Educators must experiment with experimentation

On a recent cross-country flight home from an education conference in Washington, D.C., I found myself seated next to a NASA scientist. As is customary, we each talked about our work, and when he asked about Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy, I told him about the child-centered educational models that we’ve been introducing over the past nine years. From the earliest ages, our students engage in interactive play that stimulates creativity and encourages them to explore and experiment, and I explained that this teaches kids it’s OK to make mistakes. The ability to self-correct, we’ve found, facilitates out-of-the-box thinking and builds self-esteem. 

The scientist turned to me with a big smile. “That was one of the first concepts they taught at NASA,” he said. “Make mistakes often, and make them early. This allows for creativity and ensures quality control once the final product is operational.”  

Over the years, we in the field of education have certainly embraced the opportunity to meet the needs of every child. Traditional teacher-centered models — in which teachers “cover” material and students are rendered passive — have major limitations, particularly for students who simply tune out.  

But at Harkham Hillel, we’ve been experimenting with creative new methods, and by reconceiving the teacher-student interaction, we are transforming the way we approach education. Our teachers no longer serve as mere instructors, rather, they are facilitators, guiding students toward learning objectives. We’re working to redefine the space where learning takes place, broadening our focus beyond the four walls of a classroom and instead viewing the world as a laboratory of creativity. 

Theorists John Dewey and Jean Piaget were among the early proponents of the move to student-centered learning, inverting the traditional teacher-centered focus of the learning process and putting students at the center of the educational paradigm. More recently, Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences has further enhanced student-centered learning theories by facilitating modes of teaching that accommodate diverse learning styles. Contemporary research continues to show that students perform better when instructional design is differentiated and student-centered.

Some of these theories have been put into practice at the Robert C. Fisler School, an elementary school in Fullerton that was named a distinguished school by Apple Inc. in six of the last seven years. During a visit to the school, my colleagues and I observed the students studying an integrated unit on geology through a one-on-one digital program. The course of study was driven by the students’ own research and was based on a set of guidelines handed to them by the teacher. In 2011-2013, these students beat the state and district averages on the standardized tests taken by all students in California public schools.  

This model for success served as a basis for developing units now being learned at Hillel. Our first-graders are involved in a recycling project, for which they’ve researched online which items in their day-to-day lives are recyclable. They then participate in a hands-on workshop that allows them to build structures out of repurposed materials. This unit integrates our Jewish core values of preserving the world, le’ovdah uleshamrah, as the students learn where in the Torah text this concept is introduced. 

Since 2010, Hillel has been offering a pre-engineering program for middle-school students who are interested in pursuing STEM subjects — science, technology, engineering and math. In this program, students have built water-powered mechanisms that can lift bricks 15 centimeters high, created their own antibiotics and have tested locations in the school building for bacteria levels. (Through their research, the students discovered the science teacher’s desk had even higher levels of bacteria then the railings in the stairway.) In our eighth-grade English class, students used iMovie to produce trailers that demonstrated their knowledge of characterization and themes in Lorraine Hansberry’s play “A Raisin in the Sun.” 

These are just a few examples of students taking center stage in their learning process, and we are continuing to find other models to try to emulate. Students at Echo Horizon School, an independent elementary school in Culver City, recently undertook a project studying water quality within the vicinity of their school campus. Part of a city-sponsored research initiative, this practical application of science allowed the students to take a central role in a valuable civic effort. Empowering children in these kinds of ways doesn’t just offer them a sense of accomplishment and pride; these students also end up loving school and developing a deep, lifelong love of learning.

The implementation and refinement of a child-centric model is an ongoing, dynamic process.  We in the field of Jewish education need to constantly ask ourselves how to find ways to continually nurture curiosity while maintaining the highest of academic standards for our children. We need to see our youngsters as critical thinkers in development. Children deserve the opportunity to be involved in this wondrous process. Personally, living this experience with our students, I feel blessed to be a part of their amazing world.