Monday, December 2, 2013

Va'yigash 74 - Rabbi Wallerstein - what's next ?

The centrality of torah study and learning is expressed by Ya'akov's decision to send Yehudah to establish a Beis Hamedrash – a house of learning in Egypt, ahead of the family. It is no wonder that a talk by Rabbi  Wallerstein on Jewish education in the USA aroused so much interest. He said that competition, tests,grades and  homework and that different parts of Torah learning are considered as ' subjects ' and separate disciplines were responsible for kids not accessing and becoming excited about the beauty of the Torah. However there was one big omission in his talk  – how schools handle discipline problems. Many kids are falling through the cracks and are becoming  Lost at School  because of a punitive approach to discipline. Discipline only got a mention in passing  when he said that his father was a marine and he believed that kids should get consequences ( a euphemism for punishments). The question people are asking – what's next Rabbi Wallerstein ?

I am not going to discuss the negative impact on ALL kids, not only the academically weaker ones of competition,tests, grades and homework. I recommend reading the article by Dr Benzion Sorotzkin The Dangers of Rewards and Competition and listening to a short Radio interview of Alfie Kohn on awards and grades He  also briefly discusses the alternatives.

Here are some guidelines from Alfie Kohn  based on the best practices of progressive schools, education in Finland and the discipline code being implemented in many schools in the USA and especially in Maine, created by Ross Greene - Collaborative problem solving model  Here, unlike kids at traditional schools who find no value in the learning itself and only study to get a good grade, kids enjoy learning, find value in the learning and are intrinsically motivated to learn.

The Major problem with traditional schools is the learning is driven by extrinsic motivation. The belief  that 'lo lishmah' – extrinsic motivation automatically leads to kids learning 'lishmah -enjoying what they learn, and seeing the value and beauty in it does not help. Discipline is maintained also through ' extrinsic motivation' –' doing to' kids with rewards, punishments and consequences teaching kids to ask ' what will I get ' or 'what will be done to me ' and what's in it for me. Consequences don't help a kid reflect on what type of person I want to be, do my actions reflect my values or how they impact- the consequences  on others.

The more focused we are on kids' 'behaviors', the more we end up missing the kids themselves – along with their needs, their lagging skills, motives , reasons or any problems that underlie their actions. Instead of discipline, solve problems in a collaborative way, ' working with kids'. In this way we teach lagging skills, solve problems in a durable way, and  enhance the trust and relationship between the teacher and kid . We also  give the kid the space to engage in an autonomous way in the moral act of restitution and making amends. We help the kid to do  Teshuvah  and  give him a vision for the future .

Assessment  - What replaces Grades and Tests
The more kids are led to focus on how WELL   they are doing in school , the less engaged they will tend to be with WHAT they are doing in school . So for sure they will miss out on the beauty, enjoyment and the intrinsic value of their learning. If the focus is on achievement and performance, rather than the process of learning , then the learning is not about understanding and discovery. Joe Bower said that assessment is not a rubric but a conversation. The kid needs feedback which will improve his learning and a discussion how to go forward.

Jerome Bruner once said that we should try to create an environment where students can ' experience   success and failure not as reward and punishment but as information. So Rabbi Wallerstein  is going in the right direction when he recommends a conversation with a kid on a test he brought home. The conversation is in learning, not about grades. But he gets it wrong by talking about ' achievement ' – the positive .Kids need to be taught that mistakes are our friends.We don't make progress in Torah and learning unless we fail. 'Lo omdim ul divrei Torah ud she nechshalim bahem.'  There is no positive or negative.

The best evidence we have of whether we are succeeding as educators comes from observing children's learning rather than from test scores or grades. A teacher said that' I assess my students by looking at their work, by talking with them, by making informal observations on the way. I don't need any means of appraisal outside of my observations and the student's work, which is demonstration enough of their thinking, their growth, their knowledge and their attitudes over time.' It also comes from watching to see whether they continue arguing animatedly about an issue raised in class after the class is over, whether they come home chattering about something they discovered in school, whether they read on their own time. Where interest is sparked, skills are usually acquired. Of course, interest is difficult to quantify, but the solution is not to return to more conventional measuring methods; it is to acknowledge the limits of measurement. The best way to see a kid's progress in Gemorah is by the questions he asks and that we can't test or measure.

A kid can demonstrate his learning through projects, designing experiments for a science fair, writing a play and then giving a performance, making a 'movie' on what is being studied. A student can share and reflect on his work by using a 'portfolio'.

 Since the research says there are no academic benefits for homework for kids below 15 and only negative effects on the love for learning, the default should be no homework unless the homework is really deemed beneficial to kids.

Deborah Meir said that teaching is mostly listening and learning is mostly talking. So kids should do more of the talking than the teachers, and that depends on the how the teacher has managed to engage the kids' interest in the topic and their excitement about learning in general.  Learning should be organized around problems, projects and questions, especially students' questions – not around text books, lists of facts or skills or separate disciplines. Learning becomes multi-disciplinary with all areas of learning connecting to each other.

The 3 C's of  Intrinsic Motivation
When the needs of kids for autonomy, competence and relatedness are supported and kids find meaning and purpose in what they are doing , they become self- determined and intrinsically motivated 

Collaboration- students are connected to their peers within a safe and supportive community of learners ,see their peers as ' learning resources' , and learning is cooperative ( chavrusha) not competitive

  Choice – student autonomy is supported by inviting kids to participate in decisions about what they are learning and classroom life. Kids learn to be responsible and make good decisions by making decisions and not by following instructions.
Content – the curriculum should be meaningful, engaging and relevant so sparks student interest and curiosity.

Change is best when done slowly and in a cooperative way. Principals, teachers and parents should always have their long term goals for their kids in mind. If we want to raise G-d fearing kids who are caring and responsible, have a love for learning and feel unconditionally accepted and loved by adults in their lives , we have to help kids focus on WHAT they are doing and not HOW WELL they are doing. In this way they will see the beauty of the Torah and take 'ownership' of their learning.

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