The State of the Obvious

February 23, 2016

Joel Grishaver

koren_matovu_062909_380pxHebrew School is supposed to teach Hebrew. For a short period after the 6-Day war and in sporadic occurrences Hebrew Schools have tried “Modern Hebrew.” Now Hebrew has mainly meant “Prayerbook Hebrew.” The most recent, most successful, and currently popular of these modern Hebrew programs came out of Cleveland (thank you, Nechama and Lifsa) is called Hebrew Through Movement and is pedagogically sound. However “Prayerbook Hebrew” is still granted most favored nation status and there is a logic to this.

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Remarketing Jew Education

January 26, 2011

We are at an interesting moment in the world of parenting. This parenting chaos directly impacts the way we present ourselves as Jewish “schools.”

The first voice is Amy Chua, author of  “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,”  who says give your child no room to do anything but succeed. The other voice is Wendy Mogul, whose long overdue second book, “The Blessings of a B-Minus,” cajoles us to accept our child as human beings. Both books are now coming to prominence. One is about high achievement, the other is about resilience. Both take a swipe at the long over emphasized issue of self-esteem.

Chua wants us to be tougher on our kids and demand “perfection.” Mogul understands that “failure” is a useful growth opportunity. Both of them wind up as commentary on new reports about the failure of American schools to even teach the difference between facts and opinions and the overall failure of American Universities to make any impact on the learning of many of their present students. Richard Arum, lead author of the study, “Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses” (University of Chicago Press) came out in January, too, is the third voice putting the foundations of the way we parent at risk.

Believe it or not, all this comes back to the role and optics of Jewish schools, particularly Jewish supplemental schools. Who we are as a school has a lot to do with what our parents believe a school is.

We are simultaneously being told be like regular schools and become technological. At the same time we are being told, don’t be like a school at all (we’ve had enough of that) be a camp or a program or something interesting (and do that using a lot less time). What is common knowledge every where but in our classroom, is the universal belief that the present Jewish schooling system is a total failure.

Here is a radical idea. We ought to play to our own strengths. We know that the Jewish tradition centers on learning how to close-read texts. (Think reading comprehension!) That we use a thing called “Talmudic Logic” that teaches you how to evaluate evidence, reason, and know the difference between fact and opinion.

Jewish schools can and should do camp pretty well. We need to get better at technology. For sure, our tradition centers on building both self-esteem and resilience. But, what Judaism really is good at is learning—deep learning.

In the future, when the alternative (for example) is 10 minutes of Skype a week plus one informal event a month probably involving families, we will brag:  “We help our students become better learners.”

Camp will do camp better than we do. Other schools will always have more money to spend on technology than we do (and Web 2.0 apps only go so far). But what we can really brag about is “let us teach your children the Jewish tradition and they will do better in life.”

We will incorporate the camp selling point: “You children will make friends to last a lifetime.” We will have the technological appeal: “We allow your children to remix the Jewish tradition.” But our unique promise is about learning skills. Right now we teach not language but mechanical reading. Language provides useful insight. Mechanical reading is self-serving. We are geared to teach names and facts, but “meaning” and “insight” are what are precious. We have to work to make our classrooms both challenging and responsive, and those are goals we can achieve. It is perhaps the only truth that will keep us in business.

To stay on the weekly schedule, to make it worth the carpool time, Jewish Schooling has to have advantages. The good thing is that we own them: Friends, Remixing, Creativity, Resilience, and Academic Excellence. We know how to do this—we simply need to become good Torah teachers and not a pale imitation of secular schools.


Self-Paced, Point & Click: The Jewish Problem with Programmed Instruction

March 13, 2009

[cross-posted to TAPBB]

Programmed Instruction

There is a growing fantasy in Jewish education that everything will be better if we only take the teacher out of the equation. This is manifesting itself in the claim that low level computer exercises can replace a day a week of Jewish learning. And it is leading to tools like self-checking folders that students work their way through at their own pace. What all of these hold in common is a reliance on an old education technique, programmed instruction, which was used mainly for industrial training and has mainly shown itself to be a failure in general education.

