Innovation Mindsets for Successful Schools

Maya Bernstein


Why is innovation in Jewish education so critical? To reframe the question: if we believe that a Jewish education has something to offer our own community, and that individuals granted this education have something important to offer society at large, isn’t it our most important responsibility to ensure that this education is vibrant, creative, inspiring, relevant, thorough, and profoundly meaningful?

In a culture in which the structures and methodologies of education have been thrust into turmoil by an increasingly flat, virtual world; in which the smartest students graduating from high school are selecting to start their own companies rather than go to Harvard (and are being paid to do so by radical venture capitalists); in which the cost of education in general, and Jewish education in particular, is unaffordable for the majority of families; and in which researchers are showing that life skills, like flexibility, grit, perseverance, and healthy attitudes towards failure, are perhaps the most important aspect of schooling, the Jewish community has no choice but to address the impact of these new realities on its educational philosophy and systems.

“Innovation,” then, is not a passing fad, or hype. It is the word that is currently used to symbolize an approach and a set of tools that assist communities through critical growth and change processes. It does not imply that we need to abandon the old for the new, nor is it necessarily even new. The concepts used in today’s “innovation sector” are to some extent repackaging of concepts that have been used for decades and centuries. But they represent core values and approaches that are important as we attempt to stay nimble, flexible, and able to meet the complex needs of our community.

Based on their mission statements, our community’s many excellent day schools, despite denominational differences, seem to share a unified vision regarding the overarching intent of a Jewish education in today’s world. They hope to instill a grounding in Jewish values and a deep sense of Jewish identity; a love of learning and a rigorous overall education; and the desire and imperative to make a positive, mending impact on the world. Gann Academy sums it up in this way: our goal should be to foster a generation of “Jews who will be knowledgeable, sophisticated, and passionate about Judaism, and who will make lasting contributions to the Jewish community, American society, and the world at large.”

This is no easy task. While our schools’ secular counterparts are grappling with the challenge of keeping up with a fast-paced, global, hyper-technical, competitive world, we must face this challenge while also figuring out how to keep ancient texts and languages relevant and meaningful. Moreover, our schools need to continue to compete with excellent public and other private options, simultaneously figuring out how to stay in business and keep ballooning prices under control, all while keeping their eye on the prize: the core Jewish values that make this struggle worth fighting.

I would like to suggest that in order to address these pivotal questions, and ensure that our community’s schools are nourishing and challenging the next generation of committed, engaged, inspired Jews, we must embrace certain core mindsets that will allow us to continue to adapt and grow to meet the next generation’s changing needs. These mindsets, culled from the latest thinking in the entrepreneurial innovation sector, are crucial in ensuring that the next generations of Jews will be given the opportunity to become sophisticated, knowledgeable, and passionate about their Judaism, and also prepared for a rigorous life in the 21st century.

Seven Innovation Mindsets for Successful Schools

Focus and Passion

Unless we can articulate why we care about our work, we will be unable to do our work well. The expression of why our work is important, what value it brings, is the first step necessary for doing the work well. In his book Leadership Without Easy Answers, Ronald Heifetz observes,

People need inspiration and drive to step out into a void which only later is recognized as a place of creativity and development. … The practice of leadership requires, perhaps first and foremost, a sense of purpose—the capacity to find the values that make risk-taking meaningful. … Preserving a sense of purpose helps one take setbacks and failures in stride.

Day schools must take the time to genuinely explore their purpose: is it to create knowledgeable Jews? Jews committed to certain core values? Jews who practice in particular ways? Some combination? Each activity in the school, the classes offered, the structure, the underlying message, should resonate with this mission and these core values.

Profound Optimism

Global activist Lynne Twist, in her book The Soul of Money, explains that we suffer today from a constant attitude of scarcity:

For me, and for many of us, our first waking thought of the day is “I didn’t get enough sleep.” The next one is “I don’t have enough time.” Whether true or not, that thought of not enough occurs to us automatically before we even think to question or examine it. We spend most of the hours and the days of our lives hearing, explaining, complaining, or worrying about what we don’t have enough of. … Before we even sit up in bed, before our feet touch the floor, we’re already inadequate, already behind, already losing, already lacking something. … We go to sleep burdened by those thoughts and wake up to that reverie of lack.

This “reverie of lack” is unfertile ground for creativity and exploration, the key ingredients of innovation, and it is not only rampant in society at large, but is an unspoken shadow in the Jewish community. Our passion for Jewish education cannot be grounded in a fear of Jewish extinction, of anti-Semitism, of intermarriage, or even of Jewish survival. Jewish life must be motivated not by what we are afraid of losing, or not having enough of, but by what it contributes to our lives. An attitude of optimism, of hope, of anti-lack, is critical for continued innovation in Jewish life.

Listen to the People and Collaborate

Innovation is a democratic process. It thrives on collaboration between people with different skill sets, experiences, approaches, and beliefs. It assumes that the experience of a student in a school is as important as the perspective of the head of school, and it creates opportunities to make less authoritative voices heard. Innovations enter systems from a wide variety of streams, and it is more likely that insights and new ideas will emerge when there are multiple streams flowing into the system. IDEO’s Tom Kelly, in his book Ten Faces of Innovation, writes,

Go out and find some real people. Listen to their stories. Don’t ask for the main point. Let the story run its course. Like flowing water, it will find its own way, at its own pace. And if you’ve got patience, you’ll learn more than you might imagine.

