A New Age for Adult Learning

by Wendy Grinberg

Who is engaged in adult learning at your synagogue? Much of adult learning in synagogues is targeted at retirees and happens during the day, when other people are at work. In addition, there are programs for parents of children in the religious school, often on Sunday mornings. It is time to focus on another demographic, the last of the Baby Boomers (ages 50-70) – people who have different demands and time schedules but who are also at a crucial transition point and ripe for adult Jewish learning.

The number of adults engaged in adult Jewish learning is greater than ever before, as adult Jewish learning has experienced a kind of boom in the last few decades, but there is evidence that today’s learners are looking for more than additional deposits in their knowledge bank. This demographic in particular is facing a transition in their lives that puts an emphasis on finding purpose and meaning-making. Evidence of this trend can be found in the secular culture: There’s a series in the Huffington Post based on “The Year of the Boomer – 2014 is the year the youngest Boomers turn 50” that describes different people who have reinvented themselves. Websites like Encore.org teach people how to find purpose in their “second acts” and promotes The Encore Career Handbook, a comprehensive, nuts-and-bolts guide to finding passion, purpose and a paycheck in the second half of life.” Whether their situation is financially dire or not, this demographic faces the question of how to make the second half of their lives significant.

As further evidence of this change, the study of mussar, a Jewish ethical and spiritual discipline, is experiencing a revival in the 21st century. Mussar is more than “Jewish self-help.” Stone’s website describes “a community of learners dedicated to transforming themselves, their relationships, and their institutions by fully integrating the values of mussar into daily practice and daily life.” The focus of our adult learning should be towards individual transformation with an ultimate community purpose in mind. I am not suggesting a further focus on self at the expense of community, but for its ultimate benefit. I am suggesting a critical reflection component to adult learning that results in integrating Jewish values and knowing one’s self better within the context of Judaism, ultimately to the benefit of society as a whole.

Adult learning should not be helping learners know more about Judaism or Jewish topics without taking the learning to heart. The Haggadah’s “wicked child” asks, “What does all of this mean to me?” The question is inappropriate because our tradition takes for granted that meaningful Jewish learning means we must always see ourselves as a crucial part of the learning. Applying the learning to our own lives, our own growth, is core. Adult Jewish learning is not an academic exercise; it is a spiritual discipline.

In order to meet these goals, we have to change our teaching methodology. In her thorough book Jewish Lives, Jewish Learning: Adult Jewish Learning Theory and Practice, Diane Tickton Schuster noted that “The literature on adult religious education draws heavily on work in the fields of cognitive psychology and adult learning. To date, the insights from these disciplines have not been applied to the experiences of Jewish adult learners.” (p.103) Despite her compelling argument, not much has changed. On the whole, our teachers of adults are still largely untrained in adult learning theory. Rather, they are experts in their subject, much like academics in universities. Because we are reaching not towards a degree but to the transformation of belief and behavior, we need to put resources towards training our teachers of adults in a different way of understanding learning and teaching. A promising move in this direction is that the leaders of the Florence Melton School of Adult Jewish Learning are currently in the process of creating an asynchronous orientation to Melton and teaching Jewish adults, inclusive of a session on transformative learning, that all new faculty will be required to view prior to teaching.

As Schuster points out, transformative adult learning theory is directly relevant to what adult Jewish learners are seeking in our settings. This approach defines adult learning as a process by which learners challenge previously held perspectives, become more open, and revise their beliefs and understandings of the world. Critical reflection is an essential component of transformative adult learning. In transformative adult learning, techniques that educators can use for reflection include both rational and “extrarational” approaches, including creative expression, intuition and imagination. Teachers who ascribe to transformative adult learning theory function much more as a guide than an expert, and they provide avenues for learners to reach inside themselves, better understand their own beliefs and assumptions, ask questions and formulate new ways of seeing the world and being in it. This means that developing a curricular path for adult Jewish learners should not be our top priority. People seek out learning when and where they are ready, and the teacher cannot bring about transformation in the learner. Rather, the teacher sets the stage for this kind of learning to take place.

Making a meaningful contribution to the greater community is potential next step and byproduct of transformational adult learning in Jewish settings. If we help learners to explore their own sense of purpose and we provide avenues for them to express that in meaningful ways, both the learner and the community can benefit. Take this model from the Encore.org site: “Encore Fellowships are designed to deliver new sources of talent to organizations solving critical social problems. These paid, time-limited Fellowships match skilled, experienced professionals with social-purpose organizations in high-impact assignments.” How might our synagogues look different if we accompanied adult Jewish learners on their path for making meaning and finding purpose, and we matched their passions and talents with places in the synagogue they could contribute their expertise and ideas? Not everyone wants to be on the board or a committee; passionate experts can make contributions in time-limited, project-focused ways.

Today access to knowledge is unprecedented. There are a myriad of reputable, comprehensive and highly trafficked websites, instructional and educational videos and podcasts that can teach someone about Judaism, Jewish history, life and practice. If a Jewish learner comes to a Jewish environment to learn, it is likely the learner is seeking more than information and is ready to think about how they might be different as a result of the learning, sharing and reflecting. They may also be looking for a way to get involved and make a difference. Adult Jewish learning in Jewish settings should not be organized around numbers of hours clocked or years of intensive coursework. Rather, we should acknowledge that adult Jewish learning is intensely personal and potentially transformative, both for individuals and communities. The time is right to reach out to adults in their 50s and 60s, people who are in transition and open to both receiving and contributing to our tradition and community.

Specifically, Jewish agencies and foundations can:

  • Convene teachers of adults and train them in relevant adult learning theory.
  • Provide online classes with trained teachers. (Transformative learning can happen even in a distance learning setting when facilitated by the right teacher!)
  • Fund congregational or organizational fellowships for expert adults who can make a difference in our organizations.

Synagogues can:

  • Value teachers who understand adult learning and education as much as Jewish subject matter.
  • Be creative in considering timing and format of adult learning.
  • Explicitly reach out to those adults in the 50-70 year old demographic and create opportunities for them to explore this transitional phase in their lives.
  • Consider adult learning offerings and develop them around the explicit goals of meaning-making and responding to a search for purpose and direction.
  • Match adults’ passions and skills to opportunities to contribute to their Jewish community.

Teachers of Jewish adults can:

  • Articulate a goal of transformation and meaningful learning for adult learning experiences.
  • Share experiences and techniques which have been successful in this approach.
  • Act as facilitators, mentors and journey companions rather than experts.
  • Share your own searches, passions and the meaning you find in Judaism.
  • Listen to learners and give them voice.

Adult Jewish learners can:

  • Reflect on what and why you are seeking.
  • Share your ideas, thoughts and passion.
  • Be open to opportunities for change as well as rational and extrarational learning experiences.
  • Help shape future adult learning offerings.
  • Seek out opportunities to contribute your talents and continue to grow.

Wendy Grinberg is the founder and director of the Jewish Education Lab and is currently earning an Ed.D. at the William Davidson School of Education at Jewish Theological Seminary.