Embracing the Synergy of Technology, Jewish Values and 21st Century Learning

Beware the Book

In Phaedrus, Plato laments the creation of books, which he suggests will “implant forgetfulness” in the souls of students, allowing them to seek “remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks.” He suggests that reliance on books is the “conceit of wisdom.” It will allow students to feign knowledge on topics they do not really understand. While we might chuckle at Plato’s fear of books today, imagine what he might think about the internet, artificial intelligence or social media.

This article suggests that educators diminish technology’s value if they equate it to the book in Plato’s Phaedrus, a tool solely for transmitting content knowledge. Rather, educators should use technology for the development of 21st century learning skills, commonly known as the 4 Cs: critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, and communication. Additionally, regardless of the subject, teachers should explore these skills as part of a broader connection to Jewish values. 

Through this synergy, teachers can optimize the use of technology for broader educational goals, assess the value of employing an edtech tool, and foster a holistic learning environment that supports Jewish values, tech literacy and lifelong learning.


Critical Thinking: Excellent Questions are Key

Isidor I. Rabi, a Nobel laureate in physics, was once asked what encouraged him to become a scientist. Rabi explained that upon returning from school each day, his mother would not ask, “Izzy, what did you learn today,” but rather “Izzy, did you ask a good question today?” Emphasizing the importance of inquiry over the information, Rabi’s mother planted the seeds for a lifetime of critical thinking.

Critical thinking is the ability for learners to analyze, synthesize and evaluate information in a discerning way. It demands weighing the credibility of sources, understanding the distinction between fact and opinion, recognizing bias, contextualizing knowledge and using prior learning as the basis for new inquiry. While not every learner will become a world-renowned physicist, developing critical thinking skills is vital for lifelong learning.

Judaism’s appreciation of critical thinking is evident in its approach to Talmud study. Rabbis across generations pull apart the arguments of their thought partners to clarify, uphold or dispute another’s interpretation. The Babylonian Talmud understands this process as vital to sharpening the thinking of both scholars, leading to deeper understanding (Ta’anit 7a):

Rabbi Ḥama, son of Rabbi Ḥanina, said: What is the meaning of that which is written: “Iron sharpens iron, so a man sharpens the countenance of his friend” (Proverbs 27:17)? This verse comes to tell you that just as with these iron implements, one sharpens the other when they are rubbed against each other, so too, when Torah scholars study together, they sharpen one another in halakhah.


Through student-centered, inquiry-based learning, technology can expose learners to a wealth of information and encourage new ways of thinking. Collaborative platforms can provide a forum for meaningful debate, personalized feedback and scaffolding from teachers. Applications that offer multiple modalities, often with gamified interactions and newly powered by AI, promote problem solving, build resilience and encourage patience through the learning process. Multimedia, interactive and gamified learning opportunities, through platforms such as Genially, Wordwall and H5P, can help teachers to create their own online activities, targeted specifically at developing critical-thinking skills.

However, technology is a double-edged sword in the development of critical-thinking skills. Easy access to information, literally in the palm of your hand, encourages students to accept information without questioning its validity. To push back against this influence, teachers must incorporate digital literacy into their curriculum, particularly the ability to identify reliable sources. Resources on digital literacy are available on the ISTE website.


Creativity: Exploring New Ways of Demonstrating Understanding

Often a learner is recognized as “creative” because of their ability in the arts. In the context of 21st century learning skills, creativity focuses on original thinking and innovative problem solving rather than artistic expression. Developing these skills has broad application in every moment of inquiry, at school, at home and in a professional context. While it has been suggested that creativity is something you either have or you do not, through the work of Dr. Keith Sawyer and others it is now widely accepted that creativity can be learned or re-learned. 

Rabbinic tradition supports the idea that all learning is a creative process. The Talmud shares the following story (Chagigah 3a): 

The Sages taught: There was an incident involving Rabbi Yoḥanan ben Beroka and Rabbi Elazar ben Ḥisma, when they went to greet Rabbi Yehoshua in Peki’in. Rabbi Yehoshua said to them: What novel idea was taught today in the study hall? They said to him: We are your students and we drink from your water, [i.e., all of our Torah knowledge comes from you, and therefore how can we tell you something you have not already learned?] He said to them: Even so, there cannot be a study hall without a novelty.

In the article “Creativity as a Spiritual Practice,” Rabbi Adina Allen, co-founder of the Jewish Studio Project, suggests that the creative process is “an engagement with what is in order to bring about what will be,” and requires “a willingness to venture into the unknown, the ability to be present in the moment, an openness to our intuition and allowing ourselves to follow where it leads us.”

