Friday, August 31, 2012

I Thought Harvard People Were Supposed to be Smart

Breathless news reports today are informing us about a large-scale cheating scandal at the hallowed Harvard University. It seems that a significant percentage of students in a class of over 250 undergraduates are accused of collaborating with one another on a take-home exam this past spring. The administration is appropriately exercised about this betrayal of "trust upon which intellectual inquiry at Harvard depends." Students, if found guilty, face punishments as potentially severe as being asked to leave the University for up to one year.

Serious stuff, indeed. But I have to ask: Aren't Harvard professors supposed to be, you know, kind of smart? Do they truly believe that on a take home final exam - a high-stakes test in an already high stakes environment, done during a time of year when students have several other such tests to take - that some students would not be looking for some extra help, or a shortcut, or some other advantage??? Yes, the students, if guilty, violated a universal academic code, but how can anyone be so naive as to be surprised about this?

As much as it runs counter to so many nice character traits and Rabbinic maxims of judging people favorably and all, I always assume that there will be someone who tries to take advantage of every system. We ask a lot of our students at every level of education. My students are in school from 8 until 4:40, then try to cram in homework, projects, studying, sports teams, dance practice, and untold hours of texting and web surfing - all while getting a decent night's sleep. Eventually something has to give, and if students feel that some of their work is mere busy work or that they cannot figure why they should be motivated to do their own work, you better believe that they are going to "collaborate."

I have found two antidotes to potential cheating- one technical and one substantive. The technical one is actually a technological one. As my students do more and more work online, I can now see when work was submitted and, in some cases such as work done on a Googledoc, I can track all of the edits. This avails me of much more knowledge about the students' progress and process than if I would simply ask them to hand something in, and the fact that they know what I know sometimes serves as a deterrent to the more blatant forms of cheating. Not perfect - I believe that every system can be gamed - but not a bad start.

The real antidote is in the type of work that I assign. The easier it is to simply spit back material, the easier it is to cheat without too much fear of being caught. However, as students are asked to be more creative, analytical, and original, they realize that their work is going to stand out and similarities to another's work will be painfully obvious. Can they still get around this system - yes, but it is much, much harder to do so.

So, yes, the Harvard cheating scandal is awful and horrible and all of that, but it should not be a surprise to anyone. The real question is what type of test the professor had given and what had he or she done to increase the chances that students would be more concerned with intellectual inquiry than with simply getting the work done and over with.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Are We Outsourcing Our Memories to Google?

(crossposted on

Hanging in my office is a slide that reads "If your students can Google the answer, then you are asking the wrong question.". This pithy aphorism expresses the ever-more-widely-held view that as teachers, we should not be spending our time drilling reams of facts into our students. In an age of Google and smartphones and iPads and wifi, our students can instantly and enjoyably find out all of the minutiae that we want them to learn. Rather, we should spend most of our instructional time focused on imparting either skills or deeper analysis to our young charges.

By contrast, there is a debate in the Talmud over what type of individual should be appointed to lead a congregation. Should the community search for someone who possesses vast stores of knowledge, or should they instead turn towards a leader who has remarkable analytical skills? After some discussion, the conclusion reached is that the individual with the greater knowledge is preferable, as people need someone who has the ability to draw on what he has learned in order to answer their questions, not someone who will answer their every query with another question.

At first blush, these statements do not seem capable of existing within the same world, or at least within the same educational framework. Should we be loading our students down with facts in hopes that we are giving the proper tools for leadership, or will their adult lives be best served by being able to think critically? In some sense, there are several reasons why the fact-cramming approach seems to be somewhat passé. Many of us perhaps recall school as being an endless procession of reading and memorizing, much of it in subject areas that did not interest us in the least. The increasing popularity of flipped learning, blended learning, project based learning, and all of their cousins has put a stress on the teacher's role in stimulating critical thinking skills. And, of course, there's ample research that cramming information is among the worst ways to learn something for long-term recall purposes. Seemingly, the days of the Jeopardy champion as hero and role model are behind us.

