HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal
Students today turn to the Web for entertainment; schools can create Web environments to capitalize on their excitement for this media to benefit Jewish education.
In the shtetls of Europe, the rebbes would encourage their young pupils in the love of Torah study by pouring honey over the pages of their books and allowing them to lick the letters of the Torah, symbolically tasting the sweetness of Hashem’s words.
Today our children are raised and educated is so much more complicated and fast paced world, with information spewed from every angle and direction. The formal classroom is no longer the “one stop shop” for education. How do we as educators keep up and compete with the distractions of the surrounding and virtual worlds? How do we access children lost in a virtual reality? Perhaps by embracing it.
The world of “edutainment,” designed both to educate and amuse at the same time, has opened up endless opportunities for us. Exciting media can make the learning experience more relevant, appealing and challenging, particularly as the information becomes more personal and engaging. Edutainment can be beneficial if the learning is incremental and effectively distributed. Children can learn and build at their own pace, in the way they themselves best absorb the information, and communicate with others.
So then, is it out with the old and in with the new? Should we get rid of teachers standing at the front of the classroom and replace them with a gaming console or television screen? In fact, the latest and most well-planned trends do not recommend this. Rather they promote what is termed “blended education/learning”—an integrated instructional approach that combines face-to-face classroom methods with computer-mediated activities. They recommend independent, self-directed learning accomplished through skills-honing tasks assigned by the teacher as well as further opportunities for learners to pursue their own areas of interest during independent study time. This growing trend is very exciting for parents, teachers and learners. In an article entitled “10 Reasons Why Teachers Love Blended Learning,” Tom Vander Ark of the Huffington Post says that this modality enables teachers to motivate hard to reach kids, focus on deeper learning, and work in teams, to promote blended learning.
If implemented properly, technology supported education can promote the acquisition of the knowledge and skills that will empower students for lifelong learning. When used appropriately, computers and Internet technologies enable new ways of teaching and learning rather than simply allowing teachers and students to do what they have done before in a better way. These new ways of teaching and learning are underpinned by constructivist theories of learning and constitute a shift from a teacher-centered pedagogy—in its worst form characterized by memorization and rote learning—to one that is learner-centered.
A key educational term today is innovation—in pedagogy, curriculum and, most importantly, learning. Even though the most significant innovation must always be with the child who should participate in his/her own learning, educators should resist substituting content for innovation. Instead, content should be presented in innovative ways. Content should be contextualized in such a way that learners are able to uncover their own information, create their own material, thus empowering themselves in their own learning process. When this is monitored, supervised and directed by creative educators, the learning becomes deeper and more complete.
These developments blur the lines between formal and informal education, and between teacher-centered and child-centered education. The setting for learning crosses between the classroom and the home.
The introduction of interactive whiteboards, laptops per child, iPad applications, educational software development, Facebook, Twitter and blogging have transformed the modern classroom. Geography is taught via spinning a globe on Google maps and students can review biology in 3D. These developments blur the lines between formal and informal education, teacher-centered and child-centered education, frontal teaching and active teaching. The setting for learning also crosses between the classroom and the home.
This dynamic trend is also spilling over into Jewish education. In recent years substantial funds have been invested in the development of Jewish studies curricula by top designers and educators. For many children, technology is the “honey” that can be poured on the pages of Torah. Torah is not just another subject to be taught or downloaded. Torah is about connection, the passing of knowledge from generation to generation. How do we bring out the information and make it real and experiential? How do we give color to age-old Jewish traditions and utilize technology to instill a love of our Jewish heritage?
One example of blended Jewish learning, developed and introduced into schools in South Africa, is Jewish InterActive. The program is based on the constructivist approach: children can build their own learning, with guidance. The individual modules incorporate directed feedback so as to allow learners to discover the material themselves.
To include innovation and learner-centered learning to the process, the children are also expected to complete digital homework which is linked to the classroom work in a creative and exciting way, whether through blog writing or video uploads to YouTube. All these web based activities are hosted by a web learning system which monitors the progress of both individuals and the class and generates reports which are sent to the respective schools.
The unique quality and meaning of Jewish education is solidified in practice. Students need to feel connected to the content and must be able to incorporate it into their lives. Education today must have both theoretical as well as practical elements to it; it needs to encourage the questioning of both how and why we do things, whether at home, in the classroom, or in the synagogue. The world becomes the classroom.
Educators around the globe should reflect on their own teaching tools and create new and dynamic ways to draw their pupils into Jewish experience through converting the content of high quality technology into a real experience. In the age where technology is the language of our children, we need to ensure that our rich and ancient heritage is sweetened by tasty presentation and delivery.♦
Ronit Chaya Janet is Director of the United Hebrew Schools of Johannesburg in South Africa, and has over 12 years’ experience in informal Jewish education; she is also the editor of the South African Jewish Observer magazine.
Nicky Newfield is the founder and executive director of Jewish Interactive (www.jewishinteractive.com), an innovative, multimedia Jewish learning organization. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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