Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Can there be a Universal Judaic Studies Curriculum

I begin with a digression, but a relevant one. Tonight was the 8th installment of "jedchat", a twitter-based discussion focusing on issues in Jewish Education. For those of you who think twitter is solely about movie stars posting about what they are eating for breakfast, there is a lot of great stuff out there waiting for you to discover it. For those of you who have never participated in a twitter chat, let's just say it is the Martial Arts of conversation, as you try to follow several strands of discussion all at once.

Anyway, tonight's topic (full disclosure: I missed the actual chat and just picked up the archives) was about the possibility of creating a universal curriculum in Judaic Studies. General Studies subjects do not really have this issue - the question there is more which universal curriculum should be the official one. Should it be the newly-adopted core standards? Should each state get to decide what is important? Should textbook publishers have a say (they do anyway)?

But Limudei Kodesh is different. There are no textbooks or teacher editions or awesome materials that everyone loves readily available. Only now are some materials beginning to appear online, and many of them are being slowly created by classroom teachers, as the limited size of the market makes it difficult, in the sense of not-so-profitable, for companies to invest significant sums of money for products that will only reach a few thousand students at best.

More than that, Judaic Studies curricula, to the extent that they actually exist (saying that you are learning Devarim or Bava Metzia is NOT a curriculum), tend to be products of certain hashkafic decisions. Which parts of Chumash do we believe are more important? Which Rashis* should the students know? Should we learn Moed or Nezikin? Do we want kids to memorize texts or think deeply about them? Is anything off limits? And so on and so on.

As an aside, I hate calling multiple comments made by Rashi "Rashis" - there was only one Rashi, and he made lots of comments. OK, I feel better now.

Furthermore, Judaic Studies has only recently begun to be treated by large numbers of its practitioners as education as opposed to "learning". The former implies standards, pedagogy, lesson plans with clearly delineated goals. The latter implies opening up a sefer and trying to make sure that the "boys" are learning with a geschmak (whatever that means). If you are concerned with "learning", then what matters is that the students give off the appearance of making progress along some invisible and undefined metric that exists solely in the mind of the classroom teacher. If you are involved in education, then you view your students in the context of similar students in similar classrooms elsewhere in the building and in similar schools across the world and you are concerned with what you can do to ensure that your students are accomplishing what those other students are accomplishing (and you hope for some objective method by which to make that assessment).

Taking all of that into account, I have found that Judaic Studies teachers often develop a sense of independence, almost a resistance to having curricula imposed on them. While teachers of General Studies topics are trained to look for the next edition of a beloved textbook, Judaic Studies teachers often spend their summers producing and editing workbooks, slideshows, and other materials that they produced, often shunning materials created by other teachers for similar topics. Since they have had to fashion their own curricula, there is no set of materials created elsewhere that will perfectly fit what they need. As such, attempts to create a universal curriculum will need to consider that it will be asking teachers and schools to change curricula that they may have worked for years to fashion and hone, and often that they regard as hallmarks of their educational programs. Gathering a group of Judaic Studies curriculum experts together is a tantalizing idea, but there is no guarantee that their ideas will stick in the marketplace.*

*Just by way of example, in the past ten years several companies have attempted to create curricular pieces for Judaic Studies and then sell them to schools. Off the top of my head, I would include Tal-Am, NETA, Bonayich, Gemara Berura, and the Taryag Project. While all of these programs have had some successes, I would say that Tal-Am is the only one that I have heard consistently positive reports about in terms of schools using them and keeping them. Most of the others have had mixed success, some of which has stemmed from the difficulty of taking the ideal version of the program and integrating it into a pre-existing system. Those programs that are more flexible are able to work with schools to allow them to get the benefits of the program while sticking with their old curriculum to an extent; those that are less flexible simply have to look elsewhere.

One idea that popped up in the chat might be a valuable place to start. One person mentioned a Beur Tefilla curriculum, a subject dear to my heart (we have created just such a curriculum - from scratch, of course - in Middle School in my school). The reason why this idea catches my eye in this discussion is because it is a topic that most schools do not teach. As Clayton Christensen has noted in his writing on disruptive innovation, such innovations tend to begin around the periphery, in areas that are not really receiving any attention. As such, the innovation can make initial inroads without bothering the system, perfecting itself until the point when it has received enough attention and enough testing that it is ready to enter the mainstream. Perhaps this is the place to begin in terms of standards - choose an unchartered curricular wilderness and develop it well, and try to build from there.

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