And disruptive changes are very, very hard, even in the private sector. Most existing companies haven’t been leaders in this. It’s new companies that have emerged as the leaders. And you’re trying to change a monopoly — the public educational system. It’s very, very hard to do. …

High Tech High has done a phenomenal job of new kinds of learning and new tools for learning. There are shining examples of schools in San Diego Unified — Correia Middle School and Dana Middle School in Point Loma are as progressive as any in San Diego

… There have been pockets of great things, and there are a lot more I’m not mentioning. But what we need is large scale. Scale drives down costs. McDonald’s didn’t invent the hamburger at every restaurant.

Are there any downsides or risks to this transformation? Is there anything we should be careful not to leave behind — skills that we don’t want students to lose in the 21st century?

We don’t want to lose the importance of relationships and people. I don’t want to automate and eliminate people. We’ll actually give people more time with students and personalize the student learning experience. We can let the students move as fast or as slowly as they want through the curriculum, with personalized content that meets the needs of the student. Transformation doesn’t involve automating teachers out of jobs — but it changes the roles of teachers.

— Interview by EMILY ALPERT

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