The current educational system was created over 120 years ago and is based on a factory model of learning: education guru Ken Robinson points out that students are divided by year into batches, and move through the assembly line of a day, learning subjects that are silo-ed from each other. By the end of this process, the final product has been assembled: a graduate who has studied a number of subjects and taken tests ostensibly showing proficiency in different disciplines.
Obviously, this is a reductionist view of school, but it highlights some of its problems, namely, that children’s natural inquiry is often stifled, not nurtured in school, and that students don’t get a chance to fully pursue what interests them and what they’re good at. They also aren’t given time “to ride the bike.”
Interestingly, at the same time as schools have become increasingly concerned with standardized testing and test scores, some have shown heightened interest in progressive pedagogies, whose aim is to foster curiosity and get children to own their learning and pursue their passions. These learning models also get students collaborating with each other, creating products and events for the real world, and reflecting on what they have learned.
My colleague Rabbi Michael Bitton and I have worked in the past three years to bring this type of constructivist education to Magen David Yeshivah High School in Brooklyn, NY, and we’ve also worked with my co-Founder and Director of the I.D.E.A. Schools Network, Dr. Eliezer Jones, to educate Jewish educators about progressive pedagogies. Over the past two years, we’ve trained close to 1,000 educators, and a number of the teachers we’ve worked with have been recognized in the field of Jewish education for their creativity and innovation.
Now Rabbi Bitton and I are launching The Idea School, which will open in the 2018-19 school year in Bergen County, NJ. As a modern Orthodox, co-ed high school, our mission will be to provide students with the abilities to nurture a relationship with Hashem, live a rich halakhic life, and engage with the world in an ethically and morally responsible manner. It will also be to help students see learning as a joyful, lifelong process.
Students will be empowered to ask questions and pursue their passions, so they take ownership of their studies and find personal meaning in them. By engaging in interdisciplinary learning and breaking down the walls between school and the world, students will gain an expansive view of knowledge and see why they and their work matter in the real world.
The Idea School will be focused on four core ideals:
Readiness for the World: We want students to enter the world ready to live a Jewish and halakhic life, and to know that their religion requires of them to contribute to their own communities and to the world. We also want students not only to have a strong academic foundation, but also to develop the skills they require for success. Because today’s world is a VUCA one -- volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous -- students need to be creative, flexible, and adaptive, and know how to collaborate and communicate easily.
Passion: Learning happens when it means something personal to a student. Professor Christopher Emdin of Columbia University engages in what he calls “reality pedagogy,” in which learning begins in students’ lived experiences. At The Idea School, each unit of study will be personally connected to each student and will contain opportunities for students to showcase their passions and interests.
Inquiry: A key component of our educational model is fostering students’ ability to ask questions that are important to them and to the world. Finding good questions is an art in and of itself, as the Right Question Institute will tell you. Our own Jewish tradition of asking questions and not being satisfied with one answer provides students with a solid foundation in the art of questioning.
Meaning: When learning is student-driven, filled with opportunities for deep exploration, tied to students’ interests and passions, and relevant in the real world, students derive rich and personal meaning from it. They can then create connections between themselves, their Judaism, and the world, so that they seek and live a meaningful life.
That seems like a good end for education.