Beyond the Why

Singapore. Hong Kong. New Zealand. Finland. What does Hillel Day School have in common with these far-off countries? A commitment to changing education to prepare children for the competitive and complex world they are inheriting. The schools in these countries are directing their focus on learning, not testing, and eliminating standardized exams in lieu of hands-on, project-based learning guided by highly-trained and trusted teachers.

When Finnish students take the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) test, they place among the top performing countries! Students in Singapore, which was once notorious for its high-stakes, test-driven system, also perform high on the PISA.

Why is school change in the U.S.A. lagging? Because many courageous educators who want to change education, and make learning meaningful and authentic, are working against a political system that is out of touch with what our kids really need, and the mandate to administer high-stakes, low-value standardized tests. Many great public and private schools are making progress, Hillel among them, and hundreds of educators from 45 schools across the U.S. and the world have even visited us here, in Farmington Hills, Michigan, to learn from our journey.

At Hillel, our change is predicated on years of research. Before we even changed the physical structure of our learning communities, we were gathering evidence gleaned from studies conducted by experts in education and CEOs from Fortune 500 companies for over a decade.  The writing on the wall was clear: The world economy and essential job skills are rapidly changing, and will continue to evolve for the unforeseeable future.  Automation and artificial intelligence will be great disrupters in the coming decades, and those with “robot-proof” skills and talents will have the advantage. A recent Pew Study, The Future of Jobs and Job Training, paints a clear and urgent picture, and validates much of the thinking that is contributing to changes in the way we deliver a Hillel education.

Simply put, schools as they once were are inadequate. Technology and the Internet have permanently changed the way we consume and disseminate information. The ubiquity of technology makes it imperative that we harness its educative and creative potential for good. Schools have an important role to play in this. In addition, brain research has changed the way we think about learning, and is impacting pedagogy, learning environments, and curriculum.  We must create conditions for deeper learning.

At the same time, we must confront an overwhelming amount of evidence that our children and teenagers are suffering from alarming rates of depression and anxiety. Our kids, while busier and more connected than ever, suffer from a sense of isolation and purposelessness. While there are several indicators as to why this is so, top among them are the misuse and overuse of social media, and the extraordinary pressure our kids feel at school, complicated by the fact that they see school as nothing more than a game to get into the “perfect” college.  They do not find school to be meaningfully engaging or authentic; it is just a place to ace tests and projects. Students are fixated on grades and their GPA, not learning.

If educators do little to nothing to improve social-emotional outcomes for our children, our kids will continue to suffer, and they may enter adulthood not only ill-prepared for the workforce, they will also lack perseverance, and the moral barometer they will need.  In fact, from my own reading, it is already happening – and it is a problem.

There is a growing understanding, spreading the globe, why education must change.  It must be met with action and at Hillel, we are changing to prepare ours students for the world they will enter as adults. We focus on the skills that our children will need for life; we offer opportunities for learning and connecting with technology when used properly; and we feel a deep moral obligation to nurture our students’ emotional  and spiritual well-being.

This year, to enhance our change journey, we are sending teams of teachers across the country to visit like-minded educators at U.S. schools that are successful change leaders, doing amazing things. Our goal is for our teachers to observe and learn from their peers, and to share best practices with their Hillel colleagues upon their return.

Visiting other successful schools, mastering the use of our flexible learning spaces, reimaging the curriculum for this century, focusing on student learning that is supported by brain research, intensive and sustained professional development, and creating an environment where students’ curiosity is ignited, leading to hands-on, authentic learning experiences are all a part of the change journey.

I am often asked that because of the contrast between Hillel and many of the local high schools our graduates attend, will our kids be ready for the next phase of their education. The better question is will the high schools be ready for our kids?  Hillel graduates will have the skills they need to excel at any type of high school.  More importantly, they will have the skills needed to be ready for life.



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