What the Learning Sciences Can Learn from Jewish Education

By Peter Wardrip

In Dr. Sam Abramovich’s recent ELI talk, he eloquently describes the existing and potential symbiosis that exists between Jewish Education and the Learning Sciences. And he makes a compelling argument how Jewish Education can learn from the empirical research from the Learning Sciences.

Like Dr. Abramovich, I was trained in the Learning Sciences to design and study learning experiences in order to better understand learning and create more effective learning experiences. And like Dr. Abramovich, I have had the opportunity to use that training to study Jewish education. However, I am not Jewish. Yet, I’ve still learned and developed insights from my studies of Jewish education. Jewish education represents a rich resource for the secular world.

How can the field of learning sciences benefit from Jewish Education? As Learning Scientists, we might say that any educational context affords some opportunity to investigate and learn and this is certainly true for Jewish Education. However, studies of Jewish education represent more than just another context for research.

First, in the study of learning, many researchers acknowledge that learning is a cultural process. In relation to this, researchers have argued that what we know about motivation and learning does not sufficiently take into account the role culture plays in learning. Jewish Education leverages aspects of a learner’s identity, development, and sense of membership to a community to facilitate learning. And there is a vocabulary, language, and sets of knowledge that members of that community develop and exemplify, as they become more central participants in the community. Jewish Education, taken generally, provides not only a setting for learning as identity development, but also a model.

In addition, Jewish Education includes a rich repertoire of traditional events, such as Bar and Bat Mitzvahs that are analogous to assessment strategies, as Dr. Abramovich mentioned. Cultural events and strategies provide alternative perspectives on learning, demonstrating understanding or knowledge and epistemologies – ways of knowing. These formalized practices provide potentially diverse and potentially rich accounts of learning that have been in practice for thousands of years.

Moreover, learning scientists can also learn the ways that Jewish Education leverages activities outside of formal schooling or educational experiences in order to support and demonstrate learning. Jewish Day Schools in particular serve as institutions that connect learning across multiple environments or settings, so that students are positioned as knowledgeable and competent within their cultural community. The same statement could also be applied to Jewish institutions such as camps, afterschool programs and synagogues. These settings, as well as home education, represent an ecology of learning that has a long history. In secular settings, researchers today are trying to better understand learning across settings and how cities can create networks of places of learning. They call this “connected learning” and Jewish Education offers a robust case study.

I endorse Dr. Abramovich’s integration of Jewish Education and the Learning Sciences. As we design and develop understanding of how to improve learning, we hope for the broad educational landscape as being open to incorporating this work. There is so much we can learn from Jewish Education both to enrich our understanding of what learning looks like as well as a robust model that has evolved through its extensive use over history.

Peter Samuelson Wardrip is a Learning Scientist at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh. His research focuses on learning in makerspaces, badges that support learning and using data to improve instruction. You can read about his work at: peterwardrip.com