Developmentally Appropriate Practices in Jewish Education

By Eileen Flicker, Ed.D.

Recently, I led a webinar for USCJ entitled Developmentally Appropriate Practices for Jewish Educators. The idea for the webinar came when planning the 2018 USCJ New Directors Institute. My colleagues and I realized that while new early childhood directors were probably familiar with Developmentally Appropriate Practice, this was not necessarily true for new religious school directors. This difference created an opportunity to dialogue about how students learn and how teachers should teach.

Developmentally Appropriate Practice

Developmentally Appropriate Practice (DAP) is a set of guidelines and research-based standards designed to promote high quality early childhood education. It should be noted that while “early childhood education” is applicable to children from birth through third grade or age eight, I believe that DAP is best practices in learning and teaching for students of all ages.

Constructivist Learning

At the core of DAP is Jean Piaget’s Constructivist Theory of Cognitive Development. Piaget determined that children construct meaning rather than acquire it passively. Through exploration and hands-on activities, children assimilate new information and concepts into existing schemata, or mental representations. In other words, children’s new learning must be related to what they already know and understand. I think of constructivist learning like a file cabinet. When a new document is placed in the appropriate folder within the file cabinet, the information is safely stored and can be easily retrieved. However, if a new document is haphazardly thrown into the file cabinet, it will be lost. Piaget’s writings and subsequent research that corroborates his work are the impetus for the popularity of curriculum initiatives such as project-based learning, discovery learning, and experiential learning. Reggio Emilia, an approach informed by Piaget and consistent with DAP, has become in vogue in Jewish early childhood programs.

A plethora of research supports the premise that children of all ages must be cognitively and physically active for true learning to occur. Sitting still and listening to a teacher talk for extended periods of time is not an effective teaching strategy. Expecting students to independently complete fill-in-the blank worksheets is another ubiquitous activity that does not promote concept formation or skill development. Students need to move and talk, generate their own questions, and be given ample time to investigate and discover answers and solutions.

Play = Learning

Play is the centerpiece of DAP. It is required for cognitive growth as well as the development of language, social, emotional, and physical skills. Play should not be thought of as separate from learning or what students are rewarded with once they finish their work. Rather, guided and structured play should be an integral component of learning in all classrooms, including those in part-time religious schools. While some religious school educators might believe that there is not enough time fun and games, I would argue that they must maximize their precious time with students by providing engaging, active, and enjoyable learning experiences.

DAP in Religious School

How exactly can the principles of DAP be applied in a part-time religious school classroom? Gifted teachers weave the curriculum content into games, dramatic play experiences and construction opportunities. For example, if a corner of the classroom is turned into a shuk (market) or kosher restaurant, students develop Hebrew vocabulary and learn halacha (Jewish law). When students are given Legos, blocks, or other building materials and are prompted to create a Sukkah (temporary hut), they eagerly learn about the chag (holiday) and specific t’fillot (prayers). There are innumerable ways to facilitate the learning of middot (values) when students have opportunities to role play and engage in and facilitate guided, small group discussions.

In my work for USCJ and as an educational consultant I visit and observe many classrooms: early childhood, elementary, and secondary in Jewish and public school settings. These observations give me a broad and diverse perspective on learning and teaching. Within moments of entering a classroom, I know if students are engaged in meaningful and developmentally appropriate learning experiences. Here’s what I look for:

  • Are students looking toward the teacher or perhaps another speaker?
  • Is the teacher moving around the classroom?
  • Are hands raised with students eagerly waiting to contribute to the class discussion?
  • Is the teacher asking open-ended questions that elicit problem solving and critical thinking?
  • Are students working in small groups cooperatively or with the guidance of a teacher?
  • Are there learning centers or stations in the classroom that are specifically tied to the curriculum?
  • Does students’ work displayed on bulletin boards demonstrate engaging activities?
  • Are students allowed to move?

When teachers are not familiar with DAP and do not understand the need for students to be active, both cognitively and physically, students often look glassy eyed and lethargic or complete worksheets like robots. I observe students participating in side conversations and being overtly disruptive. Some students are focused on their phones or something else under their desks.

Differentiated Instruction

DAP also addresses the fact that children do not all learn in the same way or at the same pace. Most educators are familiar with the terms learning styles and multiple intelligences, but teachers do not necessarily utilize what they know about individual differences and differentiate their instruction. Carol Ann Tomlinson has taught us that one size does not fit all when it comes to curriculum and learning. It behooves us as educators to customize what we teach and how we teach to meet the diverse learning needs of our students. Teachers must assess their students’ learning profiles and modify their lessons accordingly. Just as a physician does not provide the same medicine to all her patients, a teacher should not provide the same instruction to all his students. Differentiating instruction is not easy and is not mastered overnight. However, when educators recognize the importance of teaching to each student rather than to the whole class, they slowly build a toolkit of differentiated strategies. There are innumerable ways to differentiate but often include small group instruction, learning centers/stations, and providing choice in activities and processes.

Many synagogue religious schools are innovating their practices to better serve their students and to be more marketable to families. Some are giving students choices in their learning, while other schools are providing opportunities for collaborative work on extended projects and the integration of instructional technology into Judaic studies. Whether it’s called 21st Century Learning or Developmentally Appropriate Practices, religious schools and early childhood classrooms are adapting to the diverse and comprehensive needs of our students.

Dr. Flicker will be speaking at Paradigm Project 2019 Conference in Chicago in May on the topic of Rigorous and Developmentally Appropriate Learning.