Extending Rabbi Allen’s thinking to learning, technology allows learners to move beyond the four walls of the classroom, providing students a road by which to “venture into the unknown.” While we do not want students following every internet rabbit hole, a limitless, hyperlinked exploration of our world provides each of us with a different learning journey and a unique way to share our understanding with others. In a world where information is easily retrieved from the internet but often not contextualized, students should be encouraged to demonstrate their understanding in creative ways.

The edtech landscape is awash with tools that both encourage and guide creative thinking. Platforms such as Popplet and Google’s Jamboard are designed for mapping ideas and collective brainstorming. Book Creator, Adobe Express and Wixie encourage learners to share their ideas through text, voice, image and video. In developing a student’s creative muscles, teachers should focus on guiding students through a process, worrying less about a product or outcome. Ideally, these platforms also support reflective and collaborative learning experiences.


Collaboration: Recognizing the Value of Partnered Learning


While some students prefer to work alone, educational experiences that are social and student-led result in deeper learning experiences. In addition, collaboration supports the ability to compromise and reach mutually accepted results, preparing students for real-life social and professional situations. 

The paired learning experience, hevruta, is the traditional method of Jewish study. The importance of partnered learning is found throughout our rabbinic texts (Pirkei Avot 1:6 and Avot DeRabbi Natan 22). The danger of solitary learning is reflected in an interpretation of Jeremiah found in the Talmud (Ta’anit 7a):

And this is what Rabbi Yosei bar Ḥanina said: What is the meaning of that which is written: “A sword is upon the boasters [habaddim], and they shall become fools [noalu]” (Jeremiah 50:36)? This verse can be interpreted homiletically: There is a sword upon the enemies of Torah scholars, a euphemism for Torah scholars themselves, who sit alone [bad bevad] and study Torah. And not only that, but those who study by themselves grow foolish from their solitary Torah study, as it is stated: “And they shall become fools.”

Technology exponentially broadens the possibility for collaboration, as most edtech tools are designed with collaboration as a core feature. While sharing documents is likely the best-known example in this space, consider other platforms which facilitate multimedia collaboration, such as Wakelet and Floop

In choosing a platform, also consider how its moderation features support both digital citizenship and Jewish values. Teach a framework within which students can offer a respectful critique of peers, evaluate their own contribution and recognize the strengths they bring to a shared process. 


Communication: Sharing Learning with Others

A person’s ability to effectively communicate is the glue that binds together all 21st century learning skills. It is what makes collaboration, creativity and critical thinking come alive.

Judaism recognizes the positive power of words. God uses this power and gifts it to humanity in the Book of Genesis. The Babylonian Talmud, cautions us to the dangers of poor communication (Arakhin 15b):

Rabbi Yoḥanan says in the name of Rabbi Yosei ben Zimra: What is the meaning of that which is written: “What shall be given to you, and what more shall be done for you, you deceitful tongue” (Psalms 120:3)? The Holy One, Blessed be He said to the tongue: All the other limbs of a person are upright, but you are lying horizontally. All the other limbs of a person are external, but you are internal. And moreover, I have surrounded you with two walls, one of bone, i.e., the teeth, and one of flesh, the lips. What shall be given to you and what more shall be done for you, to prevent you from speaking in a deceitful manner, tongue?

The Digital Age offers us an ever-growing and complex web of multimedia communication platforms. While these can be employed to make communication more effective and learning more enjoyable, the perceived anonymity of the internet and democratization of content creation requires that everyone be more discerning in their acceptance of what they see and hear.

Platforms such as Flip, Vocaroo and Padlet can be used to record student presentations, conversations or other communication activities. Video conferencing allows students to practice face-to-face communication skills in a safe and supportive environment. Practicing social media etiquette can help students learn how to communicate respectfully and ethically online. Gaming platforms are an engaging way for students to practice communication skills. Students can play games that require them to work together to solve problems or communicate effectively with each other.


Teaching with Three Sources: Edtech, the 4 Cs and Jewish Values

The Jewish classroom offers a unique learning environment, where technology, 21st century learning skills and Jewish values can be brought together in shared exploration. Leveraging all three creates a more engaging and relevant learning experience while supporting learners in developing skills for lifelong success. Consider the following to bring this approach to the classroom: 

  • Choose technology that equally supports the development of 21st century learning skills and Jewish values.
  • Provide learners with clear instructions and expectations both in how to use technology and the learning goals for its use.
  • Offer moments for reflection and feedback, which allow students to use technology in support of an evolving learning process.
  • Model the intersection of 21st century learning goals and Jewish values in pedagogy.

Through this approach, the connected classroom becomes an incubator of Jewish values, a laboratory for exploring technology and fertile ground for students to build the learning skills they need in the classroom and beyond.

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AI and Tech
Fall 2023
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