Wednesday, February 23, 2011

True Grit in Jewish Education (Part II)

In a simultaneous post, I shared an article by Chip and Dan Heath in which they looked the remake of the film True Grit as a metaphor for achievement. They focused on public health campaigns and a resource site for teachers as examples of "endurance in pursuit of long-term goals and an ability to persist in the face of adversity." They refer to new psychological research that suggests that "grit" in this sense is a key factor in making people successful.

Like many people I have a pension plan. Like most people with such plans, I opened my quarterly statement (a mistake) about a year and a half ago to learn that the nest egg I had been building since 1991 had lost more money in a quarter than I made in a year in salary. I freaked. Of course this is not news. Many people freaked that year. I was lucky. My retirement was years, perhaps decades away. My wife, who has an MBA reminded me (or did I remind her? It was a traumatic time for many of us!) that we were in the pension for the long haul. If we had planned on retiring that year we would be in dire straights, but we had time. We needed to be patient. She (I?) was right. In the most recent statement, the fund had fully recovered to pre-recession levels. Staying the course worked in this case.

How Disruptive Must Innovation Be?
Some of the people I respect the most in Jewish education today have been shouting that our Beit Midrash is on fire: "Religious School is dead, we just don't know it yet." "Synagogues are history. Independent minyanim are the way of the future." "All Jewish learning must be online all the time." "Technology means that Kids and Parents are different than they have been and they will never go back." "We need more engagement." "We need more disruptive innovation." "We need mobile apps."

Contrary to my teenage sons perceptions, I am too young to be a curmudgeon. And, as I said, I respect a lot of the people who are calling for change and disruptive innovation in Jewish life. I am incredibly excited about the work of people like Russell Neiss and Charlie Schwartz (MediaMidrash is only their first act-they rocked the NATE conference with a digital/real world scavenger hunt in Seattle. Click here to read their manifesto on open source Jewish Education which helped them win the competition to go to the GA in New Orleans last year. Brilliant!)

I am wowed by the work of PresenTense, ProjectIncite, The Jim Joseph Foundation Fellows and Leadership Institute (both of which I am a part), ROI Community, the iCenterthe Foundation for Jewish Camp, and Keshet. And these are just the new initiatives that jump into my head at the moment. There are dozens more. I have had the honor of being a reader for grants given by two foundations and the ingenuity of the proposals they were considering was incredible. I can only hope that they all find funding somehow.

We are in the midst of a wide ranging surge of innovation in Jewish learning and living, and it is due in some large part to the encouragement of foundations like Jim Joseph, Lynn and Charles Schusterman, Covenant and many others. It is being heralded by some of the gedolim of Jewish education - I will avoid names lest I leave someone out. And it is being carried out by educators ranging in age from 18 - 68 (an arbitrary number that sounds good to me).

Let me clear. I celebrate all of these developments.

Let me be clear. We have seen all of this before. The hand wringing and worry that is followed or joined by innovation and excitement, which is then followed by the declaration that the old way of doing things is defunct, long live the new way.

It happened in the early days of the internet with the development of wonderful sites like Jewish Family and Life and - a precursor to the current situation.

It happened in the early 70's and gave us the Jewish Catalogs, Chavurot, Shema is for Real and Debbie Friedman (and the musical rebirth that followed).

It happened after the Six Day War when American Jews found their Zionist t-shirts and synagogues advertised all-Israeli Hebrew faculties and switched to modern Hebrew instruction.

It probably happened when Karo and then Isserles finished the Shulchan Aruch, when Rashi's commentaries were first published, when Rambam wrote the Mishneh Torah. We know it happened in Mishanic times when according to Rabba, Joshua ben Gamla invented formal Jewish education outside the home (Bava Batra 20b - 21a).

All of these innovations changed the universe for the teacher and the learner. So let's not be frightened. If being a student of Jewish history has taught me anything, it is that the Jewish people have remained a viable culture because of our ability to adapt to the changing world around us, no matter how disruptive innovations may be (even if you think of exile, inquisition and holocaust as disruptions - although they were much more than that, of course).

