Sunday, March 29, 2015

A Different Model of Jewish Education

"And why is it" asked Rabbi Yaakov Glasser, "that such a big deal is made of the Mishkan? There will never be a Mishkan again! There will be a Bais Hamikdash- but no Mishkan."

He looked around the audience of riveted teens and proceeded to reveal the answer.

"The Mishkan," he explained, "is like camp. It's a place to share experiences, to buoy one another up and to help each other out. It's a place where people encounter their fears, grow and come out changed."

So he didn't say it in exactly those words; I'm translating from teen-speak. In essence, though, that was what he was saying, and it made something click in my mind.

We've set up a false dichotomy in the Jewish world of experiential education vs. formal education. Formal education, we've admitted, must of necessity be boring. But NCSY, Bnei Akiva and camp will provide the experiential education to keep kids connected. These initiatives are so important that some parents will even choose providing their children with a Jewish camp experience over Jewish day school and grandparents will righteously argue that they should be able to use their money to send kids to camp even if those same kids are on scholarships at their respective day schools.

But I'd like to consider the first part of the assumption- namely, that formal education must be boring.

Why exactly is formal education boring?

Well, a lot of it has to do with how we're teaching. There are endless classes for young Jewish teens to sit through, Judaic and otherwise. In the morning, you've got Chumash (Bible), Navi (Prophets), Gemara (Talmud) and possibly a Jewish Philosophy or Fundamentals of Judaism class. And that's not including time for prayer and all the other classes (in secular subjects).

Some schools have adopted a block schedule, which means that students aren't experiencing these classes every day, or at the very least are not experiencing them in the exact same order. That's definitely a start- but I would argue it doesn't go far enough.

That brings us to 21st century skills. Using technology in the classroom is surely the answer. With technology, we can make our classes less boring, more interesting and use the very same devices children are already familiar with to get them to learn. This is a great idea and it definitely can work- but once again, I would argue it doesn't go far enough.

Think about it. When we were in the desert, our entire lives revolved around the Mishkan, our living model of Har Sinai. Experiences were the order of the day. Once in Israel, the same rules applied- our Jewish lives were meant to be a lived experience of holiness, the key word being experience. Bringing an animal to be slaughtered, making pilgrimage to the Temple, blowing (or hearing) Shofar, tithing, setting aside corners of the field for the poor and hungry- all of these were things you did. In creating a culture of textual supremacy, it is possible to lose sight of this religion which was meant to be lived and experienced in favor of learning another blatt Gemara or understanding another pasuk.

So what should we be doing?

The answer came to me as I read about Finland's decision to move towards phenomenon-based learning as opposed to subject-based learning. It was solidified as I read about the initiative at the Playmaker school where students created video games from scratch, an initiative which forced them to learn to code, manage or produce as members of a group, build a business and advertise. And of course there's maker culture and makerspaces cropping up all over the place.

The goal of education should be to meet students where they are and then build them up from there. Education should be relevant and should be able to demonstrate to students why what they are learning is valuable and will serve them well in today's world. It should be multidisciplinary. It should be creative. And it should involve play, because all learning is really exploration and play is exploration.

We should be redesigning our Jewish schools to feature project-based and phenomenon-based learning. Information should be taught topically and should have a clear goal. If students are learning about the laws of tallit, tefillin and tzitzit, the end result should be to actually make these objects, ideally from scratch. Students should learn how to construct and blow a shofar, safrut (the ability to write Hebrew properly in Torah and other holy scrolls). Exams should be practical i.e. students should have to construct a Shabbos meal and then, sitting at the table, demonstrate the melachot that are forbidden. Just learning how to run a kosher kitchen (and how to kasher various objects and items) could take a year. Send students out with Chabad teams to use blowtorches to assist in kashering people's kitchens, for instance!

Once information is studied topically, you no longer have the incredibly long school day that drains so many students. This is because there's no need for each subject to be a set number of minutes taking up its own period- rather, a chunk of time will end up covering a diverse array of Jewish subjects. Every unit begins with an overall question and the question should be framed like so: "I wonder how a sofer writes a kosher Torah scroll." Or "I wonder how to run a kosher kitchen." Or "I wonder which vessels conduct purity and impurity" (this would be a great excuse for woodshop and pottery in school, aside from which you could built shtenders, besamim holders, coffins and all sorts of other useful items and sell them). Then, students have to learn through relevant sources- possibly prepared by teachers or guided by teachers- beginning with the Chumash, then going to the Mishna, then the Talmud, then the Shulchan Aruch and beyond. Masters in the field should be brought in as consultants. Along the way, students can work on constructing whatever it is they hope to construct/ build in order to see what they do know as opposed to don't know- their teachers serving as experienced guides rather than frontal instructors and lecturers.

You may be concerned that not everything Judaism teaches fits neatly within a project framework. For example, it may be important to teach about Maimonides' 13 principles, and there isn't exactly a construction for that topic. But this is where phenomenon-based learning comes in. The 13 principles constitute a belief system, and this could be a great opportunity to link this lesson to beliefs in general (which would definitely integrate well with history and Jewish history). There are several different angles that one could take. One could be the exercise in determining at what point in Jewish history tenets and principles became important. Another would be to talk about the principles and values by which the student lives their life and have them go on a treasure hunt to determine where they get their principles from- a search for the source. Is it their parents? Their friends? And where do those individuals get their principles from? In what ways do these principles reflect or differ from overall society values? A third would be to talk about Maimonides as an individual and the ways in which he reflects other individuals who were unique during their time- Galileo, etc.

