Start Playing Around

by Daniel Bloom and Ariel Beery

The movie Moneyball sets a scene that could be easily adapted for a gathering of educators in the teacher’s lounge. Around a paper-packed table, older, more experienced individuals are trying to dissuade a new up-and-coming manager that his approach using technology to determine what the right composition of the baseball team was not going to work. “We’ve been doing this a long time,” one of the more wizened coaches told Billy Beane, played by Brad Pitt. But Billy pushes back, “You don’t even understand the problem.” What Billy realized is that his experienced advisers were looking at the world as it was yesterday, as opposed to what it could be tomorrow. Experience, in times of rapid change, can bring as many challenges as it brings solutions. New times require new measures.

The Jewish community is blessed with many of the most creative, innovative educators worldwide, but we still lag far behind the cutting edge when it comes to integrating the latest advances in pedagogy into our classrooms and informal learning environments. Search the App Store for educational applications, and you can find thousands of innovative educational applications, many of them games that engage youth in an immersive world where they acquire knowledge through exploration. Search for a game that teaches Jewish history or values, or integrates lessons learned in Jewish Day Schools and Hebrew schools into a child’s downtime? You’ll be lucky to find a two dozen, many of them Christian or ultra-Orthodox in origin and ideology.

This is particularly troubling considering the saturation of tablet devices in Jewish homes, and the growing place these devices will have in shaping our youth’s interaction with storytelling and knowledge acquisition. Most of the young Jewish couples we know who are raising children own a tablet, and certainly a smartphone, and almost all of them let their children play with those devices on a regular basis. A good percentage of our friends who are starting families are reading children’s books to their children from their iPads, and if Amazon’s recent encroachment into the tablet market is any indication, most parents within the Jewish demographic will be spending more of their time interacting with their children alongside the screen of a portable device.

If we’re to capture this growing market’s attention, we will need to do it now and fast; fast enough that integrating Jewish educational content into parent-child interaction will become the default choice, and not something to be marketed after consumption patterns have set in. But to do that, we’ll need a good number of open-minded and technically interested educators to lead the way.

It’s important to note that these educators need not be techies themselves. They need to understand the potential of the technology, and be willing to experiment. As an example, Jewish Day School educators and individuals interested in game design which apply to the NYC PresenTense Fellowship, which we run and whose applications close next week, will have the chance to meet experts in the field and find partnerships that will complement the skills they bring to the table. Opportunities such as the NYC PresenTense Fellowship can help such individuals share information, develop visions and build prototypes that, together, can create a marketplace of options for young parents who have an interest in educating their children Jewishly. One fellowship is not enough; we need many more programs and efforts to build this marketplace, because only when a robust market arises will the best of these games and applications rise to the top – enabling a parent who isn’t particularly interested in Jewish content, but is willing to give it a try, to download the app for his or her child.

If we are to ensure that the next hundred years of Jewish education builds on the century before us, we will need to ensure that the vehicles we use fit tomorrow’s requirements. Personally, we’re looking forward to seeing Day School educators and Game Designers apply to our NYC Fellowship this week. Professionally, we’re urging the field to invest more thoroughly in the professional development of our already experienced and wonderful teachers so that they many take that experience and use cutting edge vehicles to deliver it to the future. Just like Billy Beane ended up reinventing baseball, now, more than ever, we need champions that will be willing to take risks in their effort to win the game.

Daniel Bloom is the NYC Coordinator for PresenTense, and strongly urges Dayschool Educators and Game Designers to apply to the NYC Fellowship by December 11th. Ariel Beery is the Co-Director of the PresenTense Group.