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Or-Tal's Writings

entrepreneur/mother/education revolutionist/high tech addict

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teens

What Will You Do After High School?

This question is bound to get different answers from people in different locations. In America kids will probably discuss the college they’re going to. In Israel, where we live, most kids will discuss the obligatory military service they are going to spend the next 2-4 years in, depending on the program or job they will be chosen for. College decisions arrive at a later stage for the Israel young people, normally into their 20’s. Well after the teen years are over.

In both cases society determines the route. Only for Israeli kids there really is no choice. It’s the law. In some cases kids are sent by the army to acquire academic education, and repay by a longer military service – served at a more professional job. Still, becoming an entrepreneur immediately after high school is a sweet dream.

Israel is often called “The Silicon Wadi”, referring to the Silicon Valley of course. I admit that after visiting the valley last month it seems like a pretty pretentious title to me. But statistically, after the Silicon Valley, Israel holds the highest rate of hi tech startups per capita and visitors get terribly enthusiastic about entrepreneurship in Israel. The spirit of innovation seems to be found everywhere. You go to any networking event and the adrenaline sky rockets.

Israel excels in startups, innovations and life changing inventions. ICQ and the IM technology must be one of the best known worldwide ventures. But there are so many other inventions, used worldwide daily – all developed by Israelis in Israel and I am not sure people are aware of their Israeli background. Intel’s Pentium chips, the cellular phones technology, Firewall, phone camera chip, voice mail, drip irrigation systems for agriculture, electric cars, solar power panels, Tzunami detectors, Given Imagine swallow pills for disease diagnosis, Baby Sense monitors for sudden infant death prevention, medical and aesthetic applications of lazer technology, the Copaxon – the drug that’s used to fight multiple sclerosis, from cardiac stents and eye stents all the way to seamless garments, and back to technology.

What’s going on in this country? Israel seems to have produced more scientists and techies per capita than any other country in the world. Same goes for Nobel prize winners. As Meir Brand, Google Israel CEO is saying here: “The foundation of Israel itself could be seen as an entrepreneurship project. The pioneers who came to build Israel from scratch they were real entrepreneurs”.

This foundation, along with that weird detour that takes kids from high schools and turns them into soldiers before releasing them into colleges and universities, probably plays a part in the end result for our tiny 7 million people country.

Still, having said that, times are changing. Being a mother now, just about to send my first born to the army, I would much rather that she be allowed to develop her world changing entrepreneurship venture right now. Who knows where her head will be in 2 or 3 years?

So I’ve started to develop a new plan: I am calling to start an entrepreneurship unit within the IDF. That military service has gone way past an army or fighters. I was a journalist in the army. My friend was a singer and entertainer. Another friend’s son is a trumpet player soldier. My cousin was a teacher during her military service and helped kids from poor areas get their high school diplomas. There are hiking guides soldiers who guide school field trips. The military service is about servicing the community you live in, more than actually fighting in combat (god forbid). So for this country I suggest a new unit. Let kid entrepreneurs develop their startups during their military service and optimize the contribution they make.

The idea popped in my head following the visit with the Thiel Fellowship – 20 Under 20 – in San Francisco last month. While Thiel wants to take kids in their teens and let them develop their entrepreneurial ventures in the Silicon Valley before they become college slaves, I think there are plenty of amazing resources here to take such kids, who are going to serve their community and let them develop any world changing or community affecting venture within their military service right here, in the Silicon Wadi. I believe mentors will be standing in line to donate their time to such a program. Not to mention what this can do to all communities throughout the country.

I challenge all politicians and wanna be politicians to make it happen and call on the high tech entrepreneurial community to join hands in making this vision a reality.

Education Re-Form, For the Sake of the Future

After a couple of years of intense and on-going research into education world wide, trends, fashions, innovation, methods, approaches, doctrines, special education, unique education, religious education, private education, public education, with technology, without technology, with money or without – I need to put in writing just a few of my observations and conclusions, to date.

