Rethinking schools: Solutions

“We send kids to spend most of their days in a system that is currently… almost irrelevant to their learning needs,” said Dr. Cecilia Waismann.

September 26, 2019 10:13
Rethinking schools: Solutions

Rabbi Rafi Peretz (right) takes over as interim education minister from Naftali Bennett (left) in May. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

In my previous column, I showed why Israel’s schools are failing their children and their parents, and why we should be deeply worried. I quoted Dr. Cecilia Waismann, vice president of R&D for MindCET, who defined the problem in 21 words: “We send kids to spend most of their days in a system that is currently… almost irrelevant to their learning needs.”

In this column, I will propose some radical solutions.

What if someone we loved dearly was diagnosed with absolutely certainty, 60 years ago, with a treatable, existential illness – yet the illness went untreated for six decades? Would we feel anger, impotence, bitterness? You bet. Might there be lawsuits? For sure. Well, this is the case with our schools.

Here is what Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote in 1959, in his book The Insecurity of Freedom: “The valid test of a student is his ability to ask the right questions. I would suggest that we evolve a new type of examination paper, one in which the answers are given – the questions to be supplied by the student…. Our system of training tends to smother one’s sense of wonder and mystery, to stifle rather than to cultivate his sense of the unutterable. I shudder to think of a generation devoid of a sense of wonder and mystery.”

I direct the following pop quiz to the Education Ministry of Israel and its current minister, Rafi Peretz, an affable, well-meaning rabbi and pilot, who believes his experience in training helicopter pilots equips him perfectly to guide and empower 2.3 million young minds. The answer is: An inclusive, effective educational system that fosters supreme creativity among its children, while empowering them to undertake challenging team projects and directs them to what they need to know and learn to succeed.

What is the question? Let me help you, Minister Peretz.

The question is how can we implement urgent revolutionary change in a moribund wasteful Education Ministry bureaucracy, whose budget is roughly that of the Defense Ministry, mired in the 19th century, let alone the 21st, to give our children crucial skills they will need to grow and thrive in a workplace where effective creative imagination is crucial?

Consider Isidor I. Rabi, the Jewish son of immigrant parents from Russia, who won the 1944 Nobel Prize for physics. He was once asked, “Why did you become a scientist, rather than a doctor or lawyer or businessman, like the other immigrant kids in your neighborhood?”

He answered, “My mother made me a scientist without ever intending it. Every other Jewish mother in Brooklyn would ask her child after school, ‘So? Did you learn anything today?’ But not my mother. She always asked me a different question. ‘Izzy,’ she would say, ‘did you ask a good question today?’ That difference – asking good questions – made me become a scientist!”

Rabi’s work led directly to the development of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), which has saved many many lives.

Take schools staffed by teachers who are rather poorly paid and educated. Face them with bright young people who ask hard questions. Often, teachers are unable to answer those questions. Embarrassment? For certain. Hard to blame teachers who repress such questions. No wonder the explosive curiosity of generations of children is severely stifled in our schools.

My wife, Dr. Sharone Maital, is a long-time school psychologist who knows the school system as well as anyone, I believe. If you could wave a magic wand, I asked her, what is the one thing you would change in it?

Employ only teachers who love kids, she said simply. So simple. How will our children love learning if so many are taught by those for whom teaching is a low-ranking default, and who would prefer schools without any children whatsoever?

According to The Jerusalem Post, “Israeli teachers are among the least respected of 35 countries worldwide,” based on a global survey of teachers’ social standing published by the London-based Varkey Foundation. And a just-published OECD report reveals that Israeli high school teachers earn on average about half that of their OECD counterparts.

When I teach effective creativity, I offer a structured approach that starts with wild, radical ‘head in the clouds’ ideas, then continues by implementing them with solid ‘feet on the ground’ activation.

Why wild and radical? Because if you begin with only parve, wishy-washy ideas, you will never get anyone’s attention and change the world.

 But where do wild ideas about schools come from? A key principle of start-up entrepreneurship is customer intimacy – deep focused empathy with those whose unmet needs we are trying to meet more successfully. In this case, our children.

My wife went out to buy some old-fashioned board games for our grandchildren, prior to our unwired trip together to the Rockies. At the cash register, a little girl behind her gave her the best possible market research: That’s a cool game! she said. So my wife bought it.

I asked Waismann how children can be an integral part of reinventing schools, how does MindCET integrate the needs and personalities of K through 12 kids, in its start-ups and technology? How do you elicit direct feedback?

“MindCET brings the learner as an integral part of the development, creating solutions that learn and adapt all the time, bringing together researchers, entrepreneurs, educators and learners to the whole development problem – from understanding the problem, through ideation, to the solution. This is an important departure from earlier concepts of ‘ready end-products’ that had to last for years in schools, becoming obsolete and irrelevant both in content and method.”

To stimulate discussion, here are my six radical principles for rethinking our schools. Warning: What follows could seriously impair your mental balance, especially if you are in the teaching profession.

