Rethinking schools: A diagnosis

Our schools are failing us. Roughly half of our children receive a Third World education, according to Dan Ben-David and Ayal Kimhi, in a Shoresh Institute report.

Cecilia Waismann, MindCET’s vice president for R&D (photo credit: SEFI SHALEV)
Cecilia Waismann, MindCET’s vice president for R&D
(photo credit: SEFI SHALEV)
Some 2.3 million Israeli children went back to school on September 1, and an almost audible sigh of relief among parents was heard throughout the land.
But there is reason for deep concern. Our schools are failing us. Roughly half of our children receive a Third World education, according to Dan Ben-David and Ayal Kimhi, in a Shoresh Institute report.
Why? And what can be done?
In this column I will focus on what is wrong with our schools. In the next one I will propose some radical solutions.
Question: What is Israel’s most precious resource? a. water b. land c. natural gas d. all of the above e. none of the above.
This is a trick question. As an economist I can make a case for each of the five possible answers. And the question itself is problematic. Increasingly teachers in our schools are teaching children how to do well on multiple-choice tests rather than how to learn and love to learn – one of the many failed ideas imported to Israel from the US.
I know brilliant creative high school students who do badly on such multiple-choice tests, simply because their minds can see endless possibilities. Some become scientists, doctors and engineers despite this, and others, alas, are rejected. A mind is a terrible thing to waste.
For my part, on the multiple-choice question, I would choose (e). Our most precious resource is the creative minds of our children. And we are systematically ruining them. What’s worse, we have known this for at least 25 years, and we have done nothing about it.
In 1992, George Land and Beth Jarman, in their book Breakpoint and Beyond: Mastering the Future – Today, published this disturbing fact: In the US, 98% of children age five score “genius” on a standard creativity test. At age 10, only 32% score “genius,” and by age 15, only 10%. As adults – just 2%.
Conclusion: US schools destroy creativity rather than foster and cultivate it. I doubt that Israeli schools are any better.
Anyone who has played with a five-year-old knows how imaginative they are. Because they have not yet learned the rules, anything and everything is possible. Then, when schools teach them the rules, what they can do, what they can’t do, how to do it and how not to, their imagination and problem-solving skills are impaired. Luckily, a handful emerge unscathed. But all too few.
If creativity were oil, natural gas or gold, there would be an outcry at its malicious destruction. But the massive annihilation of creativity gets little attention. For Israel, a nation that makes much of its living from its human capital and the creative minds of its entrepreneurs, this is an existential crisis.
I’ve been an educator for 52 years. I worked very hard at teaching, and even won a few awards. But today I realize that pedagogically, I am a dinosaur. Teachers like me used to teach. Today, instead, they facilitate learning, or at least they should. And the gap between the two endeavors is vast.
To explore this subject, I interviewed Dr. Cecilia Waisman, vice president for R&D at MindCET since March 2012. MindCET was established by the Center for Educational Technology (CET), the leading organization in the planning and development of technological products for the education system in Israel. It is located in Yeruham, a development town in the Negev.
Surfing the Internet, I found this statement by you: “Of all industries, education systems probably face the biggest generational gap due to their incapacity to understand and adapt to the new landscape, while at the same time they still hold a major and defining role in the younger generations’ lives.” It is very unusual (and, in my view, terrific!) for a PhD psychologist to head R&D in a hi-tech venture. How in general, in your VP R&D job, do you base enabling technology on perceived generation gaps?
Youth, regardless of age or place, live parallel lives as learners. The ongoing technological revolution that has changed dramatically the way we relate to our environment, the way we perceive the world, the way we socially relate, and even the way we know about ourselves has not moved the educational system from its traditional essence.
The paradox is that this is the system society created as The Learning Place. We send kids to spend most of their days in a system that is currently inconsistent and almost irrelevant to their learning needs.
