Digital World: Smart classrooms make kids smarter

World ORT president aims to create in Israel ‘one of world’s most technologically advanced educational systems.’

DR. JEAN DE GUNZBERG 311 (photo credit: Courtesy World ORT)
(photo credit: Courtesy World ORT)
Here’s a real estate tip, courtesy of a man who’s been around – Dr. Jean de Gunzburg, president of World ORT: If you’re looking for a home in a community with a good school system, pick “the periphery,” up north or down south. Not only are the homes there cheaper – your kids will get a better education, thanks to World ORT’s Schulich Canada Smart Classroom InitiativeSmart Classroom program.
“Nowadays, I think that many of the schools in the Negev and the Galilee are more advanced than they are in the center of the country,” says Dr. de Gunzberg.
And those classrooms that aren’t smarter yet will be soon, as the organization continues to implement the NIS 100 million program,  named for Canadian philanthropist Seymour Schulich, who has invested well over $4 million in it.
World ORT, of course, is the most ambitious and experienced vocational education organization in the Jewish world – and maybe even in the rest of the world, too – dedicated to technical training and education. Where once world ORT ran schools to train immigrants to work as garment workers, electricians and plumbers, today the organization concentrates on computer technology, medical and health services, business and other practical areas where graduates will be able to go right to work. World ORT operates in dozens of countries, including in North and South America, Europe, the former Soviet Union countries – even in Asia, where it serves 3,500 members of the Jewish community still in Mumbai, Mizoram and Manipur. In fact, the only kosher bakery in the country is operated by ORT India.
But it’s in Israel where the organization is developing one of its most ambitious programs to date – the conversion of at least 1,000 “regular” classrooms into Smart Classrooms. Instead of teaching with a blackboard and chalk, teachers are provided with an “interactive whiteboard,” which allows students and teachers to interact, using computer programs that let students manipulate letters, figures and numbers to create and learn.
In many classrooms, teachers connect their computers to interactive white boards that are in turn linked to students’ laptops, which are provided for them.
These interconnected laptops allow students to visualize concepts, repeat theories and examine scientific studies indepth.
Afterwards, students can review lessons on their laptops, helping them to complete homework assignments or study for exams.
“We’ve thought for a long time that a smart classroom could boost motivation and results for kids, and we have many studies that prove this to be the case,” says de Gunzberg.
“We decided to set up a pilot program in six schools in the Sha’ar Hanegev area – prime targets for Hamas missiles – and set them up with smart classrooms, including interactive whiteboards and laptops. We checked their scores on tests and bagrut, and saw a radical improvement. When the government got wind of the results, they said they wanted 1,000 smart classrooms.”
It takes more than an interactive whiteboard to make a smart classroom, though, says de Gunzberg.
“Technology changes, and the teachers have to change with it. So we provide each teacher with 120 hours of training over four years to ensure that their skills stay current. After four years, we reevaluate the program and upgrade the curriculum when necessary.”
About 400 classrooms will have gone through the process by the end of this year, with the rest being turned “smart” by 2013. But world ORT’s work in upgrading Israel’s education system won’t be done then.
“After the smart classroom program, we would like to begin developing centers of excellence, a super tier of education,” says de Gunzberg.
“The centers will take the top kids in schools and give them extra assistance, turning them into the science and technology leaders of tomorrow.”
In addition, there is the “periphery in the center” to consider; the smart classroom program could expand to the center of the country, lifting the educational level of kids in poor neighborhoods and giving them the opportunity for a better future, says de Gunzberg.
That smart classrooms help students concentrate better and retain information more effectively is well-documented. A study by Israel’s own Henrietta Szold Institute, which specializes in behavioral research, determined that not only do students in smart classrooms enjoy their studies more and pay more attention to what they are learning, but also that there are fewer discipline problems, with kids more amenable to helping teachers keep the peace in class, instead of disrupting and wasting the class’s energy on cleaning up behavior messes. Obviously, if students are less bored, they’ll be more likely to pay attention.
But there’s more to smart classrooms than just keeping kids interested in the material.
The jobs these kids are eventually going to end up doing – no matter what the industry – are going to be very computerized, and are going to require a high level of advanced education, the kind of education that smart classrooms can provide.
Going even beyond education, smart classrooms are an important element in ensuring a Jewish majority in outlying areas of Israel.
“We know there is a demographic problem in the Negev and the Galilee,” says de Gunzberg.
“The smart classrooms we are setting up in these areas will make them more attractive, bringing more Jews in from the center of the country.”
Who knows – World ORT’s Schulich Canada Smart Classroom Initiative could even encourage aliya.
“Other countries have some aspects of the program we are implementing in their education systems, but I don’t think anyone else has anything this comprehensive.
England and France, which I know well, certainly don’t,” says de Gunzberg.
“There’s no question that Israel will have one of the most technologically advanced educational systems in the world.”
Enough to encourage Diaspora Jews who are interested in getting a first-class education for their kids to make aliya? Could be!