HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal


A Learning Ethos That Fosters Deep Thinking

by Jeremy Stowe-Lindner Issue: Educational Innovation Bialik College, Melbourne, Australia

Melbourne, Australia, is a long way from anywhere. Our nearest Western neighbor, New Zealand aside, is a 14-hour flight away. Consequently, a determined internationalist outlook, an investment in development, and a focus on excellence through teaching and learning are musts in order to provide a gold standard of education that persuades our community to buy into the Jewish schooling model.

Jewish schools are leaders in values education. They have clear mission statements that articulate an ethos to parents, be it denominational or pluralistic. They have the staff and the structures to embed these values in both curricular and co-curricular experiences.

But how many schools are able to be as clear in their articulation of their learning ethos? In good schools, teachers know what to expect, and what is expected, from a Jewish perspective. Most schools have structures in place—reporting, assessment, technology platforms—to support lesson planning and delivery. But how is the student experience different in different math classes? How different are the experiences in different elementary teachers’ classrooms within that same school?

Just as teachers should not be automatons, so should schools. Individual flair and nuance are parts of what makes learning interesting and differentiated. We expect teachers to be individuals, and supporting the development of a teacher’s unique craft is essential for their effectiveness as pedagogues. Likewise, a school’s unique and individual pedagogy should not only be supported, but should be as transparent and known as its Jewish values.

In 2005, Melbourne’s Bialik College, together with Project Zero at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, began the Cultures of Thinking project, funded by Bialik parents Abe and Vera Dorevitch. Bialik became a research site, and the resultant book, Making Thinking Visible (co-authored by Ron Ritchhart, Mark Church and Karin Morrison), helped to popularize routines to nurture deep thinking throughout the global educational landscape.

Bialik’s determination is to make pedagogy as clearly articulated for student, teacher and parents as its Jewish philosophy. On the walls, documentation plots the learning journey of individual children. Rarely is “finished work” on display: The process of learning is what is showcased. Do we care about the finished product? Partially. But we are a school and not a museum. The struggles that we face in our learning are much more powerful and impactful than the glossy ending.

The articulation of a clear learning philosophy was evident throughout the early years of the school. As Australia’s first Reggio Emilia-inspired building, the Early Learning Centre for children aged 3 months to 6 years breathes pedagogy; the school even sent the architect to Reggio Emilia in Italy before designing the first building more than 20 years ago. When the primary (elementary) school was refurbished, for example, children made the cases for the mezuzot. By each mezuzah is a panel where the child explains their learning journey in the creation of this art.

The Culture of Thinking in the whole school is a natural partner to the Reggio Emilia-inspired approach in early learning. Cultural forces are a cornerstone of the approach. They are the tools and levers that educators use to shape classroom and learning. An awareness of the cultural forces in both curriculum planning and lesson planning ensures that there are clear expectations (a cultural force) for learning, that the environment (another cultural force) is used throughout the learning process, and that the language needs for the wide variety of students is incorporated into both planning and lesson delivery.

Thinking routines, of which there are dozens, provide opportunities to constantly delve deeper, assess and analyse critically, and expand upon learning. Rather than simply reflecting on a piece of work, we may use a CSI (Color Symbol Image) routine. Analyzing changes in thinking and perceptions may be channeled through a I Used To Think, Now I Think routine, while summarising key points may be achieved through a Headlines routine.

Deep thinking is embedded in the child through the school’s pedagogy.

Every new teacher at Bialik receives the Making Thinking Visible book before they commence employment. Through ongoing professional development, twilight seminars (after-school learning for educators from Bialik and other schools, delivered by our own expert educators and our consultants), day seminars, a biennial conference for 400 educators from around the world and research groups, teachers hone their craft in line with the pedagogy of the school.

Bialik has contracted with different researchers from the Harvard Graduate School of Education in order to develop and extend our Culture of Thinking within our classrooms. This is a significant financial investment on the part of our school community, especially given our geographical distance to Boston, USA. Our current researcher is Edward Clapp, who is working with teachers in grades 5 to 9 to develop a distinctive middle school pedagogy under the umbrella of Cultures of Thinking focusing on “participatory creativity” (the title of one of his books). To build our conceptual framework, Clapp has motivated the team to inquire deeply into their practice through his consultancy over the past two years. He travels to Bialik from Harvard twice per year, visiting classes, conducting interviews with teachers and documenting learning. In addition, he has conducted Skype discussions each month based on professional reading of his textbook and mentoring each teacher in the next stage of their pedagogical journeys.

Through this collaboration, teachers develop their own research projects to further their practice in collaboration with the school’s pedagogy. From this experience, teachers have developed an iterative exhibition to showcase a snapshot of their research. Here are some examples.

In grades 3 and 5, an investigation into Aboriginal art installation both at Bialik College and in our city’s national gallery has unearthed misconceptions and prompted discussions about appropriation of Aboriginal culture by the white majority. Our children have been questioning how we invite others into the creative process and who actually owns the creative process: Is Aboroginal art, for example, a purely Aboriginal process and experience? What is the role of the white commissioner, purchaser or viewer of the art?

A math teacher has linked the research into a wider project we are involved in concerning anxiety in the mathematics classroom. Math students have become documentary makers, and the films are being used for collective reflection on the learning process.

Another project is addressing students’ perceptions of failure. The class is investigating the importance of failure as a learning tool. A set of supportive questions have been designed to help students capture the heart of their response to moments of failure.

Grade 9 Jewish studies students are using primary source materials and texts to refocus attention on ideas, rather than grades. Grade 10 Israel and media students have been focusing on the biography of an idea. In analyzing ideas such as statehood, patrilineality, independence, what are the Jewish and secular sources behind these concepts? Who are the early thinkers, and how have those thoughts evolved over time? Have they been manipulated or misappropriated, and are such evolutions appropriate?

Pedagogical development and ideology are not established by chance. The board’s devotion to professional learning is backed by financial resources. This enables us to employ a dedicated senior leader overseeing pedagogy; to bring top educators from overseas to Bialik, and to send six Bialik staff overseas every year, to Harvard, to Reggio Emilia and to Israel, with an explicit commitment for these staff to lead professional development for colleagues on their return. Bialik’s clear pedagogical direction, with a focus on consistently spectacular academic outcomes for an academically diverse cohort, coupled with its clear Jewish mission, reaps rewards.

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Educational Innovation

The articles in this issue represent the balance between the old and the new, sacred and profane embodied in Jewish history. The issue tells the story of the drive for innovation in modern education that has gained strength in recent decades. It features efforts to learn from, adopt and adapt innovative programs and pedagogies from the larger educational universe, even as authors advise caution, patience and planning around such changes.

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