HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal

From the CEO: "What If?" The Jewish Tradition of Educational Innovation

by Paul Bernstein Issue: Educational Innovation Prizmah

Havruta,“two scholars sharpening one another” (Babylonian Talmud, Ta’anit 7a), is arguably the richest way to study Jewish texts. Yet until recently, it was a minority pedagogical style; it took change within the yeshiva education system to become the norm. According to Israeli historian Shaul Stampfer, havruta-style learning (pairs of study partners learning text together), although practiced since ancient times, became the predominant form of Jewish study only after World War I, when yeshivot opened their doors more widely. As described by Rachel Gelman Schultz, “Once yeshivot were no longer only for the elite, the students needed to learn in havruta in order to understand the difficult texts, and this mode of learning spread.”

Educational innovation is nothing new for Jewish education, whether related to sacred texts or general study. Innovation for Jewish day schools means applying new, or perhaps existing but under-used, ideas in search of continually delivering better learning for students. No matter a school’s educational philosophy or preferred pedagogy, all teachers want to improve and respond to the dynamic ways students learn.

At Prizmah, we see educational innovation as an important pillar of our work with the Jewish day school field. Our Strategic Plan calls for “fostering a culture of continuous educational growth and experimentation, and identifying and scaling promising new ideas.” On a daily basis, this is accomplished most readily through the myriad points of connection throughout the Prizmah Network. Whether in Reshet conversations, through a presentation at a Prizmah Gathering, in the informal learning at our summer pop-up learning hubs, or through the JDS Collaborative model, educators connect with each other to seek out and to share resources and knowledge.

This past summer, Prizmah co-hosted an Innovators’ Summit where educators and innovators from day schools and beyond were able to “show and tell” how technology and techniques such as Makerspace, Firestorm, CoSpaces and Virtual Reality are changing the way day school students learn. Innovation allows middle schools students in Indianapolis, for example, to collaborate with peers near Nahariya in a Virtual Worlds project and travel to Jewish communities around the globe. Participants learned about The Jeremiah VR Experience, a virtual reality application that takes students through the book of Jeremiah in an immersive experience, while also getting an overview of the current virtual reality market. Upcoming gatherings this year will include opportunities for the growing number of educational leaders in Jewish day schools to share and learn about both technological and other pedagogical opportunities to advance learning.

We know that a commitment to educational innovation pervades all levels of school leadership and is certainly not limited to, or even primarily centered on, educational technology. Our plan envisions a field where schools are able to enhance their educational visions and goals for academic achievement, social-emotional development and Jewish identity. We are committed to strengthening schools’ efforts to educate more students, by expanding their learning support, and by developing pedagogy to differentiate learning.

There may (mistakenly) appear to be a paradox in enlisting innovation to support and maintain connection to ancient traditions. Judaism itself, however, has always been inextricably linked to changing realities, as new questions arise and new answers are fashioned that build on the past. The opposite of tradition is not innovation but rather stagnation. When we adopt innovative approaches in our day schools, we integrate the best of new ideas with the values from our tradition. This can take many forms across many different types of schools: interdisciplinary approaches to Jewish history, for example, or child-centered study of Gemara. When we adopt a “what if” attitude, we usually see a result that exceeds even our wildest imagination.

Jewish day schools are unique in the landscape of the Jewish world as institutions where every day, new ideas blossom in the minds of young learners thanks to the careful and deliberate efforts of teachers who seed connections to tradition with the most innovative of techniques and approaches. Prizmah is encouraged by all that we see and honored to create settings where these ideas and practices are promulgated.

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Educational Innovation

The articles in this issue represent the balance between the old and the new, sacred and profane embodied in Jewish history. The issue tells the story of the drive for innovation in modern education that has gained strength in recent decades. It features efforts to learn from, adopt and adapt innovative programs and pedagogies from the larger educational universe, even as authors advise caution, patience and planning around such changes.

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