When I was a kid I loved tinker-toys. I would spend hours constructing skeletal looking and what I thought were futuristic buildings. I never knew what the outcome would be, I didn’t know if what I was building would stand up to the forces of nature or my brother’s kicks, but I had fun. I just built and then decided if what I created was worth the effort. That was then, this is now.
I bring this up as I finish watching the videos from the recently held Jewish Futures Conference that were just posted for all of our viewing pleasure and edification. Go here to watch the presentations yourself. I’m also in the midst of reading a fascinating collection of essays published by the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, entitled Curriculum 21: Essential Education for a Changing World, edited by Heidi Hayes Jacobs. The book and the conference videos are serendipitously providing me an opportunity to think about how we, as Jewish educators and futurists can tinker purposefully with a Jewish tomorrow.
What will we want our children, our students, to know when they emerge from their Jewish educational cocoon? What will the Jewish curriculum look like tomorrow? In one of the pieces in Curriculum 21, Jacobs suggests that we ask three guiding questions as we reevaluate curriculum and content in secular education. Let’s consider them within a Jewish context:
1. Within the discipline being reviewed, what content choices are dated and nonessential? In our world of Jewish learning, this question can be considered heretical. Isn’t it all sacred? What isn’t essential? How do we evaluate that? Who makes that judgment call?
2. What choices for topics, issues, problems, themes, and case studies are timely and necessary for our learners within disciplines? What is happening in the Jewish world NOW? How does Jewish practice and interpretation reflect life in the 21st century? What are the roles of Israel and the Diaspora; of men and women; and interfaith families in Jewish life?
3. Are the interdisciplinary content choices, rich, natural, and rigorous? What does it mean to engage in Jewish life, learning, and spirituality? What are the different ways of creating meaningful Jewish experiences?
Among the winners of the Jewish Futures Competition, a contest for the most “forward looking” Jewish educational thinkers and doers that was featured at the Jewish Futures Conference, we find Charles Schwartz and Russel M. Neiss, the creators of MediaMidrash.org. In their submission to the competition they posited a paradigm for future Jewish engagement resting on four guiding principles:
1. Jewish resources need to be open, discoverable, and accessible. The body of Jewish learning needs to be available to all who seek it - free and non-proprietary.
2. Remixable. Jews need to be provided the tools and opportunity to transform and reinterpret Jewish tradition and life.
3. Jewish education needs to be meaningful and relevant, providing the learner with a context in which to construct a Jewish life that matters.
4. Meaningful Jewish life needs to continue to incorporate a process of community building, recognizing new definitions of affiliation and belonging, both face-to-face and virtual.
The way Jewish knowledge WILL be acquired tomorrow is different than the way it WAS attained yesterday. David Bryfman once wrote about the 19th century revolution in general education revolving around the new fangled tool called the chalk board. We are in the midst of a similar phenomenon, this time being driven by digital and social technology. Learning is becoming non-linear. It is more and more a social process, driven by demand and developed by a community that is linked in synchronous and a-synchronous environments, both present and remote. For better or worse, education is turning into an even messier affair than it already is. This is what will drive us to answer the questions of what to teach. The structure will be more fluid, transparent and flexible. Stephen Wilmarth writes in Curriculum 21 how education has been a cathedral, an elegant top-down process designed by “wizards and experts”. The future reality can be described as a bazaar, a market place that is noisy and unpredictable, a result of uncontrollable forces. Knowledge will be open to all, redefined and remixed when appropriate so as to become personally and communally meaningful in contexts of yet unimagined social networks, creating new types of communities.
Jonathan Woocher, in his closing remarks at the Jewish Futures Conference notes that there is no one Jewish future. It can’t be pre-determined. There are multiple possibilities. Schwartz and Neiss retell the midrash of Moses visiting Akiva’s classroom of the future, not understanding a word, even though his teaching is the lesson being taught. If we were to step into H.G. Wells’ Time Machine and be transported into a Jewish learning environment of the future, what would we find? Would it be alien to us? Should it be?
From: The Fifth Child