On the other hand, it strikes me that there is something to be said for accumulating knowledge, and not via Google. In order to analyze material, you need to have material to analyze, and the more that you are working with, the better your analysis can potentially be. One of the true joys of being a lifelong learner is seeing how different strands of one’s education continuously overlap and come to bear on one another. Additionally, before you can Google a fact, you need to know what you are searching for. We look for new knowledge in context, trying to add one fact at a time to our existing knowledge base, hopefully in a way that helps us to keep our learning organized in our heads. To my mind, that is a major role that teachers play - pointing to students towards new knowledge in a way that makes sense and in a way that will allow them to retain that knowledge and be able to access it for future use.
So, who is right? Should we allow Google to serve as our outsourced memory bank while we spend our time engaged in creative and analytical intellectual pursuits? Or should we aim to acquire as much knowledge, as measured in raw facts, as possible, in the hopes of creating solid foundations for future learning, plus the occasional know-it-all who is a good teammate for Trivial Pursuit?

My sense is that the two statements that I began with actually balance one another, and hopefully provide us with a healthy and even-keeled approach to take as the educational pendulum continues to swing away from the fill-them-up-with-facts approach and towards the make-them-think approach. There is no question that our students need to learn facts, and lots of them. The question is how we are going to go about getting all of that information into their heads. Are we going to lecture at them all day, and follow that up with simplistic homework or other assessments that merely ask them to fill in blanks? If that is our approach, then we may as well just teach them to use Google well, as we are ultimately not even teaching them the information that we want them to know. However, if we teach our students basic material, or even more advanced material, and then have them review it in a way that not only forces them to repeat and rehearse the information, but also requires them to give it serious thought, in a way that Google cannot help them, then not only will we create students who can think, but also students with vast and useful funds of knowledge.

Friday, August 24, 2012

The Baseball Season and the School Year

I love baseball. No major revelation there - baseball seems to be the sport of choice of intellectuals, both real and self-styled. George Will, Stephen Jay Gould, A. Bartlett Giamatti - the list goes on and on of men who were primarily academics or achieved fame for thoughtful discourse in other fields and yet could not resist penning some significant tome about our national pastime. Perhaps it is because it is a game that even the least athletic individual could see himself being able to play (Seriously - football offensive linemen are basically houses with eyes, but Phil Rizzutto is a hall of famer). Perhaps baseball appeals to eggheads because its slow pace allows time to calculate pi to three thousand places in between pitches. Or perhaps the critics of baseball are right, and baseball is a boring sport whose fans are boring people.

I'll let other people argue those points in forums (fora?) that are more appropriate for such discussions. For me, certainly as I get older and possibly wiser, baseball has several global areas of appeal, one of which stands out as we stand at the precipice of a new school year: the long season.

Baseball's long season is unique. In football, if you lose your first three games, you start planning for next year. In baseball, you have 159 more chances (When the 1998 Yankees won a then-record 114 games, they began the season 1-3, and pundits everywhere were writing how no team had ever started a season like that and gone on to win it all. So much for that tidbit). In 1994, some guy named Tuffy Rhodes hit three home runs on opening day, and a new Babe Ruth was crowned. Rhodes hit a total of 13 in his major league career and moved to Japan the next season. Last year, the Pittsburgh Pirates, who had not had a winning season since the first Bush administration, were in first place for a week in July. They finished the season over 20 games out of first (although they are having a nice season this time around).

The point is that the baseball season, like life itself, is long. Very, very long. The events of a week or even a month can be overwhelmed by the events of five other months. Many players who make the all-star team in July wind up having just slightly above average seasons when all is said and done.

(And don't get me started on the career thing. Many a player is deemed to be a future hall of famer after two or three impressive seasons, only to find out that being that good for a decade or more is not so easy.)

Applying this to education is a simple shift, and one that is apropos for the beginning of school - which takes place next week in the NY/NJ area and has already happened in many other locations. The school year is long - there are slightly more days in the school year than there are games in the baseball season. Opening day is at once exciting, exhilarating, and exhausting. Students are eager to learn, lessons are well-planned, books and notebooks and pens and everything else is exactly where it needs to be. But then we get into the heart of the year - schedules get crowded, fatigue sets in, events and activities and programs compete for our precious teaching time. Students reach new milestones in their personal maturation and with that often comes new challenges for them, for their parents, and for their teachers. The long year presents plenty of opportunities for mishaps, miscues, and flat-out bad days.