The future of education lies with the recognition of each student as a unique individual.

The acceptance of uniqueness and diversity is the key to a better future for all and greater success in education achievements.

Old news: Some kids are good in Math and lousy in literature. Some are great in Lit and lousy and Math. One kid can excel in Math and Lit, but he sucks in Physics and Art. There are kids who suck at all topics, but are social stars. There are those who excel at everything, but are still unhappy. Oh, there are so many types of kids, and yet there are no types – because every child is his own special one and an only package of can-do and can’t-do, of wants and non’s. Still the teachers get a classroom filled with many different kids. Usually the things that bind those kids together in one classroom is their age and sometimes where they live or the financial background of their families. That’s a very artificial binder. Look around your adulthood friends and make your own deductions.

So this classroom, turns into a class, a group of kids, now has to study fractions. Great. But while some kids get it in a blink, others may find it difficult, or maybe not difficult, but simply boring, so boring they can’t concentrate or get what the teacher is talking about. And at the end of the day they have homework or exams and behold, some kids get less then a perfect score. Fractioning this group titled a classroom into mini groups….

Greg Whitby, the Executive Director leading a system of approximately 80 Catholic schools in greater Western Sydney Australia, talks about uniformity Vs. diversity here:

One of my own eye openers is my youngest son. A second grader he told me that he loves to learn, but only when he chooses and what he chooses. While the professional educators around him criticize his independent thinking and work constantly to turn him into a uniformed student in his classroom, who does everything the same as the rest of the class, I am observing and here are my findings:

He hates his Arithmetic class and homework. It drives him nuts. Yet, when his father went abroad he produced an amazing shopping list – listing the prices of the toys, after he converted them from US dollars to Israeli Shekels. He can also Arithmetic percentage of time, to know exactly when his eggplants will be ready for harvesting on FarmVille.

How important is it, for a kid like that, to go through a methodical, framed, graded system of teaching him Arithmetic? To be honest – there is no simple answer. As we are in an education system – the education is systematic, automatic, and cannot be adjusted to individual persons. Or can it?

In an education system that is based solely on the transference of knowledge or information from a single teacher to a class of kids – there is indeed no room for recognition of the individual.

So, what’s the purpose of the education? Have we forgotten about it?

I think if a child knows how to calculate foreign exchange rates and percentage (on time!) – he is well beyond simple Arithmetic. So what’s the point of insisting on teaching him one booklet after the other of things he is way passed? Is the purpose of the education here is to transfer the specific books into the child, or is the purpose is that the student actually gets a knowledge in the particular subject and knows how to use it?

Well, neither is enough. The major declared goal of education has always been about preparing the young students to their adult life, to acquiring professions and making a living. Arithmetic was important to learn, and very methodically, in a time where trades men managed their own little businesses and they didn’t have computers or even calculators.

But what does today’s education system do to prepare today’s students to tomorrow’s professions? Those professions which have not yet been born? What did yesterday’s education system did to turn me into an internet communications specialist? Or a multi player online game designer? Or my neighbor to a genome researcher or my friend to a researcher of the structure and function of the ribosome? Answer: nothing. Those are individuals who are born with an important quality or two: curiosity and the ability to ask and to teach themselves.

Self teaching is indeed a quality some lucky people are born with, but eventually, all people are in need of this quality. The amounts of information are growing constantly. It is not possible to transfer all this knowledge to any individual. The diversity of occupation is increasing, allowing people to develop expertise in what really interests them. Turning some knowledge they acquired in school irrelevant.

Those who are afraid of the individualism of education often talk about the importance of wide education. But is it really necessary for a physicist to study how to analyze a poem? Or is it enough to assign reading assignments, to those who do not read enough on their own? And while you assign those books to read, how about some classic films? Classical music? Classical rock bands? Tours in various museums world wide and in archaeological sites around the world? If we are talking about expanding horizons let’s do it with pleasure – and not with pressure. Not every subject in school requires grading and marks.

