Transforming the classroom

AMIT’s new Gogya Center trains teachers for today’s digital students.

(from left) School planner and designer Prakash Nair; Dr. Amnon Eldar, director general of AMIT Israel schools, and Harvard University professor Richard Elmore outside AMIT’s Gogya center in Ra’anana (photo credit: COURTESY AMIT)
(from left) School planner and designer Prakash Nair; Dr. Amnon Eldar, director general of AMIT Israel schools, and Harvard University professor Richard Elmore outside AMIT’s Gogya center in Ra’anana
(photo credit: COURTESY AMIT)
 If you look up the word “teacher” in any dictionary, the general definition suits the concept that people have held of an educator for centuries.
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines a teacher as a person or thing that teaches something; the Oxford Dictionary says a teacher is a person who teaches, especially in school. Indeed, the traditional image of a teacher has been of a person standing in front of a classroom of students imparting knowledge and skills.
But according to Dr. Amnon Eldar, director general of AMIT’s network of schools in Israel, the traditional concept of the teacher is dramatically changing, given the digital and technological environment of today’s student.
“Students turn to Google for answers,” Eldar told the Magazine in an interview.
“They do not understand why they have to physically sit in a classroom and listen to a teacher lecture when in today’s reality all they need to do is find the material online.
“Israeli kids are bored in the classroom; the knowledge of a teacher is valued much less today. Therefore, the primary challenge today is to make the teacher relevant once again to the student,” he states.
Eilat Deutsch, deputy director of research and development at AMIT, agrees.
“Kids today do not learn the way children in the 20th century did,” comments Deutsch. “No one goes to an encyclopedia or the teacher to find information about the French Revolution; they reach for their iPhone and access many sources of information right out of their pocket.”
She believes that given today’s environment, students need to learn how to be critical thinkers, to know how to sift through information, and to be challenged.
“The role of the teacher and classroom is very important in this regard. Learning through projects, group activities, and utilizing other senses helps to improve the retention of information and advance the learning process. Listening is not the only way to learn.”
It became clear to Deutsch and Eldar that a different teaching and learning format was needed for AMIT’s network of 30,000 students. “We want curious kids in the classroom, not passive listeners,” says Deutsch. In this context, the two believe that teachers must transition from knowledge deliverers to knowledge facilitators.
Transforming the role of teacher
Eldar, who has worked in education for 30 years, has sought the advice and guidance of international pedagogical and educational experts and is implementing holistic changes to the classroom. He and his team are introducing innovative methods of teaching to the AMIT network of schools according to the particular needs of the different student populations that exist in each school.
Together, he and Deutsch began searching the Internet for pedagogical experts paving the way in innovative educational methods for the 21st-century classroom.
They came across the writings of two internationally acclaimed educational innovators: Dr. Richard Elmore, a professor of educational leadership at Harvard University, and Prakash Nair, president and founder of an award-winning school planning and design firm, Fielding Nair International, based in the US.
Elmore, a research professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education for 25 years, is a leading international education reformer and author. Prakash Nair and his team have designed schools in 42 countries around the world, including India, Belgium, Dubai, Oman, Venezuela, Spain, Tanzania, Canada and the United States. Both Nair and Elmore attended an AMIT educational conference in August at AMIT’s Gogya center.
The two men were instrumental in the vision of the new Gogya Center at AMIT’s Kfar Batya Campus in Ra’anana, which serves as the Center for Excellence in Teacher Training and was built to represent AMIT’s modern school of the future, the first of its kind in Israel. The center features futuristic educational architecture, mobile furniture, including modular chairs and tables on wheels, glasswalled classrooms and multimedia screens.
Every month, teams of teachers from AMIT schools meet at the center, which serves as the hub of AMIT’s educational innovation and collaborative learning, to be exposed to new and innovative learning techniques from educational experts and from each other’s experiences in the classroom. Ultimately, those teams of teachers, usually made up of seven individuals, take the knowledge back to the teachers’ room to share with their colleagues, who subsequently introduce those new teaching methods and innovations into their own classrooms.
“You can see the sparkle returning to the eyes of these teachers after the Gogya sessions – they’re excited to go back and try these new methods with their students,” said Deutsch, who says that the Gogya sessions also develop a sense of community among the teachers.
Indeed, the name for the center, “gogya,” is derived from the word “pedagogy.”
“Gogya has no connection to the word Google,” notes Eldar. “The dictionary definition of the word ‘pedagogue’ is one who guides or instructs young people.
The name was chosen to emphasize the importance of leading during the learning process.”
At the AMIT education conference, which drew educators from across Israel, Elmore spoke of the role of the school in a world where more and more human interaction occurs through technology. “Information transfer has radically changed,” he said. “The nature of learning today by today’s standards will be unrecognizable 25 years from now.”
The Harvard professor strongly believes in practice learning, not merely presenting information in the classroom. “Human beings are good at practice learning,” Elmore says. He also advises on school leadership and works one day a week in schools with teachers and administrators on instructional improvement. “There is a difference between learning and schooling.”
“Our dream is that our future schools will not look or feel like jails,” notes Eldar, who visited the United States with a team of AMIT educators last year to meet with innovation experts like Elmore and witness innovative education firsthand. “We want our kids happy to come to school, to a school that is a warm and inviting place.”
Using the environment to stimulate learning
NAIR HAS visited a number of AMIT schools with Eldar and believes that the Gogya center will influence hundreds, if not thousands, of teachers and schools in Israel. “This is Amnon’s first crack at fundamental change in the process of learning through the Gogya,” said Nair.
