Are We Prepared For New Approaches To Learning?
Tue, 08/23/2011
Special To The Jewish Week
Rabbi Dr. Gil S. Perl
Rabbi Dr. Gil S. Perl

Stephen Heppell, professor of new media environments at Bournemouth University in Southern England, recently predicted that the current generation “will see the death of education … and the dawn of learning.” Bold as the statement might be, I don’t think he means that the next 10 to 20 years will bring an end to classrooms, teachers and schools and the onset of an age of computer-driven autodidactism.

What I believe he means is that in classrooms around the world we are witnessing the crumbling of traditional borders and boundaries that have delineated and demarcated our educational system for over a century; and in their place are new opportunities for authentic learning never before dreamt possible.

Today, in progressive classrooms across the globe, the boundaries that used to separate schools from one another, classrooms from one another, and disciplines from one another, are all beginning to vanish. Today the boundaries that used to distinguish school-life from real-life and theory from practice are all being obliterated. Students in different schools, located on different continents, are collaborating on multidisciplinary projects aimed at solving real-world problems. With the touch of a button their teachers are bringing the world outside the classroom into the classroom and then putting the work created inside the classroom on display for the world to see.

Children today are becoming published authors with readership in the thousands and movie producers with viewership in the millions. Today there are virtual worlds in which students can stroll through the Louvre and learn to appreciate Western culture’s greatest treasures and then float to a virtually reconstructed Temple in Jerusalem where they might begin to appreciate our people’s lost treasure.

But it’s not just the boundaries of time and space that are becoming undone in today’s forward-thinking classrooms. Information — the stuff upon which education is built — was once limited to the number of books a particular school owned and the pages of text found therein. Our flat and boundary-less world, though, has witnessed nothing less than an information explosion.

Today we create five exabytes of new information every two days (an exabyte, if you’re wondering, is equal to 1 billion gigabytes). That’s roughly equivalent to all of the unique information produced by all of mankind from the birth of the world until the year 2003, and approximately 250,000 times more information than what is stored in the Library of Congress. The collection in the Library of Congress, though, took 200 years to amass and can only be accessed through a visit to Washington, D.C. Most of today’s students, however, can instantly access exponentially more information by merely reaching into their pockets and pulling out their phones.

What’s true of secular information in no less true of Judaic information. In 1885, the largest Judaica library in Eastern Europe belonged to Rabbi Matityahu Strashun. It boasted 5,739 books and manuscripts. Today, Yeshiva Torah Va-Daas has roughly 20,000 volumes in its study hall in Brooklyn. But a computer with an Internet connection and a subscription to Otzar HaChochma can instantly bring more than 47,000 full Jewish texts to a fifth grade day school classroom in Memphis, Tenn. Add to that the more than 100,000 responsa in Bar Ilan’s digital database and the average Jewish child anywhere in the world now has more books in his or her library than the greatest Talmud scholars of old ever saw over the course of a lifetime.

We are indeed witnessing the death of education as we know it, and the dawn of something infinitely more exciting.

Yet with all of the opportunities afforded by the “death of education” come a host of new challenges as well. How are our children to navigate this ever-expanding universe of knowledge? How will they distinguish good information from bad, authenticity from speciousness? When they locate the information they want, will they know how to categorize it, synthesize it, and analyze it? When they create information will they know how to effectively market it, share it, and connect it?

And, of course, for all of the Torah found on today’s Internet there is that much more depravity and decadence. How do we teach the Jewish values of modesty and humility in a world where our children are bombarded by images of sexual frivolity and where every detail of life is exposed and extolled through Facebook and Twitter? How do we impress upon our children the value of a day to disconnect and unplug, in a world where they are wired to the point of addiction? What becomes of the concept of mesorah and tradition when parents and teachers are the last people a child turns to for information?

These questions penetrate to the very core of our educational system. The challenges they raise won’t be solved by installing new gadgets and gizmos into our classrooms and thinking that they alone will prepare our children for the new realities of our millennium. More so than the latest technology, what 21st-century learning requires is time and courage. Time to reflect on what it is we are teaching — in all disciplines and on all grade levels — and the courage to ask why it is we are teaching it. Time to take a hard look at our curricula and the courage to consider whether our day schools are designed to best prepare Jewish children for the world we once knew or for the world they are going to have to face.

Such questions are being asked, in one form or another, by a rapidly growing group of educators across the globe as part of a movement for what is being called 21st-century education. It is time for Jewish day school educators to join the conversation in earnest and adapt it for the needs of our community. Doing so will ensure that with the death of our old systems of Jewish education will come the dawn of a new and exhilarating age of Jewish learning.

Gil Perl is the dean of Margolin Hebrew Academy/Feinstone Yeshiva of the South in Memphis, Tenn., and the founder of JconnecT, a distance learning program for Jewish teens.