What message are we really sending them? Generation Z is so aware of this that they engaged in what I call “The Silent Revolution” – they go through the system, knowing they will really learn only when they are outside (on their own computers/smart phones/…), and they just switch off. We even give names to their ‘switching off’ – attention deficit, which I see as a healthy defense mechanism to deal with this parallel-inconsistent learning we impose on them!
You have a strong background, in Spain and England, in mental health. How in the world did you transition to Educational Technology? As VP R&D – how does your mental health background help you guide start-ups toward being more client-based, needs-based, kids-based?
Life offers opportunities, and I tried to take the ones with which I could contribute to making a change. During a two-year stay in Israel, many years ago, I got an offer to work on education and I fell in love with it. There is so much to be done, and this is the place. I lived in five countries and have never felt so energized to move projects ahead. The motivation of the team here is unique. People jump to work on meaningful projects that can make a difference. And there is no doubt that improving the younger generation’s lives is the best motivation one could have for waking up and going to work.
MindCET is sited in Yeruham. Now most start-up entrepreneurs want the vibrancy of Tel Aviv, rated as one of the world’s best entrepreneurship ecosystems. Can you discuss how you manage to attract people to Yeruham? (I spent time there in the army – it’s not quite Dizengoff). Do they just work there and sleep in Tel Aviv? Do they interact with the locals? Yeruham is even 16 kms. from the Dimona train station!
CET has always started its projects at the periphery. For MindCET it was very important to support the development of the Negev, and attract the Start-up Nation spirit to help the socioeconomic situation of the region. It has been a challenge, but we are delighted to see the amazing outcomes. MindCET’s main activities take place in Yeruham, with significant collaboration with all organizations in the region (e.g., city councils, IDF training bases, etc.). MindCET has an in-house R&D – MindCETeX, where entrepreneurs stay in Yeruham for six months to explore and develop unique educational solutions in partnership with hi-tech companies and main universities. On September 16, MindCET is opening an EdTech Campus, with the support of Mort Mandel, to provide a space to incubate new EdTech start-ups, a Makers’ Lab, an experiential space for teachers, among many other activities.
RECENTLY, THE World Economic Forum based in Davos, Switzerland, provided a list of the 10 key skills in demand by employers in the near future, and probably already in the present. They are: complex problem-solving; critical thinking; creativity; people management; coordinating with others; emotional intelligence; judgment and decision-making; service orientation; negotiation; cognitive flexibility.
Most of these are skills that children can begin to acquire even in elementary school. Yet how many schools foster even one of them?
Henry Ford invented the assembly line and sparked an industrial revolution that changed the world. He once complained: Why, when I hire a pair of hands, do they come attached to a brain?
He was right. You don’t need a brain to install 60 right-side door handles an hour, for eight hours.
Today he might ask: When I hire a brain, why does it come attached to a pair of hands? Because robots are today’s hands. Robots install those door handles. Yet our schools remain mired in a 19th century mindset to provide workers who can read and write and engage in factory work. No wonder our kids switch off.
To get into university, Israeli high school students take the dreaded psychometric test. Some spend fortunes on expensive preparatory courses. Scores are used by admissions committees as the most heavily weighted criterion for evaluating applicants.
The test has three areas: Math, Verbal Reasoning, and English, with eight sections, each with 20-22 multiple choice questions. The total time of the exam 2 hours and 40 minutes. One minute per question. To get into medical school, for example, you need a near-impossible high score – 700 out of 800.
Is this truly the optimal way to sort students and choose our future doctors, psychologists and scholars? To be a wise, caring doctor, does it really help to know how to pick (a) from (b) and (c) in 60 seconds?
It is the creative brain that is vital today. It is the imaginative brain that will secure employment, create value for society, and learn and relearn new valuable skills.
How can schools foster this creativity, rather than destroy it? I will suggest some radical ideas in my next column.
The writer heads the Zvi Griliches Research Data Center at the S. Neaman Institute, Technion, and blogs at