At the global scale, Israeli youth are falling behind in academic achievements. According to recent research conducted by PISA (Program for International Student Assessment), Israel is in the bottom 40% in mathematics and science. Israel consistently trails behind countries such as China, Singapore, Japan, South Korea, Switzerland and Austria but surpasses countries such as Peru, Indonesia, Qatar and Colombia. Yet Israel has the highest density of startups per capita in the world, and is ranked #2 in innovation, according to the World Economic Forum’s competitiveness report. So one might rightfully ask, how is a country so successful in technological entrepreneurship, demanding extensive knowledge in mathematics, science, finance and business, be so far behind in math and science education on a global scale?
Mr. Andreas Schleicher, Director for Education and Skills and Special Advisor on Education Policy to the Secretary-General at the OECD – aptly named the “Education Minister of the World” – was recently in Jerusalem for an international conference of education ministers. He was asked a similar question. Mr. Andreas’ response was thoughtful, “You don’t have more talent than other countries, but I checked it out thoroughly and I think your secret is that you know how to take advantage of talent better than others.”
So how do we take advantage of talent In Israel? I would argue that the answer to this question lies in the gap between what is necessary to be able to excel in standardised testing, versus what is required to succeed as an entrepreneur and innovator. The PISA survey evaluates students based on their ability to answer specific questions in a certain way. As with all standardised testing, the questions have been solved by the test’s authors. Students need only to write those same answers to achieve a high score. And neither the Israeli education system nor the Israeli culture, are good at teaching children to do this. This ‘shortcoming’ appears to motivate children to become innovators and entrepreneurs.
By the time children finish kindergarten, they tend to be intellectually and emotionally prepared to begin formal studies. Surprisingly, and despite their growing intellectual, emotional and social abilities, once children are in elementary school, their curiosity and motivation to learn, wanes – this phenomenon is in education systems across the board. Children at school are instructed to absorb knowledge for the sole purpose of regurgitating it down the track. Teaching methods train children to think in normative and socially acceptable patterns. Children are evaluated using testing methods, which require all of them to answer the same questions in the same way. Generally, children are not encouraged to ask questions, suggest novel solutions, ideas or interpretations, or to initiate. This method of teaching, while standard worldwide, is not particularly engaging or effective. Indeed the methods used in the Israeli public education system are not any different. However, Israeli culture, in general, is highly tolerant of out-of-the-box thinking, even in its educational institutions. Being open to new ideas is a great start, but it is not sufficient. Children must be taught how to come up with new ideas by leveraging their knowledge, and then how to push these ideas forward. Unfortunately, these skills are not generally taught in public schools. Luckily, Israel is highly accommodating to informal educational programs as there are many alternative institutions in Israel with novel approaches to education that are pushing Israeli youth forward by teaching them the skills they need for the future.
Gvahim (Heights, גבהים) and Magshimim (Accomplish, מגשימים) are two programs that teach us a lot about educating children to become innovators. These extra-curricula education programs facilitate computer science and cyber learning for gifted children, ages 12-18. They were initially founded to better prepare Israeli youth for mandatory military service in the intelligence units of the Israel Defense Forces, but today these programs are partly responsible for educating Israel’s skilled, high tech workforce. How do they do this? Transferring skills and practical knowledge are seen less valuable than the learning process itself. Adi Sharabani, founder and CEO of Skycure, an army reservist and one of the programs’ instructors explains, “What we do in these programs is we take a child’s ability and we make him or her run with it. The purpose, therefore, is not to teach the kids a certain skill in the sense of how-to. The purpose is the vector, the movement, the progress itself, as opposed to the final goal.” When asked about the program’s success, Adi adds their secret lies in making the children get stuck:
“We want to figure out how to teach a child to take a skill that he has acquired and apply it to something completely different, how to transfer it to a new area. And the way to do that is by bringing him to a place where he is stuck, where he does not know the answer and no one will give it to him… Therefore, true growth, true teaching, comes from that place of not knowing the solution and having to come up with one anyway.”
Most importantly, this approach goes beyond cyber or coding, it is applicable to all aspects of life. It’s about putting oneself in a position where finding a solution is challenging and thought-provoking. The core of the program’s success and popularity is based on the idea that true learning comes when one seeks knowledge for oneself. Gilad Lifshitz, a 17-year old participant in Magshimim, describes how the learning takes place:
“We are thrown into the deep end without giving it too much thought. We are given basic coding skills and then we are challenged by complex assignments such as building a chess game, without instructions, in an auto didactic way.”
Daring to solve something on your own is a pillar of entrepreneurship. Equally significant, the programs contradict the image of the teacher as the expert and the inexhaustible source of knowledge. Adi recalls
“At first, when we started training school teachers, it looked like it was going to be a complete flop for the simple reason that the teachers did not have enough experience and expertise in the field. But what happened next was fascinating. It created scenarios whereby teachers looked a kid in the eye and said honestly, ‘I don’t know’. This suddenly brings us back to a place where teachers and students are actually in dialogue; they are brainstorming. One does not simply feed data to the other, rather they both grow together, and they reach places no one has been to. The teacher, in this approach, is not a funnel of facts, but a conveyor of methodology.”
Likewise, assessment methods in these programs are also radical. Rather than measuring the students’ successes, the instructors measure their failures as a better indicator of their learning. “If you manage to solve 20 exercises, I, as an educator, have wasted your time. Since you already knew how to solve [the exercises], you made no progress, you’ve learned nothing.” If these two programs are any sort of indicator, making students search for the answers and challenging them to the point of failure, prepares them well for startup careers.
A few weeks ago, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared the establishment of the National Center for Cyber Education, with an aim to “increase the number and raise the level of young Israelis for their future integration into the Israeli security services, industry and the academic world”. In existing cyber education programs in Israel, students mostly learn skills. Not specific knowledge. Programs like Gvahim and Magshimim demonstrate the extent to which youth in Israel are seen as colleagues. The youth are not only the future, they are the present. Sagi Bar, former Head of Human Capital Development at the Israeli Cyber Bureau and CEO of the Magshimim Program believes “it is an attitude that views children as people with an incredible ability to absorb, understand and deal with challenges. We encourage their creativity and entrepreneurship, and then we let go and see what happens. They always take it much farther than we’ve ever imagined”.
Israeli children may not score high on PISA tests, but they certainly don’t fall behind when it comes to learning skills. It is the learning process and not the test results, which are crucial. It is not so much what our children know, but rather how they came to know it. So let your kids get stuck. They will always learn something on the way.