We don’t often stop to wonder where our current educational model came from. America’s is over 120 years old and was developed at the end of the nineteenth century. It’s often referred to as a “factory model” of education, since it was created during and for the Industrial Revolution. If you think about it, our children are put on a kind of assembly line in school: they go to different classes, where they’re filled with information from different disciplines, and then emerge an “assembled” member of society. We also call this the “cells and bells” model of education.
Over the past 20+ years I’ve been in education, I’ve noticed a disturbing trend that many educators across the country have started to comment on. It’s that schools are becoming even more factory-like, churning out students who have taken x number of AP courses, done y number of challenging summer programs, and engaged in z number of co-curricular and service learning programs, all ostensibly to get into the colleges of their choice. In Jewish education, we’ve primarily copied the formula of general studies classes, demanding that students finish a certain number of sefarim [Jewish books] by the time they graduate. We frequently don’t consider whether our students are engaged by their Jewish studies, and increasingly find them alienated, from themselves, from the learning process, and often from their identity as Torah Jews.
In the summer of 2011, I happened upon a video from edutopia, a website for educational innovation funded by George Lucas. The video was about a school called High Tech High in San Diego, CA, founded and run by a gentleman named Larry Rosenstock, and it completely challenged the notion of the factory model of learning. The video made clear that the purpose of the school wasn’t to have students regurgitate information, but to engage them in deep and meaningful learning, to connect what they were studying to the real world, and to have them be producers of content, products, and projects, and not mindless consumers.
Since then, I’ve had the opportunity to visit the school many times, to bring other Jewish educators with me, and to participate in a year-long training program at the school’s Graduate School of Education. Larry has also become a mentor. Each time I visit the school, I’m struck by how Jewish it seems. One project I saw had freshmen study ancient Greek philosophers on philanthropy, interview local philanthropists about why they give, engage in a service learning (or chesed) project, and then photo-journal the experience. It was so easy to envision how to include Jewish texts and thinking in such a project, and it was also easy to see how the school was preparing its students to know themselves well, to be generous and giving, and to take their place as responsible citizens of their communities and the world.
What if we created such a high school for Jewish education? One where learning stemmed from students’ passions? Where each learning experience began by getting students to ask questions, so we knew what they wanted to explore in a discipline, a time period, a book, or a Jewish text? And what if students didn’t just memorize information, but took newfound knowledge and skills and used them to make something beautiful or solve a problem in the real world? With such an educational model, students would construct meaning out of their studies, get to know their talents and strengths, and understand how they might live a fulfilling Torah life, while bettering the world.
This is the kind of empowering learning students will engage in at The Idea School, a co-ed, Orthodox high school opening in Bergen County in September 2018. Schools across America -- and in Israel as well -- are embracing educational innovation and adopting new methods of learning in their classrooms. Educators know that these models are about preparing our students for our changing world, unlocking the potential of each student, and making learning a lifelong, joyful process.
It’s time for a paradigm change in Jewish education, so our children experience Jewish learning in deeply personal, meaningful, and resonant ways. We want our kids inspired by the mesorah, the tradition, they’ve inherited and excited to take their place as members of our communities. And we want our kids filled with ideas -- creative and innovative ideas, spiritually meaningful ones, and ones they can use to solve the world’s complex problems.
We welcome you to The Idea School, and invite you to join us as we reimagine Jewish education.
Head of School