On the other hand, as in baseball, it allows plenty of room to iron out all of the wrinkles. Over the course of a long season, those who are truly good will prove themselves, while those who are mere pretenders will founder on the rocks. In school as well, those of us who believe in what we are doing, who genuinely care for our students, and who are dedicated to making each class and each day an opportunity for our students to learn something new and to grow in some small way - we will be able to work through those rough days and be able to look back in June on what has been another successful year.

Wishing everyone - teacher, parent, and student alike - much success as we embark on another exciting school year.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Can PBL be Inspirational?

We all remember them. The teachers who sparked an interest that became a passion that became a career. The professors whose command of their subject matter and brilliant lecturing style made attending a class about Etruscan Art as much fun as mindlessly watching Animaniacs. The instructors that we still talk about and quote with reverence and fondness decades after we have left their classrooms.

After spending two or three decades in school, each of us can likely point to a few teachers scattered over the course of our educational experiences who inspired us in some way, be it intellectually, spiritually, morally, or otherwise. Sometimes what we remember about them is what they actually taught us, but more often than not, I suspect, our memories are more visceral and emotional - we remember the excitement that we had for their class, our desire to learn more from them, and the life lessons that we possessed upon emerging from their classrooms.

Can a Project-Based Learning (PBL) classroom produce this type of inspiration? As readers of this blog are well aware, I am a big proponent of PBL as a more natural and mature approach to learning, and a way to ensure that more of our students are more actively learning more of the time, and in a way that will result in better and deeper understanding of the material. I fully think that it is worth the extra effort that it requires of teachers, both on the preparation level and in the classroom on a day-to-day basis. The more that a student's day is conducted in PBL (and related type) environments, the more likely that student is to have a rich and meaningful educational experience, and particularly an experience that he or she is meaningfully engaged in.

However, my question aims for the next level - can this produce the type of inspiration that we recall receiving from the best of our own teachers? Where did that inspiration come from? Did it come from finally understanding the concept behind the Pythagorean Theorem or the causes of World War I? Did it result from the feeling of satisfaction that came from completing a creative project demonstrating a principle in physics? Was it in any way related to the curriculum?

My sense is that the actual curriculum is merely a context for inspiration. The fact that I love American History is not simply because it is a good story. More likely, it is due to the fact that over a six year span, five of those years were spent with two teachers who demonstrated a genuine interest in their students, a passionate love for their subject, and a single-minded devotion to trying to imbue their young charges with the same feeling. While not every student caught the fever, it was inevitable that some would - and many did. Can this happen in a PBL classroom? Does the less-structured and less-teacher-centric nature of the PBL classroom provide a framework within which the best teachers can connect with their students in a way that they will not only facilitate learning but will be able to inspire an enthusiasm that will remain far beyond the end of the course?

My sense is that PBL definitely provides an opportunity for inspiring students, but like everything else in PBL, it takes more work. A PBL teacher is not going to elevate students through brilliant oratory or by overwhelming them with encyclopedic knowledge of the subject. Rather, the inspiration will come through the working with small groups of students, through helping students organize themselves as they struggle to direct their own learning, through providing every student with everything that they need to emerge as independent learners. Students are unlikely to walk out of every day of a PBL class wowed at what they learned. But they are more likely to look back at the overall experience and be amazed at the type of learners they have become - and realize that there was someone guiding and encouraging that entire process.

Monday, August 13, 2012

The Disconnected Educator

Admittedly, that is a strange title for a blog post. And certainly a strange title for a blog post from an educator who evangelizes about the wonders of Twitter, RSS feeds, wikis, and every other way to increase our connectedness to one another.

However, this post is really and truly about the flip side of all of that. I just returned from a three-week family vacation in Israel. Given the many costs involved with the trip, when it came to getting a phone, I opted to simply get one that could make phone calls (texting came with it, but I never used it as the phone had no keyboard of any sort and I am spoiled in that regard) - no data plan. In other words, I was able to check my email and get online while we were at our home base, but while we were out seeing the country, locating the best spot to have schwarma, or just visiting friends and family, there was no way for my to quickly check my inbox or a score update.