Much of Navi (Prophets) is political but students rarely learn it that way. If you link Prophets to the politics that occur when the prophet is prophesying, it can either work well in concert with a history curriculum, a media curriculum or it can become a discussion about ethics, values and how to live. If the latter, cue Randy Pausch's Last Lecture  and Paulo Coelho's The Alchemist. In an ideal world, English Lit, History (and Jewish History), Navi and Chumash departments would all work together on creating an integrated curriculum.

I also think it would be instructive to take a hotly contested topic and consider the comparisons and analogies often made. For example, most students are taught to be Zionistic but are usually only taught one narrative. They are taught to dismiss allegations of apartheid, land grabbing and acting like Hitler as ludicrous and misguided. But often they are only taught to do this because other people who they trust have told them that these allegations are incorrect or misguided. I think it would be very interesting to lead an advanced class that would not only examine the Israeli/ Palestine narratives but would also examine the rhetoric used in the media when it comes to this subject. This class, for instance, should do a thorough study of South Africa and apartheid (the books read in this class would work for AP English!). It should consider various land grabs made across different countries and cultures. It should allow for fearless inquiry and open questions, even those that make instructors uncomfortable.

Many lament the culture of victimization that has led to ridiculous concessions at college campuses across America. Trigger warnings must appear on all sorts of material and teachers are afraid to teach. It seems to me that in order to create students who think rather than spout opinions based on their feelings, we have to teach students to consider a topic from all angles, including uncomfortable ones. Enter source-based, phenomenon-based learning. You don't just dismiss the comparison to apartheid because it bothers you; you actually learn about apartheid, compare it to what's happening in Israel and come to a conclusion. You don't subscribe to political beliefs or tenets simply because it's popular; you consider all sides of the matter (even- or especially- on hotly contested issues such as LGBTQ, where most seem to think with their hearts instead of their minds). It's tempting to cast everyone who disagrees with you as a dark villain, but it's probably not accurate. Let's teach the children to make room for multiple ideas and to check the sources before coming to conclusions.

What I'm describing would take time as it would be a radical remodeling of education today. Interdisciplinary learning that leads to either creation or discussion which considers a matter from all sides, including the ones which are unsettling, is a difficult enterprise. But the rewards could be breathtaking. Imagine a shorter school day, one in which students were invested because they knew that everything they were learning was something that could become part of their lived experience. The skills (reading, writing, learning how to think critically) would be taught via the inquiry-based, constructivist, phenomenon-based, creation-based model. Here's what a possible day would look like:

  • Tefillah
  • Breakfast
  • Woodshop/ Pottery where we build items and vessels and learn about how they can conduct impurity via sources from Chumash, Mishna and Talmud. We also try to construct items as they existed way back when, including making a working Tanur, where we will bake challot (and do hafrashat challah). (This hits upon Chumash, Mishna, Talmud and Home Ec).
  • Israel/ Media workshop. We are reading 'Age of Iron' by J.M. Coetzee and comparing this reflection on apartheid to historical sources and different impressions (by Palestinians vs. Israelis) on what is going on in Israel today. (This hits upon Media, History and English). 
  • Business Model workshop- Students create businesses (either real ones or set up a fake Shark Tank atmosphere where people have to create business models and bring it to moguls in the classroom) in which they must bring math and science skills to bear. You could assign the business moguls roles - for example, one of them could have made all their money in oil. As part of this, assign them to learn and teach the class about the issues with oil right now (fracking, pipelines). Another one is a doctor and you use them to be the conduit to teach biology. Obviously, the students creating the businesses have to bring statistics, salesmanship and advertising to bear, including informative graphs and visual presentations. (This hits upon Science, Math, Public Speaking etc) 
  • Clubs/ Electives
  • Sports/ Arts 

It is possible that in the younger grades we would still need basic foundational classes in reading, writing, Hebrew language, learning Rashi script/ Aramaic etc. But once foundations were achieved, the ideal would be to teach all these skills within broader relevant topics as opposed to on their own.

I'm still working on refining these ideas and I know I haven't hit on all the potential problems. A few that I see include:

  • How would we hire teachers to fit this model and what would the teacher's role look like? Is a teacher someone meant to know a lot about a variety of subjects, or would several different teachers work together to construct each unit or lesson?
  • How would this be financially possible/ can this be supported equitably across wealthy and less affluent communities?
  • How would we assess what and whether the student has learned the topic? 
  • How can we determine rigor in such classes? 
  • Is it possible that there are certain concepts that simply can't be taught according to this model, and if so, do we build in a period of time for straight-up lecturing? 
  • If the USA keeps a standardized test model such as the SATs or ACTs, would students be adequately prepared to succeed? 

I think with the right team, however, we would be able to expand upon this vision, work out the kinks, and create a school that interested students, taught them useful information and made Judaism the lived experience it ought to be.

Let me know what you think.