Jewish Education Doesn’t Need a Grand Pivot, It Needs Investment in its Most Valuable Commodities

By Russel Neiss

I was dismayed to read Gidi Grinstein and Eran Shayshon’s recent post “The Grand Pivot of Jewish Education,” in which they argue that there is no turning back from the Coronavirus imposed “distance learning norm” and that as North American Jewish communities “focus on domestic affairs and rehabilitation efforts” that they should cede Jewish educational initiatives to their Israeli counterparts who will deliver instruction more affordably by creating “a platform where Jewish online content will be integrated and could serve Jewish educators and communities worldwide… to standardize Jewish education.”

They suggest that this “new educational approach” should be augmented by shiny technologies including “virtual conferences, virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR) and self-manufacturing based on 3D printing… gaming-based education, collaborative creation, virtual communities and tours, and collaborative volunteering projects.” 

The truth is, the ideas and technology that power “distance learning” are not new at all, and frankly they’re not even that effective. 

Study after study (since 1996!) continue to suggest that while there may be some promise to online distance learning, it has not yet been proven to be any more effective at actually increasing student achievement at a K-12 level than “traditional” learning. The most recent meta-analysis from last year bluntly states its findings right in the title: “A Spotlight on Lack of Evidence Supporting the Integration of Blended Learning in K-12 Education.” 

I’ve written previously about our community’s wrongheaded approach to seeing technology as a panacea to make Jewish education more affordable (it won’t), and about how we ascribe a magic to the capacity of new technological tools to “transform Jewish education” (they won’t do that either), and anyone who has spent more than a few minutes examining the data or the history of educational technology knows this. Even Grinstein and Shayshon admit as much, as they obliquely refer in their own piece to “criticism in Israel towards the distance learning model during the Coronavirus outbreak” by educators. But the truth is, these initiatives are rarely about improving educational outcomes.

To be sure, technology certainly allows us the ability to more efficiently access resources that we might not have been able to easily access before, and harnessed appropriately it has the power to transform classrooms to learning environments where students can gain more control over the nature of their own learning. But none of that has to do with technology, it has to do with the quality of the teacher, and their ability and willingness to embrace a constructivist educational approach. This is frankly not a radical new idea, but one articulated by John Dewey more than a hundred years ago when he reminded us that the primary purpose of education and schooling is not so much to prepare students to live a useful life in the future, but to teach them how to live pragmatically and immediately in their current environment.

In his 1980’s book Mindstorms, which examines the promise and possibilities of computer facilitated instruction, Seymour Papert writes, “Only rarely does some exceptional event lead people to reorganize their intellectual self-image in such a way as to open up new perspectives on what is learnable.” I’m pretty sure now is one of those times, and while I admittedly don’t know what this new pedagogy or new curricular content will look like, I know it’s going to be driven by teachers and not technology.

Our Jewish educational goal can’t simply be to provide an affordable experience that emphasizes shiny technologies. Instead we need to craft specific, measurable and attainable educational goals that we expect Jews to learn over their educational career, and then we need to figure out the best way of implementing those. Personally, I think digital tools have a large role to play in that endeavor, and there’s a good deal of data to support that assertion. But this same research, along with decades and decades of other educational data emphasizes the need for these educational initiatives to be grounded in solid pedagogy first.

So if you want to really demonstrate courageous and visionary leadership in Jewish education right now, you should be investing your communal dollars in strengthening the work of your local Jewish educators to help them craft constructivist learning experiences where and when they are most needed, not in a cockamamie unproven model hatched by a think-tank halfway around the globe.

Equally fluent in Yiddish and Javascript, Russel Neiss is a Jewish educator, technologist and activist who builds critically acclaimed educational apps and experiences used by thousands of people each day. His work has been featured in the Washington Post, NPR, the Atlantic, CNN, Teen Vogue, the Jewish Telegraph Agency, and other media outlets. Russel began his career as an itinerant Jewish educator traveling across the deep south and has worked in a variety of Jewish educational settings including day schools, supplemental schools, museums and archives.