Even further, since I only brought an ipad with me, my time online was more limited as I am not as comfortable flipping around from one app to another. My Twitter life has been almost nonexistent for the last three weeks. My Facebook posts were minimal, as I do not announce to the world when I am half a planet away from home (OK, maybe a bit paranoid). Even when I did check in on work-related emails, I only responded when they were urgent.

And the shocking result? I survived. Not only did I manage to make it through without constant connectivity, but it was truly liberating. I was able to give my full attention to my family and our vacation without feeling that pull from my holster to make "just a quick check." More than that, I returned home not feeling as if I had to immediately get back to my online life. I have slowly perused items in my RSS reader. I have ignored whatever I missed on Twitter - there is too much to read even when you are sitting at your desk, certainly too much to catch up on after a few weeks.

For all that we talk about the need to be online and to make good use of social media, we have to balance that talk with the idea that we do not need to be engaged in social media 24 hours a day. As with many things that we do, our initial forays into new apps or forms of media can be marked by an all-consuming need to spend a lot of time posting, tweeting, tagging, linking, and just reading all that others have to offer us. However, eventually it is crucial to bring a sense of equanimity and calm to our online worlds. It is rare that life is moving so fast that we will completely miss out on things if we log in a few hours later, and vacations are meant to be enjoyed, not to be a source of stress because we are not as connected as we always are. If we have done a good job in building our social networks, then we should have constructed networks of people who understand that we all need a break once in a while, perhaps even for a few hours every day when we focus on our work or our family or on some mindless activity that is important to our mental health. Taking a big break helped to drive this point home to me. Hopefully it stays with me as life kicks back into high gear.

Monday, August 6, 2012

A follow-up to Beware the Overhaul

My post yesterday, commenting on Rabbi Dov Lipman's recent comments in the Jewish Press, generated a number of comments and discussions on this blog and in other forums. One strain of comments suggested that I essentially agree with some of the reforms that Rabbi Lipman proposed, but I was merely put off by his manner of presenting them.

Upon reflection, I think that while there may be a kernel of truth to that idea, the fact is that Rabbi Lipman and I disagree on a very fundamental concept. True, we both seem to feel that the standard Yeshiva curriculum needs to become more varied. Personally, I believe that at a certain point, perhaps by 11th grade, we should allow students the option of having a non-Gemara intensive track for those who, after 5 or 6 years, do not find Gemara to be all that appealing. In fact, this notion lay behind my doctoral research, which looked at high school seniors' motivation to learn Gemara. However, I come to these ideas from an educational and curricular perspective, while Rabbi Lipman seems to feel that a shift in the curriculum will produce better Jews.

What is not clear to me is why Rabbi Lipman does not think that Gemara is up to the task of creating menschen. The Gemara itself offers one opinion that a person who wants to be a "chassid" (pious individual) should study the Order of Nezikin, which focuses on laws of damages. How does the study of complicated civil law make one pious? The most common explanation that I have heard is that these laws are, at their root, all about how we treat one another. I am currently learning the beginning of Bava Batra with one of my children, and an overriding concept in the early chapters is about hezek re'iyah - damage that's done by being able to see into another's property. The law thus inculcates the idea that another person's privacy is so sancosanct as to make it illegal to violate it even in a small manner. Numerous other examples abound throughout Nezikin, and the rest of the Gemara as well.

By the same token, the eternal messages that Rabbi Lipman writes about that are contained in Tanach can be muted if taught improperly. Biblical critics study the same text that we focus on in Yeshiva, but they look for things other than spiritual and moral enlightenment in that text. Even within our own schools, an intense focus on technical minutiae or too much time spent on skills to the total elimination of understanding the message can drain the Torah of its ability to illuminate the proper path that we should be following in life.

