Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Forget Finland, Imitate Israel

I recently had the privilege of spending several weeks with my family visiting Israel.  Of course, some people might consider the privilege to be a dubious one, as we were there during Operation Protective Edge, Israel's war against Hamas in Gaza.  While we were far enough away from the center of the military operation to be able to generally conduct ourselves normally, we did hear a couple of air-raid sirens that sent us running for the safe room.

As is widely known, Israel protects itself from any missiles which seem like they might land near populated areas via the "Iron Dome" missile shield, a wonderful piece of technology that basically sends missiles up to knock out the enemy missiles.  The Iron Dome missiles are able to zig-zag across the sky until they find the incoming enemy volley, ultimately exploding it into far-less harmful shrapnel.

My teenage and pre-teen children were obviously a bit apprehensive about the situation at first, and I did my best to both reassure and explain the details of the Iron Dome system to them.  After one such explanation, my daughter looked at me and asked simply: "Why are the Israelis always so smart?"

A lot of attention has been paid in recent years to the success of Finland's educational system.  Apparently, they have succeeded in constructing a system where everyone gets a wonderful education, teachers are well-paid and receive ample time for both preparation and professional development, and the students score exceedingly high on international standardized tests (notably PISA -the Programme for International Student Assessment).*  Time and again, at conference after conference, American teachers and educational leaders have tried to figure out what is Finland doing so right that America is doing so wrong.

*Ironically, Finland is often held up as a model of a school system that is not reliant on standardized tests.  That may be true, but one reason that their system attracted so much attention is because they do so well on a standardized test.

Glowing article after glowing article has been written focusing on how Finland provides education to all while spending far less per student that the U.S., how their students are encouraged to play (in the educational sense of the term), and how well their teachers are respected. Certainly, it sounds like it is a model worth emulating, or at least a country worth emigrating to.

However, it struck that there are a few phrases that I do not hear that often in connection with Finland.  Those phrases include things such as "Famed Finnish inventor..." or "this groundbreaking product, first developed in Finland", or "Finnish Nobel Prize winner in Chemistry...".  In other words, while the Finnish system of education seems to be a well-run system, I am wondering what the products of that system are.  Are they producing well-educated students who are solid citizens willing to ensure that their system of education continues to serve as a cornerstone of a stable society for generations to come?  If so, that is wonderful.  However, it may also be lacking those traits that lead to groundbreaking, out-of-the-box achievement, such as creativity, dynamism, and risk-taking.

Go back to the beginning of the last paragraph and look again at the phrases that I rarely hear with the term "Finnish" in them.  Now try them with the word "Israeli".  Works a lot better, doesn't it?  The wikipedia page of Israeli inventions is impressively long.  Six Israelis have won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in the last decade.  Half of the microchips that form the backbone of our daily existence may have been made or invented or improved in Israel.

Why is this so?  How does a country of roughly 6 million people who have spent most of their existence engaged in war, preparing for war, or recovering from war manage to play such an outsized role when it comes to creativity and innovation?  In the book Start-Up Nation, Dan Senor and Saul Singer fingered two main causes - the fact that every Israeli is required to spend three years (with some variation) serving in the army and the fact that the country is made up of many large pockets of immigrants.  The common denominator between these two groups is their willingness to take risks, to try new things when the old approaches do not work, and, perhaps counter-intuitively, to not be restrained by hierarchies.

I would add one wrinkle, consistent with a topic that I discuss often on this blog.  So much of what Israel has developed has been out of necessity.  The Iron Dome system was not someone's science fair project (although, truth be told, it kind of looks like it) - it was created to protect against the very real threat of very hostile enemies constantly firing missiles at Israel.   Other military developments fall under the same category.  In the field of agriculture, Israel has pioneered methods of drip technology to conserve water in a very dry region and has created several species of plants and fruit trees that are able to grow in a land where water is scarce.   For a country surrounded by hostile enemies, and with European nations somewhat wishy-washy in their friendship, it is certainly worthwhile for Israel to have developed not only a strong system of hospitals, but also some seriously cool technological advances to go along with those hospitals.  After all, if you have to rely on an unreliable neighbor for treatment, it is probably best to just stay home and get your treatment locally.

