NEW PROVIDENCE, NJ – The Board of Education (BOE) heard two presentations as part of the Think Tank 2.0 process at its Thursday, Sept. 24 meeting. Superintendent David Miceli explained that the district has begun its own research to amend its curriculum to better meet the needs of today’s students. It all started when Miceli and some of his colleagues attended conferences where they were introduced to the concepts of the Fourth Industrial Revolution as well as Generation Z. The district became interested in their “new clients” - Generation Z - as well as the world they were going to enter into. Individuals born after 1995 are considered to be the tech savvy Generation Z.

Approximately 65 staff members from all four schools joined the administration at think tank 2.0. The group was broken into six subcommittees: Instructional Strategies, Curriculum, Classroom Environment, Social/Emotional Learning, Technology Tools, and Data Driven Decision Making. Two individuals chaired each subcommittee consisting of 10-15 people. The board will hear the presentations of each subcommittee over the next three months. On Thursday the board heard both the Social/Emotional Leaning and Curriculum Subcommittees’ presentations.

Joseph Harvey and Jillian Zadis presented the findings for Social/Emotional Learning (SEL). Social and emotional learning enables students to set and achieve goals, develop and maintain positive relationships, as well as make responsible decisions. Social and emotional learning development is ongoing and it has to occur in a supportive environment.

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Harvey explained that the work enhancing students’ social and emotional learning in the district began in 2017-2018 when the district began to notice an uptick in mental health needs among students. The district mental health professional began to explore how best to meet the students’ mental health needs. They came up with two main ideas: the district had to do a better job to reach students in crisis and acknowledge that there was an additional need for interventions for all students starting at the elementary school level to help them enhance their coping skills, their social skills and their decision-making skills. The pandemic and the isolation that followed made it clear how important these skills are, he said.

The goal of the district is to prepare the students for the real world, not just academically. We want them to be problem solvers, being able to build and maintain relationships over time, be able to cope when things don’t go their way. The students are not able to learn academically if they don’t take care of their mental health needs first, Zadis emphasized. Harvey noted that a positive learning environment has to be infused throughout the school day. Students learn best when they are taught in a nurturing environment that supports growth.

The subcommittee recommends that the social/emotional learning component be incorporated into the mental health curriculum. The district is also looking to formalize a way to measure student growth. The subcommittee also recommends that teachers include SEL concepts in their classroom teaching. Social and emotional learning principles should also be emphasized during the staff development event, Zalis said.

Katherine Blanco and Jon Keaney provided the presentation on the curriculum.

Blanco noted that flexibility, resilience, ability to use technology seamlessly are important components in learning at all times, not just during the pandemic. She explained that the Curriculum Subcommittee reviewed the current curriculum and conducted a staff survey. A majority of the teaching staff found many positive aspects in the current curriculum framework “Understanding by Design”. The subcommittee also reviewed the process of curriculum writing, adaption, and revision.  She noted that the curriculum is currently reviewed every five years, which is a long time in today’s world. The subcommittee found that the current revision model had limited collaboration options, and did not address the rapid changes of the world.

Keaney provided a fitting quote: “contemporary education must provide students the opportunity to apply that learning to new and unpredictable situations.” The subcommittee explored a curriculum writing process that addresses the needs of Generation Z students, but at the same time provides fluency and flexibility to the process which allows the district to adapt to changes in the world.

Keaney also listed “beliefs” for future learning.  The curriculum must enhance students’ ability to become critical thinkers, creative problem solvers, engaged citizens, skilled collaborators, self-directed learners, and effective communicators. The curriculum should also promote students’ positive attitude, positive self-image, and responsible decision-making.

The Curriculum Subcommittee recommendations include: A creation of a user-friendly curriculum unit template, revision of the curriculum writing process to provide for teacher collaboration and the piloting of new programs. The subcommittee also recommends creating a collaborative learning plan that provides flexibility as well as ensuring that the curriculum emphasizes higher-level thinking, real-world problem solving, student autonomy, self-pacing and a development of student-centered and learner-driven classroom environment.