language learning

Changing the focus: embracing a new approach to Hebrew language education

One of the many lessons that we have all learned from our global ‘experiment’ with online teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic is that technological tools are not the key to real success in education. Students cannot learn effectively if they are just bombarded with information. Investing in digital educational programs is no substitute for investing in teaching techniques.

Language learning is particularly challenging. It is important to understand how language is acquired, and particularly how children learn a second language. Whatever digital and paper resources are chosen for each class, the success of their Hebrew language acquisition will always depend on the teacher. If we want students to become literate in the Hebrew language, Jewish schools must invest first and foremost in properly equipping the most essential resource in the classroom: the teacher.

The Hebrew Literacy Challenge

Hebrew is the key to our Jewish heritage, a crucial element in promoting heightened Jewish identity in all Jewish day schools. It is also a valuable gift through which we can strengthen our relationships with Jews around the world and with Israel. However, we see that many students are not motivated to learn the language, and we hear complaints that, after many years in “Hebrew schools,” they still have very poor Hebrew!

Looking back over the past twenty years of Hebrew instruction, there was a remarkable investment in a wide variety of computer programs designed to teach Hebrew. Various publishing houses and educational organizations produced highly creative and dynamic materials for use in schools around the world, to teach Jewish children to read and understand the language. There is no doubt that these tools are valuable and professional, so why are they not working?

Three years ago, the Hirsch Foundation turned to the World Center for Jewish Education (WCJE) to investigate why Hebrew literacy is so poor in Jewish day schools. We surveyed hundreds of teachers and principals. They reported that the existing Hebrew language programs were helpful for unqualified and inexperienced Hebrew teachers, but experienced teachers felt invalidated and many were leaving the profession. Smart students were learning to ‘game’ the programs and guess the answers without ever learning the language.

It seems that the desire for high-tech programs has led publishers to invest more of their budgets in attractive technology and less in their pedagogical impact. At the same time, whatever money is invested in these Hebrew language programs, they cannot compete with the more advanced educational programs offered by the high-tech giants like Google and Microsoft. The schools complained that the huge sums that they pay for these programs leaves them with no budget for the crucial requirements of differential Hebrew teaching, in accordance with the “Every Student Succeeds” model that is used in other subjects.

We also found that most schools do not measure their students’ success in learning Hebrew in the same ways as they assess other subjects. Perhaps learning Hebrew is not treated as a priority because it is not required for university entrance!

 Realigning Teachers with Technology

Based on the results of this survey, we clarified a new plan for improving Hebrew teaching in Jewish day schools. The first priority for schools should be to invest in the skills of their Hebrew teachers.

While it is clearly crucial that they know how to use technology in the classroom, we believe that they need to be empowered educators and not merely operators of computer programs, workbooks and textbooks. No program or book can effectively convey the beauty and nuance of the Hebrew language in the absence of a committed, professional and knowledgeable teacher. Nothing is more important than employing people who are inspired and equipped to ensure that every student succeeds in learning the language.

In order to teach Hebrew effectively, every teacher must understand how language is learned. Teaching Hebrew needs to be viewed through a professional lens, just like teaching math and the sciences. Few educators would think you can just hand a math book to an untrained teacher and hope they will be able to effectively explain mathematical principles to a class of students. Hebrew is no different. Like the sciences, there is also no “one size fits all” approach to instruction. Hebrew teachers need to know how to relate to individual students based on their specific strengths and weaknesses.

The race to update Hebrew learning programs has been wasting an unfair proportion of the Hebrew department’s budget. We recognize that schools are already using the most advanced tools developed by the world’s leading technological companies, like Google Classroom and Microsoft Meet. So, rather than trying to invent new EdTech tools for Hebrew teaching, we should be focusing on training the teachers and finding the right curriculum materials to suit the needs of each school. After all, even Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, acknowledges that technology should be used to serve the needs of people and not the other way around!

Recognizing the centrality of our ancient language to our modern identity, we welcome the chance to help update methods of Hebrew teaching in line with our radical new approach to Jewish education. We need to be sure it’s being done with the right vision, the right tools, and by skilled Hebrew teaching experts, who understand both the challenges and opportunities involved in language acquisition.   

Mickey Katzburg is the Founder and Director of the World Center for Jewish Education.