And as individuals are encouraged to learn and expand their horizons let’s allow for one more thing to change in the classroom: let the kids express and teach – teach other kids, teach the teacher. Because only when the teacher becomes a learner, then he can become a learning enabler. A real 21st century educator.

Here Greg Whitby talks about the 21st century new teaching DNA:

My Vision For Future of Learning

It’s my first attempt at a video presentation… better will probably follow.

Happy Birthday, Shaii!

Been inspired to write something a little more personal today. It’s a special day today. It’s my oldest daughter’s 15th birthday. It’s on this day, 15 years ago, that I became a mom, and my husband became a dad, and together we officially became a family, family with child.

In three weeks we will be marking our 23rd wedding anniversary. A wedding is also a life changing event. But it’s not the same as having your first child. And it takes years to realize just how much a life changing event this is.

Beyond experiencing joy and pride over the little person emerging, an adult responsibility is revealed and takes over. A new grasp of reality is happening. My father’s stories, which he told us when we were kids, so full of humor and wit, about his childhood adventures in war struck Europe and all of his solo travels all done before he was 10 years old, suddenly took a turn. The full responsibility over the lives we have created is still not sinking in even 15 years later.

shaiibaby

Different parents have different perspective of their responsibility towards their generated next generation. I always had a tendency to take things seriously.

And so, over the past 15 years, and a total of 3 kids, I’ve assumed responsibility for their health and manners, well being and education. I’m responsible for the set of tools with which they will set off to meet their adulthood. Until they are capable of it, it is still my responsibility to make sure they learn how to eat balanced meals and behave well and get that promising education.

Shaii, 15 years old today, has 3 years to high school graduation. I think I’ve done pretty well with her. She knows how to learn. She was born curious and will probably always be. This makes her an open and friendly girl, who never gets bored. She will make the most of every environment she’s in.

I still wish, though, that I could do more for her, and for my boys, and for all learners, to make that education work better for all types of learners and for the march forward.

Happy birthday, Shaii.

Games are the new School

Games development is slowly becoming a central and one of the largest global industries. Right after our basic human needs, where satisfaction and esteem start, and self-actualization follows, right there you will find games. It’s not news that games promise entertainment, and looking at cubs playing you can easily deduct the relationship between play and development, but it is becoming clearer that games are the key to learning and education.
bear_cubs_playing
There are of course the official “learning games”. A contradiction in term for kids: “You either let me play and have fun or you want me to study. Don’t try to trick me”, would be the kids words, even if not phrased exactly this way.

But as more social aspects get into the game play, the lesser is the need to insert formal learning curriculum into the games.

Every game is a learning game.

Over the past two years I have been researching games for all ages. Trying almost every new game I came across I’ve been having a very good time. I have an accessible focus groups, my own kids, now ages 7, 11 and 15, and they help me understand how the games work for them. There is a constant struggle between the pure fun time and the school-homework time. Most of the time they do not neglect their school obligations, but I can’t say that the afternoon school time is very obviously contributing more to their learning than the games they play.

To count just a few of the skills they have developed through online games – written verbal communications, social skills, languages (our first language is Hebrew, but in all games the communications are in English, normally begun at 2nd grade), strategic thinking and planning, design, math, memory, self management under stress, commercial and negotiations abilities, persistence and more.

Those game skills have contributed a lot to their school performance. Higher grades in English and math, better understanding and commendable discussions in history classes, improved memory in text based tests, better technical performance and computer command, and great social skills, including the ability to negotiate local peace agreements…

I am a very proud mother but I am not talking only about my kids. These skills are showing up clearly with any kids who play more online games. Observing a class or groups of kids it is easy to detect who is more exposed than others to such games.

The mix of games and education is not new, but the balance is changing. How to mix the two today, that is the question. How best use the need for games and entertainment to improve learning skills and acquire knowledge and education, and how to turn studies into a lot more fun?

