Friday, February 14, 2014

Reflections on "Work" in Jewish Education

The following post is based on the Message from the Dean in this week's MHA/FYOS newsletter. Current and previous editions of the newsletter can be accessed here.

At the closing plenary of the first day of the Martin Institute’s Project Zero Conference, Ron Ritchhart related that a British researcher sat in on a random sampling of classrooms in order to measure the number of times the words “work” and “learning” was used by the teacher.  What he found is that for every one mention of “learning” there were 48 mentions of “work.”

Project Zero is a research group based in Harvard University’s School of Education which has been studying the essential aspects of human learning for almost fifty years.  Ritchhart, who began his career as an elementary school math teacher, has been a researcher with Project Zero since 1994 and his book entitled Making Thinking Visible may be the group’s best known product, second only to the work of Howard Gardner.  Thanks to the Martin Institute, based out of PDS here in Memphis, ten members of our administration and faculty were amongst over 700 educators from across the globe who had the privilege of hearing from Ritchhart this past Thursday about his work on creating cultures of learning in schools.

Amongst the points which Ritchhart emphasized was that schools aren't simply places where students learn.   They are places where students learn about learning.  Learning has a story: what it looks like, how it’s done, what it’s for – and every school communicates that story to the children who pass through its classrooms and hallways.  According to Ritchhart, the story of learning being told in most schools today continues to hearken back to the Industrial Age.  It’s a story of success and failure, of winners and losers.  It’s a story of products rather than process, and – most of all – it’s a story of work: homework, class work, workbooks, worksheets, quiet work, group work, showing your work, and finishing your work lest you have to take it home.  It’s a story about penalizing kids who just “get it” but don’t do the work and rewarding the kids who do the work but don’t really “get it.”  What would it look like, he wondered, if instead of being about “work” the story our children were hearing in school was about “learning?”  Home learning and class learning. Learning books and learning sheets.  Quiet learning, group learning, showing your learning, and never finishing it.  Would we see a mere shift in vocabulary or a sea change in what our children do in school?

I wondered as I listened whether the equation of school with work has implications for what happens once our children leave school as well.  That is, if learning is the work that people do when they are in school, are we implicitly telling our children that when they leave school and enter a new occupation the learning stops and a new – more worthwhile – form of workbegins?  Is the vocabulary we are using suggesting to studentthat unless they choose research or teaching as a profession, learning is something that has a finite time and place and with the flip of a tassel it mercifully comes to an end?

Sad as it might be that our emphasis on school “work” may result in children never opening another book of history, reading another classic of literature, or keeping up with developments in science post graduation, the implications for the Judaic side of our curriculum are all the more daunting.  If learning Chumash and NaviGemara and HalachahMussar and Machshavah, are seen by our children as mere “work” to be completed upon graduation, the very essence of our heritage is put perilously at risk.  Jewish educators today, though, find themselves in a bind.  On the one hand, we want our students to see their Torah learning as a lifelong endeavor – one that is joyful, inspirational, and never limited by time or place.  Yet, on the other hand, we fear that disassociating talmud Torah with the “work” which defines today’s schooling culture, may lead parents and students alike to deflate its value, rather than inflate it; to take it less “seriously” because the amount of “work” isn’t the same.  

It didn't used to be this way.  Jewish education has always had its challenges and for most of our history, rigorous Torah study was the provenance of small and select few.  But for all of our controversies through the ages over what to learn and how to learn it, one thing has always been true: Torah study has always been about learning and never about "work". 

So perhaps it’s time for our schools to begin telling a new story of learning.  And perhaps Torah-based Day Schools should be leading the way.

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