In other words, Israeli innovation is the ultimate in PBL - their scientists, farmers, doctors, and techno-geeks are looking for solutions to real-world problems and have the daring and creativity to try anything until they find something that works.  Paradoxically, the Israeli school system is rarely cited as a model - class sizes are large, there are frequent labor strikes, and each new minister of education brings along his pet agenda that demands changes in curriculum, methodology, and testing.  And yet, this messy and inchoate system has produced one of the most creative and dynamic cultures of inquiry and innovation in the world.

So for everyone looking for a model school system to emulate, the question may be how far down the road you are willing to look and what end product you are looking for.  If quiet stability is your thing, Finland is your country; it certainly seems like an easier sort of existence.  But if you are looking to produce students who might change the world, I would suggest a small Mediterranean country that has grown up in a tough neighborhood yet has figured out how to succeed.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

No Words (but I'll write some anyway)

Tis was not how I intended to get back into blogging.  I have been saving up a semester's worth of posts and ideas.  I am currently at ISTE, the major education technology conference of the year and have several thoughts to share as a result.

But all of that will have to wait.  There is only one topic to discuss today.  After two and a half weeks of praying and hoping, we received the horrible news yesterday that three of our brothers had been found murdered.  The past twenty-four hours have been a tear-fest, as we have been reading and watching, listening to the painful yet noble eulogies by the parents of the slain teenagers, awed by the midnight vigils that broke out in public squares across Israel, and left to cope with a cocktail of sadness infused with anger laced with helplessness.

Many have already published their thoughts, and I am not sure how much more I have to add.  Trying as always to remain faithful to this blog's mission of being focused on education, a few thoughts from an educator's perspective.

Many have already noted the amazing and seemingly unprecedented sense of unity among world Jewry that has been pervasive over the past few weeks.  All of our fights over theological matters large and small have been largely put aside as Jews of all stripes have prayed for Eyal, Gilad, and Naftali.  Many have also commented how it is a shame that it takes moments of tragedy to unite us, and while that is true, it is also not unique to the Jewish people.  To be honest, I don't expect an era of peace among all Jews to be ushered in,  and I expect that we will continue to have our differences and to fight about them.  But perhaps, just perhaps, we can peel away some of the hatred that has built up alongside those differences.  One of the deleterious effects of the world of social media is the quick escalation of arguments from mild disagreements to fights to the death, with name-calling, polarization of views, and delegitimization of others (and not only their opinions) being sadly de rigeur. For the past three weeks, we were able to speak to one another as fellow Jews.  May we continue to see each other that way three weeks from now.

The world of social media has also highlighted another important point, and that is that those of us living outside of Israel are very much in galut, in exile.  And, truth be told, there are two sides to this story.  In some ways, it has never been easier for us to stay connected to what is going on in Israel.  Every potential new piece of evidence, every update from the police, every call for prayer has been instantly broadcast to us via Facebook and Twitter and a hundred different news sites.  We were able to easily mobilize to contact our elected officials demanding that they put pressure on Hamas.  And, in the end, we found out about the discovery of the boys' bodies in the moment, as our streams and news feeds began trickling and then flooding with the news.

But at the same time, there was a surreal sense to it all.  I found out the news while sitting on the floor in a conference center, surrounded by 20,000 other people of whom only about 150 were even following the story.  As I bumped into the other Jewish educators who are here with me, we exchanged knowing looks and solemn reflections, but the world moved on around us as normal.  By contrast, the State of Israel came to a near halt, ushering in a national day of mourning that even from afar we can sense was tangible and palpable.  Hundreds of thousands attended the funerals today and likely everyone else was watching on TV.  That sense of national grief cannot be replicated in Teaneck or Riverdale or Chicago.  The collective Jewish body is in deep pain today, but the pain is so much more acute near the heart of the nation.

This is not a call for everyone to pick up and make Aliyah tomorrow.  Life is much more complex that than and each of us has our own calculations. But, at a minimum, each of us who still lives outside of Israel should be reminded that we are missing something.  For those of us in America, even the biggest pessimist has to admit that we are welcomed and accepted like never before in Jewish history and yet we should be concerned that that acceptance could cause us to lose our focus as to where we can best live as Jews.  Israel has to be more than another Disneyland or another smorgasbord for us; we have to recognize and teach our students that it is the only place that we can live fully Jewish lives.  I was planning on discussing this message from a more optimistic standpoint, as the upcoming shemita year would present a reminder that there are mitzvot that can only be fulfilled and experienced in Israel.  The tragic murders of Eyal, Gilad, and Naftali reminds us that our connection to and identification with our Jewish brothers can also only attain its fullest potential when we are together in our land.