• Teachers should not teach. They should only facilitate children’s learning. There is a Grand Canyon of difference between teaching and fostering learning.
My son recently told me about a game he plays with his children on long car trips. It’s called “ask Google.” Think of a question to ask Google. Before you click on the answer, make a guess. Then see who’s right. Like, how many wild mammals are there in the world? (Answer: 130 billion, 17 times the number of people).
When technology puts all knowledge at the fingertips of children on their smartphones, even the very youngest, what is the point of teaching them that knowledge in classrooms? Better to guide, organize and help focus their own search.
• Encourage mistakes, foster failure.
Four years ago, my wife and I visited Touchstone School, a remarkable elementary school (K-8) in Grafton, Massachusetts. (See “Still in First Grade,” The Jerusalem Report, November 2, 2015). We observed how first- and second-graders learned to spell. The teacher asked them to spell a very hard word and sought volunteers. A brave child came up to the flip chart and spelled the word – with lots of mistakes.
The teacher’s response? “Wrong?” “Three mistakes?”
Absolutely not. Rather, warm praise for the bold child’s effort. Correcting the mistakes came later.
Among start-ups, failure is inevitable and is treated only as a step to eventual success. Why not teach our kids in the same way?
• Organize all learning as team-based projects.
In the real world, most work is done in teams, working on challenging objectives. Why not have schools develop and enhance that crucial skill? My granddaughter, age 7, recently spoke with me for hours about dinosaurs, based on a project she did.
What she had learned was remarkable. But even more remarkable was the fire and passion with which she spoke about the subject. She had learned to love learning about dinosaurs and fossils. She even learned about paleontologists and thought she might become one. I don’t recall having that experience even once in elementary school.
• Abolish all tests. Instead, inspire teams of students to accurately self-evaluate their projects.

Kids hate tests because they are hard and fraught, but also because tests require them to memorize old answers rather than learn to ask new, critical questions. At Touch stone, for example, there are no tests. Children work on projects in teams and on completing a project, objectively and rather severely, evaluate their effort. So will this lack of test-taking experience harm them later when they face such tests?

I asked Touchstone’s Grade 8 students whether they were apprehensive about taking tough, standardized tests in order to get into top high schools. They laughed. Learning to excel at test-taking became just another project for them – one they tackled with gusto and success.

In schools, teachers tell kids with tests: here is how I think you are doing. In the real world we often ask how do I and my team think we are doing? Why not practice that skill from an early age?
• Maximize play time and free time, minimize or abolish homework.
Writer Kim Brooks recently wrote a disturbing op-ed piece in The New York Times titled “We Have Ruined Childhood.” She cites data showing that children today are more depressed than they were during the Great Depression, and more anxious than they were at the height of the Cold War. Why?

“For youngsters these days, an hour of free play is like a drop of water in the desert,” Brooks wrote. “Of course they’re miserable. School days are longer and more regimented. Kindergarten, which used to be focused on play, is now an academic training ground for the first grade. Young children are assigned homework even though numerous studies have found it harmful. STEM [science and math] standardized testing and active-shooter drills have largely replaced recess, leisurely lunches, art and music...”

Psychologists affirm that the ‘work’ of children is play. It is how children learn key skills. Why are we depriving them of play?
The chief objective of school is not mastery, but as Heschel wrote, mystery.

Mastery means becoming expert at something. Mastery is very important. Dan Shechtman, a Technion professor and 2011 Nobel Laureate in Chemistry, speaks to students about the importance of being “T-shaped” – having broad knowledge about a lot of things, and at the same time very deep expert knowledge about at least one thing. He attributes his Nobel in part to his deep mastery of electron microscopy.

But mastery often comes not from a classroom but from a sense of deep, passionate curiosity – a sense of mystery – in a motivated young person, like the remarkable 16-year-old Bhavya Mohan, whose cure for cancer I described in the previous issue. Mystery is rocket fuel for true mastery. Forced mastery is often just a prison. Remember, the variable most strongly correlated with creativity is motivation.

Lifelong learning is now a matter of existential survival. And it is driven by the love of finding and solving riddles. Let our schools refocus on this.

In today’s schools, vast numbers of children are bored. They are even diagnosed as suffering from attention deficits. But they have no such deficit. They are simply bored to tears. Bored minds don’t learn.

There are simple solutions to school boredom. And they don’t require vast budgets or complex technologies, but mainly the will to embrace radical change and the courage to experiment.

The writer heads the Zvi Griliches Research Data Center at the S. Neaman Institute, Technion and blogs at

Math problems: Solve it your way

In July, my wife and I attended a school psychology conference in Basel, Switzerland, where I presented a poster on teaching effective creativity.

A young Swiss psychologist approached me and described her partner’s unique method for fostering creativity in teaching math. Now in general high school and university, math teachers teach “the right way” to solve problems. They describe a problem, show how to solve it, and demand that students use this approach in solving similar ones. One of our sons often came home from high school with big Xs – because he successfully solved a math problem in a way other than what the teacher described. So, is there room for creativity in a math classroom? There is indeed. Here is what the Swiss psychologist described, and how I believe math – and everything – should be taught to foster creativity.

“I gladly describe to you the teaching technique my partner uses as opposed to a more broadly conventional teaching style here in Europe or even America: Most teachers in high school mathematics, when introducing new mathematical topics from the curriculum, will show the students a problem on the blackboard and will solve it in front of the class to make their point.

“What makes my partner’s approach different – and as I have been told, is a typical Asian style of teaching – is that he wants to really elevate the student’s capability to find creative mathematical solutions for problems.

“How he does it is simple: He will present a problem to the class that is not solvable at first glance, and he does not solve it in front of them at the blackboard. He gives the students time to think about their own solutions for the given problem. In the end, he will let all of the students tell the class their approach, and the fascinating thing about it is that even though some of them did not solve the problem all the way through, they still could contribute to its solution with some unique thought steps the other ones did not think about.

“The second and even more fascinating fact to me is that even if the approaches to solutions offered by the students sometimes differ strongly from each other, my partner will take the ideas of every single student, and then will show the whole class on the blackboard how each of the students is not wrong, and how they can solve the problem proposed with their very own ideas individually, as he picks up sometimes unfinished thoughts from the students and finishes them for the “aha!” effect to occur.

“What evolves from that is pure joy from the students’ side, and creative and strong classes. … The children love having mathematics come to life with this approach, and in the end, I believe, what a country needs is curious minds, not thinking inside a box.”

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