Design Thinking, Yeshiva Har Torah and the Day School Collaboration Network

Design Thinking, Yeshiva Har Torah and the Day School Collaboration Network:
Addressing the Challenges of Differentiated Instruction in a Modern Jewish Day School
by Karen S. Simon and Irene Lehrer Sandalow

Chanoch lanaar al pi darko … Train a child according to his way”
(Mishei 22:6)

Many of us, as educators, are committed to the value of teaching each child “according to his way.” What does this mean in practical terms in a Jewish school? How do we ensure that each child in our schools gets the attention and time the child deserves and needs?

Yeshiva Har Torah is committed to providing an individualized or “differentiated” education to each student. This is a challenge because every classroom contains a spectrum of students, ranging from below grade level to above grade level. Our goal is to challenge and engage each child at the appropriate level. One size does not fit all, so we try to “differentiate” instruction to meet the needs of each child. How can we best provide teachers with the support to ensure that every child gets what he or she needs?

Experimentation as Part of Our Educational Model

At Yeshiva Har Torah, we have delved more deeply into the practicalities of differentiated learning by participating in the Day School Collaboration Network (DSCN), an initiative of The Jewish Education Project and UpStart Bay Area made possible by a generous grant from UJA-Federation of New York. YHT is part of a larger team of leading educators from a diverse group of Jewish day schools that reflect the religious and geographic diversity of New York. Utilizing the method of “Design Thinking,” we address challenges facing individual schools while also impacting the broader field of Jewish Day School education. Design thinking, with its bias toward experimentation, is aligned with our school culture that supports and advances new educational models.

How do we successfully implement differentiated instruction?

In a frontal teaching model, when a teachers stands in front of a classroom delivering the same lesson to an entire class, students received the same amount but not necessarily the right kind of instruction. Whereas differentiated instruction seeks to provide each student the kind of instruction that meets individual needs, this model brings a different question: how do we ensure equity of instruction for each student? We are committed to engaging and teaching each child “according to his way,” however, we also want to ensure that students with specific educational needs do not receive teacher’s attention at the expense of those who may be performing at or above standards.

With the full support and guidance of the school principal, Rabbi Gary Menchel, YHT assembled a team of educators to address these challenges through the design process afforded by the DSCN. Together our team (including Curriculum Coordinator and Teacher Mentor Karen Simon, First Grade teacher Joyce Figman and Third Grade teacher Melissa Stock) explored the challenges as to how our school could best meet the dual challenges of providing for differentiated and equity of instruction in general studies for grades K-5.

The strategy of “Design Thinking”

The strategy of Design Thinking that we employed as part of the DSCN includes five steps:

design thinking

First, to empathize with our colleagues – to develop a more precise understanding of the challenges they face in implementing differentiated instruction in an equitable fashion – our team spoke directly with classroom teachers. We developed a survey with five questions:

  • What challenges do you face when working to accommodate learning differences among your students?
  • How do you articulate goals for individual students?
  • How do you structure learning groups?
  • What are the challenges in providing for equitable instruction to your students? Do some students receive more teacher time than others?
  • Do you have a method for tracking the personal time that you provide to each student? Can you evaluate the impact of personal teaching time on student academic performance?

The teachers interviewed responded anonymously on post it notes. Our goal was for colleagues to candidly articulate the challenges they face on a daily basis. By collecting responses directly from classroom teachers, we felt confident that our design process would more likely address real needs of students and teachers in the classroom.

Curriculum Coordinator Karen Simon holds up a sheet on which teachers placed post-it notes answering the question, “What challenges do you have when trying to differentiate?” Photo courtesy.
Curriculum Coordinator Karen Simon holds up a sheet on which teachers placed post-it notes answering the question, “What challenges do you have when trying to differentiate?” Photo courtesy.

Based on responses from teacher interviews, our team defined and articulated two main challenges that our colleagues faced in working to manage the goals of differentiated and equitable instruction in the classroom. After defining the problems, we started to brainstorm, or “ideate,” developing prototypes to address each of these challenges:

Challenge #1: How do we track and measure the investment of teacher time in relation to student performance?

At Yeshiva Har Torah, we continually assess each student’s reading level and math aptitude. Based on these assessments, teachers and administrators divide students into groups that reflect each student’s skill development. In this highly flexible system, students advance from one group to the next based entirely on their personal rate of skills development.


