Co-Creation: The New Imperative

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February 1, 2012
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Pam Edelman

A dozen New Jersey parents, reviewing a recent field trip, discuss their children’s progress in an experiment in family-driven Jewish education. A California mother organizes a group of families to study traditional Jewish texts through storytelling. Local experts are hired to facilitate discussion. A group of Atlanta families participates in a home school Jewish learning collective emphasizing parent-child interaction. In Washington, D.C., a mother works with a group to establish a Hebrew charter school while a father coordinates efforts to develop a five-day-a week after school Jewish enrichment program. A group of parents in New York City also explores the after school model. In Phoenix, parents are creating a community-wide collaboration where families will choose from an array of educational programs offered by numerous local organizations. Philadelphia parents hire a rabbinical student to run a weekly Hebrew language immersion gathering for their children.

These efforts are a sampling of programs created by a small but growing vanguard of families addressing the Jewish educational needs of their children. Who are the parents behind these initiatives? What do they have in common? How might their actions inform the transformation of Jewish education?

These parents are all highly committed Jews, visionaries, entrepreneurs, and adept community builders. They are exploring models of organized Jewish education that are alternatives to conventional Jewish day schools and Hebrew schools. Committed to leading Jewish lives, some are products of day schools; many grew up in engaged Jewish families; most, if not all, are very active in their synagogues or independent minyanim, and they support the Jewish community at large. They all strive for a meaningful, vital, Jewish existence for themselves and their children.

All of these parents espouse an educational vision and confer with others about their hopes and dreams. They believe Jewish learning should be participatory and meaningful. While some try to influence existing programs, more recently they’ve begun creating their own educational initiatives.

Some of these parents are entrepreneurs in their professional lives, comfortable with the risk taking that creating something new entails. Their professional backgrounds are diverse: finance, foreign policy, bioengineering, organizational development, journalism, law, marketing, academia, and the rabbinate. Most of them understand start-up processes, including financial viability. As producers of new ideas, they embrace start-up models that are trim, focused, and flexible. They rely on experimentation and ongoing consumer input rather than on traditional methods that demand multiyear development phases. They are frustrated by Jewish education programs that remain wedded to earlier methods and are slow to innovate in response to the changing lives and needs of today’s families.

These parents are resourceful and experienced at finding human capital and information to fit the curriculum and content requirements of their initiatives. Some have advanced knowledge of Jewish studies and others are skilled at enlisting those with greater knowledge when the need arises. They want their children to have Jewish friends and learning peers, and to be educated within a supportive communal environment. Their visions resonate with other like-minded families.

It might be tempting to dismiss the leaders of these initiatives as marginal outsiders or anti-establishment types. Rather, they are part of a wider trend of empowered “prosumers” — parents who are blurring the intersection between the production and consumption of Jewish education. These prosumers may work in collaboration with local synagogues, or team up with other local entrepreneurial initiatives, or experiment outside the system. All are invested in learning from other innovative efforts and they are excited to connect with fellow change makers. They hope established Jewish educational institutions will follow by accelerating their pace of experimentation with new models and ways of thinking about Jewish learning.

Perhaps Jewish organizations and prosumers can look to the corporate world, where product design is shifting from inside-out to outside-in. Most large companies now accept that they operate in an ecosystem. The ecosystem serves them not just in improving their supply and distribution chains, but also, more importantly, in helping to turn the outside-in perspective into practical innovation. By building collaborative relationships with creative customers, companies like Apple, Kraft Foods, and Scholastic gain actionable insights. This means that particularly knowledgeable, innovative, and dedicated customers become more involved and invested in helping to shape future outcomes. Co-creation encourages organizations and customers to work together on creative solutions to challenging problems. While this entails letting go of old paradigms, this change toward co-creation lends itself to the development of more nimble and responsive organizations. Might Jewish education benefit from a similar model?

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Pam Edelman is a consultant, leading the JESNA Lippman Kanfer Institute initiative on empowering the family voice in Jewish education. She co-founded Yerusha, a Jewish learning laboratory testing a new model of family-driven, complementary Jewish education. Her interest in family-oriented innovation processes stems from her work in marketing at Kraft Foods, managing consumer products for parents and their children. She can be reached at pam.edelman@gmail.com.

3 Comments

  1. And to what degree are these innovative, nimble and responsive organizations being created and led by parents of children with learning challenges, who are not being served by the greater Jewish education world?

    Posted by
  2. Pam — this is fantastic. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head of the mindset of this generation (and I suspect even more so of the millennials to come). Here in Charlottesville, VA we’ve been playing with models too. While we all want to be involved with and support the synagogue, many of us are eager for more. The synagogue has responded by creating a 2 hours/week “Hebrew immersion” option, and our minyan is constantly co-creating our educational approach as we include our kids (ages 1-10) in our gatherings.

    These insights are valuable for more ‘traditional’ Jewish educational organizations and leaders who are always eager for more parental involvement. It is time that we shift from designing “for consumers” to designing “with prosumers”.

    Posted by
    lisacolton
  3. At our school, having been bit by the prosumerism bug, we are currently exploring research grants and for-profit partnerships that would allow our teachers and students to create apps and games. As we have bumped up against the edge of the possible, we are eager to teach our teachers and students how to create apps that do not yet exist that would allow us to take our teaching and learning to the next level (that’s how we incorporate STEM). We are also beginning to explore, with new thought partners, opportunities to pilot applications of gaming theory to Jewish day school curriculum. Both of these ventures bring with them commercial possibilities that could help the school grow its resources. It takes Alan November’s “digital learning farm” out of the metaphor and into reality. Not only would students be making meaningful contributions to society through their work; they might be making financial contributions to their school as entrepreneurial student-leaders.

    Posted by
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