May the memory of Eyal, Gilad, and Naftali inspire us in the future in the same ways that their disappearance inspired us in the recent past.  יהי זכרם ברוך.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Why PBL is Hard for Students

As readers of this blog well know, I spend a non-insignificant amount of time thinking about and experimenting with Project Based Learning.  Over the past few years, one purpose of this blog has been as an outlet for me to express ideas about PBL and get feedback, and at the same time to share my own experiences in implementing PBL in the hopes that others who have an interest in trying it will be able ti find ideas to adapt for their own classrooms.

However, one area that I have rarely focused on is PBL from the student perspective.  One of the great selling points of PBL is its ability to increase student motivation and interest by providing them with greater "voice and choice" in their own learning, by setting up units with driving questions meant to spark their interest, and with seeking out authentic audiences that help students realize that the material that they are learning in class actually matters to the world at large.

All of that may be true, but on a practical level, I am constantly encountering a very big roadblock that students face when doing PBL.  While students may, on some level, crave independence and may enjoy the freer classroom environment that accompanies a PBL unit, the fact is that students need to be taught how to be independent learners.  Unless a school has been fostering this since 1st grade, most students have likely been taught to be good listeners and to look for "right" answers - and PBL often works against those impulses.

If you have ever had an obsessive notetaker in your class, then you know full well what I am referring to.  Think about that student who writes down every word that you say, and constantly raises his or her hand to make sure that they wrote down exactly the right thing.  Why do students do this?  Sometimes because they are really interested in learning, but more often because they have learned the rules of the game of school - come to class, get down really good notes, and ultimately turn those notes into correct answers on tests or projects or quizzes.  There is a certain comfort that accompanies this mindset - the information comes from a trusted authority (the teacher), can be easily checked for accuracy (by asking the teacher), and gets confirmed in its accuracy on assessments.  To top it off, such students generally earn praise as being "good students" for having mastered the skill of, basically, obedience.

And then those students enter a PBL classroom.  Now the trusted authority is no longer providing a reliable wellspring of information.  Instead, the students has to trust himself and his ability to find a source, know that it is reliable, read the source, and interpret it correctly.  Of course the teacher will be by at some point to steer the student back to the correct path if a mistake has been made, but that reassurance is not immediate and that time lag can be very jarring for some students.  As PBL projects are somewhat open-ended, students often ask myriads of questions as to whether their idea is acceptable.  Again, they are looking for something as concrete and well-defined as a test, and that type of assessment just is not forthcoming.  It can be unnerving.

How can we help students get past this roadblock?  In the same way that we teach children to do anything else, beginning with teaching them to walk.  We stand a few feet back and let them try, knowing that they will occasionally stumble but that they will eventually figure it all out.  When students in my PBL classes come to me with infinite questions, I answer the ones that I know are a bit beyond them, but I send them back to work on the ones that I am confident they can solve with a little more effort.  And if they make a mistake, so what?  I will be there soon enough to catch them before they drift too far off course.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Mercava - The Future of Jewish Education or merely a part of it?

For the past week or so, it has been hard to escape this video about a new internet portal for Jewish educational resources and material known as Mercava.  In a nutshell, the vision of Mercava is to make as much Jewish content available in as engaging a manner as possible, complete with all sorts of tools and bells and whistles that will make it "the future of Jewish education".

A number of educators have already chimed in to support or raise questioning eyebrows at these claims.  Over at the Lookjed listserv, several well-respected educators have expressed skepticism that Mercava is merely the latest "flavor of the month" that purports to be a cure-all to whatever ails us.  My friend Seth Dimbert has offered a glimpse into what currently exists on Mercava and is also not so convinced that there is a lot happening (in fairness, the end of the video announces this July as the real roll-out date).  Sounding a more positive note, the ever-thoughtful Tzvi Pittinsky, who has already viewed their live presentation a few times, is quite upbeat about all that Mercava has to offer.

