Tuesday, May 1, 2012

What are We Doing?

A few weeks ago, a discussion was held on the Lookjed educators list (link currently not available) that began with a quote from Rav Mordechai Gifter who had once asked what day school were actually doing. Rav Gifter looked at students coming out of schools who had weak skills in a wide range of limudei kodesh subjects, and wondered how schools were spending their time if their students emerged with such a paucity of knowledge.

Leaving aside the idea that there are many, many factors that go into the final product that is a day school graduate and that the school is only one of them, the fact is that many students do graduate from 8 or 12 years of day school with a shocking ignorance of many subjects that we treasure so much.

While this could be the result of many factors, I wonder if part of the cause is that we are not always fully clear on what we are trying to accomplish. It's not that I do not have an answer; the problem is that I have
too many possible answers, each of which could potentially dictate our actions in a different way. To some extent, each of them could be true, while at the same time there has to be a sense of priorities. Here are a few possibilities:

1) We are trying to teach some specific bank of knowledge in a wide range of subjects.

2) We are trying to teach some specific collection of skills in each of a wide range of subjects.

3) We are trying to teach broader and more generalizable learning skills that will enable our students to feel comfortable in any learning environment.

4) We are trying to create the fabled "lifelong learners" - students who will have a desire to continue learning beyond their formal schooling.

4a) We are trying to create "lifelong learners", specifically referring to students who will make Torah study a regular part of their lives.

5) We are trying to create good citizens, i.e. students with a well-grounded moral compass, a sense of compassion, and a sense of responsibility to the community.

6) We are trying to keep students "on the derech" by providing them with positive religious experiences led by positive religious role models.

I am sure that you could add even more possibilities to this list, but I think that I have made my point. At times, I think that there is a thin line between being jaded and being introspective. I look at the reams of assessments and projects and activities and homeworks and tests and whatnot that we ask our students to do and wonder if the goal is the process or the product or the hidden lessons that they do not even realize that they are learning. Is it more important for them to know the 15 famous Rashis in Sefer Shemot, or that they only learn 10 of them but learn how to do it on their own, or that they only learn 5 of them but that they feel inspired to keep learning or that who knows how many they learned but they had a positive experience in class with a wonderful religious role model and that will keep them frum (ignorant, perhaps, but frum)? To a degree, all are correct. On the other hand, we do have to decide what approach we are taking in the classroom.

I am going to short-circuit this post here. Looking forward to reader response. Please remember to include your name in your comment.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Aaron, with apologies for being self-referential, your post reminds me of something that I wrote a few years back, for JEL, available here:

I do think that the proliferation of purposes is a real issue, but it goes hand in hand with idiosyncrasy and lack of institution-wide curricular coherence. How often do we really know what students have learned in class A before we pass them along to class B (not what teachers say they "covered" but what students have actually learned)? How often does that knowledge really influence what is taught, in order to help students progress towards goals about which there is agreement and shared understanding?