The last three years in my position as Head of the Martin J. Gottlieb Day School, a K-8 Schechter Network Day School of nearly 130 students located in Jacksonville, Florida, has overlapped with an explosion of interest in 21st century learning and educational technology. In large ways, our school has been shaped by the works of leading figures in this educational movement – Heidi Hayes Jacobs, Angela Maiers, Alan November, Mike Fischer, and Chris Lehmann to name a few. And in small ways, I believe our school has contributed to the movement as well, by serving as a living laboratory and our creation of edJEWcon – a yearly institute for 21st century Jewish day school education, launched in 2012 with 21 Jewish Day Schools throughout North American and representing the full ideological spectrum.
“21st century learning” is a vision of teaching and learning that transcends physical boundaries and connects across geographic borders and time zones. Jewish day schools, like all schools, need to chart a new course, by adopting and adapting a secular educational movement, (The Partnership for 21st Century Learning http://www.p21.org/). But Jewish schools, in particular, because of their unique makeup have the opportunity to be at the forefront of an exciting paradigm shift in education. What are the 21st century pedagogies to be applied to Jewish education? I believe they are transparency, collaboration, technology, reflection, global connectedness, authenticity, and prosumerism (which I will define as the paradigm shift wherein the learner is the producer, not the consumer, of content.)
Professional development in the 21st century is rooted in the belief that educators need to experience the same skills, tools and teaching strategies that they are expected to develop and implement in their own classroom practice. The Partnership for 21st Century Learning points out that we need to give teachers and administrators opportunities and the tools to “identify what activities they can replace/de-emphasize”. 21st century professional development takes advantage of a virtual learning network that is available anytime and anywhere. New literacies of the 21st century, such as information, network, media and global literacies, demand that educators be fluent in communicating, collaborating and connecting through face-to-face, virtual and blended communities of global educators. Veteran educators who embrace this change are energized when they acquire these new skills and competencies; they engage their students with new media and technologies, incorporated into their deep and vast experience in the classroom.
In my school, we recently underwent a three-year process in which we redefined job descriptions of non-classroom teachers to include 21st century learning profiles. Our “Technology Teacher” has become a “21st Century Learning Consultant.” Our “Librarian” is now a “21st Century Media & Literacy Specialist.” We call the “Academic Resource Teacher” a “21st Century Pedagogy Consultant.” In this way, we maintain the core elements of each person’s job—we still have books to catalogue in the library, keyboarding skills to teach, and remediation to perform—while stretching each into coaching and collaborating relationships with faculty in their areas of expertise. This has allowed us to transform teaching and learning in our school without adjusting the budget at all.
In addition, having been bit by the prosumerism bug, we are currently exploring research grants and for-profit partnerships that would allow our teachers and students to create apps and games. As we have bumped up against the edge of the possible, we are eager to teach our teachers and students how to create apps that do not yet exist that would allow us to take our teaching and learning to the next level (that’s one way we incorporate STEM). This brings with us commercial possibilities that could help the school grow its resources. It takes Alan November’s “digital learning farm” out of the metaphor and into reality. Not only would students be making meaningful contributions to society through their work; they might be making financial contributions to their school as entrepreneurial student-leaders. As our work in this area deepens each year, new opportunities for innovation arise. It has become clear to us that gaming and gaming theory represent the next frontier.
A leading feature of 21st century learning is giving students the opportunities to own the learning. Knowing that Bloom’s Taxonomy recognizes “creativity” as the highest rung on the ladder, we are interested in giving our students opportunities to create meaningful, authentic work. From a motivational standpoint, gaming provides us with a tangible example of our target audience spending hours upon hours failing to achieve! But rather than becoming despondent, kids find this kind of failure motivating – they will spend hours and days working on new skills and seeking new discoveries in order to accomplish their goal. Deep gaming allows for the possibility of harnessing students’ desire for creativity and motivation for success to the curricular aims of a school.
Although this would apply to any aspect of the curriculum, it is in Middle School Jewish Studies where perhaps the greatest opportunity lies. It could be because the current quality of curricular materials is less. It could be because student motivation for Jewish Studies is oftentimes less in, at least, some kinds of Jewish day schools. It could be that for some students virtual Jewish experiences may the only Jewish experiences (outside of school) available. For those reasons, and for the benefits of creating integrated curricular learning experiences between secular academics, STEM and Jewish Studies that many Jewish Day Schools find desirable either for expediency, mission or both, we believe the creation of a virtual gaming environment built around key periods of Jewish history has the greatest academic and commercial potential.
Another advantage in working with middle school students (or high school where appropriate) is the opportunity to differentiate and cross-platform. A game created by a middle school student may very well be appropriate for an elementary school student to play. What fulfills the highest rung on Bloom’s Taxonomy for a middle school student through the creation of a compelling game may fulfill a lower rung for an elementary school student who plays. Similarly, Jewish gaming allows for opportunities for day schools to partner with congregational schools in new and meaningful ways. We can imagine a game which allows the player to experience Jewish curriculum for students who would unlikely be able to experience that subject matter (at least to that depth) with the limited hours and curriculum supplemental schooling provides.
These are exciting times, as schools, agencies, and foundations are ready to dream dreams. The promise of 21st century learning and educational technology is real. I look forward to more conversations, more experiments, more research, and more sharing.