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Education Corner

 21st-Century Learning

By Susan Wall and Ilana Lipman

Our veteran alumni who attended the Day School Conference heard from a number of speakers about education for the 21st century.  While perhaps much of what was said had been heard before, the repetition was important in beginning to grapple with what this means for what we do in Judaic studies in our schools.

What follows is a combination of some insights gleaned from two major speakers: Heidi Hayes Jacobs, who addressed the Schechter network ( www.curriculum21.com), and Tony Wagner (www.tonywagner.com).

Wagner began by saying that students no longer need teachers to acquire knowledge. This generation learns in different ways, much of it outside of school (because they find schools boring). Jacobs supported this by encouraging teachers to develop curriculum where students not only acquire knowledge but develop critical thinking and strategic planning skills. Both Wagner’s and Jacob’s comments support the idea of teacher as “guide on the side,” as opposed to “sage on the stage.”

Wagner further explained that the world no longer cares about what people know but rather what people can do with their knowledge. He spoke of core competencies in addition to “Habits of the Heart” which included the following: critical thinking and problem solving, collaborative work, agility and flexibility, initiative and entrepreneurship, effective oral and written communication (with persuasive arguments), accessing and analyzing sources of information, and curiosity and imagination.

Jacobs supports this model by suggesting that we must replace older curricular methodologies with methodologies that foster sharing and communication. These methodologies must incorporate technology; technology in the classroom should be the norm, not a “classroom event.” She provided the example of the pencil, saying, “Can you imagine if we sent students to the “pencil lab” to learn how to use a pencil and then brought them back to the classroom to continue using their ink and quill?” Jacobs’ example suggests that technology is a tool that is essential to learning across all curriculum as opposed to an event in and of itself.

When applying the above competencies to the Jewish studies classroom, Havruta comes to mind as a timeless tool within Jewish tradition that encourages collaboration, creativity, oral communication, critical thinking and problem solving. It is important for us as Jewish educators to consider to what extent Havruta truly accomplishes these goals in our classrooms and what elements we can add to Havruta learning to effectively claim it as a 21st century skill.

When Wagner elaborated on creativity and problem solving, he emphasized that students must learn both creativity and problem solving; one is not effective without the other.

His research suggests that master teachers are outliers, and that successful schools are similar in that they:
  1. Have students working in teams, innovating and collaborating
  2. Demand an interdisciplinary approach
  3. Emphasize creating rather than consuming
  4. Stress the importance of risk-taking, making mistakes and learning by trial and error
  5. Stress intrinsic (not extrinsic) motivation

Both teachers and parents in successful schools stress play, passion and purpose (making a difference), and encourage students to explore their own interests. Wagner suggested that schools follow the model of “the Google rule:” all Google employees “play,” working on something of their own interest for 20% of the time they are paid. Students, in other words, might consider having older students also spend 20% of their time in school exploring areas that are of interest to them. Schools, then, serve as labs for innovation, using internships and outside experts to enhance learning. Wagner compared this to the Montessori approach.

Jacobs emphasized that school administrators cannot effect these changes by forcing them upon faculty; rather, administrators must explore and re-invent their own models of management to match 21st century learning. Only then will it be possible to bring faculty on board.

This raises questions for us as Jewish studies educators. To what extent are we working across the curriculum and modeling real life? To what extent are we encouraging questions and conjectures?  We have so many opportunities to encourage students to ask and answer their own important questions of the text, using evidence from the text to support themselves. How do we encourage students to apply the text to their lives today, making the text come alive, so that they see that through Jewish texts and Jewish life they can truly make a difference in the world? Are we using Havruta as a means of true collaboration, fostering exploration and wonder in our students? Are we using our texts to look at the perspective of narratives from different characters?  Are we moving characters into different narratives, speculating as to “what would happen if…?” Are we asking students to look at the narratives in terms of cause and effect and conjecturing as to what might come next? Students don’t need their teachers to tell them what happened anymore, but they do need teachers to help them explore why it happened, what is important about it, and what can we learn from it. They need teachers to make the text come alive in the 21st century.

If you have comments and are interested in continuing this conversation, we encourage you to do so via our listserve. Several of our alumni have done some wonderful work in this area, and it would be great to share.

Suggested reading:

Jacobs, Heidi Hayes. Curriculum 21: Essential Education for a Changing World. Alexandria, VA: ASDC, 2010.
Wagner, Tony. The Global Achievement Gap. New York, NY: Basic Books, 2010.