Me? Not surprisingly, I have a few thoughts on the matter.

1) I know that this video is probably aimed more at potential funders than at teachers, administrators, or current day school parents, but why does every new idea in Jewish education have to refer to the current state of Jewish education as being abysmal?  This video starts out basically saying that without Mercava, we are going to lose thousands of children to Yiddishkeit.  Someone please enlighten me - is this really what funders want to hear?  And do they actually believe it?  Do they not see the growth in day school enrollment, fledgling Jewish communities, Shana baAretz programs, and so on and so on?  Of course we can be doing better, and of course we have problems and students that we do not succeed with - but I do not think that we are failing in the way that this video suggests.

2) Why do we think that Mercava is going to do something qualitatively different than the many tools that are already out there?  As Seth points out, we already have online texts (such as Sefaria.org, see my review of it here), apps that can provide for all sorts of linking (such as ThingLink), many ways of creating instructional videos - and all of those things come free.  Yes, Mercava is planning on doing this with much better quality - but is the success of a classroom reducible to the difference between a video that I make on my own using Camtasia Studio and a similar video made by someone trained by Disney?

3) While Judaic Studies currently lacks a massive collection of online video-based material, such materials have existed for several years over in the world of General Studies.  Has there been a noticeable uptick in student interest and motivation as a result?  Have these tools even been around long enough for there to be any valid studies?  Without knowing the answer to those questions, I am not sure that we can make any concrete claims about similar tools in Judaic Studies.

4) Finally, we need to understand what any talk of a crisis in Jewish education is about.  I rarely hear anyone bemoan the fact that students have not memorized the names of the Meraglim or that they have not learned enough mishnayot or that they have not completed part one of the Mishna Berura (all lamentable things, but not usually the topic of discussion).  Instead, the negative talk about Jewish education is generally about how well we are or are not communicating a love for Judaism and for learning to our students.  Love is not something that comes via a computer - it comes from people.  Mercava could wind up being everything that it hopes to be, and it will all be relatively worthless without well-trained teachers to skillfully implement it into their daily lessons and units.  So, yes, Mercava may be part of what the future of education looks like (and, let's be honest, it already is looking like that), but I do not quite see how they will be more than a very effective and useful tool.

Now, if someone wanted to develop some Torah-based video games that would be X-box worthy, that would be something...

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Guest Post: PBL in a 6th Grade Mishna Class

Rabbi Simcha Schaum (@simchaschaum) teaches 4th and 6th grade Judaic Studies at Yavneh Academy in Paramus, NJ.  He is an enthusiastic PBL'er and has used it to much success in his classes.  He has generously agreed to share with us his review and description of his most recent PBL unit in 6th grade.

One of my goals in teaching 6th Torah Shebe’al Peh (with Mishnah as its starting point) as a subject that is dynamic, exciting, and relevant. In my first year-or-so of using PBL to teach Mishnah, PBL seems to best accomplish this goal.

My 6th grade Mishnah classes were nearing the end of the 4th of Berachot – containing Mishnayot that are mainly about different aspects of prayer – and I was searching for PBL ideas that were could be somewhat ‘authentic.’ Since the two mishnayot we were up to (4:5-6) discuss some laws of how to pray on a trip – when many of the ideal conditions for prayer are unavailable – I decided that my students would use their knowledge of these mishnayot (and some related halachot) to create educational materials for a population that could actually use this knowledge in practical way: Jewish kids at sleep-away camp. After all, camps take trips all the time, be they sleepovers in the woods or days at an amusement park. The campers have to pray on the trips, and perhaps the camps may use their time on trips as a “teachable moment” to teach
some of these halachot – and our materials would come in handy to help them teach these halachot.

After clearing it with my supervisor (thanks, Aaron!), I pitched this idea to several camps, asking if they would take and use our educational materials and if they wouldn’t mind sending someone to whom we
could present our designs in person. Camps responded with enthusiasm and, while not everyone was able to come, three popular camps sent representatives – including Morasha and Moshava, whose directors came.

