April 17, 2024
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Reacting to Forces Beyond Our Control: In Bereishit and in Our Schools

This week we begin the annual cycle of Torah readings anew with Parshat Bereishit, and the opening chapters of the narrative immediately reveal a critical theme: the rapid shift in responsibility for the fate of the world and its inhabitants from full Divine control toward greater human agency—with an important caveat that has a strong bearing on our work as educators.

Hashem creates the universe and quickly bestows free will upon its human inhabitants. But these primordial ancestors quickly learn that not everything is within their control, and that their fate will be determined in large part by how they react to external forces. Chava’s actions have no bearing on the serpent; Kayin cannot determine whose offering is to be accepted; and Noach cannot stop his peers from acting wickedly—all three can control only how they react in turn.

If a core message of the parsha is thus that people must carefully consider how they react to forces beyond their control that have an impact on their lives, then this is a message that should feel familiar to educational leaders in our community. For even as we have emerged from the grips of the Covid-19 pandemic—perhaps the ultimate example of a circumstance that necessitated reactive decision making in schools—we will now be assessed in large part on our effectiveness in addressing external forces that are having a profound impact on our practice. These include the newfound omnipresence of artificial intelligence and seismic changes in the landscape of college admissions.

There are few developments giving school leaders more angst this year than the advent of ChatGPT and its cousin AI interfaces. The technology is developing and spreading so rapidly that it feels practically impossible even to begin to wrestle with its implications for academic integrity, student skill development, and administrative automation—and our typically deliberative approaches to problem solving, with their focus on environmental scans and thoughtful consideration of multiple solutions, seem feebly slow and ill-suited to the challenge.

Rather than simply throwing up our hands and yielding our positions of authority to the bots, however, we must be prepared to act even with information that might be incomplete or only temporarily valid. The “hive mind” of educational technology specialists has begun to devise a set of field-wide best practices, enabling AI to serve for students as a bridge to ever-more-advanced thinking, rather than a replacement for it:

AI tools should be used for academic credit only with explicit permission from a teacher, and only with proper attestation.

Students should never simply copy and paste from a chatbot or other AI tool.

Students must understand that AI tools are prone to “hallucination,” and that all information gleaned from them must be vetted just as any non-peer-reviewed academic source would be.

Everyone can be trained to craft sharp, effective queries and prompts that enable us to use AI to accelerate and deepen learning—thus engendering more, rather than less, independent student thought.

These guidelines might need to be revised tomorrow, and it will be our responsibility to do so. We didn’t necessarily invite the disruptive force of AI into our schools, but it would be irresponsible of us to fail to engage it thoughtfully as a result.

Another external force that is evolving rapidly and forcing schools—particularly those that include high school divisions—to adjust concomitantly is the field of college admissions. Sweeping changes in such areas as testing practices, campus Jewish life, affirmative action, legacy preferences and attitudes toward Israel—as well as declining overall acceptance rates amid increasing application numbers, and shifting relationships between admissions personnel and independent-school counselors—are necessitating a complete revisiting of the manner in which we have historically advised students. Families understand, for the most part, that it is not within our power to ensure that every student will be accepted to their first-choice school, and this is not typically the expectation. What they do and should expect, however, is that our college counseling teams will demonstrate expertise in the latest developments in the field and offer sage, confident, well informed advice accordingly.

Like Chava, Kayin and Noach in our parsha, the circumstances that will shape the course of our institutional lives are in large part not of our own making. The juxtaposition of the Jewish calendar’s period of Divine judgment with the reintroduction of the Torah’s central narrative of increasing human agency, however, leaves us with a powerful message at this time of year: Our success and that of our schools will be assessed based on the preparation, creativity and sensitivity that we demonstrate in reacting to these external forces that are so powerfully shaping our field.


Michael A. Kay, PhD is the head of school at The Leffell School.

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