Learning Through Inquiry: The Power of Practitioner Research in Jewish Education

By Miriam Raider-Roth

The essential, insider knowledge of educational leaders and teachers often goes untapped. To help bring practitioners’ knowledge into wider view, the Mandel Teacher Educator Institute (MTEI) has joined together with our participants to investigate problems of practice where they work. We have explored how participatory research methods, centered on practitioners’ questions, can democratize educational leadership and help leaders move from “power over” positions to “power with” stances.

We are delighted that the Journal of Jewish Education (JJE) is featuring the products of this research in a special issue (volume 85, 2) In this issue, eight MTEI graduates, together with five MTEI faculty members demonstrate the unique perspectives and insights that practitioners have on important questions of teaching and learning.

Each article begins with a research question stemming from a problem of practice. For example, Alison Weikel, a congregational school director, poses the question: “How can structured reflective practice enhance relational growth and contribute to the development of an inquiry stance in teaching?” Stefani Carlson, also a congregational school director, asks, “How can a relational learning community among faculty in a supplementary religious school support its teachers in dealing constructively with the inevitable challenges that arise in their work? Mindy Gold, an educational technology consultant and MTEI’s network weaver, sought to discover: “In what ways might the relational components of ongoing havruta (partner-based) text study contribute to Jewish educators’ relationships in the context of professional development focused on technology integration?” Weikel, Carlson and Gold all conducted their studies as part of their participation in MTEI and in partnership with University of Cincinnati Certificate in Jewish Education program.

Other articles in the journal explore the power of participatory and collective action research processes in which communities of teachers, students, lay and lay leaders come together to address pressing issues they faced. In “Shared Power, Risk-taking, and Innovation: Participatory Action Research in Jewish Education” MTEI faculty and participants Miriam Raider-Roth, Amy Rector-Aranda, Tammy Kaiser, Liron Lipinsky, Alison Weikel, Sara Wolkenfeld & Liat Zaidenberg describe their innovative uses of Group Level Assessment (GLA), a participatory action research methodology, in MTEI and their own settings. Rooted in the idea that systemic change requires the input of all stakeholders in a community, the GLA methodology provided a platform for these educational leaders to collectively assess their institutions’ needs and create action plans for change.

Practitioner research draws on multiple modes of investigation, analysis, and public sharing of knowledge. Faculty member Jennifer Lewis and participant Phoebe Potts use comics to illustrate how Potts brought Japanese Lesson Study, an innovative form of collaborative practitioner inquiry, to her congregational school in Massachusetts. Via narrative and drawings, the authors recount how the teachers gathered together to examine a collective question, collect and analyze data, and take action in their community.

Reading the collection of articles describing practitioners’ systematic attempts to understand more about teaching and learning provides an invaluable window into understanding the real time challenges, dilemmas, and tensions that they confront – along with the innovative solutions and successes they are creating. Jewish educational leaders and foundation leaders will find this work particularly informative in learning from the authors’ innovations. Just as the JJE has made space to share this knowledge, it is important to think about how to create additional public spaces where the findings of practitioner research are showcased and discussed. It is through such sharing, I believe, that we will continue to build capacity and generate knowledge to improve the quality of teaching and learning in Jewish educational contexts.

MTEI is an educational leadership program of the Jack, Joseph, and Morton Mandel Foundation. The special issue is guest edited by Gail Dorph, Sharon Feiman-Nemser and Miriam Raider-Roth and represents a strong partnership between MTEI and JJE, expertly edited and managed by Helena Miller and Susan Huntting.

Miriam Raider-Roth, EdD, is Professor, Educational Studies/Educational & Community Based Action Research and Director, Action Research Center, University of Cincinnati College of Education, Criminal Justice and Human Services.