Or-Tal's Writings

entrepreneur/mother/education revolutionist/high tech addict


Sir Ken Robinson

Back in a Classroom

Last week I went into a classroom as a student for the first time in 20 years. Very important for an education innovator who isn’t a teacher. I am very proud of the fact that motherhood dragged me into the education innovation, but experiencing a classroom as a student isn’t experiencing it as a mother of a student, not even similar to experiencing it as a teacher, I am sure.

You can’t really comprehend the enormousness of the education crisis before you are sitting behind a desk totally dependent on someone else for the pearls of wisdom you’re supposed to get, without any say about how you’re going to get them or when, and then you’re graded for your grasp. Hmmm.

classroom I am an old fashioned schooled one. I grew up without any digital mobile instruments around me, not even a PC. I think that even a walkman was too much of a luxury, had to work and save before I could get one. And I started my journalistic career with my dad’s Hermes typewriter and working in the print house with lead letters.

So the technicality of sitting behind a desk, writing a summary of the class, doing exercises, performing to the rhythm of the conductor – all this should be well imprinted in me.

But it’s not. I’m was slowly and gradually spoiled by various forms of computers. I think it started in the early 90’s with a DOS computer, and grew exponentially until today I spend about 14 hours a day online. I have a desktop, a laptop, a netbook, an iPad and an iPhone. I rarely get disconnected. In fact I can say I am pretty addicted. Can’t go through a day with no connectivity at all. Can’t watch a movie without playing something on my iPhone\iPad at the same time. Ahmm. Yep, in the movies too.

Reading a book is one of the toughest tasks for me. When I was 14, 8th grade, I got the school’s annual award for reading the largest number of books which I borrowed from the school’s library. 400 books. Some days I finished 2+. I couldn’t get enough. Nowadays, give them to me in 140 characters chunks. I am sure if I’ll do the math I’m reading much more today than I have ever – in characters count. But I’m down from 400 books in 10 months, to 1 book in 800 days and the sad thing, I miss the relaxed experience.

This rhythm my life has adjusted to is an immediate rhythm. I’m at The State of Now.

Now think about the generation born into this reality and this rhythm. About the toddlers trying to swipe the photo in the frame on their grandparents’ mantle. How are they expected to take a break for 5-9 hours a day and go back from rockets to horse-and-carriage?

People, when talking about the education crisis, worldwide, know that what you’re seeing is just the tip of the iceberg and think Titanic.


Say “Passion” instead of “Engagement”

“Engagement” seems to be the key word, the major buzz word, where educational technology is concerned. Ask an Edtech entrepreneur what their app or software is doing, and at least 90% of the time the word “engagement” pops up. The other 10% are administrative apps that do not presume to change any classroom or student experience.

Last week I attended several events, one of them was the Demo Day of the first wave of graduate startups from the MindCET incubator. MindCET is the first and currently only incubator for educational technology startups in Israel. Obviously, there wasn’t a single startup that skipped the word “engagement”. And there’s nothing unusual about it: Dozens of edtech startups I met during SXSWedu and SXSW also made sure they slip “engagement” into every pitch or presentation. At one moment during last week’s presentations I found myself trying to build an image to go along with “engagement”. That promise of engagement seems to be the main attractions teachers feel towards educational technology: something to keep their students wide-eyed, open-mouths, hung on the teacher’s every word. Something like hypnotized. With built-in recorders in their heads.engagedclass

And then today I read this wonderful blog post by Angela Maiers, “an Educator, Author, Speaker passionate about literacy, learning, and power of social media”. “The Passion Gap” is the title, and she tells that “As a teacher at the K-2 level for 14 years, I had the privilege of spending each day with children eager to learn and explore. Yet this begins to change somewhere around the fourth grade.”

She doesn’t mention the word “engagement”, but points out that in Education conferences “you are far more likely to hear the words “assessment,” “standardize,” “common core” and “pedagogy” than you are to hear the word “passion.”…” And let me add, as an edtech entrepreneur, that I am much more likely to hear the word “engagement” in tech solutions for the classroom, and I don’t think I heard the word “passion”.

So what is passion? I love her quote: “Passion is what you must do, even if you have to suffer to do it”. I should know, I experience passion in what I do and it is costing me every day. Because at some point I decided pursuing my passion is more important than getting a salary. Silly me?

Angela Maiers refers to the human teachers, not the tech they might use or not use, as the first circle needed for students to find their passion. Sir Ken Robinson is devoting his messages and books to this topic too; The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything, is a New York Times bestseller and has been translated into 21 languages and Finding Your Element: How to Discover Your Talents and Passions and Transform Your Life has just been published.” The Element is the point at which natural talent meets personal passion. When people arrive at the Element, they feel most themselves, most inspired and achieve at their highest levels”, is the introduction to his first book.

Yet, Edtech startups are still mostly concerned about engagement of students in the classroom. How does this contribute to helping students find their passion? Or element?

Education systems are so hung on educational technology to reform, change and modify. But obviously, no real revolution can be achieved without striking the personal passion fuse of each and every student.

