The Dog Wags the Tail: Successful Educational Transformation

by Zachary Lasker, Ed.D.

The amazing race is on to design the new, ultimate Jewish learning experience. Professional educators are valiantly trying to transform their programs of education to maintain – or even increase – their enrollment. The fuel for this pursuit is quite powerful. A tight economy forces parents to think critically about how they allocate their dollars, advances in consumerism have created a marketplace in which shoppers can find a product that matches their specifications, and the average pace of life has grown so speedy that time can only be allotted for commitments that prove their worth. The idea of status quo in Jewish education has faded.

Pressure can sometimes be healthy. The demand that we make a case for why Jewish education should be a priority in the life of a child pushes us to focus on our core mission and has already yielded interesting cases of creative innovation. There are outstanding educators in the field who have looked outside the box – integrating arts, technology, outdoor adventure, and other recreational activities into their programs. At the same time, I grow concerned that the innovation we are seeing is disproportionately driven by numbers – enrollment, membership, budget – over what we determine to be core learning outcomes. Fifteen years ago – before his time – Steve Jobs, z”l, articulated at a conference, “You‘ve got to start with the customer experience and work back toward the technology – not the other way around.” When we let the numbers drive our efforts we risk a product for our families that lacks educational focus.

Build It and They Will Come…

In the film classic Field of Dreams, Kevin Costner’s character is urged to pursue his vision for baseball, even in the face of economic hardship and a lack of local support. Costner pursues the vision, overcoming a slew of obstacles along the way. With a crystal clear image of a baseball field in his backyard, Costner sets out to work building the backbone of baseball – the diamond. As he overcomes several obstacles the rest of the pieces fall into place – players, games, and fans. True, this is a moving tale of fiction with a Hollywood happy ending, but we can also learn from this process.

“Let’s make it look more like camp. Kids love Jewish camp!” This idea is an example of the latest buzz. While I certainly believe in the great potential for school-year programs to learn from the success of Jewish summer camp, this idea prematurely leaps over questions that are more fundamental. “Let’s make it more like camp” ignores the wisdom of Jobs, and has us starting with the technology instead of the desired outcomes. Instead, transformation in Jewish education must be framed by a clear vision for educational excellence. This requires us to give serious thought to a sequence of questions: 1) What? What particular values do we want kids to embrace? What skills must they develop to lead Jewishly committed lives? 2) Who? Who will be the
educators? Who will serve as a role model for our kids? 3) Then – the design questions of when, where, and how?

It’s a New World Golda

With so many changes in the world, we must first clarify the goals of Jewish education. There was a long period of time when goals centered on memorizing Judaic content – Hebrew language, biblical narrative, rabbinic literature, key dates in Jewish history. Most supplemental schools approached this type of curriculum through a 4-6 hour a week program marked by classroom instruction that was fairly traditional in nature. Many of us recall the drill – teacher, blackboard, text books, the annual Channukah party/Purim shpiel/mock seder. These goals and methods are now out of alignment with the needs of today’s Jewish family. A profile of our learners has shifted. We face new realities about how children learn, the constraints on their time, and their reliance on technology. If our goal is to preserve Jewish community, let’s take our cue from Tevye and position ourselves boldly in the middle of change.

Question #1: What?

What particular values and skills do we want children to learn? To a certain extent this is a question that each community must tackle on their own to account for differences in movement ideology, cultural expression, political beliefs, and geographical location. The leadership of these communities should put pen to paper (to wall) to explicitly identify a core set of Jewish values and practices that will serve as a guiding force towards learning outcomes.

