Jewish Day School as Innovation Incubator

Prizmah Thought Leadership

This article is part of a series representing a partnership between JEIC and Prizmah. It grew out of a collaboration at the 2019 Prizmah Conference, where JEIC ran Listening Booths in which 52 participants shared their dream for Jewish day schools. 

By Dr. Eliana Lipsky
Middle School Principal at Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School

Google’s founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, originally encouraged their employees to spend 20% of their time on passion projects that were interesting to them and not on the company’s agenda. While this “rule” is no longer in place, over the last decade several ideas emerged from these projects, including Gmail, Twitter, and Google Maps, that altered the way humans interact all over the world. Inspired by Google’s approach, many Jewish middle schools and high schools, along with other schools, have incorporated an exploration lab or innovation zone into their programs, giving students the opportunity to be creative and take risks. 

A few of these side projects have, like Google’s, made a real difference in the world. For example, a bioengineering teacher at Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School teamed up with the 3D printing teacher to have their students design a real world solution for her niece who was born with limb deformities in her hand. These eleventh graders developed a prosthetic hand uniquely designed to fit her niece’s specifications, which allows her to perform mundane activities, such as picking up and throwing a ball. At a macro level, the Cadena Initiative tasks middle school students from around the world to innovate viable solutions that will save lives during natural catastrophes. The Cadena Foundation implements the winning idea as part of its humanitarian aid effort. 

At the recent Prizmah conference, I was encouraged to engage in a thought exercise and reimagine what a Jewish day school education could look and feel like. Influencing my thinking are Ted Dintersmith’s book What School Could Be and the Netflix documentary The Creative Brain. I focus on middle school because that is where most of my experience and passion are. In the paragraphs below, I invite you to join me and play around with one vision of what Jewish education could be.

Let’s begin by asking, “What if?”

  • What if a Jewish day school centers its educational model on being the innovation zone? 
  • What if students were part of a small cohort with whom they would test their hypotheses and design ideas, products, and communications throughout the year?
  • What if the school collaborates with professionals, businesses, and universities from around the world so that each student has a mentor and each cohort has an advisor?
  • What if middle school and high school education focuses on depth and not breadth?
  • What if the next generation learns what it means to be resilient, persistent, and how to fail forward, because we create a truly safe space for our students to take risks? 

With these questions in mind, this vision of the future begins with a Jewish day school grounded in Jewish tradition and an understanding that future occupations will forever remain unknown due to the speed at which technology continues advancing. For this school to exist, we assume that the teacher’s primary function in school is to act as an advisor, coach, and facilitator who provides students with guidance similar to how a dissertation chair might guide a doctoral student through their dissertation process. Each student has a professional mentor who works in a field related to the student’s interest area.

If a school were an innovation zone, students would focus on improving their personal lives or the life of someone they identified as part of their universe of obligation. Instead of taking subject-specific courses, students would be responsible for identifying a question or innovative challenge that they want to solve. Students’ courses would be multidisciplinary and integrated throughout their time in school. Learning blocks would include 1) Jewish and global citizenship, 2) reading for social justice and equity, 3) STEM, and 4) communications and the arts. The courses would aim for depth over breadth, and the educational model would prioritize tending to human relationships, practicing empathy, taking thoughtful and calculated risks, and fostering critical thinking, analytical, collaboration, and problem-solving skills. 

The curriculum would be learner-centered. Sixth graders would focus on a problem that affects them as an individual, seventh graders would consider a problem that impacts the Jewish community, and eighth graders would investigate a problem that requires leadership. Their innovation challenge might require the creation of a movement or a level of entrepreneurship, because the solution does not exist yet. The challenge would give students purpose and focus, making their learning feel more relevant and authentic. For example, a Jewish and global citizenship block would challenge students to trace the value(s) underlying the innovative challenge. They would grapple with why the challenge they chose is important and ground their thinking in the historical evolution of Jewish communal and global citizenship. They would embark on thematic investigations of these values and perhaps similar challenges that were previously addressed using texts from Jewish sources and the humanities to relate why the problem they desire to solve matters within their glocal (global and local) communities.

The innovation zone’s calendar year would follow the five phases of design thinking or an inquiry model rather than the traditional semester or trimester. Using sixth grade as an example, the phases would unfold as follows. 

Phase One: Problem Identification
Students would explore their identity and ask, How do I determine what is important to me? What does it mean to have an identity? To which communities do I belong or not belong, and how do those influence me? Then students would consider several problems they currently encounter that present a challenge to their daily lives. For those who do not think they have any challenges, they would broaden their thinking to include their peers or family members. A student’s phase one concludes only once they are able to articulate a selection of innovative challenges from which they will choose going forward. 

