Reframing the Conversation on Jewish Learning
By Susanne Shavelson
A few years ago, Brandeis professor Jon A. Levisohn and Jewish Theological Seminary professor Jeffrey Kress began a conversation about what Jewish education might look like if educators shifted the focus to students’ learning, rather than teachers’ teaching. Levisohn is a philosopher; Kress is a psychologist. But together, they wondered how to shift the focus of discussions about Jewish education. How might those discussions pay more attention to shaping character, creating meaning, and making connections, and less to what teachers say or do?
If the goal of Jewish education is to help Jewish people live better lives, they thought, we need to think harder and more critically about the desired outcomes that support this flourishing. That conversation led to a 2015 conference at Brandeis that brought together researchers in Jewish and general education, from Jewish studies and the learning sciences, for an unprecedented exploration of how Jewish education can be expanded and enriched through a focus on learning.
Now selected essays from conference participants have been collected into a new volume, Advancing the Learning Agenda in Jewish Education (Academic Studies Press, 2018). It offers creative and critical perspectives on unexamined assumptions about learning in Jewish education, and promotes the idea that learning is never only about subject-matter knowledge but is always at the same time about the learner’s relationship to the subject – an idea that has taken hold in the science learning community.
Levisohn, director of the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education, said that the project was prompted by “a concern that Jewish educational processes built around outcomes that are too flat (such as learning facts) lead to alienation. It comes at a cost. There are too many cases in which students learn the material that teachers teach – but find it utterly irrelevant.”
Levisohn, Kress, director of research at the Leadership Commons at the Davidson School of Education, and their collaborators wanted to ask deeper, harder questions about student learning, such as, Kress said, “What frameworks for understanding and being in the world emerge from involvement in Jewish education? What would Torah learning look like if it were framed as socialization into a community?”
“We were dissatisfied with conversations about outcomes that seemed too narrow or too cognitive,” Levisohn said. “We need to focus on bigger, broader goals of meaning, connection, and flourishing. People need to have homes – within communities, traditions, and discourses. Jewish education can help to provide that home.”
Advancing the Learning Agenda in Jewish Education provides a fresh set of perspectives on a new set of questions about Jewish education. It offers new ideas, Kress said, “about what it means to be a learned Jew, and how Jewish education can inform multiple elements of the human experience.”
Susanne Shavelson is associate director of the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education.
Cross-posted on “Learning About Learning,” the blog of the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education.