This past week, I heard a speaker lament the current state of American society: he feels it is a hedonistic wasteland, a place devoid of values and meaning that is churning out citizens who care for nothing save the next fast food meal they can eat in front of their flat screen TVs. He went on to attribute America’s problems partly to the “value-less educational system” he feels we currently have, one which breeds citizens without a proper moral compass. As I contemplated the bleakness of the speaker’s vision, as fatalistic as any Modernist’s apocalyptic nightmare, I wondered if it were one we really had to embrace.

Now I don’t mean to trivialize the alarming and, frankly, dangerous circumstances of our current world. There’s much to concern us as U.S. and global citizens, and there’s much we can feed our fears with. But we need not do so.

Purpose-Driven Work

Despite the assertion that America has a “value-less educational system,” we have data that show that millennials, some of the most recent graduates of the current schooling system, are highly purpose-driven and want meaning in their lives. In a Fast Company blog post written about a year ago, Adam Smiley Poswolsky tells us that millennials “are not motivated by money. Rather, they aim to make the world more compassionate, innovative, and sustainable.” He adds, “More than 50% of millennials say they would take a pay cut to find work that matches their values, while 90% want to use their skills for good.”

Poswolsky also notes, “IBM’s February 2015 millennial study found that millennial career goals don’t differ that much from older generations [sic]. Baby boomers, gen-Xers, and millennials all want to make a positive impact on their organization and help solve social and environmental challenges.” In fact, not only do millennials want to make an impact, but they want to do it now; that is, they’re unwilling to wait 5, 10, 15 years to solidify their place in a company before making their socially good mark. If a company doesn’t speak to a millennial’s values immediately, s/he will find an organization that does. No, a millennial isn’t willing to delay that sense of gratification and in fact, Poswolsky tells us, will find employers who are transparent about the way they use resources, talent, and technology to make a positive impact in the world.

Social Entrepreneurship

Perhaps one of the best paradigms of the kind of company Poswolsky describes and millennials seek is TOMS. TOMS made social entrepreneurship hip and cool by donating a pair of shoes every time someone purchased one of theirs. After he made this model of buying and giving wildly successful, TOMS Founder Blake Mycoskie wanted to do something new. He took a gap year and returned to TOMS, not with a creative shoe idea, but with new ideas for buying and giving: TOMS now sells coffee whose purchase goes to providing safe access to drinking water and eyeglasses whose purchase goes to help those who need eyeglasses, sight-saving surgery, or ophthalmological care. The company also works to provide safe births and prevent bullying. When I browse the company’s website, I have to remind myself I’m not reading the mission statement of a non-profit organization.

Blake Mycoskie, TOMS Founder

Blake Mycoskie, TOMS Founder

Problem-Based Learning

One of the reasons I advocate for Project-Based or Problem-Based Learning (PBL) is that it also steeps students in an environment that’s meaningful and contextualized. Just as an employee at TOMS knows throughout the work day the value of what s/he is providing to others, so too in a PBL classroom students know they’re engaged in solving a real-world problem and creating something that’s valuable in the world. At Magen David Yeshivah High School, where I work, our science department chairperson, Mrs. Michal Ashkenazy, is launching two new programs in the 2016-17 school year, the Invasive Fish Project and the Trout in the Classroom Project:

In the Invasive Fish Project, students will help scientists track the spread of invasive fish species such as Sea Lamprey, Asian Carp, Round Gobi and Snakeheads throughout New York State waterways, in an ongoing research project with Cornell University. Students will collect and analyze water samples from local water sources for environmental DNA from these invasive fish species, and their findings and research will be added to Cornell University’s database, which then will be made publicly available. The information provided by the students will help NY State provide responses to the problem of invasive fish species.

In the Trout in the Classroom Project, students will breed Brown and Brook Trout from eggs, caring for the young trout, monitoring tank water quality, and understanding their ecosystems. The goal of this program is to encourage students to care about fish and the environment and to connect students to the local watersheds that sustain them. They will end the year by releasing their trout in a state-approved stream/watershed.

Lest you think that problem-based learning can only happen in middle or high school, consider Portfolio School, a PBL elementary school set to open this fall. Dr. Shira Leibowitz, the school’s Principal, has partnered with Team Exponent, founded by a Google engineer, to develop a Moonshot program. This program will have K-5 students solving real-world problems, because as Dr. Leibowitz says, “Why should kids wait to grow up to solve problems? We believe they can solve problems from a very young age.”

Design Thinking: Developing a How Might We . . . ? Attitude

Each summer the I.D.E.A. Schools Network, the organization I run that helps schools implement PBL, organizes conferences called the Summer Sandboxes. At our generous hosts, ADAT Ari El in Los Angeles, CA, and Yeshivat Noam in Paramus, NJ, the West and East Coast Sandboxes take educators through the various components of PBL, give structures to PBL units, and provide ways to make learning creative, appealing to all learners, and relevant in the world. This year, we’re starting both Sandboxes with a Design Thinking workshop. On the East Coast, we’ll even be joined by Marc Fein and Emily Winograd of PresenTense, the Jewish Design Thinking organization.

Having fun imagining possibilities at the Summer Sandbox

Shira Greenspan, left of Yeshivat Noam and Ilisa Cappell, right, of the Solomon Schechter Day School Network having fun imagining possibilities at the Summer Sandbox, 2015

The Design Thinking process, conceived of by IDEO Founder David Kelley, is all about problem solving — in an empathetic way that prizes prototyping — iteration — and re-iteration. During the Design Thinking process, one has to interview many stakeholders plagued by a particular problem and prototype solutions based on what s/he discovers about stakeholders’ needs. Design Thinking is becoming a popular, fun, and empathy-building way to tackle some of the complex problems people and organizations have. And that’s something that’s at the heart of Design Thinking: the idea that we can solve any problem presented to us — or at least begin to; and if we fail, we begin again in an iterative process that keeps us refining our solutions.

The design thinking process

The Design Thinking Process

As Marc Fein told the Magen David High School teachers when he came to the school, one of the first things to do when confronted with a problem is to add “How might we . . . ?” to it. The teachers noted that changing “Students aren’t engaged” to “How might we engage students?” transforms a closed, intractable problem into one that has solutions — that we, as a team working together, can find.

No Problems, Just Solutions

This openness to possibility, to working together to find solutions was best taught to me by my late, dear friend Rochelle Shoretz (A”H). Rochelle, known for founding and running Sharsheret, a breast cancer organization that supports breast cancer survivors, was constantly telling those around her, “There are no problems, just solutions waiting to happen.” Yes, with Stage IV breast cancer, Rochelle bounded through life, problem-solving and conquering seemingly insurmountable issues for herself, her family, and the community.

The Magen David High School business bulletin Board invokes Rochelle's mantra

The Magen David High School business bulletin board invokes Rochelle’s mantra

The truth is, Rochelle’s attitude is a wholly Jewish one. In Tractate Makkot, we’re told that when Rabbi Akiva saw the Temple burning, a fox emerging from the Holy of Holies, he laughed. Laughed! Not in cynicism, but in optimism, for he told his fellow rabbis that since the destruction of the Temple had been predicted and had now eventuated, so too the rebuilding of the Temple, which had been predicted, would come to pass.

We can look all around us today and see much destruction. Indeed, it seems as if many “sacred Temples” are burning, and feelings of despair can easily overwhelm us. Let’s not let them. As Rochelle did, let’s turn problems into possibilities, and as Rabbi Akiva did, let’s take the  opportunity to look beyond the moment and envision a world that is redeemed. By imagining such a world, we will have already begun to build it.