Transparency as Pedagogy

“A Floor, But No Ceiling?”  Sure…but what about walls?

I had an interesting conversation this morning with our Admissions & Marketing Director and one of our 21st Century Learning Teachers…

We believe we are striking out on a relatively uncharted path when it comes to 21st Century Learning because we believe it is the (only) best way forward to improving the quality and relevance of what we do.  There are many facets to this approach which have been blogged about by me and certainly much better and with much more detail by others (start with our own school’s blog for 21st century learning and dig as deep you wish).  One important component of the paradigm shift is the emphasis on transparency. What does it mean to be transparent?  Transparency can mean more than one thing, but you cannot tear down the walls and expect that people will only peer in.

This came up because we are struggling to apply a 20th century media release to a 21st century school.  It was simple to know which students could be included in newspaper and bulletin articles and which could not.  It was simple to know which names you could publish with a photo and which had to be left nameless.  When “media” was exclusively print, it wasn’t complicated.  And even when websites were created, they were largely static and so it wasn’t much different.  But now?  What happens when a student wants to comment on a teacher blogpost?  What happens when a student’s voice is captured in a podcast?  What happens if in order to participate in a 21st century learning experience you have to be part of a global conversation?

What I think it boils down to is this…transparency is no longer an expression of customer service or an opportunity for savvy public relations.  Transparency is now pedagogy – and that is where the paradigm shift occurs.  When you tear down the walls, you encourage interactivity not just because it is fun to know that other people may see or read or hear or watch what you are doing, but because their feedback to your work becomes part of the process of doing your work.  Transparency becomes pedagogy.

There are implications and they are not all easily resolved.  Take for example the digital portfolio.  We are piloting a digital portfolio program in all of our grades, but focusing in particular in Grade K, 5, & 8.  In each grade, however, the emphasis is on allowing students (in a developmentally appropriate way) to be co-creators of their digital footprint – they help decide what are the authentic artifacts of their best work that should become part of their permanent record.  Those artifacts will look dramatically different for different students at different grades for different subjects.  But if one goes all the way, they also become part of the public record.  Are we ready to honor the moral imperative of sharing?  Are we ready to view the authentic work of children not our own and not worry about how it compares to our own?  (Am I as a Head of School ready for all the unintended consequences of such a thing?)

The reason why the answers should be “yes” is because it is inevitable – this is where the world is heading.  The reason why the answers should be “maybe not” is because we are human – change is scary.  And so we continue to talk and share and read and teach and ultimately to lead.  The future is coming and it will be a transparent one whether we think it is a good idea or otherwise.  The schools which will ultimately viewed to be successful will be the ones who were ready for the shift when it occurs.  Let’s be ready.

In other news, I am off with members of our leadership team to the PEJE (Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education) Assembly in Baltimore on Sunday.  PEJE brings together every strand and flavor of Jewish Day School education and its Assembly typically draws the best and the brightest from education at large.  I am looking forward to a stimulating conference and to sharing the new ideas I am sure will impact my thinking moving forward.  I plan to take advantage of the opportunity to explore how to best utilize Twitter so for the tens of you following me @Jon_Mitzmacher don’t be surprised if my tweeting activity suddenly mushrooms.  Let the twitterscape be forewarned!

“Insert Subject Here” as a Second Language

A few blogposts ago, I was swooning (and admittedly probably bragging a bit) about our Skype call during Preplanning Week with Heidi Hayes Jacobs, editor of Curriculum 21.  I am pleased that with her permission and with a lot of time and effort from our 21st Century Learning Teacher, Silvia Tolisano, we are able to share with you here an edited version from that call.  I encourage you – whoever you are who may be reading this – to watch it (it is just under 20 minutes).  If you are a parent, student, or supporter of our school, this will be a wonderful peek in behind the curtain of all the “Curriculum 21” and “21st Century Learning Technology” activities we have been so proud to advertise and talk about here.  This is why we believe we are changing the paradigm of what a Jewish Day School should and can be.  These are our hopes and dreams for our children.  This is why we are convinced our graduates will be eminently prepared for their next schools of choice.  This is why we invested in the physical and human resources necessary make it all come alive.  And boy is it alive – but don’t let the blogosphere and twitterati overwhelm the essential point.

