Wednesday, February 29, 2012

What is "Jewish" education?

Last nights #jedchat focused on the topic of differentiated instruction in Jewish education. As always, it was a lively discussion among a committed team of educators (and I encourage as many people as possible to join these chats every Wednesday night between 9 and 10pm EST). However, I could not help wondering, and I expressed this at one point in the discussion, if there was anything distinctly Jewish about the topic.

There has been much talk in recent years about the "professionalization" of Jewish education. That term refers to a lot of different things to a lot of different people, but it its broadest sense it means that Jewish schools are slowly but surely moving away from being the equivalent of shtiebels for kids and actually beginning to emulate many of the best practices that have been developed and tested in the much larger and more accountable school systems across the country. This refers to every aspect of the school, from teaching methodology to how observations are conducted to how students of differing needs and abilities are dealt with. There is no question in my mind that this is generally a good thing.

But at the same time, this professionalization erases many of the boundaries between Jewish schools and every other school in the country. The more that we recognize that the key to teaching a solid Gemara class is not only about being a talmid chacham but also about being able to organize a good lesson or to construct a valid and potent assessment, the more we find ourselves realizing that there is much to learn from the math teacher down the road in P.S. 47. The differences that remain are in the content that we are teaching and in the overall atmosphere of our schools.

One person on the chat last night noted that one difficulty that arises in trying things such as differentiation in Judaic Studies is that there are very few available materials that teachers can grab in order to provide multiple learning opportunities for their class. There is no doubt that this is true -a science teacher has a wealth of textbooks and websites where she can go for enrichment or remediation materials for students who need them, whereas the average Chumash teacher has to create everything from scratch - doubly so if we are talking about online materials. On a related note, it is not always easy or possible to set students learning on their own if they are incapable of understanding the Hebrew of Ramban or the Aramaic of a particularly difficult sugya. Again, additional work for a teacher.

But those concerns are more quantitative than qualitative and thus I return to my original musing - what is so "Jewish" about "Jewish education"? At least on the level of methodology and pedagogy, I am not sure that there is anything so unique. And I am not sure that that is such a bad thing.

I would love to hear people's comments on this post.


Anonymous said...

So what is Jewish about Jewish education? I think it's, as you pointed out, the feeling of Jewish education. Students struggle with a hard topic in chavruta, then come back to listen to their passionate teachers who love learning and are fun role models. That is Jewish education and in my opinion the most important part of education. Instilling a love for learning that public schools lack. I agree that adopting the public school system is good, that's how students learn the best and retain info. But the ability of Jewish school teachers to make students see the material in a new, thought provoking way, and to make them want to keep learning, is the best thing Jewish education can offer its students.

Nechama said...

I also find that "there are very few available materials that [Jewish studies] teachers can grab in order to provide multiple learning opportunities for their class."

That is currently my biggest challenge as a Chumash teacher.

I'll spend stacks of time preparing a modified worksheet, complete with linear translations of Kli Yakar or some obscure text. While this preparation does enhance my own understanding of the material, there is a limit to how frequently I can do that on a regular basis.

On one hand, I wish there were readily available materials for my Parshios. Thing is, if someone asked me for my materials I would cringe. I spend HOURS creating my own curriculum. It hurts to give it away gratis.

There are some organizations that fund the research, design and printing of such workbooks. Trouble is, they are mostly focusing on elementary grades.