In the Face of Disruption Don’t Just Pivot, Reorient

By Dr Arielle Levites

For some time the tech world has been governed by the concept of disruptive innovation selling us on the promise that progress comes when we move fast and break things. I was never a fan of adapting this mode of thinking to educational environments, finding it careless about things like experience, relationships, community and responsibility

My personal feelings about disruption as a model for change no longer matter because disruption has arrived. Our daily lives are disrupted whether we like it or not. Most of us have gotten more disruption than we bargained for.

But what will this disruption mean for change in Jewish education? Does change produced by disruption ensure any improvements? What kind of choice and autonomy do we have about the kinds of change we might experience in disrupted times?

Change is difficult. So many of our choices are governed by patterns and ingrained preferences often never fully acknowledged or examined. Will this profound disruption help us break patterns or will we do things the same way with new technology?

I think for example of one of the basic features of education – the relationship between the teacher and learner. In education research we talk about I-R-E, an acronym which captures a unit of discourse, a pattern of traditional interaction between teacher and student. The teacher Initiates an interaction, often with a question, the student Responds to the teacher’s prompt, and then the teacher Evaluates the student’s response. Embedded in this pattern are ideas about power dynamics and the proper roles of the teachers and students. I-R-E is, for example, a different pattern of interaction than that encoded in the seder which foregrounds learner questions. I-R-E isn’t necessarily bad but it can limit our imagination for what conversations that support learning should look like. I-R-E is an expectation for interaction based on hundreds of accumulated moments of watching it play out again and again. It’s a very hard habit to break without focused reflective practice. I have observed I-R-E patterns in all kinds of Jewish educational settings: progressive, traditional, formal and informal. Are we bringing I-R-E and its teacher-student dynamic with us to our new, high-tech virtual learning environments? Do we want to?

We are now in new territory. Will we reproduce old patterns and watch them play out on Zoom or even Discord? What patterns do we want to let go of? What do we want to hold on to and why?

Educational institutions are still in an emergency response phase and that’s OK. Many of the earliest decisions to “pivot” in the face of stay-at-home orders prioritized continuity of learning and gathering community. Those are fine choices. But we can’t hold there forever. Even as we endlessly recalculate budgets and calendars for millions of possibilities we also begin to gain some space to evaluate what we are doing and think about what comes next. As we start to plan for the next phase let’s articulate what we want to carry forward and what we want to reimagine. We don’t have to bring it all with us.

To do that I want to argue that the next step is to reorient.

If some described the first step as a pivot, a quick reaction, a change of direction in response to a force coming at us, the next stage is to regroup, reevaluate and set a course to a destination with a set of tools to guide us.

These tools, which can act like a compass and trail signs, are: our values, which are our lodestar; a commitment to facing essential questions of Jewish education; a destination so we don’t meander this way and that, a knapsack for our history and that which we want to carry forward, and data and evidence that mark the contours of the terrain and help us know if we are heading the right way.

What enduring questions can we design for so that in this disruption we can also try and make conscious change, navigating toward something richer, deeper, more powerful?

Some of these questions may require new bells-and-whistles technology but a lot of them require some pretty lo-fi tools: articulating where we want to go, developing a strategy to get there based in rigorous thinking, evidence, values, and a willingness to try and systematically test new ideas. (Only then, by the way, do we select the technology that serves our aims. After all, this is a virus we are fighting. The machines haven’t taken over yet – we don’t have to bend to their will. That’s a different disaster movie.)

Here are four orienting questions I have, that, if addressed, would present an opportunity to move Jewish education forward in all kinds of uncertain scenarios.

1. Where are we going? What’s the curriculum for now? How will it address who we are as humans, Jews and Americans? How will it address what we value and what we need to face? What knowledge, skills, capacities, dispositions and relationships will help shape us into responsible, caring, informed, committed, resilient citizens of the world and our communities?

2. How do we know if we are going in the right direction? Can we articulate outcomes for learning for different settings and populations? Can we harness competency-based models that rely on what learners can do rather than how much time they spent in a building or a program?

3. How do we reach our destination together, regardless of whether we are in person or remote? Can we better use the time we get to spend together in a building and in programs (which now we realize is a gift)? How do we build communities of practice in all kinds of places, digital and analog? What is the future of being in community at a distance?

4. How do we share what we are learning and still need to know? How do we build networks and supports to accelerate our learning as a field of Jewish education? How can we implement R&D in a culture of transparency, accountability and experimentation to try new things, and as we both fail and succeed share what we know and advance all of our learning?

We are still in the first phase of continuity and gathering. But let’s not forget that something comes next and we should select the tools we need to orient ourselves as we travel over unfamiliar ground and often in the dark. Let’s set some destination, announce what stars guide us and how we check that we are one track, and choose what we will carry forward, what we will leave behind and what we will build new.

Dr Arielle Levites is Managing Director of the Consortium for Applied Studies in Jewish Education (CASJE) at George Washington University.