The Strategic Planning in Education Initiative at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute existed between 2006 and 2013 with the aim of turning the vision of a center for strategic thinking in education into a reality. Many people have noted the great need for such a center and its importance in shaping education policy in Israel.
In the seven years of the Education Unit’s existence it has acted to clarify thinking on education and to focus public attention on processes occurring in Israel at the junction of the education system and the political and social systems. The unit’s varied activity represented a broad range of contemporary thought on both theoretical and practical aspects of education.
For budgetary reasons it was decided to greatly reduce the Institute’s activity in the area of education and to discontinue the efforts to establish a center for strategic thinking in education. Nevertheless, the Institute will seek out new areas of activity in education.
The Education Unit at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute: The Story of Its Founding, Activity, and Reduction
The Van Leer Jerusalem Institute dealt with aspects of education for many years, primarily education for democracy and citizenship and Jewish education. Also, several research groups were established that focused on education and even produced important books, such as Toward Educational Revolution? (2006). In summer 2006, Prof. Dan Inbar and Ms. Nurit Herman-Almosnino established the Education Unit at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute.
The activity in this unit was based on thinking and research groups that engaged with central issues in education, including the role and status of the teacher, intellectual eros, regulation in education, cross-disciplinary thinking, teachers’ motivation in the Arab education system, the status of knowledge and the organization of information, hierarchy in education, education and civil society, and autonomy in education. The discussion and research groups produced many influential policy papers, the most important of which were Matriculation Exams; Middle Schools in Israel; Involvement of Third Sector Organizations in the Education System; and Education for Citizenship, Democracy, and Coexistence.
During the unit’s first year (the year of the big teachers’ strike), leading groups of activist teachers came to the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute to formulate a worldview for themselves based on discussions with researchers and prominent educators. Members of this group continued participating in a variety of activities within the unit and enriched their thinking through its projects.
In the ensuing years, the unit’s activity increasingly focused on the question of education policy and its implementation. Through this activity, the lack of strategic thinking in Israeli education became apparent. This insight led to the establishment of the International Van Leer Conference on Education. The first conference, in 2009, was the first of its kind in the world. Its topic was “from vision and policy to implementation.” The choice of topic was based on the assumption that although the questions that concern many leaders in education systems throughout the world are indeed manifested in different ways in each country, they have similar underlying characteristics and therefore there is a very good reason for international discussion of them.
Leading education researchers from Israel and abroad participated in the conference and included guest of honor Sir Michael Barber of the McKinsey and Company, formerly the adviser on education (adviser on delivery) to former British prime minister Tony Blair and to the directors general of education ministries in various countries. These directors general do meet from time to time in conferences and in meetings of OECD countries, but it seems that such frameworks are not conducive to a professional discourse. In contrast, the meeting at the Van Leer Conference on Education was devoted to creating a forum for such professional discussion. The conference included probing discussions of the obstacles to implementing education policy and the manifestations of such problems in various countries and organizational cultures. At the end of the conference, the idea for establishing the center for strategic thinking in education was announced and then an action plan was formulated.
About a year and a half after the first conference and in light of the ideas expressed in it, the second Van Leer Conference on Education took place. Its focus was “policy regarding teachers and teaching.” Teachers from all over the world were invited, and alongside a workshop for directors general there was also an international workshop for teachers, including Israeli teachers. In both workshops a fruitful and exceptional discussion developed and a unique opportunity was created for a meeting of policy makers (the directors general) with the implementers (the teachers). This time, too, leading figures in the world of education were invited, including Prof. Andreas Schleicher, the special adviser on education policy to the secretary general of the OECD, Prof. Brian Rowan of the University of Michigan.
The discussions at the second conference gave rise to the topic “from regulation to trust” for the third Van Leer Conference on Education, in 2012. This time, school principals from around the world were invited in addition to the directors general of education ministries and teachers. Among the attendees were prominent researchers who were in Israel for the first time, including Prof. Robin Alexander of Cambridge University.
The three conferences were characterized by a unique structure, the first of its kind: separate workshops for holders of certain positions (teachers, principals, directors general), followed by workshops with a mix of participants. The unprecedented dialogue between the holders of the various positions was exceptionally fruitful. The academics who participated in the conferences, including the world’s leading education researchers, played an important role both through their active participation and their analysis and conceptualization of the discussions. Top-rank Israeli educators and academics led the workshops; among them were the former president of the Hebrew University, Prof. Hanoch Gutfreund; the then president of the Mandel Foundation, Dr. Varda Schiffer; and the principal of the secondary school in Kvutzat Yavne, Ms. Sara Evron. Many other noteworthy educators and scholars had a significant role in the activities. Besides the quality of the conferences, it seems that a unique atmosphere was created and that the participants appeared to want to discuss issues as thoroughly as possible and contribute as much as possible.
In addition to the Van Leer Conference on Education, the Education Unit at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute acted in two other channels. One was the writing of research reports and policy papers on various topics: the role of the teacher at the beginning of the twenty-first century; alternative teacher training programs in Israel; the policy regarding evaluation of teachers; the state and the teachers unions at junctions of policy change; reestablishment of the relations between local government and the Education Ministry; and building trust in the education system in Israel. The second channel of activity consisted of thorough workshops for studying the concepts that were the subjects of the abovementioned studies and their meaning in shaping education policy. The participants in these workshops were top-ranking officials of the Education Ministry, groups of teachers who sought to deal with education policy, and holders of key position in education in local government. Following these workshops it became clear that the concept of trust, which was the focus of the Third Van Leer Conference on Education, had begun to seep into the education discourse in Israel, at the least at the rhetorical level.
In addition to these two channels, the Education Unit and the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute dealt with involvement in education and operated projects on a variety of topics in education: the human mosaic in Jerusalem; Jewish and democratic values in education; social education through active learning; variegated Jewish identity in a shared education system; continuing education in research for teachers; and counselors in the Torani (religious) education system. Over the years a not insignificant pool of documents—papers, position papers, and drafts—has accumulated. These were written by people from Israel and abroad who took part in rich activity. In addition to these, as part of the activity of the Education Unit at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute, several books were published, including Study Topics under Examination: Alternatives to Conventional Teaching in the School (2006), The Crisis in Teaching: Toward Proper Teacher Training (2008), and other books that are being written now and are scheduled to be published.
In April 2013 the Education Unit at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute held an international seminar to discuss the planned Center for Strategic Thinking in Education and to outline its path. The invitees included representatives of prominent centers for research in education (such as PACE, Rand, and Brookings), leading scholars—some of whom had participating in previous Van Leer conferences on education, and for some of whom, like Prof. Alan Lock, of the University of Queensland, this was a first visit to Israel—as well as leading Israeli public figures who had expressed support for the idea. At the seminar the differences between strategic thinking, policy shaping, and strategic planning were clarified, and questions about such matters as the structure of the center, its manner of activity, and its ability to influence were discussed thoroughly. The seminar was hugely successful and many of the prominent guests expressed a desire to take an active part in establishing this needed state institution.
In August 2013, in light of budgetary considerations, the activity of the Education Unit at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute was reduced and the activity for establishing the center for strategic thinking in education was topped. Nevertheless, it is not impossible that such a body will be established someday. It is hoped that the knowledge, insights, and connections developed through the Education Unit at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute will be made available to that body when it is established.