This phase would also include a calendar-setting component. Students would work with their advisors and mentors to determine the appropriate amount of time that they think it would take to move through the research and development cycle. As timelines in the real world often change based on uncontrollable factors related to environment, technology, and access to information, the student will consistently review and refine their calendar in consultation with their advisor and mentor throughout the five phases. 

Phase Two: Literature Review
Just like a dissertation process, students would conduct a literature review. Given the advancement in information dissemination, this literature review would also include videos, podcasts, and material from other media. Once a student knows which innovation challenge they want to examine, they will ask, Why is this a problem? Who else is dealing with this problem? What solutions are people already trying? They might reach out to partner schools that are nearby or halfway across the world to ask, Is this a problem for you as well? Does it look the same for you? How are you approaching it? Once they have a sense of what people or companies are trying, the student brainstorms as many solutions as possible. Most important here is the idea that no solution—no matter how silly or out there it seems—is dismissed without careful consideration. The student’s advisor and mentor help the student identify criteria necessary to determining which of their solutions are worth trying and why. 

Phase Three: Solution Designs
Next, students create a blueprint for the solution to their innovation challenge. Students might need to take mini-sessions within one of the four learning blocks depending on their design’s requirements. Because the school day would be more flexible, students would be able to sign up for different workshops with more directed instruction when that information is relevant to their innovation challenge. 

Phase Four: Peer Review, Advisor and Mentor Review, and Revision
A cohort of students comes together for an in-depth review of each other’s work. Students develop their communication skills through discussion of their innovation challenge and proposed solutions. Peer reviews take place to encourage cross-pollination of ideas. A conversation might unfold as follows: 

“Okay, I think I understand your idea. Here’s what works for me and here's what I need explained again. Have you thought of x, y, and z? Because when I was researching my innovation challenge this is what I learned and what I’m dealing with. It sounds like maybe some of our ideas could be connected.” 

Advisors and mentors would also examine their students’ designs and offer comments and areas for improvement. Students would need to refine their design based on peer, advisor, and mentor feedback. After revising their work, students would present their design again for another iteration of feedback. This process may occur several times. 

Phase Five: Communication, Presentation, and Ideas for the Future
In the final phase, students move from design to communication. They focus on writing, visually creating, or orally presenting their idea. They explore ways to present the same information and market their idea to an array of audiences. As some of this may include public speaking, screening a film, or graphically illustrating the idea, communications and the arts are thoroughly integrated and would be the most prominent learning block at this point. 

Students would consider questions such as:

  • What are the best ways to share my vision? (article, short film, poster)
  • On which platform do I present the problem and my idea? (a social platform)
  • With whom is it best to share my idea and vision? (peers, adults with influence)
  • How do I write about this for the different audiences I identified? (voice, style)
  • Does promoting my idea look different when my audience is part of the Jewish community, lives in another country, or is interested in improving lives other than their own? (purpose)
  • What visual means could I use to communicate my design to publishers, companies, and individuals so that they will fund my idea? (film, poster, commercial)

Once students determine their different audiences and select their communication platforms, students spend time crafting their presentation pieces. The entire design phase closes with a formal presentation of their idea to an authentic audience selected from the lists they created previously. Throughout this process, the student’s advisor is responsible for helping the student manage their time so that they move through the different design phases at a pace that is appropriate for the innovation challenge. Since each innovation challenge is unique, and students are encouraged to work at a pace that is healthy and positive for them, students may move to different phases at different times throughout the year.

A Jewish day school that prioritizes grounding an innovation zone in Jewish tradition and values would promote the connection to the Jewish community and Jewish peoplehood that we long to continue while setting up its students for future success, both professionally and as global citizens. At this school, students develop a strong work ethic because what they are doing matters. Their advisors, mentors, and peers encourage them to push through challenges they encounter during the process, fostering the resilience skills our students need for their future occupations and lives. Moreover, students build meaningful relationships with mentors who can offer real-life experiences and who push the students to think creatively and innovatively.

Dr. Eliana Lipsky completed her doctorate in curriculum and instruction at Loyola University of Chicago and both a Master's and Bachelor's degrees from Boston University in History. Dr. Lipsky taught middle school History and Tanakh at JCDS, Boston's Jewish Community Day School for many years, where she also mentored new teachers. Dr. Lipsky worked for five years as an administrator, project coordinator, school consultant, and teacher coach with REACH, a Federation-sponsored organization that serves over fifteen Jewish day schools in the Chicago area. Dr. Lipsky is currently a fellow in the Day School Leadership Training Institute. 

Dr. Lipsky has extensive training in teacher education, curriculum and instruction, problem-based learning, and inclusive classrooms. She has published articles on teaching, 21st century literacy, and pluralism in both educational and Jewish educational journals. Dr. Lipsky has taught professional development workshops and seminars for teachers on differentiated instruction, classroom management, authentic assessment, and standards and benchmarks, and created tools for schools to best assess students' academic, social-emotional, and physical needs.