Programmed instruction grew out of the work of B.F. Skinner, the behaviorist who believed that learning was conditioning. In rewarding students who get the right answer, students become conditioned to repeat that answer. Programmed instruction sends students through a series of frames where they (a) receive information, (b) are asked about that information, and (c) are shown the correct answer. In more sophisticated forms, there is now a “branching” opportunity. If the student got the answer right, they move on to the next frame. If they get it wrong, they are put into a review loop.

The good news seems to be (a) the ability of each student to move at his/her own pace, (b) a high rate of retention (at least in the short term), and (c) the freeing of the class from the imposition of a teaching doing bad “frontal” education. But most of the advocates of programmed instruction, whether in software or folders, seem to forget three things:

1. Levels of Learning

Benjamin Bloom, one of my teachers, wrote a big book with J. Thomas Hastings and George F. Madaus called Handbook on Formative and Summative Evaluation of Student Learning. In it is a taxonomy of educational objectives that describes a series of “levels” of learning. In the cognitive domain there are six: Knowledge, Comprehension, Application, Analysis, Synthesis, and Evaluation. The problem is simple. Jewish life and real Jewish learning is all about Analysis, Synthesis, and Evaluation, the higher levels. Programmed Instruction is best for Knowledge, Comprehension and Application, the lower three levels.

There is also a taxonomy of affective objectives: Receiving (or Awareness), Responding, Valuing, Organization, and Characterization by a value or value complex. These affective objectives (usually called “Krathwohl’s Taxonomy”) are all about a process called “internalization,” whereby a student’s affect towards something goes from being aware (that’s the “receiving” part) all the way to the point where their affect has been internalized and consistently guides or controls the person’s behavior. It’s the path between knowing that kavod is a Jewish value and going through life treating people with kavod. Programmed Instruction can get you to Awareness, but it is not great at getting to the rest of the domain. Jewish education should be all about valuing and the rest of that process.

The argument can be made that Programmed Instruction is mainly being used to teach Hebrew language. That Alef Bet is only Alef Bet is partially true. But Alef Bet leads to Ashrei and Ashrei is supposed to build a connection to God. While learning folders with self-checking and computer programs may have a role in mechanical learning, they are incapable of taking it any further. When do you feel close to God? What is the right thing to do in this case? What do you think of when you say the Shema? These are all moments of Jewish learning that are simply not part of a computer’s function.

2. Community

The purpose of Bar and Bat Mitzvah is to acknowledge that a child is now old enough to function as an adult in the ritual life of the Jewish people. Reading Torah is a symbol that a child can now function as a member of the community. A new adult can now be counted in a minyan. Most importantly, this means that a new adult is old enough to go to a shiva house and be counted among those whose responsibility it is to help heal the pain of death. If we are going to turn our schools into B’nai Mitzvah mills, we could do worse than if they included the skills of participating in Jewish communal life and learning compassion and empathy. Those are not things that come from the kind of computer programs we have and are likely to have in the foreseeable future. They are the inverse of things learned when each student is moving at his or her own pace.

Tolerance is one of the things that one learns from being part of a learning community. So is patience, leadership, and being a good listener. The best way to learn how to participate in community life is practice. It is not an accident that Jews pray in community and demand community for most Jewish events. Studying prayer at home on the computer is not the best way to learn about community. Working alone at your own folder, checking your own answers, doesn’t develop leadership skills.

3. Teachers

Finally, the Jewish tradition believes in teachers. It sees teachers as rich (not mechanical) enablers of individualization and personalization. Teachers allow lessons to go off on tangents, listen to student needs, and take advantage of the moment. Teachers can appreciate and celebrate, understand and empathize. A teacher-free classroom can maybe transmit Jewish information, but it is not a Jewish classroom. The modeling of the Jewish classroom as Jewish learning community, the enabling of the community by a person manifesting and applying Jewish values – this is our goal. I know of no one who can claim that their best learning moment took place when completing a self-guided booklet. Not every teacher is ideal, but teachers are our ideal.

