Finding the balance

The traditional school model that most of us grew up in was developed in part to prepare workers for the new kinds of jobs being created as a result of the industrial revolution.  It is known as the “factory model,” and it is not hard to see how it helps students practice the skills they’d need to work in that setting.  Students move in lines, sit in rows, and were expected to produce work that followed carefully established guidelines delivered by instructors.  Time was kept with bells, and the middle of day included a short break for lunch and a brief period of movement outside.  Students progressed through grades based on age and academic progress according to a uniform set of requirements and guidelines.  Knowledge and skills were assessed using uniform measurements, and performance was graded.  More highly skilled students progressed through the hierarchical structure, and less skilled students did not. 

For more than a decade now it has become clear to professional educators that the jobs we are preparing students for require not only a different skill set, but also a different mindset.  In a factory, creativity is rarely rewarded, as productivity relies on workers reliably completing the exact same set of actions over and over.  In today’s job market, doing the same thing over and over is not something you’d brag about in an interview.  Rather, your potential employer would like to hear about ways in which you creatively solve problems, how you completely revolutionized the way your office communicated, and how your ability to think critically enabled you to construct a compelling case that got your bid accepted even though it was more expensive than the other guy’s.

We’ve known about this change for long enough now that I really can’t understand why schools still want students to walk in lines, why we still use bells, why we still give letter grades, and why we think students will ever need to know how to write in cursive.  Now I’m being a little overly contentious here, because there are reasonable answers to those questions that do in fact align with the kinds of skills students will need in the future.  The point, however, is that it is ludicrous for schools or educators to imagine that they are somehow immune to the impact of the unprecedented pace of cultural and technological change we are experiencing today.  If the world changes and our schools don’t, they quickly become useless and irrelevant.  Just as the old model of apprenticeship in trades shifted towards the factory school in response to cultural and technological change, we also are living in the middle of a radical shift in the way education functions to prepare children for adulthood.

What I’ve written here is the case for all schools.  Jewish Day Schools like Gesher have a unique and precious opportunity during this moment of transformation.  Judaism is a system designed around the idea that it is possible and valuable to balance innovation and tradition.  In fact, the risk of runaway innovation without some grounding in an ethical system is quite scary.  The impact of eugenics on the Nazis, for example, or the way in which human activities have impacted the environment are two examples that jump to mind.  Without a compelling ethical compass based in time-tested wisdom about human nature and behavior, innovation destroys as often as it improves the human condition.

So my argument is that parents can’t afford to simply send their children into an innovative educational environment without making sure that significant time is spent on the other core aspects of human development.  Music, physical movement, community, ritual, time for introspection (prayer), time for play and exploration, and time spent mining the deep wisdom of Jewish tradition and values are all crucially important for our children.  We all want our children to be prepared to compete in the job market of tomorrow.  The distinction we are making here at Gesher is that we believe that preparation includes academic excellence integrated with a grounding and commitment to ethical leadership.  If we succeed in offering this to our students (and our alumni experiences demonstrate that we do!), then we can say to ourselves that we have done our part in building a future that is better than today.

Wishing you a Shanah Tovah (Happy New Year), and G’mar Chatimah Tovah (May you be sealed in the Book of Life), and as always, a Shabbat Shalom,