HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal


Rethinking the “School” in Day School

by Jonathan Woocher Issue: Formal-Informal Education

What’s needed is a far-reaching reconception of the nature of school, one less aligned with the strictures of American success and more aligned with Jewish culture and values and a larger vision of educational excellence.

Academic achievement, defined by test scores and grades, is virtually the sole raison d’être of elementary and secondary education today. All of the powerful regularities of schooling are focused on this goal.

Each spring Jewish newspapers across the continent carry ads congratulating recent or soon-to-be day school graduates and listing the colleges and universities (and, sometimes, the gap year programs in Israel) to which they have been accepted. I am not naïve. I know that day schools believe, with data to support them, that parents (and perhaps students as well) see admissions into top-tier institutions of higher learning as a key hallmark of a school’s “success.” Yet, I have always found it a bit disheartening that of all the achievements that day schools could display to the wider Jewish world, this list of colleges (hopefully including a good mix of Ivies among them) is what they choose to advertise.

That begs the question, of course, of what does constitute “success” for a Jewish day school. The mission statements of most day schools make clear that “academic excellence” is but one of the criteria by which success is defined. Jewish day schools routinely point to other outcomes they value: they aim to produce graduates who are proud and secure in their Jewish identities, who embrace and express Jewish ethical and social values, who contribute to the community and who are prepared to live purposeful and satisfying lives. And, to be fair, being admitted to a top college or university requires more than just a high grade point average and good scores on the SAT (or ACT), so a school that succeeds in placing its graduates in such colleges is clearly producing students with more than just strong academic records.

Still, the ads highlight the reality that the operative word in the phrase “Jewish day school” remains “school.” Day schools operate within the framework of what we understand as “schooling” in American society. And that scares me, because of what schools in the United States are pressured to be today. In the current climate and culture, academic achievement, defined operationally by test scores and grades, is virtually the sole raison d’être of elementary and secondary education. All of the powerful regularities of schooling—how time, space, the content of learning, work and people are organized—are focused on this goal. The vast majority of day schools share in this culture and in the regularities that embody it, even if many seek with some success to mitigate its most malicious excesses.

The contrast between the dominant culture of contemporary American schooling, especially in the No Child Left Behind era, and the implicit culture of Jewish learning that our day schools are also heir to is stark. The ideal of Torah lishma certainly has analogs in concepts like the “love of learning” that many schools (not just Jewish day schools) claim to seek to instill in their students. But the fundamental ethos of Jewish learning, though valuing intellectual rigor, is one of learning for the purpose of living a good and worthy life, not for high grades and admission into elite colleges. The ideal talmid chacham is certainly bright and industrious, but even a cursory reading of Pirkei Avot—the Talmud’s guide to the virtues of the true student and teacher of Torah—makes clear that the aspirations and expectations that Jewish tradition holds for learners and for learning far exceed in both breadth and depth those that American schooling enshrines today. Jewish learning is focused not on acing standardized tests (even AP tests), but on discovering sacred meaning as part of an ongoing conversation between text and life that is at once timeless and timely.

It is no wonder, then, that so many Jewish day schools today, seeking to honor a Jewish vision of the purposes and methods of learning alongside that which characterizes much of American schooling, are looking to “informal” Jewish education to fill the gap. And well they should. Informal Jewish education at its best is ideally suited to address precisely those issues of identity, values, inter-personal relationships, and personal growth that contemporary American schooling has pushed largely to the side in its single-minded pursuit of academic achievement. By adding a rich menu of informal and experiential learning opportunities to its academic program, day schools can come far closer than the vast majority of American public and many private schools do to educating the “whole person” and, at the same time, provide support for the affective, behavioral and spiritual dimensions of Jewish development that a largely cognitively-oriented academic study of Jewish “subjects” is unlikely to impact.

For American Jewish day schools, blending a solid “formal” academic program that can “compete” with that of the best public and non-Jewish private schools with an expanded set of informal educational activities would seem to be a ready formula for success, both educationally and in the marketplace. The question, though, is whether this approach does full justice to our students as 21st century learners and as 21st century Jews. Even if we succeed pedagogically to integrate the best “formal” and “informal” education in our day schools, will such integration make these schools ideal learning environments for our children and youth?

The “factory-like” model of schooling: students come in at one end, pass through largely standardized experiences, are measured against equally standardized benchmarks, and emerge as “graduates” at the other end.

I would argue that the answer is “no.” The problem lies in the conventional paradigm of schooling itself. Incorporating informal learning into the school program is clearly a step in the right direction. But unless Jewish day schools are prepared to break with the current paradigm of schooling and challenge the culture and regularities that are central to it they will not realize the full potential of these efforts.