Touching kids’ passion is what I’m doing with my new startup. More to come.

That (ADHD) Epidemic Again

To write or not to write, that is the question. But I am writing out of a sense that this needs to be shared. It really does. My son agrees with me and gave me his consent.

There are so many parents in a similar position and many many more kids who find themselves in this place, similar to my son’s.

He is almost 15 years old. He was diagnosed as a gifted child a little more than 7 years ago, when he was going from 1st grade to 2nd grade. At the same time he was diagnosed as ADD, and last year it was changed to ADHD.

So we already know he is a smart kid. Over the past 3 years he’s been using Ritalin on and off, mainly for exams and was doing more than OK in school, at the special class for the gifted. But Ritalin made him feel sick most of the time and we decided it’s time to question the treatment and took him off it several months ago.

Let me tell you that he is a happy kid, he loves to laugh and to make other people laugh. He is very sociable, always has some good friends around. He likes sports, especially soccer and used to do Capoeira too. He likes to travel and loves to eat and cook (when I let him). He is a very creative artist. Been drawing and photographing since a very young age and he is also very musical. He is now in his 5th year playing the trumpet.

Which brings me to the recent story. 3 months ago he started 9th grade in this very lucrative high school – The National High School for the Arts “Thelma Yellin”, as a trumpet player in the Jazz department. The school year started just wonderful. Everything excited him – from the new students he befriended, to the teachers who seem kind and caring, to the whole “Fame” like atmosphere the school offers.

But while this school offers a lot it demands no less. The current class system comprises of 8 core topics (like math, English, history, chemistry etc.) and 5 Jazz topics, from The History of Jazz to Improvisation. That’s 12 different topics to master. That’s a lot. And it’s especially a lot for an ADHD student.

While ADHD people have more receptors open and apparently can grasp more than the average person, a lot of what their mind grasps is irrelevant information, or “noise”. The noisier their environment the more noise – exponentially they are grasping, and the less relevant information stays in.

That is, of course, where Sir Ken Robinson’s words echo in my brain. Are we having a global ADHD epidemic??

Epidemic or no epidemic we are sitting with our son at the teacher-parents conference. The teacher nods her head and points to the low grades our son has achieved this semester. It’s very strange, given his IQ, she says, not in these words exactly. And then the motivational talk is directed at my son. She’s really nice, and I am sure he is not the first ADHD student to have passed under her wings. Still the words come out: “You must try harder” – and I see how his eyes are getting narrower. “You must concentrate”, his shoulders sink. “You need to think what can improve your performance in the classroom”, or something similar and I feel the lump in my throat and the humidity in my eyes.

“He can’t”, I say. “It’s not a decision he can make. It’s not an action to perform.” And I am thinking about this epidemic. “It’s like an illness or a handicap.” (Would you ask a kid to be taller so he can score better in Basketball?)

The teacher looks at me. She seems surprised. More at herself than at me, or perhaps I am imagining it. “Yes, I know”, she smiles an understanding smile: Illnesses are treated with medicines.

And so once again I find myself at this crossroad, where in order to allow my son to grow and develop and learn in the school he desires and deserves – I must sedate him. Is he going to need Ritalin to thrive in the real world? For higher education? Would he need Ritalin to work with his fellow band players? At which point does the ADHD ceases to be an epidemic and continues to be an evolution? And how much of this epidemic is caused by outdated education systems?

Want or Don’t? That is the Question (To Learn or Not)

Last week I drove up to Jerusalem for the closing ceremony of the National Competition for Young Scientists in Israel, where my daughter was one of the finalists and winners. Her research paper dealt with some aspect of quantum computation. I think one of the reasons she chose this particular topic was because everybody kept telling her this is the most advanced and complicated topic in physics, and that at 16 she was too young to research it. Shaii Kiriati would only see such a phrase as a challenge.

Of the 3 topics she was offered, this field seemed to her the most exciting. Her research paper was a part of a doctorate work by Oded Zilberberg, a Weizmann Institute PhD student, who served as her guide and mentor. 11th-12th graders in Israel can choose to perform a research instead of taking a test in one of their expanded topics for the Bagrut (the Israeli Baccalaureate). Shaii’s choice was to do a research in physics instead of a test. Sure, she could have spit her physics books onto the test papers and get a perfect score, but that’s not learning, she explained to me. And learning is what she wanted to do.

During the year she worked on the research she learned and read and developed in a way not possible within the regular school walls. She has earned tools and abilities she wouldn’t have been able to get in a classroom.

~Research and the Program for the Gifted~
44 students reached the final stage at the Competition in Jerusalem. I was happy to discover not all research papers were pure science and math. Some papers dealt with history, anthropology, civics, sports, cinema and fashion. The one thing all participants have in common is their desire to learn.

My daughter has been studying in a special class for the gifted since the beginning of the program in 3rd grade. One of the things they told us when we were first introduced to it was that the kids who passed the tests and were invited to join all share a desire to learn and a high level of learning abilities and that the program aims to cultivate, support and encourage these qualities.

