Herzliya Conference to stress education of brightest as vital to strategic future

Excellence 2000 program draws interest from around the world.

boy science 298.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
boy science 298.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
A much-ignored aspect of Israel's long-term strategy is to be a focus of one of the opening sessions of next week's prestigious Herzliya Conference: the challenges of educating the top 10 percent of the nation's schoolchildren, the future architects of its technological and economic might. "Education is the future of every country, and all countries recognize that excellence in education is crucial to moving them forward," Robert Asher, chairman of the Society for Excellence through Education that will be hosting the Sunday panel, told The Jerusalem Post. "Today, a child doesn't need information," explained the society's director-general Hezki Arieli, who developed the Excellence 2000 program that, along with a position paper on the importance of gifted education, will be the focus of the panel. "The child lives in an ocean of information, and he has to learn to swim. Someone has to teach him to assess, organize, research." This need has led the society, founded along with a flagship school in Jerusalem in the late 1980s, to develop a unique curriculum that teaches the experimental sciences, technology and mathematical thinking and is structured to give schoolchildren the "skills and tools" needed for the modern world. While Israel's educational system - with its multiple streams and bureaucratic inefficiencies that have landed the country at the bottom of the developed world in international standardized test scores - seems to be running in place, the remarkable work of educators in the field of gifted education has gained international renown. Why has the Excellence 2000 program drawn so much attention? First, its focus on experimentation and hands-on learning has led to a significant improvement in education for above-average students. "Children learn much better if they can be a part of whatever they're learning," said Asher, "so we started working on changing the methodology of frontal teaching, in which the teacher speaks and the child is expected to assimilate the information, to [a methodology of] actual participation. Experiments are an exciting part of the science." Among the "wide variety of tools that turns learning into a fascinating experience," Arieli lists such programs as "the Space Club, in partnership with NASA." One Space Club event had students from 27 schools in Israel and the US participating in an on-line conversation on space medicine together with NASA's chief medical officer and an astronaut. Then there is the "Young Detectives Club," in which students "turn into science investigators for the Israel Police," conducting forensic medical experiments and learning about the sophisticated scientific techniques being developed in real-life crime labs. Yet, while active participation has marked a revolution for the student, Arieli believes that international interest is also due to the fact that, "unlike programs where a [gifted] child goes outside a school to take a special course, [Excellence 2000] advances excellence within the school, through the school." Through its emphasis on intensive and personalized teacher training and skills development for the students, "a school's culture is changed into a culture of excellence" that affects all its students. "So they come," Arieli said, "looking for creativity, scientific thinking, a different kind of lesson; not frontal lectures on mathematical principles, but mathematical investigation." This new approach is what's drawing interest, even from some surprising corners. The program has been implemented in some 160 schools in Israel and expanded to the US. The public education systems of Illinois and Iowa, along with the Jewish day schools of New York, have incorporated Excellence 2000 curricula and methods. Moreover, interest has been shown from countries such as Singapore, which sent a delegation of educators to Israel in November, other nations in the Far East, and even - discreetly - from organizations and governments in the Arab world. "Israel has the second-largest number of hi-tech start-ups in the world. It's quite amazing for little Israel to be second only to the US in that area," explained Asher. "They [the Singaporeans] look at their high test scores but feel they want to include [Israeli] creativity." Arieli agreed. "The Singaporeans have been world leaders in math and science scores for quite a few years," he said, "so why are they coming to us, the 34th [place in international math scores]? They're looking for the creativity," he says. A clear demonstration of this renown will come on Sunday when US Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings will land in Israel for a day to attend the Herzliya panel alongside Education Minister Yuli Tamir. For Asher, Spellings's visit is an acknowledgement that "programs have been started that show great promise." Tamir and Spellings are to hold a press conference, at which Asher hopes for an announcement from Tamir on "a serious initiative for enhancing excellence through education based on the task-force document that is coming out at the conference." According to Arieli, this initiative is critical for Israel's "national resilience. Mediocrity has led us to a bad place. Israel has to declare that developing excellence in education is a central national goal. This begins with the culture and education. The minister must act, and we have to get to work immediately."