Many teachers have been doing it for years: Developing fun activities in the classroom. In the recent years, however, more educators are exposed to the new digital possibilities, such as online games. The question is: can existing games be used for the school curriculum or do game developers need to create new games, according to this curriculum.

I believe a new path has to be created. A middle one. One that would enable adoption of existing games with minor modification to school curriculum, while at the same time, adopting the school curriculum to the games reality.

And this is not only because the games reflect a new reality.

More reading on the subject:
Games Learning Society Conference
Education and Learning Commons
The European ARGuing (Alternate Reality Game) project

Facebook Therapy for Teens

I have a privilege. I am connected to so many young people, my kids age, around the world, and basically invited to peek into their lives. I am not involved. I dare not speak. But I look and listen and try to grasp their reality. I have an opportunity my parents never had.

So, first of all, I am flattered, of being trusted enough. Now comes the observation. What are they talking about? What is the mood? What impresses them or occupies them? How much of their social life is managed online, and how much is offline?

And when I am looking for the answer to this question, I wonder about the difference between online and offline socializing. What does online give, that offline can’t (there’s been enough talk about the other way around…).

There has been so much criticism about the online social life. About kids clinging to their facebook-myspace pages for hours a day. Fears regarding net-safety and cyber bullying. Scares about the re-wiring of these young brains. Talks about their physical shape, changed by the growing number of sitting hours that they spend each day.

But I would like to point out some really great things that the online socializing does and might be overlooked.

I don’t know if anyone ever bothered to run a statistics about the percentage of teens who kept a diary or expressed themselves in various forms of writing 10 or 20 years ago. But I do know they percentage of teens who do it nowadays is extremely high. According to a recent publication from PewInternet.org 93% of teens ages 12-17 use the Internet. 64% of teens are content creators. Writers.

What does it mean? And why is it of significance? I am thinking writing and biblio-therapy here. Venting.

I remember what it was to be a teen. Flooded with extreme emotions. Living a daily drama. Struggling to gain my independence, discover and re-shape my self. Wanting to do well at my studies, yet stay alive socially. I used to write a diary. I also wrote hundreds of poems. That was my way of venting. However, I didn’t have too many sharing options, and at times, the feeling you are alone, was the toughest. This sort of writing was more “for the drawer”. Looking at my kids I see something else.

What social networks give them is the opportunity for a natural support group. The discovery that they are not alone. This is a great social achievement.

So once we take a break from criticizing teens’ “inappropriate” online behavior, let’s talk about the cultivation of a new type of teen empathy. It might be difficult for them to note in the classroom that one of the students is ‘depressed’, but once he wrote it on his FaceBook status it generates a flood of comments. Suddenly the depressed is not alone, they “joined a club”. There is a kind of comfort in the knowledge that you are not alone. That’s the start of therapy.
fbdperssd1
So I am watching with wonder and see the budding of empathy, caring, humor and intellect of the next generation. I am also seeing how different this blossom is, from any previous generations.

Kids Out of the Box

During the Purim school vacation I drove my 11 year old son with his classmate to the yearly conference of StartupSeeds. On the way the two boys spoke of their creative ideas, using phrases like “thinking out of the box” and giving a new meaning to fun.

I liked it. I like their creativeness, their openness and their ambition. The conference hosted some 80 kids or more. Formally it is directed at kids ages 13 and up, but there are individual cases where it appeals to younger kids too. The warmest part of the event for me was meeting Oz Ben-Hamo and Andrey Boukaty, two 17 year old kids, who started the http://joinmylife.co.il/en/ project during the last Gaza war. Their aim was to explain to the world what kind of life are the kids from southern Israel forced to live. I “met” them online, through facebook conenctions and gladly helped them translate texts and posts to English. The blog is still alive, though the frequency of posts declined and not all posts are translated to English.