Plus ca change, Plus ca la meme GRIT.
It's not really true. The more things change, they do not stay the same. Things do change. I embrace change. But change does not mean throw out everything but the basics and bring in everything new. That would mean that core values are no longer valid. I just sat with a young women preparing her D'var Torah for Parshat Kedoshim. She is working off of the first verse - "You shall be Holy, for I the Eternal, am holy." I asked her what she meant by that.

She answered: "Always do the right thing." And when I asked her to elaborate, she pointed out that verse 16 talks about treating the blind and deaf appropriately. Rather than going into issues of caring for the differently abled, she said, "You know, they can't hear or see if you do the right thing. So I think being holy means doing the right thing, even if no one is looking."

Hmmm. No mobile app. I checked. No tweeting or crowd sourcing. All Torah. Cool.

I think the lesson I want us all to take away from True Grit and the Heath's article is simple. We are in the throws of intense, exciting and wonderful innovations in Jewish living and learning. I pray that we learn the lessons we evaded after the 1990 and 2000 Jewish population studies and A Time to Act came out. We need to stop pointing at programs or institutions as a category and saying "this one is worthy" and "that one is not." We need to spend less time saying the Religious School/Synagogue/Day School/Nursery School/Federation/JCC/name your institution is dead as a concept.

We need to look at each individual institution and see where it is. Some may be beyond salvage, and we owe to ourselves to identify them and retask resources and find ways to re-engage their members in Jewish life if needed. Others may need a dose of innovation or reality or just some introspection to figure out the puzzle of connection Jews to Judaism and to one another.

We already have Torah and all of the textual richness of our heritage. And there is an app for most of them! And the app is great for the person on the go, stuck at the airport or on a train. I still maintain there is no app that can replace a camp counselor or faculty member and a bunch of kids, under a tree at camp talking about Torah and Jewish values. Google Earth is a cool tool on a SmartBoard (just used it last week), and the Skype conversation our fifth graders had with kids in Haifa and Beersheva two Sundays ago was awesome. Neither has value until they sat down with a teacher and talked about the experience. We still need to make meaning of all of the apps. Judaism is not designed for hermits.

We need a little True Grit to help us remember that the point of the exercise is Torah, God and Israel. Everything else is a tool.

So innovate like mad, but don't forget.

My favorite rabbi (because of his name), Ben Bag Bag said it best:

"Click it over and over, because everything is in it."

Why True Grit Matters
in the Face of Adversity (Part 1)

A version of this article appeared in this month's Fast Company, a magazine I refer to a lot on this blog. It is written by Dana and Chip Heath, authors of two great books, Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die and Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard. I invite you to read and comment on it. My thoughts are in a second post. As you read it, think about the implications for Jewish Education and the innovations many of us are exploring.

Why True Grit Matters in the Face of Adversity
By: Dan Heath and Chip Heath,  February 16, 2011

Photograph by Lorey Sebastian/Paramount Pictures/Everett Collection

U.S. smoking rates have been
declining—from 40% of adults
in the 1970s to 21% today—
thanks in part to persistent
education campaigns by
 Truth (below), Campaign for
Tobacco-Free Kids (above),
and New York City (bottom).
Sometimes a slog can be beautiful. In 1990, Sally Herndon became the program manager in North Carolina for Project ASSIST, an antismoking initiative. Her mandate was to improve the public's health by reducing smoking. But how could she prevail against one of the world's most powerful lobbies -- on its home soil of North Carolina? A knockout blow seemed highly unlikely. Rather, Herndon knew that to succeed she would need to chip away at the problem.

Herndon and her team spent two years planning, but just as their rollout began, they suffered a terrible setback. In 1993, the tobacco industry persuaded the state legislature to pass a law mandating that 20% of the space in government buildings be reserved for smoking. Devilishly, the law limited local governments from passing stricter regulation. Herndon called it the "dirty air law."

So the team had to chip away where it could. It started by picking a fight it thought it could win: making schools smoke free. "Even tobacco farmers didn't want their kids to smoke," Herndon says. Her team had to go from school board to school board, one at a time, grinding out tough victories at the local level. By 2000, it had persuaded 10% of the state's districts to go tobacco free. In 2004, it reached 50%. In 2007, it hit 100%, thanks to a statewide ban on smoking in schools.

