The other day, I bumped into a friend who is a senior official at the Education Ministry and responsible for educating hundreds of thousands of Israeli children.
“I’ve just come from an incredible lecture given by an important professor,” my friend told me. “I’ve reached the conclusion that nothing is ever going to change. They may alter the concept models, but in the end all educators desire flexibility, creativity and motivation. They all want the same thing,” he concluded gloomily.
“Are you sure?” I asked him. “Do you really think that the smartphone generation, popularly known as Generation Y, will turn out the same as their teachers?” And then all of a sudden my friend’s expression brightened, and he responded, “Yeah, I guess you’re right. They’re not the same.”
“Think about it,” I told him excitedly, “When a high-school student walks into class, his brain is busy opening and closing an infinite number of windows just like the Internet.
Unfortunately, the class he’s about to sit through is structured in a straightforward, linear format.”
“You’re absolutely right!” my friend told me and then hurried on his way.
Many years ago, computers took up entire buildings. Then they got smaller and fit onto a large table. Nowadays we have laptops and even very young children are busy using tablets. What’s the significance of all this? Are these just technical changes? The answer, of course, is no – these are dramatic changes that are going to alter almost every aspect of our lives.
What is a society? What is a community? For my generation, a friend is someone you sit and have a discussion with as you look into each other’s eyes. A person you can be both happy and sad with. Someone you watch over the years as he grows older and wiser. For my generation, social status is something you build up over many years by working incredibly hard and watching what you say. You build it up like a tzedaka box into which you drop coins daily. For Generation Y, on the other hand, social status is directly related to the number of likes you get on a Facebook post and how many “friends” you have. Generation Y members select which events they choose to share with their virtual friends. My generation, on the other hand, feels secure in our knowledge that what takes place on Facebook is just an illusion.
Generation Y members are frenetic.
They receive Whatsapp messages at a dizzying pace. They see breaking news in one corner of their phone’s screen and new emails and messages in another. It’s no wonder so many young people these days are diagnosed with ADHD and neurologists are making a nice living prescribing Ritalin. Kids carry their smartphones in one hand and bottles of chemical regulators in the other.
How can a student who’s used to dealing with three or four different sources of information simultaneously sit calmly in a classroom and listen to a teacher who is talking in a regular voice at a moderate pace? His brain is used to a huge amount of information that comes at him at an extremely rapid rate. And he’s also not used to processing information in an effort to understand it deeply or searching for a way to express himself using rich and complex language.
And he’s almost incapable of describing his feelings. He’s used to sending “smilies” instead of expressing his feelings of joy, pleasure and pride and sending frowns when he feels sadness, frustration or grief. He cannot fathom having to sit down for two hours to compose a dedication to a loved one.
Everything these days is quick, hasty and as a result rarely accurate.
Video has replaced the written word.
The younger generation doesn’t read books anymore (ask your children and grandchildren how many books they’ve read in the past month).
They’ve only seen the movie versions of the bestsellers and spend an inordinate amount of time watching You- Tube videos. They keep their phones near them at all times. They sleep with them, keep them on the table when they eat, hold them while talking with their parents, teachers and friends.
Dogs used to be a man’s best friend, but smartphones have replaced them.
I don’t think I’ll ever get used to being in the middle of praying when someone’s phone beeps and they check what it says right then instead of restraining themselves and waiting until after they’ve finished praying.
And people get insulted if you don’t reply to their email or text instantly.
In the olden days, messages were delivered by messenger pigeons and even telegrams took a few hours to arrive. And do you remember those blue airmail letters? Nowadays, messages travel at the speed of light and you are considered extremely rude if you don’t reply straight away.
The world is changing so quickly.
Everything is shrinking until it fits in the palm of our hand. We’ve become prisoners inside this virtual prison.
Now I’ll describe these changes from a positive point of view.
The world of today’s young people is different, but it’s not shallow.
It’s like a giant net that links millions of pieces of information and connects them in an associative fashion, not in a logical, organized way. This process leads to an unlimited number of connections, which on the surface may not appear to have much in common.
The high speed and multiple stimuli allow for the creation of these numerous connections. The size and depth of the web is what determines the depth of understanding. If the pace slows down, this associative world unravels and everything once again becomes chaotic. Try listening to someone who’s talking extremely slowly, pronouncing each word as a separate unit, and you’ll realize how difficult it is to understand what he’s saying.
Words need to be strung together in order for them to mean something.
The Talmud is also structured this way. Each matter is connected to numerous others, and they form a network of diverse and interesting ideas.
When Hayim Nahman Bialik wrote his famous Book of Legends, he took the Talmudic stories out of their broader traditional context, and as a result, they lost their essence and connectivity with the rest of the Talmud. The essence of the Talmud is its inexhaustible connectivity.
And I believe that the young people of Generation Y are just as complex as the three-dimensional connections found in the Talmud. It’s no surprise that so many young people have created start-ups and apps.
Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook wrote 100 years ago that young people he came into contact with had incredible imaginations.
People were abandoning philosophy for the chance to engage their minds in the imagination, Rabbi Kook wrote. This was well before the first computer was even in the realm of dream. Rabbi Kook believed that the young people of his generation were preparing themselves to experience prophesies, no less. The arts were blossoming, which testified to the emergence of a new spirituality. Not a new-age spirituality based on yearning and longing, but a cognitive belief that results from the growth of intellectual and emotional capabilities.
Many years ago, my father, Israel Prize recipient Professor Reuven Feuerstein, was discussing with me a detailed theory he’d come up with in the field of strategic thinking. He called it Mediated Learning Experience.
When I asked him why he was more interested in the experience of learning and not of thinking, he said, “In order to think you first need to know how to learn.” Only now am I beginning to understand how far-reaching his vision was. In the dynamic world we live in, the most important thing is to know how to learn, to know how to decipher and understand our changing reality. To either adapt to it or change it from within. And to learn how think about the world differently, to create the flexibility that enables us to forget about certain parts of our past so that we can create a space within which we can move forward.
Today’s younger generation is ready to learn. We need to talk with them and not miss this opportunity to connect with them. The Mediated Learning Experience theory, as well as others that focus on different approaches to learning, are new and innovative ways of learning that seek to understand the hidden pictures inside our students’ minds instead of specific words, which many times are so difficult for them to produce.
Maybe this is what Rabbi Hanina meant when he said, “I’ve learned so much from my teachers and even more from my friends. But I’ve learned the most from my students” (Tractate Ta’anit).
The author is a rabbi and president of the Feuerstein Institute.
Translated by Hannah Hochner.