The PBL came in two parts: designing educational materials and presenting these materials in a way that shows mastery of the laws and their derivation from the Mishnah. To make their materials, I encouraged the students to make brochures or double-sided pages – small enough to laminate and send to camp. On these materials, they were to present the halachot about what to do in two typical camp situations. For example, what to do if one must pray on a moving bus (where one cannot stand up or may not know which direction to face). For their presentations, I required the students to write up their presentation  grade Mishnah is for my students to view scripts on Google docs (which is easy in our 1:1 environment), which they shared with me as well, so I could check their progress in real time.

In the presentations, they were required to cite parts of the Mishnayot in Hebrew and explicitly connect those citations to at least one of the practical laws displayed on their educational materials. This was
especially important, as these particular mishnayot give examples that are no longer common, such as one who finds himself riding a donkey or wagon. Properly applying these rules to modern situations was a
must, since it would mean that the students truly understood the legal principles behind the mishnayot and, would hopefully experience the relevance of the Halachic process as well.

The students really worked hard on their materials. Motivated, at least partially, by the opportunity to present to prestigious visitors (quite a few students attended or plan to attend these camps), my students got right
to work. They learned and worked with intensity (and would even start working before I arrived in the classroom) and ended up doing some really nice work. My students gave strong presentations showed materials that were nicely done.

For the first time, I created a project calendar that had important project benchmarks, such as when the materials were due, when they should start and finish making their presentation scripts, and, of course,
the tentative presentation date. At the beginning of each day, I would review the calendar with my students and point out what was expected by the end of that day. The calendar helped keep the students on pace
and focused on the task(s) at hand.

Aside from the project’s completion, I also included smaller “check-in” assignments along the way, to check how the kids were learning and who needed extra help. I gave a couple of quizzes on the wonderfully
simple iPad app, Socrative, and also asked my students to create notes, using Evernote, on the mishnayot they were learning. On these notes, they recorded themselves reading and translating the mishnayot out loud
and typed summaries as well. These notes also accomplished the goal of making sure the students pay attention to the Hebrew Mishnah text, which students can have a tendency to ignore in favor of the more flashy aspects of creating their projects.

In the end, I believe this project was successful. In terms of the content covered, the students were able to read, translate, and summarize the Mishnah, as well as apply it to real life situations. They seemed excited
by the “real life” application of the Mishnah and their being able to connect with an “authentic audience,” as well as by the opportunity to be creative and work independently.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Real Purpose of PBL

Like many of you, I took biology in 9th grade.  Never having taken another biology or anatomy course in my educational career, I am ashamed to say that there is much that I have forgotten.  One detail that pops into my mind every once in a while is that a mitochondria is the powerhouse of a cell.  I am not sure exactly what that means, or how the mitochondria works, or how something as small as a cell has so many smaller parts to it, but I am pretty sure that I am correct about that fact.

Why do I remember that fact?  Is it because my biology teacher was amazing? Perhaps.  Is it because I remembered some mnemonic such as "mighty mitochondria"?  Could be.  Is it because Julie Mitochondria was the name of the girl that I secretly had a crush on throughout high school?  Unlikely.

No, the real reason that I remember this random fact is that at some point I stayed up late studying for a biology test, memorizing all of the parts of the cell and their functions just well enough so that I would be able to regurgitate that information the next day on the test, and probably again six months later on the final.

Fast forward to today.  Like most other teachers, I still give tests from time to time.  Being a reasonably good teacher, I try to pack my tests with questions that will test not only my students' ability to memorize, but also their ability to think, to process the material and use it to answer a question that is somewhat different than the exact way that we learned the material in class.  However, I inevitably find students who are capable of providing answers that touch on the correct information, that come oh-so-close to actually demonstrating real understanding, but who nevertheless produce a response that shows that they are still collecting information points without truly comprehending what connects them into one larger system.  In my earlier example, I can explain the function of the mitochondria and the nucleus and the ribosomes, but I cannot quite explain (in my own words, of course), how a cell functions.

