This past summer, driven by a desire to create a sustainable system of innovation in our school and supported by a grant from the Jewish Education Innovation Challenge, Akiba-Schechter began the process of creating the first Research & Development Department in a Jewish Day School.

The Akiba R&D Department studies, develops prototypes, researches, and scales new teaching and learning approaches, practices, and systems that advance relevant learning for our students and the field of education. Our R&D system ensures new programs, models and ideas are thoughtfully studied, implemented, and sustained. In many companies, R&D departments play an integral role in the life cycle of a product. For us, at a Jewish Day School, we believe the R&D Department plays an integral role in the lifecycle of teaching methodologies and student learning.

The R&D Department researches and develops approaches, practices, and systems that:

  • are driven by global trends
  • have a strong relevance to our school’s mission and core values
  • have potential to significantly transform teaching and learning
  • have sudden urgency or meet unexpected needs

The R&D Department focuses on five areas:

  • Research for new programs or models
  • Development of new programs or models
  • Updates in existing programs or models
  • Quality checks on existing programs or models
  • General research on educational trends and innovations
...we believe the R&D Department plays an integral role in the lifecycle of teaching methodologies and student learning
— Dr. Eliezer Jones

The Akiba R&D Department utilizes a design thinking approach to innovation based on the work of Dr. Shabbi Luthra, who trained our R&D team, and Scott Hoffman who developed and supervised a research and development department at the American School of Bombay. At the core of the process is a prototyping approach versus a piloting approach. A prototype is an early approximation of a final system or product -- not a completed one. Teachers will test a prototype within the school, develop it, and test it further in the school. Ultimately, if successful, the prototype is implemented in the school ensuring it works for the specific needs of the population. Prototyping has been a more efficient driver of learning for our staff, as they are not just given instructions on how to implement a pre-existing program. They study the new idea, try it out, learn what worked and what did not, and retest it until it is either worth using or rejecting. They are involved and invested from the outset.

The R&D Department receives support from the R&D Leadership Team made up of the academic administration and an R&D Task Force comprised of a group of self-selected teachers who volunteered to be trained in and facilitate research and development at the school.

The R&D Task Force has been exploring numerous areas to see if deeper research is appropriate including: review of our Judaic program, tefilla/prayer, homework, advisory programs, community engagement, models of intrinsic motivation in education, cross-disciplinary teaching (General Studies and Judaic Studies) and makerspaces. Regarding makerspaces, an incredible development came out of the research process.   

A group within the R&D Task Force focused on makerspaces in schools. Based on their initial exploration they believed deeper study was warranted. After engaging in this research, they proposed a few in-class maker prototypes, which teachers tested and deemed successful. These prototypes led to a proposal to rethink and redesign our current library space into a large makerspace.

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The space proposed would be one where children are following personalized learning pathways in the areas of Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts, and Math (S.T.E.A.M.) in an integrated approach that would include Judaic and General Studies learning across the curriculum. Their research of current global trends made clear that social and technological forces have intersected to transform how we design, manufacture and distribute. An open source, Do-It-Yourself mindset, and social networks are enabling communities to make their own economic futures. The language of design schools is part of the vocabulary of K-12 schools and the team and I believe education needs to integrate more of this framework of learning to address a changing future. Schools need to become hubs of design knowledge, rapid prototyping, and self-directed learning to ensure our students are better prepared for a more flexible, globally minded life where, for example, science and math skills are not isolated knowledge sets, but a set of thinking skills that can be applied to the real world.

Over this school year, the makerspace R&D team has continued to research and plan what kind of space we could create. The goal is to keep the function of the library with all our fantastic books, while integrating all the technology, tools and resources to have a vibrant makerspace. The plan is to begin the redesign this coming summer and have students using it next fall. This project is possible by the generosity of The Crown Family, and we are grateful for their support.

Creating this structure for innovation has given us a supportive process to foster and implement new ideas, while at the same time building a culture focused on innovation in education, which we feel is critical to any school. The R&D Team looks forward to designing new ways of learning in our school, sharing what we learn with others, and supporting the implementation of educational R&D departments in Jewish Day Schools around the globe.