One other story that came out of StartupSeeds and made headlines on the same week was the story of Yuval Shoshan, a 12th grader, who made his first ‘exit’. He started his web venture at the age of 14.5. He received mentoring through StartupSeeds from Yaniv Golan, one of the founders of Yedda, which was sold to AOL. Yuval’s venture is a rating site – www.opinion.co.il – allowing users to rate books, music, movies, blogs and restaurants. Users can sort opinions according to genres and rate the raters and the ratings. Shoshan sold the venture, among other things, because in a short while he will have to go into the mandatory military service for 3 years.

StartupSeeds is doing a great work, obviously. I just wish there was a growing awareness of the need to educate for entrepreneurship. Some kids have it like a natural gift, others need to learn it. But entrepreneurship is a must skill for life.

Beware the Social Networks!

About 12 hours ago “The Mail Online” has published an article titled: “Social websites harm children’s brains: Chilling warning to parents from top neuroscientist“.

The top neuroscientist quoted is Lady Susan Greenfield. She is an amazing 59 year old woman and a specialist on the physiology of the brain, a professor at the department of pharmacology at Oxford university in the UK.  A serious, serious academic.

I am dedicating this post to her achievements and to the Ada Lovelace day, and to this pledge.

I had to read the article several times to try and understand what she is saying. After all, she is a top neuroscientist. You can’t simply dismiss what she says. Being a mother of 3 children – I want to know.

I am already poisoning my kids with un-organic food, we live in a polluted city, there are cellular antennas in the neighborhood, not to mention their personal mobile phones. Am I doing some more damage to their brains by letting them have a Facebook account??

Anxiously I was looking for scientific hints in the article. The research conducted… the methods and subjects… anything to learn a little more. But the most scientific reference I found was: she “believes repeated exposure could effectively ‘rewire’ the brain”.

OK.

The article quotes her saying “Sites such as Facebook, Twitter and Bebo are said to shorten attention spans, encourage instant gratification and make young people more self-centered” and then adds the quote “My fear is that these technologies are infantilizing the brain into the state of small children who are attracted by buzzing noises and bright lights, who have a small attention span and who live for the moment.”

Last month, the same lady, who is a member of the house of lords said “I often wonder whether real conversation in real time may eventually give way to these sanitized and easier screen dialogues…, in much the same way as killing, skinning and butchering an animal to eat has been replaced by the convenience of packages of meat on the supermarket shelf,” arguing that exposure to computer games, instant messaging, chat rooms and social networking sites “could leave a generation with poor attention spans”.

Well, hello and welcome to E V O L U T I O N.

Indeed not all evolutions do well for the specie. Think Mammoth for instance. Perhaps we are doomed.

But, does this mean we have to exclude all new media and stick with the old ways? Is preserving the current wiring of the brain more important than developing and arriving at new, yet unknown, places?

Here is something to think of. My 9th grader told me about her new History text book. Text books are rarely noted or gaining any sort of comment from a teenager. But she actually pointed out that this is a rather good book to study from. The book’s uniqueness is by adding several different fields of information into each page. Allowing the students to follow the main text while absorbing other types of information, some are minor others are accented.

When I encountered this fantastic presentation by Sarah “Intellagirl” Robbins – things fit. I already wrote about it here.

I am not a scientist. But I believe that Lady Susan Greenfield is right. The young brains do go through some re-wiring. Sarah Robbins is right too. Students today are capable of handling a lot more information then students in the past. Call it “poor attention spans” if you like. I actually think it’s rich attention span.

I know that my Kids find it easier to absorb and process several sensory and information sources at once. They are certainly more successful at it than most adults I know and I believe they are better at it then I was as a student. Excuse me for not crediting social networking or penguin club with these achievements. I give most of the credit to the environment they are growing into and the future they are naturally preparing for.

Some of the many comments made to the article on “The Mail” try to dismiss everything as an oldie attacking the younger generation. Which makes you wonder really, about how society related to various media changes in the past century, or better yet – from print, through phones, to mass and digital media.