Nair believes that schools of the future do not have to look like schools of the past. “The school should offer learning opportunities not found at home,” he says. “This [Gogya] building is proof that change can happen in Israel.”
The school designer pointed out that even the selection of the color scheme for the classrooms in the Gogya building was not coincidental, but chosen to further facilitate learning. “The classrooms are colorful enough to make the students feel alive, but not too colorful as to overwhelm them,” he says. Indeed, the Gogya center is complete with classrooms that feature warm green-, gray- and orange-colored patterned rugs, set off by white and occasional blue walls. There is a shaded open space with a wood panel floor where students can study outside as well.
Changes to a school can be applied with a small budget, notes Nair, who helped transform his son’s school in Florida as a community-led, budget-sensitive initiative.
“The idea is to design classrooms in a way that students are free to work together through active learning and not just in the format of frontal teaching. You can do this by tearing down walls, rearranging classroom furniture and in a number of other ways that create a friendlier and more inviting atmosphere.”
“The way we build schools is generally disconnected from learning,” says Nair, who grew up in south-central India and spent much of his childhood learning in un-airconditioned classrooms together with 70 other kids. “I felt like a prisoner in school when I was growing up,” he recalls.
“It’s great that this initiative for change is coming from AMIT. There are many countries around the world that are looking to implement innovative educational methods suitable to their student population.
With these changes, I hope that kids will be able to develop as whole human beings who are valued for what they bring to the table,” Nair comments.
“Creating an innovative educational environment is not just about getting every student a tablet or laptop,” asserts Eldar, noting that there are currently 30 AMIT schools taking part in the Gogya center’s innovative educational training. “It’s about creating a positive environment where students will be able to create for themselves, with the help of learning, an identity based on values – and a sense of belonging to a community, nation and state.”
In practical terms, how does the Gogya’s educational innovation program translate into a classroom reality? Rabbi Avi Rokeach, who heads Yeshivat AMIT Amichai in Rehovot, tells the Magazine that part of the process is having his staff of teachers experience what it is like to be students. The teachers in his school go through two hours of studying and learning each week with the team of teachers training in the Gogya.
In terms of the classroom, Rokeach explains that there are chairs on wheels in all the classrooms to help students organize into pairs or groups more easily.
There are also several boards in the classroom – not just one – that students use as well. “The teacher’s desk is not, as it has always traditionally been, by the board,” Rokeach points out.
Homework is done in the classroom, while learning is done at home, with teachers filming video clips of knowledge lessons for the students to watch. Project Based Learning, the teaching method where students gain knowledge and skills by working for an extended time period to investigate a problem or issue, is also a core part of the curriculum. Each student has his or her own tablet, in a school that educates 400 students from seventh to twelfth grade.
In addition, Yeshivat AMIT Amichai does not give number grades on report cards, but alternative 19 ments in the middle school. Students can be tested in the format of a TED talk, where they will deliver a lecture in front of their classmates about a subject they learned during the school semester.
“The classroom shouldn’t be a place of quiet; it should be lively and chaotic. That is the essence of the classroom – communication,” said Rokeach.
Indeed, notes the principal, the traditional beit midrash is very similar to the Gogya concept of a classroom. “Yeshiva students always studied in groups – that’s the way Torah has been taught for 2,000 years,” he says.
Firmly rooted in the past
While Kfar Batya serves as the center for AMIT’s newest innovative projects, especially with the latest development of the Gogya center, the youth village’s historic past is just as fascinating as its future. Kfar Batya is the site where AMIT’s educational endeavors first took root.
Established right after World War II as a youth village for children who survived the Holocaust, Kfar Batya in its early years housed 300 refugee children who were taught farming, carpentry, shoe-making, weaving and welding. The first group of children arrived from Hungary and were brought to Kfar Batya in 1947. AMIT (which was then known as the Mizrachi Women’s Organization of America) spearheaded the rescue of Jewish children from Europe as early as 1934 and had them resettled in Palestine.
AMIT helped resettle thousands of Holocaust orphans across the country in other youth villages and centers. Additional groups of children absorbed by the Kfar Batya village later on arrived from Romania, Yemen, North Africa, Iran, Turkey and Ethiopia.
The Kfar Batya youth village was named for Bessie “Batya” Gotsfeld, president and founder of the Mizrachi Women’s Organization of America in 1925, whose members raised funds to build the village. Gotsfeld, the daughter of a Polish hassidic family that immigrated to the US in 1895, made aliya herself in 1932, and went on to open the first vocational high school for girls in Jerusalem in 1933, as well as other youth houses, colleges, hostels, and agricultural schools around the country.
Today AMIT is Israel’s only government-recognized network for religious Jewish education that incorporates technological and academic studies. It has more than 28,000 youngsters in its educational framework, including those in foster care. Students are educated in 110 facilities through AMIT schools, youth villages, surrogate homes and childcare facilities.
Seventy percent of AMIT’s schools are located in the periphery of the county.
The education network aims to ensure that the majority of its students pass the bagrut (matriculation exams to graduate high school and prerequisite for higher education). AMIT has taken charge of failing schools, where, in many instances, only 20% or less of its students had passed the bagrut, raising that level to 70% and higher.
Eldar hopes that the Education Ministry will build dozens of future new schools in the country based on the Gogya facility. But more importantly, Eldar believes that Israel needs to become more aware that it is possible to do things differently in youth education.
“Ultimately, the physical environment, like the mobile chairs and tables, is not what is vital for change. It is a change in the way of thinking,” he says.
“The dream to transform schools into educational communities with students who are active in the learning process together with their teachers is what is important.”