HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal

Getting Beyond “Formal vs. Informal”: Good Education is Good Education

by Jacob Cytryn Issue: Formal-Informal Education

The author argues that we should put aside labels such as "informal" and "formal" and focus on elements that comprise good education in any setting.

Increasingly, it seems that educators in so-called “formal” settings (i.e., schools) are turning to the “magic” of so-called “informal” settings (summer camps, Israel trips, youth groups, etc.) to bolster and re-energize their institutions. This trend is as misguided as it is well intentioned. Instead of looking to the outside, Jewish day schools should look within themselves to enhance what, quite often, already exists in their faculty, classrooms, and school culture.

An educational mentor of mine once dismissed my interest in programs focusing on educating “gifted and talented” students. “Good education is good education,” she opined, suggesting that if we truly realize a shared vision of progressive, student-centered pedagogy in our classrooms, then all students will benefit. When it comes to the formal vs. informal question, though the settings may differ (in important ways), the same is true about our students’ intellectual growth as Jews and as partners in intellectual discourse. Good education is good education.

The ephemeral experience so many children experience in informal settings has nothing to do with education. Rather, it is a result of intensive, peer-based social experiences. These experiences are heightened when the setting is a metaphoric “bubble”; this is why Jewish residential summer camps and Israel trips have such powerful impact. Of course, it is also why the college campus as a whole and service-learning opportunities like the Peace Corps have such impact as well. Ultimately, the power of the experience is not really about learning; it is, circularly, about the experience itself.

Jewish day schools already can (and often do) provide relatively strong versions of this impact in the tight-knit communities they foster. But most schools cannot aspire to be bubbles, and they must live with that reality as much as summer camps must embrace the strict limits on their length of session. (Although we can all dream about ten-month summers, never-ending school-days with most parents a hundred miles away or more, or the superhuman energy we would need to survive the grueling days and nights of a teen trip to Israel for the rest of our lives.)

The language of “formal” and “informal” education is not helpful, nor is our discussion aided by side-steps into “experiential” education or other appended adjectives. Rather, let us leave ethnographic documentation of settings to social scientists and allow ourselves to have a shared conversation about our passion: education. Many sites for so-called “informal” education are less interested in contributing to children’s minds than in reaping the benefits that the immutable characteristics of their setting provide. No school should long to recreate such experiences for their children. To paraphrase Seymour Fox: Enjoying purple Kool-Aid should not be confused for the appreciation of a fine cognac.

Ambitious educational programming, however, is not confined to setting. Educationally committed Jewish summer camps (and other institutions that operate in informal settings) are a great partner to day schools in providing a year-round forum for engagement with Jewish content and ideas, mastery of religious and academic skills, and the development of intellectual dispositions. Schools need not hire “informal” educators to provide programming for shabbatonim and holidays. Rather, schools should encourage their existing faculty members with a knack for cooperative, deep, interpretive and innovative learning to expand their vision for what is possible. When a Hebrew class adapts the story of Megilat Esther into a hilarious, off-color, and profoundly relevant performance that they perform for their fellow students on Purim, that intense learning experience feels a lot to the class like camp. Debates, historical reenactments, and the creation of participatory ritual resonate as well and already occur in day schools throughout the country.

In a similar vein, schools should come to appreciate and model the profound learning that happens in those informal settings which commit themselves to that learning. It is not merely that we have a tremendous amount to learn from each other; we are engaged in the same exact endeavor. And by allowing the differences in setting to come between us, to tempt us with “grass is always greener” pining, we do ourselves, the Jewish future that our students/campers/participants represent, and the shaping of a new generation of Jewish and general knowledge a huge disservice.

Commitment to transformative Jewish education in the informal setting embraces inherent flexibilities. The first blessing before the Shema takes on a different resonance when pronounced in a beautiful natural settings overlooking a rising or setting sun; choreographing and learning a dance to modern Israeli music to introduce Megilat Eichah can be a religiously, intellectually, and artistically challenging task for an adolescent dancer; the historical fact of Yitzhak Rabin’s Burma Road strategy takes on a different relevance when employed strategically as part of a Capture-the-Flag game at 1 am.

These examples highlight why some are tempted to call such settings “experiential.” Yet the same principles can and should be applied to the experiential life of schools. The holiday cycle is more intense throughout an academic year, as are the resonances of Jewish history. The weekly Torah reading arc is richly diverse, as are the opportunities for building something programmatically profound out of integrated curricula between multiple disciplines. And of course, the amount of time spent in school is a bonus, a real opportunity for students to simmer in and build on topics and themes.

Setting differences aside, Jewish education today ought to embody certain characteristics. It ought to center on students not just in the planning stages and initial lessons but retain that focus throughout, so that a unit cannot be completed without the student giving of herself and creating output. It ought to convey the vibrancy and possibility of contemporary Judaism empowering every person to respond to the great legacy of our tradition in his or her own idiom. It ought to embrace collaboration between students and the development of problem-solving and thinking skills that will benefit not just the Jewish community but the citizens we graduate and the world into which we send them. Finally, it ought to focus as much on a child’s heart, soul and hands as it does on his mind.

Jewish children adore the time they spend in informal settings, for good reason. Occasionally, at their very best, the powerful education that transpires in those settings is on par with the sublime moments of learning that take place in Jewish day schools. Instead of trying to bring the informal into the formal, day schools ought to focus on learning from the informal so as to realize their own potential. (Those of us who are committed to educating in informal settings would be well served to study from our colleagues in schools to reach our own.) The tasks and goals, however, are the same.

The potential of working together on those tasks and goals, instead of speaking at each other from the confines of our own settings, could be truly transformative. Here are some proposals to fundamentally alter the conversation about and reality of Jewish education in North America:

  1. creating an integrated market for high-quality, content-intensive experiences that span settings, redefining Jewish education by degrees of excellence rather than counter-productive choices between “school” and “camp” or “service-learning” and “Israel trip”
  2. developing a rich vocabulary of what and how we effect transformation, learning how to document our impact, and joining the dynamic and stimulating conversation taking place in the social sciences about developmental psychology and sociocultural theory
  3. most importantly, augmenting the impact we all have individually and as a networked community in the achievement of the many objectives we share by catalyzing the development of the next generation of Jewish adults who are energized by, engaging with, and enhancing their Judaism.♦

Jacob Cytryn is a doctoral student at Brandeis University’s Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education and the Assistant Director of Camp Ramah in Wisconsin. He can be reached at jcytryn@brandeis.edu.

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