Technology’s Important, But People Are Key

Day schools should embrace 21st century learning, but it’s about more than just buying new equipment.

by Dr. Jon Mitzmacher

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Dr. Jon Mitzmacher

On April 28, 2013 over 100 participants representing schools, agencies, foundations, and universities from all over North America and Israel arrived at the Martin J. Gottlieb Day School in Jacksonville, Florida, to learn, reflect, share, and co-create the future of Jewish day school education at edJEWcon 5773.1.

How did this happen? How did a (relatively) small K-8 Jewish day school in a Jewish community of less than 15,000 find itself at the center of an educational revolution? And – more importantly – what does it mean for the field?

Here’s what I have learned over my last two and a half years as head of this school and, as a result, co-creator of edJEWcon.

When it comes to innovating in education, it doesn’t have to take millions of dollars and it doesn’t have to take an abundance of faculty. It doesn’t necessarily require expertise in advance and it certainly doesn’t require knowing the end of the journey before you take the first step. You don’t need interactive whiteboards, tablets and laptops in order to adopt a 21st century learning mindset.

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It is not about the “stuff.” Technology requires stuff; learning requires people. It isn’t that the technology is unimportant – there are certain minimum thresholds of technology necessary to walk the path. But most schools and educational programs can reach that threshold with creative budgeting and fundraising. Harder than accumulating the stuff is changing the paradigm. It doesn’t take an endowment to revolutionize your educational philosophy – it takes teachers, administrators, parents, and students. And every school has those.

At the Martin J. Gottlieb Day School we currently are engaged in a three-year process to redefine the job descriptions of non-classroom teachers to include 21st century learning profiles. Our technology teacher became a 21st Century Learning Consultant. Our librarian is now a 21st Century Media & Literacy Specialist. We may call the academic resource teacher a 21st Century Pedagogy Consultant. In this way, we maintain the core elements of each person’s job – we still have books to catalogue in the library, keyboarding skills to teach, and remediation to perform – while stretching each into coaching and collaborative relationships with faculty in their areas of expertise. This has allowed us to transform teaching and learning in our school without adjusting the budget at all.

A leading feature of 21st century learning is giving students the opportunities to own the learning. Knowing that Bloom’s Taxonomy recognizes “creativity” as the highest rung on the ladder, we are interested in giving our students opportunities to create meaningful, authentic work. This is why we are also exploring opportunities to pilot applications of gaming theory to Jewish day school curriculum. We are working on a joint project with Jewish Interactive in which our students are designing from the ground up an educational Purim video game. Jewish Interactive actually will build the software, to be released in advance of next Purim, for use in their current network to more than 50 elementary schools around the world.

In large ways, our school has been shaped by leading thinkers of 21st century learning. And in small ways, I believe our school has contributed to the movement as well. For instance, edJEWcon is a yearly institute for 21st century Jewish day school education, launched in 2012 with 21 Jewish day schools throughout North America, representing the full ideological spectrum. At edJEWcon attendees experience a Jewish day school in transition to becoming a dynamic 21st century learning environment. We are sharing a vision of teaching and learning that transcends physical boundaries and connects across geographic borders and time zones.

Our school and conference share the belief that reflective learners achieve at a higher level than non-reflective learners. It is both that simple and that complicated. It is why reflection is embedded into all subject matter. It is why students have blogfolios. It is why teachers have classroom blogs and responsibility for blogging on a faculty ning (for an explanation of ning, go to We believe that the process of reflection leads to the product of achievement.

There is an additional spotlight right now on finding out how educational technology might positively impact the budgets of Jewish schools, and not just the quality of instruction. The crisis of day school affordability is very real. The promise of 21st century learning and educational technology is equally real. I look forward to more conversations, more experiments, more research, and more sharing. Whether there is one answer or many, it will take us all to discover them.

Dr. Jon Mitzmacher is the head of Galinsky Academy (which includes the DuBow Preschool, the Martin J. Gottlieb Day School, the Bernard and Alice Selevan Religious School, and Makom Hebrew High) in Jacksonville, Florida, and part of the Jacksonville Jewish Center. This piece originally appeared on eJewishPhilanthropy. com in cooperation with the Avi Chai Foundation, Dr. Mitzmacher and the Galinsky Academy.