I was asked to guest blog for the Board of Jewish Education-Los Angeles about 21st Century Learning. The original link is below. I hope you enjoy it.
“Be the change you want to see in the world” (Mahatma Gandi). If ever this mantra was applicable in the world of Jewish education it would be right now. While the world is evolving in ways unseen in centuries past, education appears to be struggling to find it’s place in the modern world. No experienced or well-meaning educator believes that change is not necessary to enhance the classroom and student learning in the 21st century. However, for an institution that has remained stagnant since its inception, creating the change you want to see is difficult if you don’t know what you are looking for or unwilling to really do so.
In a recent conversation with a colleague, I was given the upsetting, yet increasingly common story, that the Jewish day school they worked for is closing its doors. When I asked why, I was not told of economic crisis or a decline in desire for a Jewish education. In fact, many students were enrolling in a more expensive school nearby. What I was told was that the majority of educators in the school have been there since it opened and were unwilling to adopt new ideas and innovative practices that the parent body expected. As these teachers faced unemployment, I wondered why they refused to embrace or at the very least explore change.
In thinking about this, it is important to note that the call for change in education is not new. It is not a 21st century calling. In the first half of the 20th Century, an important example of the call for change was John Dewey’s. Dewey, a 20th century philosopher and progressive educator, was well know for his writings and presentations on the idea that students thrive in environments where they can experience and interact with what they are learning, apply what they are learning to real life and have the ability to take part in their own learning. He is quoted as saying, “The world is moving at a tremendous rate. No one knows where. We must prepare our children not for the world of the past; not for our world, but for their world; the world of the future.” Sounds like a true 21st century educator to me. This leads me to believe, along with the current high decibel call for reform heard today, that the lack of educational innovation is not a matter of not “seeing” the change you want, but rather unwilling to see it.
This leads to another question. What is at the root of this selective blindness?
According to Maimonides in his Guide for the Perplexed, “man, according to his nature, is not capable of abandoning suddenly all to which he was accustomed” (III:32). As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks points out in his book, “The Dignity of Difference”, Maimonides cites the lengthy roundabout path G-d took the enslaved Jewish people from Egypt to Israel as a perfect example of this aspect of human nature. Rabbi Sacks points out the Jewish folk saying: “It took one day to lead the Israelites out of Egypt, but forty years to take Egypt out of the Israelites.” The generation that was to enter, appreciate and develop Israel needed to be a changed people and that was not something that could occur overnight. Change is frightening and we must be given the time to adjust for any change. Recognizing this need is even more important when innovation is as rapid as it is today.
On December 17, 1903, Orville and Wilbur Wright successfully flew the first powered airplane in history. On April 12th, 1981, a mere 78 years after that inaugural flight, the first space shuttle mission was launched. In the 20th century, we saw tremendous and rapid advances in technology and science that included the first transatlantic radio transmission, working television, computer, Internet, satellite communication, solar cell, DNA sequencing, organ transplants, artificial heart, microsurgery and instant coffee (one of my favorites). The level of change and growth in just the last century is mind blowing and can be stifling for anyone being asked to keep up.
The iconic one room schools of the late 19th and early 20th centuries are a thing of the past, but the model of frontal teaching, memorization and sage on the stage is not. In fact, what we have really done in most cases is duplicated the one room schools into factories of the same form. Schools are built a standard way, schools of higher education teach future teachers a standard way and government designs national assessments a standard way. Yet, we do not live in standard times. Innovation, creativity, problem solving, global learning, digital literacy and collaboration are the skills necessary to live in this nonstandard world, yet, they don’t have a place in the many standard classrooms in our country. So, who can help usher in the necessary change needed to modernize our educational system?
First, it should be made clear, that there are schools and organizations that are rising to the challenge of educating our children in the 21st century. Schools like Rocketship in Northern California and High Tech High in Southern California are wonderful models of 21st century learning. Among Jewish day schools, there are examples like Margolin Hebrew Academy in Memphis, TN, which is undergoing a 21st century change project and a number of LA-area day schools and yeshivot that have illustrated a strong commitment to educational technology integration through school-wide one-to-one laptop and iPad programs. These Jewish day schools, and a handful of others, are models for adopting change. Organizations like iNACOL, ISTE and P21 are tremendous resources for schools working on change. Jewish educational organizations like The Yeshiva University School Partnership, The Lookstein Center for Jewish Education, The Jewish Education Project in New York and BJE in Los Angeles are tremendous leaders and resources for Jewish day schools as well. In fact, the recipe for success is as simple as it is complicated.
Educational organizations must provide support and training. Schools of education need to teach new models. School administrators need to provide vision and professional development for their teachers. And teachers must be willing to learn new skills and implement them.
In the end, the most dangerous thing you want to hear from our educators is, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” When the oil lights comes on, your engine is still running fine, but you don’t wait till the engine seizes to get an oil change. It is a warning light for a reason and the warning light is blinking bright on the dashboard of Jewish education. It is time to pull in for an educational change. Otherwise, I suppose we will have to wait until this generation of educators wanders in the educational desert long enough so that a new generation of educators can enter the promised land. For the sake of this generation’s children, I hope that is not the case.