Contextualizing Experiential Jewish Education

Some idealists may argue that experiential education works equally well in any circumstance. I’m not one of them.

By Gabi Spiewak

[This is the third in a series of articles written by participants and alumni of the YU Certificate Program in Experiential Jewish Education (EJE), highlighting EJE related ideas and practices.]

The emergence of any new field of study calls for immediate answers to basic questions. The Certificate Program at Yeshiva University’s Center for the Jewish Future has already insightfully addressed a number of them as they relate to Experiential Jewish Education. What is Experiential Jewish Education (EJE)? How does it work? and Why does it work? These are all questions that now benefit from a coherent framework and a syndicated language.

The next fundamental question to consider as we grow this field relates to the setting of EJE: When and where can EJE be most effective? Some idealists may argue that experiential education works equally well in any circumstance. I’m not one of them. Here’s why.

Psychotherapy, like education, belongs to a category of professions that trades heavily in what Howard Gardner classified as interpersonal intelligence. Like experiential educators, psychotherapists must demonstrate a keen understanding of multiple dimensions of their clients’ personal experiences. They can then deploy therapeutic techniques that will hopefully change those experiences for the better.

Of course, there is a wide range of therapeutic techniques. Some are entirely “directive” in nature. For example, psychoanalysis pins the responsibility for therapeutic insight exclusively upon the therapist. The patient has no operative control over the outcome. In educational terms, this is similar to conventional methods of frontal instruction where teachers systematically execute a predetermined lesson plan.

On the other end of the therapeutic spectrum lie humanistic approaches. In these client-centered, “non-directive” settings, therapists simply supply a safe and optimal atmosphere for self-discovery. The client is handed near full control over therapeutic revelations. This is the therapeutic equivalent of full-fledged experiential education where the learner is encouraged to explore, discover and grow independently.

I use the analogy of psychotherapy because there’s a clear recognition that certain techniques work best in certain contexts. If someone were suffering from subconscious torment, it is unlikely that she would turn to client-centered therapists to help her. If another individual were diagnosed with depression, few therapists would recommend either end of the therapeutic spectrum to heal him. Similarly, if one is foundering in life and looking for rejuvenation, humanistic approaches are likely his best bet.

Education is no different. As a Judaics Studies teacher in a Montessori environment, I most often find myself utilizing the educational corollary of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), a middle of the spectrum approach which may cure phobias through a series of specific tasks which the patient must perform independently in order to be successful. There are certain curricular standards that I expect all of my students will meet. However, they are regularly challenged to subsume the content through independent tasks with minimal frontal instruction. Montessori teachers are also trained to precociously pursue and encourage student initiated learning. We are asked to “follow the child” much in the same vein that a humanistic therapist is trained to guide her client. At the same time, even in our vibrant classroom setting where independent “works” rule the day, there exist isolated academic needs where directive methods are preferred for educational transmission.

If it’s true that the educational setting matters, then it’s incumbent upon experiential educators to understand the relationship between educational contexts and experiential techniques. When and where is EJE most effective? When should I, as a Montessori teacher of an upper elementary class, rely most heavily on a structured experiential format – the middle of the road approach – to achieve the most desirable educational outcome?

Robert Kegan, a contemporary learning theorist, differentiates between informative learning and transformative learning. Informative learning is direct, factual, accurate, efficient, and concrete. Transformative learning is self-reflective, subjective, complex, and abstract. Both are of tremendous value to the learning process. Informative learning condenses the world at large into accessible concepts and constructs. Transformative learning excavates and expands those same ideas so that they adopt new, personal significance; it broadens and blossoms units of crystallized knowledge until they bond together and form uniquely intimate insights.

There are some periods of the lifespan, specific places in the world, and particular relationships that are certainly bestowed with elevated levels of potential experiential energy. These settings should receive the full thrust of EJE expertise. Some of the most impactful, Jewish identity-enhancing programs continue to model ideal implementation of transformative EJE principles. Yet, no person endlessly awaits parades of transformative experiences, just like few individuals attend to a continual loop of informative audio lectures. The more mundane moments in a person’s life are often suited for something in between these two extremes and they may matter even if only to burnish past transformations or to breed future ones.

Experiential Jewish educators have quite understandably geared the bulk of their energies towards contexts of heightened transformative potential. Yet, they should also feel empowered to deliver educational experiences that meet learners in the middle. We ought to expect to find some learners, some times, in some venues who would like an interactive experience that nourishes their sense of self without demanding the full-blown intensity of a transformative program. We should refine our ability to identify these points in the middle of the spectrum and familiarize ourselves with a propitious toolkit for these occasions. If we do this, then when we find those people, at those times, in those places, we will have prepared the best EJE program that that context could ever know.

Gabi Spiewak is a Head Teacher at Yeshivat Netivot, a Montessori Jewish day school, and a member of Cohort IV of the Yeshiva University Certificate Program in Experiential Jewish Education.

Applications for Cohort V of the Certificate Program will be accepted through January 26, 2015. For more information and to apply visit

The YU Certificate Program in Experiential Jewish Education is generously funded by the Jim Joseph Foundation.