New Education Startup Targets 21st Century Skill Acquisition

Forget standardized tests, new tutoring startup emphasizes skills-learning.


When Bob Cerf moved back to the west coast, he felt the need for a new kind of tutoring company.

The former Menlo Park resident saw other tutoring companies focusing on teaching kids how to prepare for tests. He envisioned a tutoring startup that went beyond immediate returns on time investment and taught kids how to have a deep conceptual understanding of a subject.

Cerf’s idea turned into a reality, as he launched his new tutoring startup called Starfire Education. The startup specializes in math, science, and “21st century skills.”

He defined 21st century skills as “communication, collaboration, creativity, and innovation.”

“Working in teams, across cultures, and across disciplines are the things we need to do in the future,” Cerf said. “We really need to be creative and innovative. A lot of people feel that creativity is something that you either have or you don’t have, but it’s something that can be developed,” he said.

His first client was a student in Menlo Park, where many of the public and private academic institutions place high value on teaching children to be global citizens with these skills.

The Menlo Park City School District assesses its 3rd, 5th, and 8th graders each February for 21st century skills. Since 2010, students in the district take a new computerized test that administrators hope will provide a more accurate gauge of students' knowledge acquisition than state-mandated standardized tests.

Cerf acknowledged that students on the Peninsula have dozens of options when it comes to tutoring services and said the tutors he’s hired make Starfire Education stand out among the competition.

“Our approach to tutoring is based on the research of top academics from leading universities in the fields of neuroscience, psychology, and education,” Cerf said, noting that one of his tutors is a PhD candidate researching photocell engineering.

“They love math, science and engineering and have a passion for teaching, coaching and mentoring students. Starfire tutor-coaches will inspire, motivate, and encourage children to grow and excel while fostering a love of learning and inquisitiveness,” he added.

Cerf is particularly inspired by the research done by Stanford researcher Carol Dweck, who spoke at Hilllview Middle School recently in front of hundreds of parents. Dweck’s talk emphasized that a person’s mindset and levels of grit play a large role in whether they will be successful in life.

Students with growth mindsets want challenges; they seek out challenges and want to learn. Students who think that way look at setbacks and demonstrate persistence and resilience. Students with fixed mindsets believe that intelligence is a fixed trait and may not want to to take on challenges for fear of looking unintelligent, Dweck believes.

“MRIs have shown that people’s intelligence can increase or decrease based on activity,” he said. "It’s like a muscle,” Cerf said, noting that the right emotional and physical environment will play a role in that.

“What we want to do is really give kids a change to really understand what they’re doing, not just getting ready for that test,” he said.

20 tutoring sessions run $125 each if you buy them as a package. Each session averages 75 minutes. For more information visit Starfire Education’s website.

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