Every teaching tool that is effective has its time and purpose. Programmed instruction and computer-assisted instruction are tools that have their time and place. But ironically, as we have less time to spend together with our students, now is precisely the time for more student-teacher interaction, not less. As we are trying to teach the skills of communal worship, now is precisely not the time to invite our students to learn Hebrew from computer screens. When we are trying to instruct our students to maximize their humanity and use it to change the world, now is precisely the time to make human interaction a foundational value of Jewish education. The elimination of the human in education is a step backwards.

Steps Forward

At Torah Aura Productions, we are dedicated to producing curricular materials that realize a depth of understanding rather than focusing only on facts and feelings. That means that we also must be active partners with teachers and educators to maximize the Jewish educational impact on their students.

Programmed instruction is perfectly useful if the goal is to develop students who can perform at a one-time event. We’re encouraging a different goal: students who are lifelong Jews. Our mission is to make materials that help teachers and educators to enable their students to become empowered Jewish adults.

We believe in doing what it takes to develop good teachers who can actualize impactful Jewish learning. That may be more difficult than asking teachers to facilitate programmed instruction in booklets or on computer screens, but it’s a worthwhile endeavor. Human interaction is the key to the Jewish future. And because we believe in humanity, we believe that Jewish schools can succeed at doing something bigger, better and worthwhile.


Double-Dipping to Disaster

September 26, 2006

The Hebrew part of the supplemental school is the part most rapidly sliding into the abyss. First we made it impossible. Research clearly shows that second language acquisition takes one interaction every seventy-two hours in order to move material from short term memory to long-term memory. We (and by we I me the American Jewish Community—not the educational professionals) shortened the three day a week school that was sufficient; into the one and two day a week studying Hebrew school that is insufficient. The very time frame of the school mandates a good deal of failure. It is not the school’s fault. It is not the teacher’s fault. It is the time-frame’s fault. So we abandoned Hebrew language and focused only on prayer Hebrew, the very path that led to the self-destruction of the vibrant Jewish community of Alexandria, Egypt.

Our solution is to constantly reteach that which we were insufficiently able to convey the previous year. We see schools that spend two or three years learning to identify the letters (using pre-primers) then another two years learning to read that alphabet (using two primers sequentially). When you add to that the schools need to devote a month or two reviewing the basic Hebrew alphabet every fall (to compensate for summer), it is now possible to learn the Hebrew alef-bet seven years in a row in some supplemental schools.

Once the complaint was, “All we ever learn about is the Jewish holidays.” Today, the complaint could easily be, “All we ever do is learn the Hebrew alphabet.” I am not telling you that some students fail to show mastery. I can tell you who they are right now: The oral-aural learners, the psychomotor learners, the whole to part analytical learners. If you are not a part to whole, visual, linear processor, Hebrew phonics is not the road for you—and that can be some thirty to forty percent of our Hebrew school students. Our solution is to reteach exactly the same material two years in a row. If one pre-primer doesn’t take, reboot and stick in a second one. When one primer doesn’t do the job, just apply a second, identical primer. Forget the message we are communicating, just think how many students are going either, “Boring,” or “I am stupid.”

I am not saying that review is wrong. Nor I am suggesting that we can successfully do the job for all of our students. What I am saying, is that teaching EXACTLY the same thing two years in a row is wrong! If you need to repeat a pre-primer, use a second year pre-primer (like Marilyn Price and Friends…) that teaches more the second time round. If you need to repeat a primer, use one that teaches more than the first, like Ot la-Ba-ot, if you used a simpler one the year before. Let’s not shoot ourselves in the foot.