To my mind, this is ultimately the most important contribution of Project Based Learning (PBL) to the business of teaching.  My biology teacher (note - she was a wonderful teacher; I'm just picking on the subject since it is an area that I completely avoided, regrettably so, for the rest of my academic career) wanted me to understand cells, so she tried to build my understanding from the bottom up, hoping that by understanding each part, I would understand the whole.  Project Based Learning, by contrast, starts from the end and works backwards.  A driving question for that cell unit would be something along the lines of "What are cells and how do their discrete parts work together to sustain life?"  A culminating project that asked me to consider various diseases that afflict cells and how they do so would drive me to understand each part and what a deficiency in that part would mean for my overall health.  There is no way that writing down a few key words in the right place would get me "partial credit" for an assignment such as that.

When reconfiguring existing units to be PBL units, my longest stretches of creative thinking focus on exactly this point - what am I really trying to teach in this unit?  As a teacher of religious and legal texts, the answer is not always so obvious since the texts (Torah, Talmud) are not always divided up topically as easily as a Biology or a History textbook might be.  At times I need to combine parts of what were previously distinct units or break apart one unit into smaller pieces so that I can focus my students on one or two essential areas for understanding.  difficult as this sometimes is, it is also highly rewarding.  I emerge from the process with a much richer understanding of what I am trying to teach, and ultimately my students are engaged in a richer and more meaningful educational experience.  They are no longer working their way from one Biblical verse to the next, from one Talmudic page to the following one, but rather they are tackling defined units of knowledge and seeking to master and understand them.

Much has been made about the motivational advantages of PBL.  I have always contended that people can only be motivated, at least long-term, to do something that they feel that they can understand and can be successful doing.  A student with a great memory can perhaps be motivated to memorize lists of facts and dates and names.  But any student can potentially be motivated by the opportunity to not only seize control of their learning, but to do so in a way where the path to mastery lies clearly before them.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

A Jedcamp of Our Own

I have spent considerable time on this blog over the course of the past year writing about Jedcamp.  I have been amazed at the power of the Edcamp model to bring people together, to stimulate fresh ideas, and to encourage open discussion in a fully non-threatening environment.

However, I have always wondered about the limitations of the model.  By definition, a Jedcamp is populated by a coalition of the willing.  People who come to Jedcamp are people who want to come to Jedcamp, and thus they are probably aware of how the day should run and are possibly even prepared to present or lead a session of their own.

But what about a Jedcamp where not everyone has chosen to be there?  In other words, what if a Jedcamp was like most professional development days, where people are there because their school has mandated that they be there?  Would such a Jedcamp have the same energy and excitement?  Would teachers be as willing to be involved?  To put it another way, does the Edcamp/Jedcamp model have the potential to supplant traditional professional development, or is it doomed to remain a niche phenomenon, enticing a certain type of teacher while failing to reach the majority?

We put this question to the test this past week at Yavneh Academy, where I serve as a teacher and administrator.  For our Election Day in-service, we divided the day into four parts, some for development and some for housekeeping.  For an hour and a half after lunch, we devoted the time to an in-house Jedcamp for our entire faculty.

Knowing that not everyone was familiar with the model, I had sent out several emails in the weeks leading up to the event explaining some of the rules, and I used some time during lunch on Election Day to review the major points.  A sign-up board was placed in the lunch room, allowed for two 35-minute sessions and up to five rooms at a time (we had roughly 80-90 faculty members present).  After a slow start, the board quickly began filling up, with topics as diverse as teaching through movement, balancing life as a teacher and a parent, and how to handle the convergence of Thanksgiving and Chanukah (which happens this year and not again for almost 80,000 years).  Once the board was filled and teachers had a chance to choose their first session, I stood back, held my breath and...


Within minutes, each room was bursting with colleagues who do not always have the opportunity to interact, getting to know each other and enthusiastically tackling the topics at hand.  As at the actual Jedcamps that I have been privileged to run, it was difficult to end the sessions, as teachers wanted to continue discussing and analyzing the issues that were raised in each room.  When the second session came to an end and everyone proceeded to their other meetings for the day, there was a noticeable buzz in the hallways, and several teachers came over to me to express their satisfaction with and enjoyment of this out-of-the-box approach to professional development.

So, what were my takeaways from this experiment?

  1. The Edcamp model can work even when the participants "have to" be there.
  2. Schools should consider a change of pace for some future PD day and allow the faculty the opportunity to make use of this model to discuss the issues that they want to talk about.
  3. Hopefully, the next time I post that a Jedcamp is taking place, more teachers will be aware of what that is and may even try it out.