Browse Topics

View all talks

A Byte of the Apple

Chana KanzenFilmed at JHub 10th Anniversary

In this talk, Chana Kanzen explores the relationship between Judaism, education and technology. Comparing technology to Marmite, Chana reflects on core revolutions in Jewish history and connects them to the technology paradigms we experience today as parents, teachers and students. Take a Byte of the Apple and all will become clear....or will it?

In 2013, Chana Kanzen set up Jewish Interactive in the UK. She still directs the UK’s expanding team and sits on their Board of Directors and is CEO for the global operations across US, Israel and South Africa.

Chana has helped to write and develop integrated curricula, established community programmes and regularly lectures to parents and teachers on a variety of educational topics. She has spoken at Google HQ in London and Tel Aviv, Apple HQ London and NYC and at Oxford University’s Department for Education.

Before joining Jewish Interactive, Chana was a teacher mentor at the Jewish Curriculum Partnership, Head of Jewish studies at Morasha Jewish Primary school in London. Chana is passionate about innovative kodesh teaching and enjoys nothing more than watching children’s faces light up as they experience Judaism through Ji.

Technology. It’s a bit like Marmite. Yes – you heard right – Marmite – you either love it or you hate it. It’s kind of weird how something so mechanical – a machine code – has become so emotive. I mean, you don’t get that way about a car. But somehow technology has become the new Marmite – you either love it or hate it.

As for me, I don’t have strong emotions about Marmite and I don’t have strong emotions about technology. In fact, I don’t really like technology that much, which is kind of a strange thing for the Chief Executive of a Jewish educational technology charity to say.

In fact, when I go on holiday to Wales with my family, we actively seek wifi–free zones. We drive to this desolate village in Wales and I wait until I hear those magic words: “Mum, there’s no wifi!” Great, a whole week where I can actually speak to my kids and I’ve got a really good excuse to not answer those work emails. It’s exhilarating. I mean, look at those rosy cheeks!

Compare that to this…. I know some of you have seen those faces before – children who have had far too much screen time.

But, there was a moment that happened to me 7 years ago. A life-changing moment. When I realised that I would have to embrace technology if I was to fulfil my calling as an educator. You see, education has been my passion since before I was born. My parents are teachers, I’m a teacher, education is my lifeblood.

And then 7 years ago, I walked into a classroom of 30 six year olds with one of these… Closed actually, it wasn’t even on. And in 20 years of teaching I saw something I had never seen before – immediate engagement. Immediate interest. It was like I was a magnet and they were all drawn to me.

As a passionate educator who has used every area of creativity to reach my students, I realised I had found the holy grail. If technology was Marmite, I’d better learn to love it.

I tried to dismiss this epiphany, but the next day my 3 year old son logged in to a platform game called Moshi Monsters. He typed in his name and password before he could even read. And he knew the name of 50 Moshi Monsters by heart. He knew the name of 50 Moshi Monsters by heart before he could even read – wow! This I could not ignore.

If he knew the name of 50 Moshi Monsters by heart, why not 50 books of the Torah, or 50 names of our Jewish ancestors. As a headteacher of Jewish studies at the time, I began to think, how can we harness this tool for Jewish education?

But it’s a tool that gets people fearful, disapproving. It’s a tool that’s causing mental health issues. It’s a tool that hasn’t yet been tried or tested. But it’s a tool that has tremendous possibility. What if we could use this tool for good? What if we could do Jewish education the way we do Moshi Monsters?

And so I embarked on a journey – well actually it’s been a bit more like a crusade!

There is polarization, I see fear yet possibility often. I go to schools all around the world, and I see the same two types of Marmite teachers in all of them. Teachers who run and grab me and sit me down to show me the latest innovations they’ve created with their children – who stare in wonder as we look at these amazing things they’ve done on the iPads and computers.

And other teachers – hardworking teachers – who come up to me with fear in their eyes and say, “I don’t do technology”. I don’t do technology? My answer to them every time is – then learn.

King Solomon taught us: “Educate the youth according to their way.” Chanach l’na’ar al pidarko.

Any teacher nowadays has no excuse to not listen to these words. We must use the language of our youth to connect to them and that language includes smartboards, the internet and social media.

But not everyone agrees with King Solomon’s words. And it’s not only teachers who are Marmite about technology. Parents are the same. I see some parents who ban technology completely and others who have no filter. And some who are just unsure, sending mixed messages, like: “You’ve got to learn to code. But no more screen time, screen time is bad.” Sometimes sending the mixed message as a text message!

If there’s one word I would use to characterise education and technology today, it’s “messy.” Perhaps it’s because we’re in an explorative stage right now. Perhaps it’s because of the magic and addiction of the pixel – it’s habit forming. Perhaps it’s because the barriers of learning don’t exist anymore. Children can learn anytime, anywhere. And perhaps it’s because parents are more involved in their children’s education at this time than at any other time in history. Education is being democratised. Harvard has online courses, anyone can access them at any time. Have we truly considered the potential of this democratisation for Jewish learning? The ability to share, debate, encourage respective discourse around the world.

