Friday, June 13, 2014

What Role Experts Should Play in Education And How Technology Can Help

In yeshivas, we are accustomed to the role of expertise in a rather distinct and profound way.  We have the privilege of hiring Rebbeim that carry with them the mesorah (historic expertise) of thousands of years of learning. They degrees come with years of study.  The best secular equivalent is a doctorate in a subject.  We employ these men to teach everything from 1st to 12th grade.  In fact, in Judaism there are actually blessings that are said for when you come in contact with both a renowned scholar of Jewish learning and a different one for a scholar of secular learning.  We recognize that these people are unique and deserving of respect and admiration.  We need to find creative ways to make them more of a presence in schools and in the lives of our students.

Expertise and the value of experts continues through one's later years.  Colleges also understand this concept when they often have students stand upon a professor entering a room, have students call the teacher by Professor so and so, and hire experts often to give commencement addresses and speak on campus.  After our formal educational experience, even professionally, we look to people in various field with respect and admiration for their expertise.  These people play a profound role in shaping our society intellectually, monetarily, and socially.  Hence, the role of the expert does not vanish beyond the walls of an academic institution, nor should it.

So, the real question is, how do we create a culture of expertise?  How do we put children in earshot at a young age in the range of experts?  What do we want students to learn from them?

I remember when I first started teaching in a local yeshiva, a department head actually came over to me and said that now that we have the internet and can look up facts, everyone can be an expert.  I think her purpose in saying this was to tell me that my detail oriented European History class was going to be obsolete soon.  While I don't deny that content has never been more accessible that it is today, there is a real difference between "looking it up" and living it.  There is a real difference between cursory knowledge you can gain from a quick google search and tinkering with what that knowledge means and can create.  At the time, I didn't have the words to express this, but throughout the years it has become even more apparent to me of this profound and concrete fact.  And PS, that class still exists and probably will for many years to come.

Yes, I want my kids to know how to learn, I'm all for it.  Its a huge part of what I do, but I also want them to have the language to create learning.  The internet has not dissolved the role of the expert, instead it has simply made the expert more accessible.  I can now read up on everything about Bill Gates while in pajamas at home or on vacation.  I can look at images of everything he has done.  I can basically digitally stalk him.  However, that alone will not enable me to have the same successes as him.  I need to learn to think like him, to experience that dedication to a craft on my own, to personalize and internalize it. I need to study the material he studied and dedicate the time he did towards computer science.   Even then, I will not be him, I will be me.  For those reasons, he has real value as an expert in our society.  (And yes, I would view major CEO's in companies as experts as well.  Expertise in a craft is not limited to academia, and we must never forget that.)

A culture of expertise use to be taught by lecturing students on a range of core topics starting at an early age until they graduated.  While this is still done to a certain extent, expertise should also be encouraged by enabling students to have access (at early ages) to profoundly successful high achieving individuals, organizations, and places where the success happens.  We also need to create zones in schools where tinkering is not only allowed but encouraged as a way to master a trade craft.  This could be done as an alternative to recess for those who are less "outdoorsy" and possibly a place in every classroom could be dedicated for it just like the "centers" in early childhood classrooms.  Tinkering doesn't have to necessarily be with old computer parts or robotics (although both are great), it can also be with historical objects (replicas), with easy bake ovens (for older kids), old books and newspapers, wood and glue, crayons, journals, and much more.  In older grades, computers with database access can help those who want to begin a task with research found in trade articles and gain expertise in subject matter.  Field trips both actual and virtual should play a large role.  A museum trip is not just an experience where one learns about the content in the museum, but about curation, archeology, and skills to develop such objects. Author's coming to school to discuss their books show kids its possible and talk about publishing, editing, and everything it takes to get the book written and produced.  This connectivity is at our fingertips in a way never before possible.

Last week, I had an engineer (thank you Marshall Fox, a Columbia graduate and dual MBA and MS candidate at MIT with years of experience working in actual engineering firms in robotics and elevator work) skype with a 9th grade Engineering class about the current competition in the field and day to day life of a mechanical engineer.  While the actual experience alone was really inspiring and productive for them, his offer to keep in touch with the students afterwards was even more useful long term.  Access to experts throughout development is really key.  Now, hopefully, the students will email him when they need advice, have an idea, or are working on a project.  They will create almost a "digital apprenticeship" being guided by him in the years to come.  That is the priceless.  How much more so if they had this from an even earlier age?  Imagine how many more kids would go into science and math if they had a connection to an expert in the field to walk them through all those discouraging moments?  Now, that is really possible all with skype and email.  Many years ago, I actually dragged kids to Columbia to do this.  I hope my old AP students never forget the experience of going to Columbia University and having a private audience with Professor Bulliet, a world expert in Iranian history.  I only wish we had thought at the time of ways to further connect them to him beyond that lecture.  The walls of the university, the corporations, the tech firms, and much more need to be more open to our schools and our schools need to be more open to them.

In fact, this is exactly why we want Rebbeim in our schools.  It is not uncommon for yeshivas to be visited by great rebbeim (This year alone, we were visited by the current Chief Sephardic Rabbi of the State of Israel here at Magen David and by the Chief Rabbi of Sefat, a city in Israel.) who give speeches and interact with students.  We want people with real expertise to surround our children as role models of Jewish scholarship.  I want nothing less for my students on the general studies side.  If we want our kids to become experts, we need to foster the experiences they need to enable them to become just that.