Autonomy, Mastery and Religious Purposefulness in Jewish Education

If Torah lishmah is one of the aspirations for Jewish education, then what possible justification can there be for using the anachronistic 19th century carrot and stick practices of tests, grades and homework for engaging with the rich array of Jewish texts, concepts and materials?

by Daniel C. Petter-Lipstein

In his best-selling book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Dan Pink makes the powerful case that if “we want to strengthen our organizations, get beyond our decade of underachievement and address the inchoate sense that something’s gone wrong in our businesses, our lives and our world,” we need to tap more fully into each person’s intrinsic motivations and rely less on extrinsic motivations.

Pink demonstrates through multiple studies and examples how time and again, intrinsic motivation will consistently crush extrinsic motivation. Perhaps the most striking proof of Pink’s thesis is his depiction of two electronic encyclopedia projects. In 1995, if you were asked to predict which encyclopedia project would triumph, the one led by one of the most successful corporations in the annals of US business or the initiative assembled by a bunch of random people around the world, only the truly foolhardy would have bet on Jimmy Wales and his group of rag tag volunteers at Wikepedia vs Microsoft Encarta.

But in 2009, after millions of dollars and years of losses, Microsoft finally pulled the plug on Encarta and in a poignant bit of irony, the demise of Encarta is chronicled on a Wikipedia page that details the history of Microsoft’s doomed encyclopedia project.

In a wonderful 9-minute RSA animation, Pink highlights the three core elements of intrinsic motivation: autonomy, mastery and purpose.

One of the emphatic findings of the just released Pew Report on American Jewry is that the religious life of US Jews is shifting in unprecedented ways where even half of US Jews raised in Orthodox homes no longer consider themselves Orthodox. Now more than ever perhaps in the history of the Jewish people, the decision to live a life infused with religious purpose is very much derived from the intrinsic motivations and satisfactions that one believes comes from such religious commitment. Even if such motivation stems from a belief in divine commandment or historical or tribal fidelity, being religious (however one may define that term) is more than ever derived from a person’s inner life rather than outer force or influence.

While there are many complex factors to this “religious and spiritual malaise,” one dynamic that often gets overlooked is how poorly structured the vast majority of formal Jewish educational settings are to maximize autonomy, mastery and purpose and thereby the intrinsic motivations of Jewish children in their schools. Rather than feeding and nurturing the higher, internal psychological drives that make us human and by extension religious, too many Jewish educational settings resemble the Prussian/industrial model of education which relies on external carrots and sticks to govern the daily lives of students.

Autonomy. The desire to be self-directed in one’s life and work is perhaps one of the most innate parts of human existence. Indeed, the genius of the Sabbath is to assert the primacy of a human’s freedom and reject the idea that we are constantly subject to the commands and necessities of everyday life and its multiple masters, human and otherwise.

But whether in day school or a congregational setting, most Jewish education environments offer their students almost no autonomy over their daily schedules. Children know day in, day out, week after week, exactly what they will be doing and for how long they will be doing it at almost every hour of the day inside their classrooms. When increasing amounts of homework are factored in which have been dictated by teachers, a Jewish child’s sense of power and ability to self-actualize his interests is even further diminished.

What would it mean for student engagement and feeling towards religious life if Tuesday afternoons did not always mean Talmud shiur or learning the weekly Torah portion, but instead a hands-on project of their own creation? What if homework were the exception and not the rule governing a family’s precious time at home?

Mastery. Human beings engage in a wide variety of activities for no other reason than they bring them inner joy and satisfaction. They feel a sense of pride if they get better at an activity and demonstrate some form of mastery. No one will ever pay me a thin dime to play piano or shoot a jump shot, but I engage in these activities and practice them because I enjoy them and aspire to get beyond chopsticks and easy lay-ups to some day play a Chopin concerto and consistently swish three-pointers.

Sadly, like much of American education, academics in Jewish day schools and Hebrew schools are not about mastery, but performance on a set of routine tasks like tests, papers and quizzes in order to earn the approval of teachers and principals which translate into high grades and advancement and honors each year just so that the process can be repeated again.

Such forms of assessment in general studies may enable teachers and parents to get a good and easily comparable sense of their child’s proficiency in skills they will need in the workplace (a dubious proposition I would assert, but cannot expand upon here). But how do we expect children to immerse themselves in Jewish study and spiritual life when it is overwhelmingly presented to them in the same way as another dry academic subject like literature or geometry?

If Torah lishmah is one of the aspirations for Jewish education, then what possible justification can there be for using the anachronistic 19th century carrot and stick practices of tests, grades and homework for engaging with the rich array of Jewish texts, concepts and materials?

Surely in 2013, when there are numerous forms of alternative assessment and ways of evaluating a student’s skill level that do not use these crude measures, we can imagine and implement better approaches to the subject areas of Judaic studies which cultivate mastery and not pedestrian performance on a series of discrete and disconnected tasks.

Purpose. I will always remember one of my favorite teachers in high school noting that when you attend a person’s funeral, they never talk about the house she lived in, the car she drove or the places she went on vacation. Hopefully as Jews, we recognize there is far more to our life than the mundane pursuits which we engage in to earn a living and which provide pleasure solely to our immediate selves and families.

While Jewish educational environments spend a good deal of time attempting to engage students in the higher purposes and meanings of Jewish life, I believe that the significant lack of autonomy and mastery afforded most Jewish students as noted above leads many children to conclude that religious life is about “doing” and not “being”. And they increasingly simply choose not to do because they don’t see the point.

Without meaningful times, spaces and contexts intentionally designed to offer Jewish children of all ages the opportunities for, in Rabbi Dr. Michael Shire’s wonderful phrasing, the concurrent stages of encounter, reflection and instruction, I fear that the multiple institutional efforts to increase religious and spiritual programming in Jewish day schools will not succeed in their objectives. Such efforts, while vital and well-intentioned, may be too little, too late, because they failed to address the deeper, rooted causes of the regular religious void that many students feel; a sentiment that begins with that first B- on a 2nd grade parsha quiz and may continue largely unabated through to the 5th straight Thursday afternoon of Jewish holiday study, which was preceded by rote, mandatory praying in the same grey classroom without any natural light from windows or variation in routine.

The good news is that there are now multiple powerful models of Jewish education that I believe address these underlying issues which are beyond the scope of this article, but I hope to elaborate on in the future. For now, I close with a stirring vision of education from an educator named Michael Strong which encompasses the ideas of autonomy, mastery and purpose and may provide a starting point for Jewish education that truly cultivates religious life:

We need schools based on love. We need schools at which people passionately love what they are doing, love what they are teaching, love what they are learning, where teachers love their colleagues, students love their teachers, teachers love their students, parents love the school, where everyone is joined by a passionate vision of excellence and human flourishing. Such schools cannot be mandated or created by force. They must be freely chosen by all parties involved.

Daniel C. Petter-Lipstein is the Chief Love Officer of The Jewish Montessori Society, an organization that works to create a world where every Jewish child is “learning lishma”, encountering Jewish education with joy, passion and enchantment.