Jewish tradition offers us insights into how to navigate this quagmire. And I’d like to share three episodes which teach us how our approach to technology should be.

In Jewish history, the first revolution was with the pri hadar – the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, in the Garden of Eden. It’s funny, I alway think of it when I look at this… I think there’s a subtle unconscious message that’s taking place with this logo being what it is and what it represents. ‘Take a bite and all will become clear’ – or will it? Perhaps you will simply become aware of how difficult and challenging morality can be. Be careful. Use it wisely and it will be the fruit of all good. Use it badly and it will become the fruit of all evil. Man and woman took a bite or should I say Byte – sorry I couldn’t resist it! – and the world was changed forever. So the first lesson from the Garden of Eden is that a bite – or a Byte – can open our eyes. But it’s not wholly good or bad. It’s morally neutral until we do something with it.

The next seismic revolution for the Jewish people was at Mount Sinai. The Jewish people received a code of life – an information highway code. Halacha is a code, and similar to computing coding you have to get it exactly right. And you need to be proficient in that language in order to function in the world. The details are crucial – it matters if you get that dot in the right place – and yes, sometimes it can be mind-numbingly boring until you get there.

With both halacha and computing coding it takes hours and hours of practice, true experiential learning. In Judaism we call experiential learning ‘na’aseh v nishma’ – we will do and we will learn. And I find that applies to both my Jewish practice and my coding practice.

Steve Jobs – he had this figured all out. I mean how many of you have seen an instruction manual with your iPhone or your iPad? That’s part of the success of Apple, it’s so ridiculously intuitive. ‘Na’aseh v Nishmah’.

And yet many teachers in the classroom, and many parents at home forget to allow their children to actively learn. But the beauty of Jewish studies is that the mantra of Judaism is to do. And then learn. And there aren’t GCSEs or SATs. Kids should be creating, discussing, innovating using these amazing tools to discuss and debate laws and halacha around the world.

The third revolution was the Talmudic Revolution with Rabbi Yehudah haNasi. He had the courage to face the revolution and he knew to take Judaism to the next stage he needed to write down the oral Torah.

I will never forget this episode in my life when I was speaking to a group of headteachers and I was waiting for my Marmite moment. A tall, orthodox black-hatted rabbi stood up. “Here we go,” I thought, my stereotypes kicking in. He looked me squarely in the eyes and said: “Just like Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi wrote down the oral Torah, so too we must start the next revolution.”

It must have been so terrifying for Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi to write down something that had been oral for so many years, and yet he knew he had to do it.

And make no mistake about it, we are living through the next revolution. A seismic global revolution. And the educational one is starting the wrong way round. It’s not starting from the teachers or the government, it’s starting from the youth, our kids. They are living, interacting, communicating and collaborating in a binary world. They are pouting and pontificating, they are not educating themselves because of school, they are educating themselves despite school. They’re not interested in one size fits all education anymore. I mean, why listen to the Exodus story when you can walk through it and touch it and feel it through Virtual Reality? Why take notes when you can cut, paste, highlight, test your last quiz score to see how well you did? They put up with the classroom, but I’m not sure for how much longer. I mean, many of them are actually running profitable businesses during class. The teachers know it. The government know it. Our parents know it. Our rabbis know it.

Our kids aren’t going to wait for us to tell them what’s right and wrong anymore. And if we’re teaching religion with irrelevant pedagogies, irrelevant content and irrelevant tools, then what happens to that religion?

And again we experience polarisation. Communities that ban and others that embrace. However, I think we are beginning to come to the end of this generation of black and white, good and bad. I see a change weekly – communities that were banning are beginning to think if that’s correct. And communities that embraced are beginning to restrict usage and limit it. I feel we’re entering a new era of balance, led by our children.

And as our digital natives begin to grow into teachers and parents, we will notice a shift, a rise from the children themselves to know when and when not to use technology. They will self-impose and regulate. They are beginning to understand when the need for a face to face meeting far outshines a Skype. And how the constant barrage of social media is damaging their souls. Our kids will teach us how to correctly harness this tool, with intelligence at their disposal that we can’t even imagine, the beginnings of which we’re seeing now: artificial intelligence, virtual reality, augmented reality.

Jewish education has had a history of constant evolution. Since that first bite, knowledge has meant power. And this thirst for knowledge has driven us as a people to innovate. Now it’s a no-brainer that we harness this technology to teach our past, present and future. Doesn’t really matter whether you like Marmite or not.

But it matters about an apple. Whether it’s the fruit from the Garden of Eden or the Apple in your pocket or on your wrist, there are deep moral questions that are inescapable. We need to grapple with these questions, experimenting between the relationship of education and technology instead of running away from it.

Adam and Eve were exiled from the Garden of Eden because they didn’t take responsibility for their actions. We cannot afford to be exiled for not taking responsibility for the education of future generations. Technology will be part of their lives, whether we like it or not. So let’s come up with some recipes to use it for good.

Thank you.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License