HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal


Commentary: Innovating in Depth

by Casey Suter, Bracha Rutner, Rabbi Jonathan Berger Issue: Educational Innovation

Something I have been focusing on quite a bit as of late is the idea of innovation in education being more focused on depth rather than being something new. For example, a lot of organizations (including education) are always touting being on the “cutting edge” as they are embracing the “latest and greatest” technologies or perhaps strategies. The problem with this focus is that if you are too focused on doing the “new” thing, you probably never had a chance to get good at the last item or initiative. It is a cycle that continues over and over again in too many spaces.

But if you stay focused on something too long, how can that truly be considered innovation? Think of it this way. The original iPhone was a marvel when it first came out over ten years ago, but if you have had any of the iterations since, you probably would not be excited about the limitations of the original today. Each iteration of the iPhone to the product we have today is an innovation. The more time we have to
focus on depth creates an environment where we can bring out the true artistry within teaching and learning.

George Couros,
“Innovation Focused on the Ability to Improvise”

 

Casey Suter, Elementary School Division Head, The Shlenker School, Houston

Educators are inundated with “innovation” on a daily basis. Companies contact schools with the latest and greatest new programs that guarantee outstanding student outcomes. Staying current with educational trends is important, but we know that just because a program promises excellent student outcomes does not mean it delivers on that promise.

Our school seeks out research-based programs and curricula for our campus. Each year, we develop a needs assessment to ensure that we are providing teachers with proper teaching methodologies to strengthen current programs. Our teachers are required to attend 25 hours of secular and eight hours of Jewish studies professional development each year. Our focus is to provide teachers with professional development that deepens their understanding of current curriculum. We have learned from experience that great teaching comes from teachers with deep understanding of curriculum, knowledge of targeted planning and strong delivery of instruction. Educators, not programs, change student outcomes.

 

Bracha Rutner, Assistant Principal, Yeshiva University High School for Girls, Holliswood, New York

In education, we have often rushed to embrace new technologies such as smartboards or 1:1 computers once they became affordable, mostly through grants. We have found them to be useful, sometimes, in a specific context. But they remind us that the real way students learn is when they feel safe and comfortable with a person with whom they have a relationship.

I often wonder if educational innovations are really so different than what we did in the past. How did teachers often begin their class? Many midrashim employ a petichtah, a story or idea with which a rabbi would begin a class with to entice the student. Today, we call that a “do now.” Students needed to know Tanakh well before studying Talmud—i. e., “scaffolding.” And then the rabbi would delve deep into the learning, using examples to initiate questions—a variety of “inquiry-based learning.” And how do we know that we needed to personalize learning? çðåê ìðòø òì ôé ãøëå. Today, we know that students learn better in small groups as opposed to constant frontal teaching; earlier, we called this chevrutah. The Tannaim and Amoraim were not afraid to embrace difficult issues and neither should we in education.

If we look at new ideas through the prism of the past, we may find that they are not as much of a fad as they seem. And it is helpful to address new ideas if we use them to build on the sound foundations that we have created.

 

Rabbi Jonathan Berger, Associate Head of School, Gross Schechter Day School, Pepper Pike, Ohio

The world of education often oscillates between two poles: innovation and tradition. The unstated message is that we must choose between being progressive educators, constantly changing, or “old school,” proudly and cautiously reliant on the tried-and-true. Embracing progressivism means that we can’t stand still; being traditional entails a stance of suspicion towards anything new. And of late, educators’ understanding of innovation has been shaped by Silicon Valley’s model of “Move fast and break things.”

George Couros’ alternative to this model accords well with Jewish practice. On Simhat Torah, we finish reading the Torah and start it again the very same day; when we celebrate finishing a tractate of Talmud, we declare that we plan to return to it. In both cases, the goal is to discover new interpretations and perspectives when we reread. Our practices mirror Couros’ idea of seeking new insights and greater depth, not just moving on to something new.

But this model of innovation can lead to complacency. Sometimes, small, iterated improvements aren’t enough, and more radical changes are needed. How do we know when to innovate radically, and when to aim for depth and true artistry? A good supervisor or coach helps us to constantly reflect and improve, and a strong school accreditation process ensures that every few years, every aspect of a school is evaluated. Together, supervision and accreditation can help us find a dynamic balance between steady small-scale innovation and occasional radical change.

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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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