At the same time, there are new, universal skills in Jewish literacy that we can all adopt into our innovative work. In a recent article in The New York Times, former president of Harvard University Lawrence Summers, reflects on the disproportionate rate of change between the stagnant curriculum of the “modern” college and the progressive spheres of science, technology, and business. Summers challenges education leaders to re-position the college system to reflect the structure of society and what we now understand about how people learn. When done, he predicts changes such as:

  • Education will be more about how to process and use information and less about imparting it
  • Increased opportunities for student collaboration over individual work
  • New technologies will profoundly alter the way knowledge is conveyed
  • “Active learning classrooms” – which cluster students at tables, with furniture that can be rearranged and integrated technology – will replace passive learning

Summer’s advice is one example of a lens through which we can determine the “what” of Jewish education. The implications could include:

  • Jewish education will focus more on encouraging kids to ask questions and teaching how to obtain answers, and less on the specifics of the Jewish narrative. With so much information at our fingertips, we must produce critical thinkers who can self-navigate parts of their Jewish journey.
  • Chet-Vet-Reish (the Hebrew root for “friend”)! Programs will (literally) be rooted in building Jewish friendships. As a goal in and of itself, students should come to value the strength of chevruta (group) work as a way to study text and complete projects, the beauty of chavurot (small, social communities) in order to have a structured group with whom to learn and celebrate, and encouraged to have fun and form life-long chaverim (friends). This emphasis will ultimately preserve Jewish community … and keep learning fun!
  • Jewish education will teach learners (and professionals) how to utilize technology responsibly to enhance Jewish learning and living. The benefits of technology are numerous – we can expand the modalities of learning to engage learners with less traditional learning styles, make learning accessible practically anytime and from anywhere, enable educators and learners to connect with each other and with “experts in the field” in ways once unimaginable … the list goes on.
  • Jewish education will shed techniques of passive learning, yielding to the creation of active learning “classrooms” which break through the confines of four walls, a blackboard, and frontal teaching.

Question #2: Who?

It takes a village to raise a child (an African saying, not Jewish)! Education will be most impactful if the modern learner is guided by a broad team of educators and role models, each of whom is empowered and coached to accept this responsibility. The “classroom” teacher will be one member of this team, which will also include:

  1. The full family unit. Parents (or guardians) must be pushed to step beyond the carpool-line and into their role as educational steward. When parents are involved they grow more invested in their child’s education, and are able to ensure consistent messaging between home, school, and the many other spheres in which the learner operates. … but parents are busy too! As a result, professionals must initiate this partnership in ways that work for parents – help them create small learning communities between families with similar needs, and use technology to extend learning into the home so that parents and kids can “log-in” at a time that works for them.
  2. A network of collegial educators. Professionals from different educational settings must collaborate to build a web of experiences from which kids can reap full benefits. The menu of educational experiences grows longer and more diverse – evolving day and supplemental programs, new variations on youth groups, the growing popularity of summer camps, increased opportunities for travel to Israel, local and national service organizations, online learning, Jewish extra-curriculuars, and more. When professionals and the experiences they provide are kept at a distance, each just chips away at impacting the life of the learner. When these experiences are aligned in partnership they maximize potential, complement each other, and increase impact.
  3. The emerging adult as educator, role model AND learner. Our new plans must feature a very deliberate role for 17 – 25 year olds, a population referred to as “emerging adults.” These folks are in a phase when identity formation often makes a notable break from the direct influence of parents. If positioned strategically, we have the potential to empower emerging adults to serve as leaders, while also solidifying their life-long commitment to Jewish involvement. When recruited to serve as staff in schools, youth groups, or summer camps, emerging adults serve as accessible educators and role models and keep us informed of current trends. Once in this capacity they develop skills in both Jewish practice and leadership.

Questions #3 & Beyond: Where, When, How

These final questions will lead innovators to the design of their program. The possibilities are endless, but to jump to these questions too soon is to facilitate change that lacks educational focus.

“A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them” (Jobs, 1998). As educators and change agents we must be bold. If we create engaging, substantive programs for our families … they will come.

Dr. Zachary Lasker is Director of the Melton Research Center & Education Projects at the William Davidson School of Education for the Jewish Theological Seminary. Previously he served as Camp Director for Camp Ramah in California.