Of Grades and Judaics –
Responding to the Call to
“Pursue Distinction”

By Rabbi Shmuel Feld

In her recent call to “Pursue Distinction,” Manette Mayberg made an appeal to Jewish schools with a radical premise. She asked, “If we agree that we want to build Jewish self-esteem in students and cultivate their Jewish greatness, what role does administering exams and assigning grades serve?” To this point, many empathetically agree. Pressure from testing and grading inculcates little love for learning among students and creates tension at home. However, the consistent rejoinders demur that Judaics classes without grades won’t motivate students – What would punish tardiness or disrespectful behavior or what gives a class gravitas? These criticisms have merit in the present form of Jewish Day Schools. The current hierarchical structure of many Judaics classrooms situates authority and knowledge in the teacher’s hands, leaving students to be graded on compliance, likeability, and innate talent. “Pursue Distinction” dreams a world where new underlying assumptions alter the context, changing the espoused values of a Judaics classroom and producing artifacts that do not include grades or their harmful side effects.

Before considering solutions, it is valuable to understand how grades originated and why they run counter to our tradition’s end goals. Historically, an A must be rare to have value. Before school begins, teachers arrange assessments so only a few students can “earn” the highest grades. Most will “earn” average grades, and still others will “earn” the lowest position. The cruel twist of this system is that performance lies solely on the student in comparison to others. The student is to blame for not outperforming peers for the few A’s. This grading system sets up a group of students who feel awful about themselves, helpless as Torah learners, and negatively towards Torah and those that love Torah. A grading system that requires a sizeable percentage of the class to perform poorly runs contradictory to our Torah system of education.

We see the same inconsistencies in the post-industrial age public school design researched at Cornell University by Starch and Elliott in 1912 featuring the “five tier marking system” (implemented as A through F) still used in American schools today. This methodology evaluates student performance based on the percentages of students typically demonstrating excellent, superior, and less successful skills. While this standardized evaluation system has evolved based on contemporary research on learning and assessment, it still reflects a social custom across schools that is contrary to what our heritage teaches about Jewish study. To this point exactly, our Tradition forbids us from applying non-Jewish customs to the teaching of Jewish beliefs and living as a Jew.

A further difficulty produced by current grading practices in Judaic Studies stems from students’ perception of the bifurcation between learning modes and performance modes of thinking. At best today, students interact with the teacher as coach (learning mode) and judge (performance mode). Since the awarded and praised activities come from the judge, students see less value in gradual improvement and more in momentary execution; mistakes feel more like signs of unpreparedness than learning opportunities. This turns students’ focus from growth and pride to a spotlight on deficits and shame. We can see how they might interpret Judaics class and Judaics by extension as the mastery of assessment moments instead of the ownership of ancient wisdom defining their relationships with God, the Nation (and its defining Law), and Oneself.

So, how do we create a classroom where the first question students ask about their Torah learning is how is this internalized in my soul? instead of will this be on the test?

Here are some “thirty thousand foot” observations gleaned from the Jewish Education Innovation Challenge’s (JEIC) research and granting experience to produce Judaics classes without grades.

Sync the elements of the Ecosystem. Our research shows that four human elements co-exist in each School Ecosystem: Funders (those who get or provide money for the school), Educators, Consumers (parents and students), and Influencers (outsiders who build capacity like content providers or trade organizations). These four groups are differentiated by their decision-making. The control exerted by each group shapes the learning environment. Greater discord among the elements leads to diminished stability and limited effectiveness in student learning. Thus, the more the Ecosystem is at Shalom (peace and respect), the stronger the learning environment will be.

Harness the power of intrinsic motivation. Human behavior expert and author, Dan Pink, outlines three types of intrinsic motivation – Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose – and substantiates their effectiveness in student learning and growth compared to traditional extrinsic motivators. Imagine a shift where students could warrant the right to more autonomous work in exchange for continued effort towards mastery and exploration of purpose.

Reinvent report cards. Functional fixedness is a cognitive boundary where someone treats an object in a way that precludes uses other than the original learned use. Instead of seeing teacher feedback as a measure of students’ demonstrations of success relative to others, overcome the functional fixedness and create feedback that measures students’ individual journeys towards Jewish self-esteem and Jewish greatness.

Develop peer supports. Foster a classroom culture where students helping others succeed has value. You will know when you have attained it when every student feels at home in the Jewish Nation, each student feels an expertise in his/her chosen niche to advance the Jewish Nation, and students are alone only by choice.

Envision students as the teachers of the next generation. This applies whether the students ascend to heads of household or heads of school. Inspire children early and often to see themselves as future parents and leaders whose strengths will guide the community to build on the accomplishments of previous generations.

Beyond sharing these lessons learned, I am hopeful this response serves as an invitation to envision and explore together a new source of values in Jewish school culture. I welcome discussion about these ideas based on JEIC’s belief that our people will draw on our understanding to create solutions for any challenges we face.

Rabbi Shmuel Feld is the founding director of the Jewish Education Innovation Challenge (JEIC), a bold initiative to radically improve the quality of Jewish education in day schools across North America. JEIC’s vision is to reignite students’ passion for Jewish learning and improve the way Jewish values, literacy, practice and belief are transferred to the next generation. You can reach him at rabbifeld@jewishchallenge.org.

Cross-posted from eJewishPhilanthropy.com

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