Dr. Sarah Rubinson Levy has been involved in Jewish education since 2001, working, teaching, consulting, and writing in the areas of supplemental, day school, adult and experiential education. Most recently, she was a founding head of school for Einstein Academy, a progressive private school based on Jewish values and culture in Denver. Sarah’s approach integrates empathy and curiosity with research to work with the organization in a way that is both realistic and aspirational

Every School Should be a Lab School

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Take a minute to look around your school and consider in what ways it’s different than it was 20 years ago.

Try looking beyond the surface, focusing not on the color of the walls or the displays on the bulletin boards or the names on the faculty roster (though those pieces can be artifacts that represent deeper change). What does “learning” look like? What happens in the classroom on a daily basis? What kinds of questions are kids encouraged to be asking? How are you assessing learning? How different are these pieces from five years ago?

But are the kids in your building today the same as the kids who were there even five years ago, much less 10 or 20 years ago?

What if school was a place that was already experimenting and changing and learning and pivoting to meet the changing needs of the students—and the world they are being prepared to enter?

Enter the lab school.

A lab school (short for laboratory school) is a space designed to ideate, explore and test new educational models and methods, incubating new ideas and developing teachers in a live setting. The original one was founded by John Dewey at the University of Chicago in 1896; today, over 125 years later, lab schools can be found all over the country, most focusing on a specific educational niche. While not all modern lab schools are associated with a college, university or teacher-training institutions, they have the same goals: to experiment, innovate and share.

Einstein Academy, a short-lived experiment which opened in the fall of 2020 in Denver and closed its doors in May 2022 (coinciding with the pandemic) was a Jewish lab school with these goals in mind.

During our planning year, we spent weeks learning about different educational models locally, nationally and internationally. Using our mission and vision as a lens, we drew pieces from these various schools with the purpose of a lab school at the heart of all of it. One example that had really intrigued us was the Opal School in Portland, Oregon, which recently closed its doors (sadly, also a casualty of Covid). The school, while deeply committed to its students and their growth, had a parallel goal of impacting education in general: conducting research, bringing in teachers from around the world to learn together, and developing robust professional development offerings based off of what they had developed at the school. From their website, “We were always a startup in a continual dance of learning and growing. Our staff members were all teacher researchers, working to invent new systems of education that preserve and extend children’s natural learning strategies, their creativity, their curiosity and the wonder of learning itself.”

This was what we wanted to be. We felt that education needed to be shaken up, not just incrementally with small changes here and there, but systematically—completely rethinking everything we did and why. Partly because we were brand new, mostly because it aligned with our goals and philosophy, and partly because it was Covid times, there was no sense of “how things had always been done.” Every single day was an experiment. Every day involved trying something new, learning from it and reshaping it for the next day. Every day, we met with our faculty to evaluate the previous day, look at the data and make adjustments.

And our students benefited from it. They were getting an educational experience specifically tailored to them at the exact moment that they needed it. If something didn’t work for them, it changed. If something wasn’t working for our teachers, it changed. And if someone had an idea, we worked with them to flesh it out and implement it. Our one guiding non-negotiable question was, “Is it best for students?”

With the closing of Einstein Academy, though, no other lab schools exist within our day school network, and that’s a problem. Lab schools serve a key role in the advancement of education in that they are centers for new ideas to be born, developed and spread. They provide support and safety for risk-taking and ignoring “how things have been done” in order to seek what might be. Without lab schools in our network of Jewish day schools, we are at a serious disadvantage.

Yes, some schools are already incorporating elements of lab schools, and it’s so exciting to see. But every school can and should be a lab school. Here’s how.

Start with one teacher or one class or one week. 

Most schools do have an idea of how things have always been done that makes change hard and scary. So, start in one area and go all- in. And then get bigger. And then get even bigger. 

Celebrate risk-taking and normalize failure. 

It’s much safer to stick with what we know to be “fine” than to risk complete failure by trying something new, but that also means that we never have the chance to try for “great”. Model risk-taking yourself, and celebrate those who try something new. Make those who are shaking it up the exception rather than the norm. 

Don’t make it “something else”.

Everyone who works in a school has full plates, so be prepared to take things off of those plates faster than you add them. If you’re going to try portfolios as evidence of learning, take away report-card narratives. If you’re going to build in a three-week interdisciplinary time period, accept that you won’t finish the textbook. Make trying the new thing the top priority and everything else secondary. 

Focus on what you’re gaining rather than what you’re losing.

A sense of loss for the old ways is totally natural and normal, so reframe the loss of the old as excitement for the new. If you’re trying a student run presentation of learning in lieu of the traditional Chagigat HaChumash, for example, celebrate the creativity and leadership of the students rather than bemoaning the loss of tradition. It won’t sell everyone, but it will set the tone for the direction you are headed. 

Commit.

You have the power to shape the identity of your school, so decide today that you are a lab school. Not in a way that’s buzzwords or makes a great photo op or checks a box on a strategic plan or looks great on your website for SEO. Instead, in a way that is scary and unknown, but that contributes meaningfully to shifting the world of Jewish education and helping to bring new ideas to the field. Scary is good; that’s how you know you’re pushing the limits just enough. 

Then share.

While there is no such thing as “best practices”, because no one approach will ever be best for everyone, we can learn so much from others. We can adapt and combine and tweak things that worked in different schools to try at our schools. We can ask for help and seek support to help with the “scary” factor a bit. We can learn from the “failures” of others about what to do differently or what to integrate when we give it a try. And then we can report back and contribute to the ongoing conversation. 

Ultimately, we’re all in this together, one giant lab school—for our students.