That point, of course, is that what this really is about is teaching and learning – what good schools have always been focused on.  So I encourage anyone who is passionate about education and schooling to watch as well.  Schools who are invested in this movement do so not to promote themselves through social media (though we do); we do it because we believe it is how children need and deserve to be educated in a global 21st century world if they are going reach to their maximum potentials.  But enough of me, let Heidi tell you herself…

If you have stuck around this long, you are probably ready for a break, but I did want to pick up the thread of one “a-ha moment” I picked up from the call.  In it she went out of her way to describe how in other cultures (Singapore for example) Math is taught as a “second language”.  This is why those students are often more easily able to articulate critical mathematical thinking skills rather than simply demonstrate computational mastery.  They have been taught how to speak “Math” as a second language and have become literate in “Math”.  Amazing.

She next drew the analogy to “Music,” but my “a-ha” moment was to imagine opening up every subject to this approach.  What if we had to teach each subject in our schools as second languages?  Our students would become as fluent in Math as they were in English; equally as capable of being a patron of the Arts as of the Sciences.  They would speak History, write Music, and think Engineering.  What other metaphor so aptly describes our goal of inculcating in our students the ability to think in the disciplines we value?

In many schools, of course, a second language is being taught and for a Jewish Day School that language is Hebrew.  Here it is not just metaphor – Hebrew is being taught as an actual second language.  But the larger goal is not for them to be merely fluent Hebrew speakers.  In the same way we might describe the ability to read music as a prerequisite to musical literacy, the ability to read (and write and speak) Hebrew is for the Jewish Day School a prerequisite to speak Jewish.  It is not “Hebrew as a second language,” but “Judaism as a second language”.  Viewing our Jewish Studies in the same lens we view General Studies, with equal rigor of both academic expectations and teacher preparations, is part of what it means to be an integrated Jewish Day School.  It is why we have “Jewish Studies” and not “Hebrew”.  The difference is not mere semantics.

I could go on…and I probably will.  But not for here and not for now.  If any of this sparks anything in you (even healthy dissent), please don’t be shy.  I invite you into discussion on this or any of my blogposts.  I enjoy writing them and they are definitely a valuable reflective tool, but I enjoy dialogue about education even more.  If you are presently engaged in this type of work or know of examples, I would love to know.  So feel free and jump in!

“We shall do; We shall understand”

What a week!

We are at the tail end of what has been the most exciting and enthusiastic Pre-Planning Weeks I have ever been honored to lead.  We have been studying Curriculum 21 as a school for almost half a year and experimenting with nings, wikis, Google docs, Skyping, etc.  As the new head of school, coming into this so recently, the credit for much of this goes to the visionary lay leaders who brought the program to us and to our primary 21st Century Learning Specialist Silvia Tolisano.  I have been impressed at the level of buy-in from all our teachers (regardless of age or stage!) and we have spent much of our week collaborating and planning for an amazing year.  The highlight for many was a Skype call with Curriculum 21 editor and author Heidi Hayes Jacobs.

I have been inspired by my teachers to jump into 21st century learning as well, with this blog, a twitter account, a Skype account, etc.  Each week I hope my sophistication with all these new vehicles for connection and communication deepens.  So too, do I look forward to being enriched by those kind enough to enter into feedback loops with me.

Part of my desire to keep this blog is precisely to reflect on the relationship between 21st century learning and 5,000 year-0ld traditions.  This week was a good week for this kind of reflective practice.  While studying from the Book of Exodus with my Jewish Studies Faculty, we focused on a curious phrase.  When God prepares to give the Torah to the People of Israel, the people respond by saying “We shall do; we shall understand” (Exodus 24:7).  We will do all that God will ask of us and we will (then) understand.

I am greatly paraphrasing and somewhat loosely interpreting, but it is an acceptable translation and understanding to conclude that one can oftentimes gain understanding through action.  This is as true as keeping kosher as it is as learning addition.  You want to know why it is valuable and important to keep kosher?  Try keeping kosher for a while and see how it might enrich your life.  You want to learn how to add?  Take these manipulatives and play with them.  Then you can learn the formulas.  Jump in.  Get your hands dirty.  Experiment.  Play.

In many ways this formulation from the Bible is one of the earliest advocacies of experiential education – we learn best through doing.  It may not be only way of learning, but it is certainly a valuable tool.

These ideas collided during our week-long study of 21st century learning.  If we as a faculty want to see the power of collaborative working through wikispaces and Google Docs…we need to commit to doing it.  If we want to see how podcasting can impact student learning…we need to podcast.  If we want to see how using interactive whiteboards can lead to a paradigm shift in teacher preparation and student achievement…jump in.  Get your hands dirty.  Experiment.  Play.

Our teachers are ready.  I’m ready.  The parents are certainly more than ready!  The students?  We’ll see them on Monday.

A restful weekend to all…