Friday, September 11, 2009

We Use All the Blueberries

Do educators and MBA's live in different universes? Here's my response.

An MBA was speaking to a group of teachers. She was explaining how she created an expectation of excellence in a bakery she was advising. The specialty of this bakery was blueberry pies. She carefully described how she streamlined the company, eliminated errors in production, improved quality control, dealt with complaints, etc.

When she invited questions from the audience of educators, one teacher raised his hand and asked, "What do you do with the blueberries that aren't perfect?"

The lecturer answered, with a casual smile, "Oh, we discard them. That's the only way to be sure the pies are perfect."

The teacher smiled as well. "You see, that's the difference between what you do and what we do. We have to use all the blueberries."

I don't remember where or when I heard this story. But it has stayed with me because it highlights a major difference between education and business. We in education use 'all the blueberries'.

We are responsible the learning of those students who are a pleasure in class, and also those who challenge us at every opportunity.

And sometimes we're disappointed with the pies. And sometimes we're proud of them. We keep on 'baking', though, and try to adjust to the different 'ingredients' and 'oven temperatures' and 'humidity' and on and on and on with all the other variables that exist in the classroom but not necessarily on the assembly line.

And in Jewish education especially, where our mission is to empower every student to feel valued and respected within the Jewish community, we need to take special notice of the blueberries that aren't 'perfect.'

We can't discard them. We can't have a single student who says at the end of the day, "I'm just not good at this Jewish thing."

Here are a few articles that may help you reach every single blueberry in your class.

Dr. Mel Levine, author of All Kinds of Minds, has a wonderful website with excellent suggestions for identifying the strengths of your students and building on them.

Dr. Thomas Armstrong is a proponent of using Multiple Intelligences theory in education. This framework was proposed by Dr. Howard Gardner of Harvard University, and suggests that everyone is good at something, and we need to broaden our understanding of what constitutes intelligence. You can read more here

For those who are interested, here is a charming video entitled My Best Teacher. Please watch it and think about what elements you can uncover that inform this short piece.

Shanah Tovah, and may you enjoy all the blueberries - even the imperfect ones!

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

New Year, New Thinking?

Sunday's NY Times Business Section had an article about the way companies approach their work. Welcoming the New, Improving the Old describes two very different ways to get better at what we do. One approach - Six Sigma - involves precise measurement and adjustment to reach the desired results. The other - Design Thinking - promotes "outside the box" creativity, in which everything is deemed possible.

At first, when I read this article, I thought about the implications for education. After all, we all want to improve, don't we? Which of these two ideas would work for us? What combination of the two would get us where we want to be?

And yet as I read further it became obvious to me that some of the assumptions that are made in the business world just don't work in the world of education, and certainly not in the world of Jewish education.

The business world can deal in absolutes. Problems are measurable. Solutions can be neat. An item you manufacture either works or doesn't. Procedures can be put in place to resolve problems. Money is available in the hopes that the product will increase the bottom line.

Education is fundamentally different. Some outcomes are measurable but others are not. The "product", which is what I will call the learner, can be a moving target - reacting one way on Monday and another on Tuesday.

So how do we improve our outcomes in Jewish education?
First we need to decide what we want our outcomes to be. Not so easy. Content knowledge? Group identity? Behaviors? Theological perspective? All these are parts of the outcome, and no one segment is sufficient.

When we think about our challenges we need to accept the fact that perfection is not an option. Teaching is not neat. Learning is not neat. Even Jewish thought is not neat.

As we begin the school year, and the Jewish year, I urge you to be open to new ideas, to be ready to try something you never tried before, to reflect on what you are doing, and to continue to approach Jewish education with the passion it deserves.

Here are some websites that may help you think about the upcoming year:
Teachers' New Years Resolutions - written for the general New Year, but certainly applicable for Rosh HaShanah
The Art of Teaching - by a science teacher, with a wonderful lesson for all of us
Inspiring Teachers Blog - appears to be inactive, but the posts available are valuable
Teaching Resources - provides a link to a number of Educational Resources and Videos for Rosh HaShanah
BJENY has a number of lesson plans on its website

Oprah Winfrey may not have had Rosh HaShanah in mind, but I like her attitude:
"Cheers to a New Year and another chance for us to get it right."