Still one question remains: can we really fight it, or should we find a way to use it to society’s advantage?

Friends Under Online Fire

Some people say you can see who your true friends are at a time of crisis. Well, I never put it to test. But strangely enough, the current situation has created some odd tests. Me getting whole hearted birthday congratulations from teenagers I have never met is just an example.

If we could run all of the fighting online – it would be great. First of all, no life casualties. Second – reading and writing is one of the best ways to manage a dialog: You get to finish a sentence. Believing in the true power of web 2.0 – the power of reason should win, since moderate tones are the ones we are generally comfortable with. While some bloggers like to annoy and provoke, even them don’t like to be annoyed or provoked. And anyone can choose what to read or what to say and how.

So here we are, 12 days into the current IDF operation in Gaza, and the online war gets warmer by the minute. Unlike in previous wars, this time the many Israeli Internet experts, ages 12 years and up, have joined in the effort to bring the Israeli message to the world and fight off the criticism.

The effort runs on various levels. Social media marketing professionals monitor media all over the world and assign comment tasks. Media experts are busy creating media files and uploading them to the various networks, such as YouTube. Kids and teens are writing blogs and taking photos to document their lives. Everyone with an email can chip in by distributing links that deliver a message, to friends, family or colleagues, spread all over the world. It’s a kind of effort Israel hasn’t experienced before, surprisingly enough. Even official Israeli entities are using social media tools, like twitter, to deliver a message and converse with the public.

While the delivery of messages and participation in discussions is legitimate and even blessed, some criminal activity is also happening online, in the name of the war. It started when Muslim hackers broke into Israeli servers, hacked Israeli web pages and “stole” Israeli domains, directing these web sites to their own pro-Palestinian pages. This is another arena of the online war, requiring the assistance of Israeli web security professionals.

Early on I have decided not to voice an opinion on a “right and wrong” on this war. I am not a judge. However when my country is under attack, and most of the community I live and work with is busy in this online war effort, it’s slightly problematic to keep ignoring messages and threads. A couple of days ago I decided to reply to one specific post. I thought this one is someone I can talk with. I developed a conversation and though we sort of “agreed on not agreeing” it was still a very civil discussion, where I remain appreciating her feelings and thoughts, and she could see the humanity of the other side too. That’s fine by me.

I also accepted a request to help translating to English blog posts, written in Hebrew by kids under missiles. Those amazing kids thought they could actually change things, affect all adults, by inviting Palestinian kids under fire to write with them. The invitation was rejected by the contact person, who shortly explained they will be risking their life if they cooperate with anything from the other side. Any thoughts of creating a bi-national group of mothers were canceled for similar reasons. I certainly wouldn’t like to put anyone at any extra risk now.

Sadly, the fighting goes on as I write these lines. I keep wishing we could keep it online. Still waiting for the fighting to be over, so I can truly celebrate my birthday.

New year, new hopes and wishes

The Hebrew year 5769 has just begun. With it began a new and a crucial year in the life of the kids4kids venture I am leading.
Kids4kids is the temporary name I had given to the network I established on ning. Its purpose is to connect kids from all over the world to help each other complete their homework assignments in a fun way, a networking way.

So what are my wishes for the New Year?
That it will be a year of networking happiness and knowledge. It will be a year for growth and achievements. This will be a year for new global friendships.

Kids 4 Kids Networking Homework is off the ground

I am exploring a vision of kids helping kids complete their homework assignments. A believer in social learning, I think a community of kids helping each other can be the best enhancement for toady’s learning process.

Still doing my very early stages on the way to achieving this dream I have created a network at: http://kids4kids.ning.com/.

Of course, as web goes, this network is subject to changes. You can say it’s an ALFA stage. I am seeking feedback from teachers, parents and of course, the most important – students. At the moment the interface is in English, though submitting content can be done in many languages.

I am using this opportunity to invite you and all kids that you may know to join in and start helping.

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