The Traditional and the Innovative

by Jacqueline Bull July 26, 2018


harvesting-vegetables-in-levanas-gardenSan Diego Jewish Academy is taking a big new step in the direction of an innovative and creative curriculum this fall. They are opening the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurial Thinking (CIET) and bringing in incoming director Kwaku Aning to head up the program.

“One of the things we are always looking at is how do we combine Jewish tradition and Jewish culture with innovation? How do we make sure that the lessons and the ethics and the teachings of yesterday – our tradition – can become modernized and have meaning as we move into the future?” asked Chaim Heller, head of school at SDJA.

“We realized that things are changing – that the ground is changing underneath us – and we’re not even sure why or where. To address it long-term, we developed an approach that had creativity, innovation and entrepreneurial thinking being gradual progressions that all of our students would go,” Chaim said.

The school wants to prepare its students for the unknown needs of tomorrow. To do that, they are infusing an innovative mindset into all of the curriculum, which the students will be able to carry with them into college and beyond.

Even before implementing the center, SDJA is already an innovative school with a focus on project-based learning, robotics, science labs, et cetera.

“We realized what was missing was a system that would tie everything that we are doing together,” said Chaim. SDJA conducted a serious and in-depth national search to fill the important role of founding director and found Kwaku Aning. Kwaku had been the director of a similar program at a school in Tennessee.

One of Kwaku’s main focal points is creating context or scenarios for learning.

“If you are looking at this from a cognitive science perspective, it is easier for learners to build schema in their long-term memory (which is essentially the building blocks of how we remember any sort of information and how we apply it to anything else) through either an immersive process or when students are situated within a scenario,” Kwaku said.

An example, Kwaku facilitated at his prior school was an integrated unit for a 7th grade science class. The project used CRISPR, the revolutionary new technology that can edit the genome, as an entry point to talk about genetics and create an immersive learning situation. The unit was broken up into three sections.

“One where students debated the moral aspects of using that tool to alter aspects of people, or to alter life. The second part of it the students created really simple [Virtual Reality] examples of how the CRISPR tool edits the genetic code. The third part of that was each group created their demo, had an opportunity to present to the entire grade within a school wide assembly,” Kwaku said.

To implement this type of curriculum at SDJA, they have a three-year plan. First to build the framework or lens of seeing the world as an innovator or entrepreneur, then develop those skills and later take that process and those ideas and have the students begin thinking about tackling problems outside the school.

“We look at this as a continuum. In the younger grades, we teach them creativity, we teach them how to think outside of the box, how to look for alternatives to the traditional … And we teach them how to come up with new and useful and exciting ideas, then we have innovation and that is where Kwaku and his whole program comes in, ‘How do we take these creative ideas and how do we implement them to create something new that adds value?’” Chaim said.

Chaim explained that he expects different and exciting opportunities will naturally develop at the school.

“A lot of schools [say] ‘Look at this process. We got you into this great school, see you later.’ This program is looking at how students can have an impact beyond at SDJA and beyond whatever top tier school they go to,” Kwaku said.

“Out of this center, we are going to offer our students… the opportunity to be a part of innovative ideas that will come out of the school, support our faculty so that they can build — together with Kwaku’s help — build partnerships with universities, think tanks, and research institutions. We’ve been doing this sporadically, but we’ve decided this is where our future is not just as a school, but as a community, as a society,” Chaim said.


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