And so, the solution to Rabbi Lipman's crisis is not to change what we teach but how we teach it. If our students do not understand why we are learning what we are learning, if they cannot connect the text to their broader lives, if they are not impacted in a deep sense by a great lesson, then we as teachers have to see what more we can be doing. Obviously, enlightenment will not happen every day for every student, but the cumulative effect should aim at something more than mere ability to learn (not that that is a bad goal, either). I am always gratified when I meet a former student who many years later still remembers a Rashi or a piece of Gemara that I taught him. But when I meet a former student who tells me that there is a way in which he lives his life that he learned from me, then I feel that I have done what my job is supposed to be.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Beware of the Overhaul: A Response to Rabbi Dov Lipman

I have recently become acquainted with the writings of Rabbi Dov Lipman, an American-born educator living in Beit Shemesh. Rabbi Lipman is basically an American charedi who is attempting to bring some moderation to the overall charedi mindset in Israel. To his credit, he is the rare American who has moved to Israel and actually gotten himself involved in the political scene.

However, his most recent column, "Overhauling Orthodox Education to Make Better Jews" has several fundamental problems that I would like to address.

1) Rabbi Lipman's basic thesis is that Yeshiva day school and high school education has failed, insofar as we are producing students with minimal Jewish knowledge, low levels of religious motivation, and a total lack of middot. He begin his article with a story of a boy in between years one and two at a post-high school hesder Yeshiva who rudely and offensively overcharged a Rabbi for the simple act of giving him a ride, claiming that the high charge was because he also had to spend time driving home after the errand.

I would have hoped that, as a respected and respectable writer, Rabbi Lipman could do better than take one individual and use him as a symbol for all that is wrong with an entire system. While he briefly admits that this young man was an exception, that admission seems to be made just so he can say that he made it, and his essay continues on the assumption that this child represents a new low that aloof Orthodox education has reached. Is it normal for journalists and politicians to routinely use scant anecdotal evidence to bolster larger and more substantive agendas? Of course. Do I expect more and better from Rabbi Lipman? Yes I do.

2) It is unclear to me who exactly Rabbi Lipman is addressing. As his sample student is an attendee of a hesder Yeshiva, I would assume that he is speaking to the American Modern Orthodox community. Also, as the reforms that he calls for stress a decrease in Gemara learning in favor of Tanach and other subjects, I would assume that he is not addressing the charedi community, where such an idea would never fly.

OK, perhaps it is not so unclear. But assuming that Rabbi Lipman is addressing the American Modern Orthodox community, which he is connected to through his involvement in various post-high school institutions, I wonder why he thinks that he is coming forward with new ideas. Has he ever read a Lookjed digest, where most if not all of his reforms have been discussed and debated over the past decade and a half? Has he spoken substantively with American educators about the challenges that they face in encouraging religious enthusiasm in 21st century America? And does he realize that many Orthodox schools already have a more varied curriculum than the one that he seems to imagine them to have? True, American students tend not to have the familiarity with as many verses of Tanach as their Israeli counterparts, but they often have far stronger critical thinking and analytical skills (the differences between American and Israeli education will have to be a separate post).

And Rabbi Lipman is by no means the most significant person to make this appeal. A decade ago, Mori V'Rabi HaRav Aharon Lichtenstein made a call to shift the curriculum away from Gemara and towards more learning of Mishna and Rambam. That article led to a vigorous and healthy bate with his student, Rav Yehuda Brandes (since translated and published in English), but the fact is that no major change in the curriculum came about as a result. Rav Herschel Schechter at YU has been quoted as saying that instead of trying to teach our girls Gemara like we do the boys, we should try to teach the boys Tanach and Halacha as we do the girls. Not that anyone is listening to that statement, either.

If Rabbi Lipman wants to succeed where others have not on this front, he should take the step of seeing post-high school education as what it really is - a continuation of high school, not the place where American high school students' religiosity is "saved". He should see his classes as part of year 13 of a curriculum and work with those who came before him to figure out what the students should be doing at each stage of their education.

3) Rabbi Lipman's article plays into the discontent that people often feel about their children's education, at a time when too many people are willing to see the negative and overlook the positive. In so many ways, American yeshiva day schools are succeeding like never before. Witness the growth of the number of students who attend Yeshivot in Israel or summer learning programs or mishmar programs. On the secular side, our students' achievements match up more than favorably with their counterparts from some of the best schools in the country. And chessed abounds, whether it is the growing trend of a chessed project as part of the bar and bat mitzvah celebrations, school-run chessed programs, or those that are community based.