Jewish day schools would hardly be alone in mounting this challenge. Much has been written in recent years critiquing not only the excesses of today’s test-focused school culture, but the fundamental “factory-like” model of schooling that reigns in the United States and that most Jewish day schools continue to embrace. In this model, students come in en masse at one end (kindergarten), pass through a set of largely standardized experiences at a pre-determined pace, are measured frequently against a set of equally standardized benchmarks of achievement, and—if all goes well—emerge as “graduates” at the other end. It is a model so ubiquitous that we can hardly imagine any other one. But it is a deeply flawed and increasingly dated model. It contradicts what we know about why and how people learn best, and it is ill-suited to encourage the kind of intellectual vitality, creativity, flexibility and capacity to collaborate that 21st century life and work demand. Perhaps this is the reason why so much investment in raising student “achievement” has produced such frustratingly limited results: the model itself is broken.

If this is so, then it behooves day schools not to limit their efforts to patching up the model with a layer of informal activities, but to rethink the model itself—to be a different kind of “school.” And in fact, while most public attention continues to be focused on educational developments linked to the reigning paradigm—rising or falling test scores, letter grades for schools based on “adequate yearly progress,” teacher merit pay and evaluations based on student achievement on standardized tests, “races to the top,” etc.—an educational counterculture continues to grow. This counterculture can be found in schools that defiantly embrace ostensibly outmoded “progressive” educational philosophies, in cutting-edge classrooms like those portrayed in Milton Chen’s Education Nation that empower students through technology, among dedicated, creative teachers like Ron Berger (see An Ethic of Excellence), and in settings where concepts like multiple intelligences and approaches like project-based learning are taken seriously (not merely given lip service). The institutions, programs, teachers, parents and students who are part of this counterculture believe in the power of intrinsic motivation to stimulate a student’s drive for excellence. They focus on educating the whole child—mind, body, and spirit. And, they judge achievement by real-world measures, not test scores.

Jewish day schools should be proud participants in this countercultural movement. Some already are. Pedagogically, the approaches such schools are taking or might take will undoubtedly vary. For some, breaking with the reigning school paradigm may mean becoming a Jewish Montessori school, like Netivot, in Edison, New Jersey. For others, it may involve joining a national initiative like The Partnership for 21st Century Learning, as the Martin J. Gottlieb Day School in Jacksonville, Florida, has done (http://www.mjgds.org). It may include a complete curricular redesign using an approach like Richard Solomon’s Jewish Integrated Experiential Education that aims to thoroughly integrate so-called “formal” and “informal” learning (see his article in this issue). Or it may involve a structural reorganization to redefine the role of teachers as multifaceted “learning agents” catalyzing, facilitating, and guiding student learning, as a paper published by the KnowledgeWorks Foundation has suggested (http://andreasaveri.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/03/sr-1160kwf_learning_agents.pdf). What all of these approaches, and others, have in common is that they implicitly or explicitly redefine both the purposes of school and what good learning looks like and how it can be identified and supported.

Does this mean that day schools have to give up classes in traditional academic subjects, organizing students by grade levels, daily homework assignments and administering standardized tests? Not necessarily, though there are good reasons why they might wish to consider all of these. The key is thinking about the education we offer not as a march toward some predetermined destination, but as a process of ongoing discovery with room for stops, and detours, and surprises along the way. Teaching is an aid to learning—just as the Hebrew has it—and learning that endures is ultimately highly personal, driven by a desire to understand, not a need to pass a test.

So, in the end, the issue is not, I believe, bringing more informal education into day schools or doing a better job integrating the multiple modalities and contexts for learning that exist. Both of these are desiderata, but not as ends in themselves, nor as the core of the change that is called for today. The central question is whether Jewish day schools are ready to advocate for and implement a different philosophy of learning than the one that dominates public educational discourse today. Because they are private and because they are Jewish, day schools have a unique opportunity to go down a different path, one that defines, pursues, and measures excellence in ways more compatible with the interests of both students and society—and with the values of Jewish tradition. We can still celebrate the success of our students in the great American college sweepstakes. But we’ll do so knowing they’re prepared not only for success on the academic playing field, but in life.♦

Dr. Jonathan Woocher is Chief Ideas Officer at JESNA and directs its Lippman Kanfer Institute: An Action-Oriented Think Tank for Innovation in Jewish Learning and Engagement. He can be reached at jwoocher@jesna.org.

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Formal-Informal Education

If only school could be like camp… Many people’s fondest childhood memories are of camp with its unstructured days and enjoyable activities. Increasingly, under the rubric of informal or experiential education, schools are capturing some of the atmosphere of camp in the classroom and beyond. How can this model be adapted effectively to the educational rigor of a day school?

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