Yet of all students in the gifted program in our city only 1 reached the finals. Only 2 bothered to do a research. The rest of the kids couldn’t be bothered. Their main desire today is to be over and done with school. Learning? They couldn’t care less. I think from all finalists only one more student came from a special program for the gifted.

What does it mean? That even a special program for the gifted couldn’t rescue the desire to learn from being repressed in a school environment. On the other hand it takes some very unique students with their environments – school and home – to keep the learning fire on. There’s no stopping these learners now.

~The Education Revolution and the Learning Desire~
Yesterday I watched again a TED presentation by Sugata Mitra from 2010 where he presented the amazing learning abilities kids poses and how they can teach themselves. I also watch the lengthier and more detailed presentation here. One key phrase he repeats in both is actually a quote by Sir Arthur C. Clarke, the science fiction writer, saying “when learners have interest – education happens”.

It made me stop and reflect on all education reforms and revolutions and innovations I came across over the past several years I am so heavily into it. That is the key, isn’t it? The learners’ interest.

Sir Ken Robinson published an interview with teens about his dream school on his website and it hit me again – all these dreams are great for those who want to learn.

I went back to presentations I have watched before like the famous 2006 TED “Do Schools Kill Creativity” by Sir Ken Robinson, 2007 “21st century pedagogy” by Greg Whitby or the 2010 presentation by Jesse Schell “The Future is Beautiful”. Went  over conversations about technology, my own post about Waldorf education and the non-tech approach, it all comes down to one single assumption: that kids actually want to learn. That they have an interest.

~Learning: a Survival Instinct~
My daughter thinks learning is a survival instinct we are all born with. Very similar to our need to breath, eat and drink. “How else would a baby learn a language in 2 years?”, she wonders. And me, if I had to make a research, I would start with the young scientists and investigate what helped their learning crave survive 12 years of school. My guess is, that’s where the education revolution should start.

Needed: A Goal for Ongoing Revolution

I sit on my chair, in my study and I scratch my head. I feel like I have a mystery to crack. The mystery concerns the future of education, or rather the mysterious revolution in education. I hear great people (which I would love to meet in person) say “We need to change the DNA of education” – Greg Whitby and “Every education system in the world is being reformed at the moment, and it’s not enough. Reform is no use any more. Because that’s simply improving a broken model. What we need is not evolution, but a revolution in education” – Sir Ken Robinson.

But the ground is not shaking. It’s not even purring. Nothing. A year goes out and a year goes in and I ask myself how to crack this mystery. What would make a revolution in education? What does it take? Where to start?? And where are we heading?

Can you imagine the French Revolution or any other for that matter being a success without a clear goal?? An #edchat has just ended on twitter, on the topic “What should be the single focus of education if we could agree on only one goal?” . There was no clear agreement. Just a lot of similar opinions, wants, aspirations and – OK, some common goals.

We are having a revolution. Yet, in most cases, around the world, kids are still sitting in rows, facing a blackboard (or white) and the teacher, writing in (paper) notebooks and reading (paper) books. Hard to feel a big revolution this way. And indeed – this is no revolution. Even those schools who try to modify, add and change are not really “in the revolution”.

Yet a revolution is happening.

Like a good Kafka book – it seems there’s an oppressed mass rebelling against a mysterious ruler, only the ruler is an unclear one, and the rebels go in different directions.

One group of rebels go towards technology. Let’s put some more of this to get us what we want. Another thinks creativity is the key. Other think personal values, global citizenship, preparation for employment. Those are all very nice targets – but can they define a revolution??

None of the above, sorry. Or all of them – depends on your perspective. But the true goal of the Education Revolution, or Education Reform Movement is to alter the goal of education totally.

Let’s start with the name: no more EDUCATION.
It’s about time we start talking about LEARNING.

That’s the first change in perspective.

While education is defined in the dictionary first as “the act or process of educating or being educated” and second as “the knowledge or skill obtained or developed by a learning process”, learning is defined first as “The act, process or experience of gaining knowledge or skill”.

It doesn’t seem like a grand difference – but here’s what I see. Education is given, it’s all in passive – while learning is a take type of action, all active.

While education is something determined by the state and forced upon students, learning is what the students are actually taking with them.

Some students don’t’ get the education they require – because they don’t get to be heard. Their personal desire or interest in a topic has no place in a totalitarian regiment of education. Curiosity is often turned off in school, as it is all about getting through some oiled machine, with pre-defined targets. And not about true development which would often change targets and adjust to modifying reality.

I mean, does it make sense to decide in 2010 that in 2022 today’s first graders will have to finish school by passing exams in Math, English, History, Literature, Bible and perhaps 1-2 more topics? Can you really say that this is education?? Can this really help future generations get a job? Or be happy?

But if the 2022 graduates will finish school knowing how to learn whatever interests them, and starving for more knowledge, then I can say that future generations are safe.
Well, at least safer then they are today.

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