Innovation Nation: Building Student Leadership Through Models of Israeli Innovators
Clusters of eighth grade students are situated around the classroom, some working on desks while others gather at glue-gun stations on the floor. A potpourri of materials is used to construct models of sustainable structures for an Israeli kibbutz situated on the Arava Desert. This is Innovation Nation: Israel’s Contributions to Global Innovation, a 7th and 8th grade course at the Middle School.
Inspired by Dan Senor’s book Start-up Nation, Innovation Nation is an investigation of Israel’s path to becoming a center of global innovation. We reimagined how a course about Israel could align with Milken Community Schools’ goal of cultivating students’ creative thinking, entrepreneurial skills, and the innovator’s mindset while tapping into their interests in the start-up world. Dan Senor identifies Israeli innovators’ key traits that have propelled them to success, including empathy, teamwork, persevering past failure, problem solving and questioning authority.
In a Project Based Learning environment, students tackle real-world challenges Israel has confronted over time. They investigate decisions reached among the conflicting early European Zionist leaders, the reinvention of socialist kibbutzim as high-tech centers, the development of cutting edge water technologies, and street artists’ creative expression about Israel’s controversial issues. The learning process incorporates research, simulations, field trips, artistic and culinary experiences, and communication with experts. To illustrate the process, we have selected a few of the units distributed throughout the semester long course.
From the outset, early Zionists disagreed about the solution to “the Jewish problem.” Students are exposed to the backgrounds of a range of Eastern and Western European Zionists from the early 20th Century—some religious and others secular, some assimilated into the larger society while others were isolated in shtetl life. Having empathy with the needs and priorities of others was vital to building consensus. Guided by Herzl’s leadership model, students debate as members of differing parties represented in the Zionist congresses. They must empathetically acknowledge others’ priorities to envision the new Jewish homeland’s political structure, religious orientation, language and main institutions.
They travel along the wave of the Second Aliyah with the early kibbutzim’s idealistic New Jews. As years passed, the early socialist communities began to disintegrate. Students confront kibbutz members' divided opinions. Teams advocate for differing solutions; some push for reinvention through privatization while others hold fast to the status quo. Recognizing that their kibbutz’s survival requires persevering past failure, each team develops a plan honoring central community values while propelling the kibbutz forward. Informed by researching historical sources, interviewing current and past kibbutz members, and then debating among themselves, the class utilizes consensus building techniques integral to effective teamwork. Together, they figure out how to construct a new kind of kibbutz centered on green technology. Next, each team plans and builds a model of a structure adapted to the desert climate, using green architectural methods, and suited for the needs of the kibbutz community. Together, they assemble their modernized kibbutz.
Inspired by Ben Gurion’s vision of the Negev flowering and by Golda Meir’s commitment to help African countries, students become “Israeli water experts” who problem solve how to lessen water scarcity in a rural village in Kenya. Groups cluster around computers investigating key Israeli water technologies: drip irrigation, desalination, and water reclamation. Each group presents one of the technologies in a jigsaw activity. By problem solving at a “Water Conference,” the class combines ideas into a multifaceted solution. They recognize that Israel’s contributions to resolving worldwide water scarcity has elevated its status among countries.
As they tour the streets of Tel Aviv via a videotaped guide, students view how street artists question authority by expressing their views regarding Israeli society’s most controversial issues on public walls. For example, Maya Gelfman’s mixed-media technique on paper combines colored pencils, embroidery, cutouts and ready-made frames depicting images commenting on war and peace. Gathering similar materials, students create their own artistic commentaries in mixed-media murals throughout the school; they invite other students to engage in the conversation about contemporary issues facing Israel. By emulating Israeli street artists as they confront complex issues, students also question authority using creative expression.
Through Innovation Nation’s experiences, students emerge with a stronger connection to Israel and grow the same leadership traits possessed by Israeli innovators. Students discover that possessing these leadership traits unlocks the question: Why has Israel, such a small country in size and population, become an incubator of innovation of worldwide proportion?