By Maayan Jaffe-Hoffman –

The world is changing faster than we or our parents likely thought possible. There are 2.5 quintillion bytes of data being created every day, according to IBM – and 90% of that data has been created in the last two years alone.

Technology is becoming a part of everything we do, from how we communicate to how we conduct business and politics. Our children are growing up and going to school in this digital world. As such, administrators and teachers are charged (no pun intended) with evolving their teaching methods and tools to meet the needs of the modern kid.

“I remember sitting at my desk one morning and thinking to myself, ‘Something is happening, these kids are different than the ones I had last year,’” recalls Jessica Brogley, assessment/technology and literacy support specialist for the Platteville Public School District. “It was the addition of digital engagement. Today’s children expect creativity, customization and engagement in the classroom.”

In a 2013 article by technology entrepreneur Avi Muchnick, he describes the classroom of the future as one “full of interactive tablets with moveable 3D models, colorful animated graphics and simple interfaces that turn learning into a game that students enjoy playing and come home raving about. While exploring the construction of the Beit HaMikdash, the child can virtually walk through a 3D-constructed model of it and to try and understand how it must have felt to be alive in the time of our ancestors.”

Brogley, who works in an innovative position in a rural area of Wisconsin, focuses on public school children. But she says Muchnick’s vision is likely not too far off. She imagines that future classrooms will share common features, whether they are in public, private, Jewish day or religious schools. And it is not only about technology.

So, what does the Jewish classroom of the future look like?

Life Skills and Critical Thinking

For starters, there will be more of a focus on real-world skills, including money management, entrepreneurism, healthy lifestyles, socializing and creative thinking, all of which will become part of the core curriculum, says Muchnick.

At Washington Hebrew Congregation’s Edlavitch-Tyser Early Childhood Center in downtown D.C., ECC head D.J. Jensen places a strong emphasis on children solving their own problems. For example, last year, a class of 2-year old girls discovered that while they had to climb on a step ladder to reach the paper towel roll in the bathroom, the boys had one positioned at a lower height. They didn’t think it was fair, so they approached the teacher about it, who instead of simply telling the children life isn’t fair or purchasing a lower towel rack, asked the children what they wanted to do about it.

“The girls decided to meet with the maintenance man to explain the dilemma,” Jensen recalls. “As the girls were talking he began sketching a solution.” The girls approved the model and he implemented it. Now they know this positive change is something they are responsible for.

“We need to start children as early as 2, 3 or 4 thinking they are able to create a change and that they are going to make a difference in the world and their own daily lives,” says Jensen.

Another time, a classroom was charged with designing a “leash” for the school’s bearded dragon. The kids tried a Barbie doll tutu first, but the dragon escaped. They went back and refigured another way and then another until they got it right.

A 3D printer can help in these situations, says Jensen. As children are thinking up new solutions or creations, they can receive immediate support and feedback for their ideas from the machine.

Also at the Edlavitch-Tyser ECC, when a student wants to go outside but the rest of the class is playing or learning inside, rather than simply telling the child no, a teacher might encourage the student to solve this dilemma on his own, Jensen offers.

“Can he ask another responsible adult to go with him? Can he negotiate with the teacher and maybe the class can divide their time inside and out?” asks Jensen.

“Students need to be presented with questions, not answers, and they have to go through problem solving research and structuring that response, says Brogley. “We are moving away from low-level movement activities like worksheets to teaching kids skills that require a higher-level of thinking.”

Personalization and Differentiation

Soon after Muchnick penned his 2013 column, the Hebrew Academy of Long Beach (HALB) adopted the innovative teaching model thought up by Muchnick, a parent of four, and his peers. Today, HALB offers a blended learning rotation model, which allows for more personalized lesson plans within a single classroom. Group A might be learning at one pace and group B at another. Technology assists the teacher to support the children with differentiated materials.

Whereas in the past the only students that benefited from differentiated learning were those students who had been identified as having a learning difficulty and required an individual education plan (IEP), Brogley says that in classrooms of the future, teachers will not deploy the same assignments to every student in the same way. Instead, they will differentiate for groups of kids based on their learning style.