Of course, if your child comes home with a bad grade or has a rough day, you as a parent are often more inclined to see the issues as systemic, and it is towards this mindset that Rabbi Lipman's article appeals. In short, it is not helpful. If he felt that the off-the-derech situation was due to a malaise within the Yeshiva system, or that the growth of white collar Jewish crime was a direct outgrowth of things learned in our system, or that we were producing a generation of ignoramuses, then perhaps there would be something to talk about. But one rude kid does not a failed system make. There are many reasons to support altering the curriculum - in all streams of Orthodoxy- but Rabbi Lipman does not convincingly make the case in this article.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

The Siyum HaShas - What Are You Going to do Next?

Wednesday night at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey (and order the course of this week and next in many other locations around the world), thousands of Jews came together to celebrate the completion of the latest cycle of Daf Yomi, the page-a-day learning of the entire Talmud that ultimately takes about seven and a half years from start to finish. Having utilized the Daf Yomi approach for two cycles, I can definitely attest to the many benefits that learning Daf Yomi has to offer.

First and foremost, someone who stays with Daf Yomi for an entire cycle has the opportunity to see the entire length and breadth of the Talmud, the central source for Jewish law and Rabbinic wisdom. While such a breakneck pace is not ideal for retention, it is impossible for some of what has been learned to not stick, and for those who teach Daf Yomi classes, the rate of retention is undoubtedly much higher.

Second, Daf Yomi is an amazing exercise in self-discipline. It is one thing to have a chavruta (study partner) that you meet with a few times a week, assuming that both of your schedules can be made to work. It is something else entirely to go over 2,700 days in a row (that's more than Cal Ripken Jr., and he got off days and winters) and never miss that hour of Talmud study. This includes working around Yom Kippur and Tisha B'Av and business trips and vacations and weddings and the million and a half other things which make up our daily lives. To do it for a month or a year is already quite an accomplishment. To do it for a cycle is indeed praiseworthy.

There are many more reasons to recommend Daf Yomi and to praise those who take part in it. However, I want to pose a challenge to those who just finished and are thinking of getting started again (or perhaps already have). The challenge is to consider whether you can do better. Again, let me be clear that I am in no way denigrating Daf Yomi and all that a person accomplishes by doing it. However, for someone who has already completed one or more cycles, what is the reason to start over? Is it simply a reflex after so many years? It is a sense that everyone is doing it? Daf Yomi shiurim often take on the air of an exclusive club, with those who are involved forming a camaraderie which goes beyond their Torah study. If you are starting over, is it for the social benefits as much as for the learning?

Perhaps it is for the discipline that I mentioned before. That would certainly be a worthy reason. Having stopped Daf Yomi six years ago after my last Siyum (I was on my own schedule at times), I can certainly attest to the fact that while it is difficult at times to stick to the schedule, it is motivating to know that you always have a set piece of study that you must engage in each day. Sometimes, having a less-defined course of study makes it easier to skip a day now and again.

But whatever the reason, I think that it behooves all those who are serious enough about their learning to do Daf Yomi to ask themselves if they can push themselves a bit further. Face it, doing a second cycle of Daf Yomi barely counts as "chazara" (review) insofar as one's learning of each page is separated by seven and a half years for his last learning of that page. Perhaps incorporate some degree of real review into this cycle. Perhaps add another commentary to your study. Perhaps commit yourself to really read through the notes in the Artscroll or all of the additions in the new Koren/Steinsaltz or subscribe to and read one of the many Internet-based series of insights to the daily Daf.

Or perhaps even move away from the Daf. Choose a masechet (tractate of Talmud) and learn through it slowly and deliberately with the depth that Daf Yomi's pace does not allow for. Explore another area of the vast sea of Torah that you are not sufficiently acquainted with, be it Tanach or Halacha or Jewish thought. True, there are no international celebrations for any of these other schedules of learning, but the goal is for each one of us to raise our own levels of learning to the maximum that we have been granted the capability to achieve. On a communal level, I hope that Daf Yomi continues to provide the steady and constant opportunities for Torah learning that serves as its backbone. But on an individual level, I hope that each one of us has the honesty and sense of self to inquire of ourselves whether or not there are broader vistas that we should be exploring as well.