We developed a prototype to provide teachers with a means for tracking their time with each student. Through this new system, teachers can record individual time spent with each student within each of their work groups. The cards are placed in pockets according to reading level – A, B, C, D, E, etc. The pockets allow for the teachers to move each card easily from one level to another as a student progresses. Using this information, mentors and teachers can make data-driven analysis of the relationship between student academic performance and the individual time spent with each teacher.

Challenge #2: Differentiated instruction with limited staff resources

We tested our prototype in a few classrooms and it was well received. By successfully employing this new tracking system, we clarified another and more significant challenge: how might we meet our school’s high standards for differentiated instruction with limited time and personnel? The information that we gleaned through our design process showed that we will require additional adult instructional support in our classrooms if we are meet our goals for both differentiated and equity of instruction. When we discussed and further ideated with our colleagues in the DSCN, our next prototype – one more extensive and ambitious than the first – was born.

Redesigning “student teaching” in Jewish day schools

When we considered options for providing additional adult instruction in the classroom, we realized that student teachers would be an ideal and as of yet untapped resource. Although a number of colleges in New York place student teachers in public school settings, Jewish day schools do not generally benefit from these placements. Our Yeshiva Har Torah and DSCN colleagues quickly realized, however, that partnering with undergraduate student teacher programs would help us achieve our goals for our students while serving as an incubator for the next generation of Jewish day school educators. Our team at Har Torah is currently in discussions with higher education institutions in the New York metropolitan area to pilot this model in the 2013-14 school year, seeking to place student teachers at Har Torah under the direction of experienced classroom teachers.

In addition to benefiting the students at Har Torah by significantly adding to the quantity of one on one instruction in each classroom, our new prototype – if adapted on a larger scale – has the potential to bring additional, albeit unanticipated, benefits to the field of Jewish day school education:

  1. New Jewish day school teachers will benefit from a prior Jewish day school field placement. Teachers who did their student teaching in public schools are often not fully prepared for the unique challenges of the dual curriculum in Jewish schools. By placing student teachers at Yeshiva Har Torah, new teachers will emerge with the experience of having provided differentiated instruction with equity of instruction in the context of a progressive Jewish day school with a dual general and Jewish studies curriculum.
  2. By training future Jewish educators, we will build capacity for the field of Jewish day school education. Although student teachers will complete their field placement at Yeshiva Har Torah, most will end up teaching at other schools, benefiting countless schools and children across New York and beyond.

We are excited with the prospect of partnering with Jewish higher education institutions in New York to further develop and test this new initiative.

A Larger Vision

Although work in the DSCN and use of design thinking is already producing benefits at Yeshiva Har Torah, our work represents the first step in a larger process aimed at enhancing the broader field of Jewish day school education:

  1. Learning with and from Our Network: Our Design Thinking team benefited enormously by hearing feedback and questions about our prototype from educators at other schools. Their feedback taught us about the challenges facing the other schools in DSCN. Many of the challenges expressed by the DSCN Design Thinking team members in other schools – and their creative solutions to those challenges – are relevant to Yeshiva Har Torah. We have also benefited from the support of the professional staff at The Jewish Education Project and Upstart Bay Area, our “thought partners” in this work.
  2. A New Way of Thinking: Among our faculty, we now talk about and reflect upon Design Thinking all the time. We are beginning to think of other projects in our school that can benefit from this approach. For example, we are in the process of designing a new standards-based report card and have decided to use the five-step Design Thinking strategies to guide our project.
  3. Sharing and Spreading What We Learned: “Success breeds success.” Jewish day school teachers need to see how a program works in a context in a Jewish day school setting, not only in public or other private school settings. We hope that the pilot programs, curriculum and systems developed in the kindergarten, first grade and third grade at Yeshiva Har Torah provide meaningful and interesting models for colleagues in other Jewish day schools.

We look forward to sharing the results of our first design prototypes, and our continuing work in the DSCN, with colleagues in New York and beyond as we progress through the coming academic year. We would appreciate hearing responses from colleagues to our design process and prototypes – and we hope you will share your own work that advances the quality and value of your Jewish day schools and the broader field of Jewish day school education.

Karen S. Simon is with Yeshiva Har Torah and Irene Lehrer Sandalow is withThe Jewish Education Project.