Bringing Israel’s classrooms into the 21st century

ORT Israel official says current school system ‘losing its relevance rapidly’

By
September 1, 2019 08:11
Israeli child shops for school supplies

Israeli child shops for school supplies. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

The technologies and innovations of the 21st Century, from artificial intelligence to machine learning, are changing the way we live, work, socialize and even move around. Yet the classroom, the four walls where all of us spend the majority of our most critical formative years, has struggled to embrace the hi-tech revolution.

Schools are faced with the challenge of preparing today’s pupils for jobs that don’t even exist yet. As technological developments continue apace, education will increasingly require an emphasis on competencies and motivation rather than the acquisition of knowledge and job-specific skills.

According to Yoel Rothschild, deputy director-general for research, development and training at ORT Israel, the current schooling system is “losing its relevance rapidly.”

“We need to update the content and skills that we are equipping our youngsters with as soon as possible, in order to prepare them for the new dynamic world, social changes, new career paths, well-being, active citizenship and uncertainty,” Rothschild told The Jerusalem Post. “Technology and innovation will improve motivation and grit for learning. We should harness technology to improve pedagogy and effective learning. Innovation will create and bring new spirit, significance and freshness to the education menu.”

ORT Israel, a network that operates almost 250 educational institutions across 57 local authorities, is certainly no stranger to the difficulties inherent in transforming the conservative education sector into a sector that embraces innovation.

“The most important challenge in introducing innovation is the ensuring the leadership of principals and the participation of excellent teachers in the process of implementing innovation in the classroom,” said Rothschild. “In addition, it is important that the supporting authorities - the Ministry of Education, local authorities and other stakeholders - will be flexible enough to foster initiatives in the classroom, backed up by new evaluation and assessment tools which are more suitable to innovative pedagogy, skills and content of the 21st century.”

While an OECD publication from 2014 on innovation in education reported above average levels of innovation at the classroom level in Israel, it also reported particularly low levels of equality in familiarity with ICT. In other words, innovation may have penetrated the Israeli education system to a greater extent than some of its Western neighbors, but that success is certainly not enjoyed throughout society.

Among other solutions, ORT Israel is aiming to increasingly equip students with entrepreneurship skills under its iSTEAM methodology in collaboration with start-ups, based on innovation, science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics, and encourage community service programs for students to enhance collaboration and active citizenship.

One of the unlikely centers of education innovation in Israel is the Negev town of Yeruham, home to 10,000 residents. The town is the location of MindCET, a campus founded by the Center for Educational Technology for innovation and technological development in education.

Among its aims, MindCET seeks to play a leading role in the creation of a new educational paradigm, to enlist the well-known Israeli start-up culture to the field of education, and to serve as a catalyst for the improvement and development of learning processes.
MindCET chief executive Avi Warshavsky told the Post that he has witnessed a major evolution in the Israeli education innovation ecosystem since the organization was founded seven years ago.

“When we started our first accelerator program, most of the start-ups we found in edtech were individuals with a PowerPoint presentation and some rough idea of what they wanted to do. In our last cohort, we had approximately 200 applications. We selected seven that all had working products, fully-developed ideas and were much more sophisticated,” said Warshavsky. “To be a citizen in this modern world, you must have the tools to know how to work. We call this Human-Machine Pedagogy (HMP). We have a wide range of new disciplines designed to help us interact better in this universe: cyber education, computational thinking and media literacy in the age of fake news. This should be the definition of educational technology in our age.”

LATER THIS MONTH, MindCET and the Center for Educational Technology will hold a day-long “Shaping the Future” conference in Tel Aviv dedicated to HMP. The event on September 18 at Tel Aviv University’s Smolarz Auditorium, which will be attended by over 1,000 education professionals and entrepreneurs from around the world, represents the climax of Israel’s week-long EdTech week and will run alongside the annual DLD Tel Aviv Innovation Festival, Israel’s largest hi-tech conference.

According to Warshavsky, the Israeli education system poses both challenges and opportunities for entrepreneurs focusing on innovative learning. On one hand, the domestic market is too small to scale technology to the desired level. On the other hand, however, the Israeli education system reflects the flexibility of the country’s working culture.

“Teachers and the Ministry of Education are much more open to testing new things and trying new things than European and American players who are much more conservative,” said Warshavsky. “Innovation is implemented, but not enough. We can do much more. Usually the narrative around technology is that it’s some kind of tool that helps you improve what you did beforehand, but technology is not the interesting aspect here. Technology is simply the medium through which we can interact, create communities,
express ourselves, read and write, and memorize.”

Guy Levi, the chief innovation officer at the Center for Educational Technology, is also the developer of Courseline, a smartphone social network platform for classroom learning. The idea is based on harnessing the technology contained within devices that everyone has in their pocket, rather than requiring investment by education authorities.

“Using mobile phones too much is an issue, but using mobiles productively for an innovative pedagogy that creates engagement, motivation and promotes 21st century skills, problem-solving and collaboration is important,” Levi told the Post. “These are all competencies that we really want the children to acquire because they’re heading into an unknown labor force with jobs that we don’t even know exist. We need to build their competencies and not their knowledge alone.”

Courses are presented as short social media-like posts, each containing information and assignments that embrace both theoretical and digital learning.

Group work is possible through joint tasks supported by the platform, which can then be shared with both other students and the teachers for immediate review.

Teachers are guided through the process, and encouraged to share their experiences with their peers to foster professional development.

“The Ministry of Education and schools don’t have to invest in technology, they only have to invest in WiFi to take advantage of this genuine internal social network,” said Levi. “We all live in a network reality, and then children go to school and are brought back to the 20th century or even the 19th century. Rather than banning smartphones, we should harness it for an innovative pedagogy.”


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