If We Can Do It, So Can You! One Small School’s Journey to the Center of 21st Century Learning

[eJP note: This article is part of a series focusing on new ideas emerging from the day school field with relevance for Jewish professionals in Jewish education and beyond. The post contributes to the conversation on the topic of 21st Century Education.]

by Dr. Jon Mitzmacher

On April 28, 2013 over 100 participants representing schools, agencies, foundations and universities from all over North America and Israel arrived at the Martin J. Gottlieb Day School in Jacksonville, Florida to learn, reflect, share and co-create the future of Jewish day school education at edJEWcon 5773.1.

How did this happen? How did a (relatively) small K-8 Jewish day school in a Jewish community of less than 15,000 find itself at the center of an educational revolution? And – more importantly – what does it mean for the field?

Here’s what I have learned over my last two and a half years as head of this school and, as a result, co-creator of edJEWcon.

When it comes to innovating education, it doesn’t have to take millions of dollars and it doesn’t have to take an abundance of faculty. It doesn’t necessarily require expertise in advance and it certainly doesn’t require knowing the end of the journey before you take the first step. You don’t need interactive whiteboards, tablets and laptops in order to adopt a 21st century learning mindset.

It is not about the “stuff.” Technology requires “stuff”; learning requires “people.” It isn’t that the technology is unimportant – there are certain minimum thresholds of technology necessary to walk the path. But most schools and educational programs can reach that threshold with creative budgeting and fundraising. Harder than accumulating the stuff is changing the paradigm. It doesn’t take an endowment to revolutionize your educational philosophy – it takes teachers, administrators, parents and students. And every school has those.

In the Martin J. Gottlieb Day School we are currently engaged in a three-year process to redefine job descriptions of non-classroom teachers to include 21st century learning profiles. Our “Technology Teacher” became a “21st Century Learning Consultant.” Our “Librarian” is now a “21st Century Media & Literacy Specialist.” We may 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.

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. This is why we are also beginning to explore opportunities to pilot applications of gaming theory to Jewish day school curriculum. We are currently working on a joint project with Jewish Interactive, where our students are designing from the ground up an educational Purim video game. Jewish Interactive will actually build the software, to be released in advance of next Purim for use in their current network to more than 50 elementary schools around the world.

In large ways, our school has been shaped by leading thinkers of 21st century learning. And in small ways, I believe our school has contributed to the movement as well, by serving as a living laboratory and culminating in 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. edJEWcon is a conference based on 21st century professional development where attendees can experience a Jewish day school in transition to becoming a dynamic 21st century learning environment. We are sharing a vision of teaching and learning that transcends physical boundaries and connects across geographic borders and time zones.

Our school and conference shared the belief that reflective learners achieve at a higher level than non-reflective learners. It is both that simple and that complicated. For our school, it is why reflection is embedded into all subject matter. It is why students have blogfolios. It is why teachers have classroom blogs and responsibility for blogging on a faculty ning. It is because we believe that the process of reflection leads to the product of achievement.

For the conference it is why this year’s theme was “Learn. Reflect. Share.” This year we welcomed returning schools as well a new cohort of schools, academicians, foundation and agency people and other forward thinking educators. Our keynote speakers included Chris Lehman, founder of Science Leadership Academy and EduCon, and Steve Hargadon, creator of Classroom 2.0 and director of Web 2.0 Labs. We had more attendees this year than last, and are hopeful that this will be an annual event for the field.

I do believe it is important to state that there is an additional spotlight on 21st century learning right now because the field has been keenly interested in seeing how educational technology might positively impact the budgets of Jewish schools, and not just the quality of instruction. Twenty-first century learning may indeed provide important paths toward the financial sustainability of Jewish day school. The crisis of day school affordability is very real. The promise of 21st century learning and educational technology is equally real. I look forward to more conversations, more experiments, more research, and more sharing. Whether there is one answer or many, it will take us all to discover them.

Watch Jon’s video below and share your thoughts about 21st century learning and how your school and community can possibly benefit from this technology.

Dr. Jon Mitzmacher is the Head of Galinsky Academy [which includes the DuBow Preschool, the Martin J. Gottlieb Day School (a K-8 Schechter), the Bernard and Alice Selevan Religious School, and Makom Hebrew High] located in Jacksonville, FL, and part of the Jacksonville Jewish Center. He was the founding head of the Solomon Schechter Day School of Las Vegas. Jon has worked in all aspects of Jewish Education from camping to congregations and everything in between.