Further, the students also might get less time with a particular teacher, but the quality of the time spent will be improved.

“Face-to-ace time for 10 minutes as an individual or in a small group is worth more than 30 minutes with 60 kids – the teacher speaking in a one-way direction to an entire class,” says Muchnick.

The modern classroom will not have only one teacher or audience, either. Live, interactive lessons from experts in non-traditional subjects will become a common treat, believes Muchnick.

“Imagine if children are studying how tectonic plate movement inside the Earth causes volcanic activity could receive a live-stream video lesson from a geologist at the site of an active Volcano,” wrote Muchnick. “The teacher becomes a facilitator in that special conversation and the classroom becomes exposed to an incredible educator thousands of miles away.”

Brogley sees this already happening in her schools, where she encourages teachers to find multiple audiences for their students’ work.

“I think back to my own childhood when every assignment I did was for the teacher, who graded it and it was probably thrown away after that. More and more, our classrooms are producing things from which other people can benefit,” says Brogley.

Currently, students in one of her district’s fifth grade classrooms are making custom Google maps about various Wisconsin landmarks. They are researching and writing the content and then creating the online component, which will ultimately be shared with the local historical society and chamber of commerce.

Recently, a teacher brought in a cat from a local animal shelter that needed a home. Students were asked to write pieces – online blogs, articles and ads – about the cat. The project raised money for food for the shelter and the feline found a home.

More Detailed, Data-Driven Assessments

The classroom of the future will involve real-time assessments, too. In every classroom, children will have a small amount of time every day when they interact directly with technology for the purpose of evaluation, which gives teachers and parents a better understanding of each child’s strengths and knowledge gaps.

“There is no more waiting for a year-end report card or conferences to find out how your child is doing,” says Muchnick. “What we used to have in the past was a system where grades didn’t mean much. Now, we can attribute more to those numbers. We can quantify how many vocabulary words the child actually knows and his real level of reading comprehension as opposed to other students who have also been statistically tested on that topic.”

This, says Muchnick, improves the parent-teacher relationship, arming parents with the information they need to help their kids in real time.

“Instead of having to jump through hoops to find out exactly hour your child is doing, you always know. This means you, as a parent, can be a true partner in your child’s education,” says Muchnick.

Jensen sees something similar happening in the near future at her school, too. She says she is not sure how it will look yet, but she believes ECCs will become “a parenting mecca for families,” offering to train parents, grandparents and even nannies how to parent in the modern day.

Obstacles and Opportunities

Muchnick says Jewish subjects are likely to lag behind secular learning because many members of the Orthodox Jewish community have strong hesitations about technology.

“Some people are afraid of technology, they don’t understand it and equate all technology with the evils of the Internet,” says Muchnick.

Moreover, he says the price point might be too high for many Jewish day schools.

“This is going to need to be driven by Jewish philanthropies,” says Muchnick. “It needs to be driven by people who feel this is important and are willing to back it.”

Jensen believes clergy need to become involved. She would like to see more clergy greeting preschool and religious school students when they enter the building, and becoming more in-tune with modern pedagogy so they can better support educational efforts.

Lastly, teachers will need to embrace the future.

Rather than wait for this generation of teachers to retire and new generation to enter the educational workforce, Brogley says much can be done to encourage current educators to enter the modern world.

“Teachers have to be willing to bend their minds as to what learning is going to look like and how to measure that,” says Brogley, but “they have to have supports in place to do this, someone that can be by their side when things happen, they can help them plan the lesson … and serve as a cheerleader or guide.”

She says schools should identify those teachers who are willing to try new ideas and shower them with support in the way of some gadgets and encouragement, money and time.

But she notes that innovation should never be promoted without reasons.

Before moving forward, Brogley recommends teachers answer four questions:

  1. What do my students need to know or be able to do as a result of this lesson?
  2. How do I know they have attained it?
  3. What will I do when they don’t get it?
  4. What will I do when they have moved beyond it?

She says if teachers ground their lessons in those four questions before bringing technology into the classroom, then they will make better choices about what tools will best meet their needs and those of their students.