In order to grow and stay relevant, we need to ensure that the widest spectrum of perspectives is included in the conversation and imagination of what might be. The voices of students, in particular, can be especially illuminating. How might day school professionals create more opportunities to listen to their students and involve them in the design of their school life?

Be Creative

We take our work seriously, as we should. But we sometimes take ourselves too seriously for our own good. Yes, the education of our children is no game, no laughing matter. But unless we learn how to be more playful in its design, we may look up and realize that the kids have gone to play somewhere more fun. If we want to design inspiring, exciting learning experiences, we need to employ exciting, inspiring methodologies. Innovation thrives in playful soil. Our planning meetings, conferences, and board meetings can benefit from some more art, theater, outdoor experiences, from more play, to help re-train us to be more open, more relaxed, and even sometimes silly, because that is the state in which we can be most inspired, and inspiring.

Be Patient

Real change takes time. As Chip and Dan Heath, in their book Switch: How to Change Things when Change is Hard, note,

Change isn’t an event; it’s a process. There is no moment when a child learns to walk; there’s a process. And there won’t be a moment when your community starts to invest more in its school system, or starts recycling more, or starts to beautify its public spaces; there will be a process. To lead a process requires persistence.

Innovation can happen only when we slow down, and feel that our challenges are no less important, but perhaps slightly less urgent.

Failure is Educative

What do successful people and ventures have most in common? Failure. Tina Seelig, a professor at Stanford University, in a talk on “The Art of Teaching Entrepreneurship and Innovation,” shared that she asks her students to

Make failure resumes—the resume of their biggest screw-ups, personal, professional, and academic. And the idea is—it is OK to fail as long as you learn something from it.

The idea is also that if you don’t allow yourself to fail, you might not grow. Mark Zuckerberg, in his letter to shareholders upon Facebook’s S-1 filing, says,

This means—take risks! We have another saying: “The riskiest thing is to take no risks.” We encourage everyone to make bold decisions, even if that means being wrong some of the time.

Stay Lean: Experiment, and Learn

We know that new ideas and projects can be tremendously resource-consuming. Often, this prevents us from tackling them; who has the budget to make the changes we ideally would like to see? This should not prevent us from making those changes.

Instead, we should devise small experiments to test our ideas and assumptions, learn from them, being less afraid to make mistakes because there is less at risk, and then revising them, and trying again. Only after we have run multiple experiments are we ready to ask for the investment of time, and capital and human resources, to make larger changes. In his book The Lean Startup, Eric Reis writes,

Successful entrepreneurs do not give up at the first sign of trouble, nor do they persevere the plane right into the ground. Instead, they possess a unique combination of perseverance and flexibility.

Schools should shift perspectives on what it means to introduce new programs, curricula, or structures into their institutions. Significant growth can happen from relatively simple, inexpensive “tests” of new ideas.


If we hope to continue to inspire and challenge the next generation to fully and actively embrace Judaism as a meaningful way to live in today’s world, we must honestly ask ourselves: What is working in our spaces of Jewish education? What is not? And why? And, ultimately: how might we best educate today’s Jewish children to be excited about Judaism, nourished by it, and use its teachings to contribute in lasting ways the global good?

The innovation sector in the business world is facing a different set of questions; and yet they too grapple with the ultimate challenge of how to catch the attention of people who are inundated with information, demands and opportunities. The most successful entrepreneurs today are adopting the mindsets, and the tools that emerge from these mindsets, to design experiences and products for people that genuinely meet their needs.

I hope that Jewish day schools will explore some of their best practices, and transform them to create Jewish educational experiences that genuinely challenge and nurture, inspire and enrich, all those who seek a Jewish education. I believe that we should focus our energies on creating educational environments that are exciting and collaborative, in which teachers guide learning processes, and students are involved in shaping the direction and timbre of the learning. We should seek pedagogic methodologies that prepare students to be active participants in society, and that help them weave connections between their Jewish learning and their actions in the world. I envision a future in which our students bring their curiosity, interpretive skills, desire, and courage to make an effective, positive and lasting impact, deeply embedded in core Jewish values, on the world at large.

Together, these mindsets, and the tools that come with them, can help pave paths that have the potential to lead us towards a better future. I believe that the first step in creating meaningful, necessary growth in our educational spaces is to educate and challenge ourselves to experiment with these approaches.

The values of the innovation sector are actually very much aligned with core Jewish values; these are the values that have allowed our community to keep its traditions and beliefs alive through so many centuries. Our community can both gain from the innovation sector’s approach and contribute to it. With an attitude of plenty, of hope, of patience and passion, and of willingness to laugh and get back on our feet each time we slip, we can design educational experiences for our children that inspire them to stay engaged in, and contribute to, a vibrant Jewish community.♦

Maya Bernstein is the strategic design officer at UpStart Bay Area. She can be reached at [email protected].

This article was adapted from a piece written for the JTS website and published on eJewish Philanthropy.

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HaYidion Bold Ideas Summer 2013
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Summer 2013