By M Ullmann
When I was assigned the task of interviewing the Headteacher of North West London’s Elyon High School for boys, Rabbi Yaakov Lang, I assumed it would entail learning how the school coped with education during lockdown(s) and other reports of how the school has progressed in the 20 years since inception.
What came to light, however, was far more intriguing.
Many people have a perception of the strictly Orthodox (Chareidi) community as one which is resistant to change. One of the most noticeable areas of this is perhaps in matters of technology. Chareidim have an aversion to much of today’s world’s culture and seek to block it from entering their home, be it in the form of television or internet. Even when the latter is used, it will usually only be allowed for specific and genuinely useful purposes.
This attitude to technology came to the fore once more in the recent lockdown, Elyon, along with many other Charedi schools in the country, did not engage with their students through Zoom or Google; phone lessons and assignments was the preferred – if not only – choice. Assignments, however, were involving the use of computers, perhaps more than before Covid kicked in.
One person had their eyes on what was developing. “Mr Akiva Adler proprietor of the school and a successful education entrepreneur understood from the lockdown that these 21st-century boys were keen to learn if they did so in a manner that spoke to them”. Simply put, this meant that as the boys were now using computers at home for their assignments, more work seemed to be getting done.
Elyon boys have always taken their studies seriously, but their enthusiasm was generally reserved for Kodesh – religious studies, due to most of the boys eventually spending the remainder of their unmarried life (after graduating Elyon) in Yeshivah. The ethos of the school is that the most precious commodity we have in life is time; therefore it should be used to its maximum, in all subjects.
Mr Adler had an innovative idea. “We haven’t merely improved our secular studies”, explains Rabbi Lang, “We have transformed it.”
“The school invested hugely to implement a completely new approach to learning. We now have all the boys learning all of their secular studies on laptops”.
The new approach means that each student has a curriculum tailor made for them which they can learn at their own pace from their own laptop. Slide shows, audio lessons, and multiple-choice quizzes are only some of the features of the new programme “Century”. Many practical problems in education are solved this way. Century is an award-winning teaching and learning platform for schools, colleges and universities. Using learning science, artificial intelligence and neuroscience, Century creates constantly adapting pathways for students and powerful assessment data for teachers. Century learns how every student’s brain learns.
“Firstly”, explains Rabbi Lang, “You no longer have 25 boys with varying levels of ability, learning the same material at the same pace from one teacher.” The Headteacher explains what role a teacher plays in the boys’ education at all if everything they need is on a laptop. “It is not a replacement for teachers at all”, he clarifies. “The boys still need someone to motivate them, call on for help, someone to set them homework and review their progress throughout the year”. The teachers are most definitely ever present.
“Secondly, instead of glumly approaching another lesson to stare at a textbook, the boys are enthusiastic to retrieve their laptop from the cupboards and begin studying.”
“Thirdly With each student able to login in to their own system, it makes no difference where they are at any given time. “If a boy is isolating or there is another lockdown, not only will they have material to study, they will be keen to study, logging in remotely from home”.
“Lastly but most importantly, it is super-efficient at tracking the boys’ progress. Not only their educational progress but using a powerful analytics feature, I, as the headteacher, can even tell how long a boy spent on each page, how much material he covered and what targets in education are most suitable for the individual student.”
“The behaviour during these lessons have increased to 99% times better than before, the boys are so motivated!” adds Rabbi Lang.
Perhaps most revolutionary for a Charedi high-school though, is that is broadens the topics the school is thereby able to teach. Boys can now study art, geography and history with increasing interest.
Understandably, such an enhancement requires an enormous new I.T infrastructure, explains Mr Gavriel Wulwick, who is the school’s administrator, and manages the day to day I.T & Network issues.
How does a Charedi school offer its teenage boys a laptop with internet access? How does anyone, for that matter, entrust a laptop in the hands of a teenager during a school class?
“We didn’t merely filter the internet for the boys.” Gavriel answers. “We commissioned a large Computer and Network company to custom build the entire laptop. Our student laptops only offer the features necessary for the boys’ educational material, anything else- doesn’t exist. We have installed a state of the art server and infrastructure to ensure 100% uptime of all laptops and learning”
The final and most pressing question is “Does this affect the boys’ attitude to their religious studies”? After all, the lessons in Talmud and Chumash are conducted using the good old fashion “Gemara” or “Chumash”. Is this not less appealing to the boys once they have been “exposed” to digital studies?
This question was put to the Menahel (head of religious studies) Rabbi Zvi Lebovics. He answered as follows:
“The most high-tech learning will never be able to match the unparalleled influence that a Rebbe has on his students.
When the students are presented with a Rebbe, who has a deep connection and relationship with them, and is passionate, completely engaged, and in love with Torah, the boys feel that true energy, and embrace the kodesh studies, with love and vigour, as in generations before.
At the end of the day, technology has its attraction to young minds and what better way to draw them in to a broad education than harnessing technology in a safe way? Equally, empowering the boys with the tools to use technology, reading them to enter the working world, well prepared.
Mr Adler was asked for a closing remark.
“Don’t think that the ball stops there. We’re only just getting started! What is not available on Century, we have commissioned some of the leading educators in the world to create classes for.
We will do everything in our power to ensure that this curriculum is constantly updated and expanded upon. We will invest further, work, monitor, and continue to make sure that we provide only the very best for our students.
Elyon is not merely embracing change. Elyon is likely to be creating a revolution within the Charedi world of education – and possibly beyond.