Known as the people of the book, Jews have valued education long before teachers planned lessons and students complained about homework. Learning, questioning, challenging, investigating, imagining and growing are the things we Jews are made of. With the very familiar command “teach your children” on the lips of Jews throughout the generations it should come as no surprise that Jewish educators and teachers are thinking deeply about what a 21st century Jewish education should look like.  

For more than a hundred years the focus of educating our children has been placed squarely on content knowledge.  “The More You Know” NBC proudly splashed across our TV screens. In schools it was clear – teachers had precious knowledge, which they passed along to their eager students who then proved their understanding and retention on standardized tests. For decades this system produced graduates who could go on to college and who had the wherewithal to succeed in the workforce. This success was possible not so much because of the intrinsic value of our educational system’s focus on knowledge but rather because of the world for which that system was preparing our children.  

As we settle into this new century (better late than never), we must ask ourselves, what does it take to educate children for excellence in the 21st century? Can the educational system that served us well through the industrial age continue to answer this question satisfactorily? Is education still about knowledge?

I believe the answer is “no” on both counts. There are two reasons for this. First, our world has changed. What is necessary to succeed in college and in the workforce today is drastically different than it was just two decades ago.  In his book The Global Achievement Gap, Tony Wagner identifies seven skills that students now need for careers, continuous learning and citizenship in the 21st century.  They are:

  1. Critical thinking and problem solving
  2. Collaboration across networks and leading by influence
  3. Agility and adaptability
  4. Initiative and entrepreneurship
  5. Accessing and analyzing information
  6. Effective oral and written communication
  7. Curiosity and imagination

Some of these skills have been important since before 2000 came along. But in a world in which more and more of our blue collar and even white collar jobs are being shipped overseas where well-educated and less expensive labor is available and while other jobs are being computerized, these skills become far more critical than ever before. Students today don’t need to know how to find answers as much as they need to know how to ask good questions, which leads to the second reason our educational system is not ready for 21st century students: It is based on assumptions about learning and education that are simply no longer applicable.

Until the age of the internet, knowledge was a scarce and restricted commodity. There were those who “knew” and those “who did not.”  Amongst those who “knew” were our teachers. While those “who did not” (students) could access knowledge, it was not done without some difficulty. Certainly the breadth of accessible knowledge was nothing like it is today. This truth – that teachers held knowledge and students were vessels waiting to be filled – was a key foundation upon which 20th century education was based.

But now, with a search engine in everyone’s pocket, knowledge is readily available. Need to know the capital of a faraway country – Google it.  Searching for the text of historical document – Bing can help you with that.  Want to research an event or personality in history – Wikipedia has what you are looking for. Not just content, but rich content is available twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week to all of our students. Teachers no longer hold the keys to knowledge.

Easily accessible and abundant information does not mean that the role of the teacher is irrelevant. On the contrary, 21st century schools need skilled educators to help our students learn how to best access and process this overwhelming amount of content so that it becomes useful and meaningful knowledge.  

Questions Worth Asking
A million years ago when I was in high school, (1980’s) we were always told, from math class to social studies, that the answers were in the back of the book. Not only were we told that the answers were in the back of the book – we were also told not to look. (This “no looking” rule was as effective as pointing out the cookie jar to a blue, cuddly monster and then saying, “don’t touch!”) The goal in these classes was to learn and memorize pertinent information from those books (and from our teachers) such that we didn’t need the back of the book. And while my school and my teachers did a fine job of feeding me content, I must admit, thirty some-odd years later, that I have not retained much of what I learned and wouldn’t mind being able to look in the back of the book from time to time.

Beneath this neat and tidy, but not so effective system of questions and answers, lies the assumption that questions worth asking in school have right and wrong answers. Students were rarely tested on questions for which there were no clear-cut answers and multiple choice examinations are terribly suited for drawing out thoughtful critiques and well-formed opinions.

In this new century our questions can no longer be solely about content. Because we no longer need the back of the book to find the answers (or the book at all for that matter) – the questions we ask in school must be far deeper and more complex. Questions worth asking in schools do not have right or wrong answers.  In fact, they do not necessarily have an answer at all. They are complex and multifaceted. They require unpacking and analysis. They beg to be explored, researched, interpreted and challenged.

These are the questions that we must be asking in school. Questions that challenge our children to dig deeper and ultimately ask more questions.  

Daughter: Why is the sky blue?

Mom: Well, the reason the sky is blue is because of the way the light scatters and moves through the atmosphere.

Daughter: What is the atmosphere?

Mom: The atmosphere is the blanket of gases which surrounds Earth.

Daughter: Where did the earth come from?

Mom: Isn’t it bed time?

While these questions are exhausting for moms and dads at bedtime they are precisely the building blocks of an inquiry process that teachers should be encouraging.  While children naturally flock to these types of questions, knowing how to process a big, essential question is not easy. That’s where our teachers become so important once again.

So if education isn’t about content and knowledge and if questions worth asking don’t have “right” or “wrong” answers then why do we need schools and teachers? What is the role of the educator in helping students excel?

Inspiration and Empowerment
While the roles of the teacher and school have not become less important they have shifted in important and concrete ways.  In the 21st century education must contain two key ingredients: Inspiration and Empowerment.  We must turn our focus from filling vessels to inspiring and empowering children to fill their own vessels and those of others.  A 21st century Jewish education nurtures and develops the innate sense of awe and wonder that young children have while finding ways to inspire them as they grow.  Schools and teachers empower their students to inspire us with their learning and their accomplishments.  Students must be given a sense of ownership over their learning and a feeling of empowerment around their own growth and academic achievement. Without inspiration and empowerment, children are left wondering what the point is of all of this learning.

There are many challenges facing schools and teachers today.  There are also many exciting opportunities. Imagine a school in which we harness the inspiration that so many children and teachers bring to their learning and teaching and build upon it.  Imagine students who have the tools that they need to be partners in crafting their education. Imagine a profoundly inspiring and empowering 21st century Jewish education.

As Jews this is not just a distant dream to imagine – it is an obligation we must fulfill: “And you shall teach your children.” The source of our teaching and learning is Torah. Torah is not a repository of information; it isn’t a collection of stories followed by simple “right” or “wrong” questions with the answers in the back of the book.  Torah is a rich tapestry of deep, challenging questions that lead to more deep and challenging questions.  It is our source of inspiration.  And though our tradition teaches that Torah was given by God on Mount Sinai at one point in history – we also know that Torah is received every day, at every moment by each of us who is empowered to open our hearts and our minds to embrace the gift of learning; the gift of Torah.  

Like Torah, education in the 21st century is a complex and wonderful gift that we give to our children. And like Torah we must ensure that as we pass it on our children are inspired by its teachings and empowered to make it their own.

by Rabbi David Paskin

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