In the meantime, more winnable fronts opened up: private hospitals, where sick patients often had to walk a gauntlet of secondhand plumes as they entered and exited. Several progressive hospitals declared their facilities smoke free. Then came prisons, the state's General Assembly, and, finally, in 2009, restaurants and bars. Chip, chip, chip.
During Herndon's relentless 20-year campaign in North Carolina, the adult smoking rate had dropped by almost 25%, and millions of people have been spared the effects of secondhand smoke.

Herndon's willingness to withstand such a slog in a challenging environment is an undeniable showcase of "grit." In fact, new psychological research suggests that grit -- defined as endurance in pursuit of long-term goals and an ability to persist in the face of adversity -- is a key part of what makes people successful. In a culture that values quick results -- this quarter's numbers, this week's weight loss, this month's click-throughs -- grit can be an underappreciated secret weapon.

Consider the difference grit makes even in a naturally gritty place: West Point. To be admitted, cadets must have impressive marks on multiple dimensions such as SAT scores, class rank, leadership ability, and physical aptitude. They've been tested as leaders. Yet during the first summer of training, a grueling period known as Beast Barracks, one out of every 20 cadets drops out.

When Angela Duckworth of the University of Pennsylvania analyzed these incoming West Point cadets, she found that a very simple survey gauging grit -- in which people self-assess on statements such as "I finish whatever I begin" -- could predict who would survive the Beast Barracks better than any existing West Point measure. "Grit may be as essential as talent to high accomplishment," Duckworth wrote, and her research has shown the payoff of grit for audiences ranging from Ivy League undergrads to spelling-bee winners. Though, to be fair, the latter prefers to think of it not as "grit" but as "eschewing pococurantism."

Grit is not synonymous with hard work. It involves a certain single-mindedness. An ungritty prison inmate will formulate a new plan of escape every month, but a gritty prison inmate will tunnel his way out one spoonful of concrete at a time.

Grit is often undervalued in business, because businesspeople like breakthroughs, which are good ideas that you'll have next week. ("I'll tunnel out one spoonful of concrete at a time until I can innovate the spoon into a jackhammer.") But even when it's looked upon as a last resort, it works. A U.K.-based website that hosted popular features for teachers, such as a job board and a threaded-discussion forum, decided to revamp its site. For a year, developers worked on the upgrade, but on the big launch day, there was a nasty surprise: The new site was incredibly slow. It sometimes took 30 seconds for a page to load. Traffic plummeted as teachers abandoned it.

Jon Winny, the product manager of the web group, recalls that discussions initially focused on finger-pointing. Software developers insisted the problem was the servers, while the server people insisted the problem was buggy code. "People were looking for the magic bullet that would solve all the problems," he says.

It took about a month for the group to accept that there was no magic bullet. Then came the grit. It took over a large conference room and wallpapered a 40-foot wall with electrostatic whiteboard panels. Then it began to list all the flaws that might contribute to delays, clustering them into eight key stages in the process of serving a web page. Soon, the team had filled the wall with hundreds of hypotheses.

Every morning started with a standing scrum meeting in the conference room, which became known as the "war room." Each day, the group would identify a few of the problems to chase down. "It was slow, slow progress," Winny says. "We'd eke out two or three seconds per week." Notice the similarities to the antismoking effort in North Carolina: a big goal pursued in small increments, as well as a kind of "siege mentality." We are fighting a war on load times..

Four months later, after countless late nights of work, the team shaved the average load time down to five to eight seconds. And the teachers started coming back.

Grit is tough because you don't get the psychic payoffs that come with an exciting discovery or a shift in direction. You rarely get big wins to celebrate. In fact, you may never truly win. You will never have a web page that loads instantaneously or a state with no smokers. All you can do is shave a few seconds off a load time or persuade a few more rural school districts to join your campaign. And that slow, inch-by-inch progress? It's called winning.

A version of this article appears in the March 2011 issue of Fast Company.