By Beth Cousens

What is education? How do we think of learning? In today’s blog post, we bring you a text study of sorts to share ideas from field leaders that flesh out these questions. We hope these texts and accompanying discussion questions inspire a conversation with your professional teams, volunteer committees, and partner organization colleagues. 

Before you read these texts, discuss:

  • What do we think “learning” means? What do we normally think of when we think of the word “learning”? Brainstorm a list of synonyms for “learning.” What do these words or concepts have in common? How do they differ?
  • Share a memory of a positive learning experience. What made it a positive learning experience? What kind of learning was it – what and how did you “learn”?
  • What is the point of learning? How does learning happen? What is changing when we learn? What does it mean to understand or know something?
  • What are the different opportunities for “learning” that people (of all ages) have access to in our community? How do we support different types of learning?

Jewish education as an opportunity to encounter the past and let it be reshaped by who we are in the present, to meet Judaism and Jewish community as they are and help them come alive in the context of our lives.

…Learning [in the traditional conception] means acquisition of what already is incorporated in books and in the heads of the elders. Moreover, that which is taught is thought of as essentially static. It is taught as a finished product, with little regard either to the ways in which it was originally built up or to changes that will surely occur in the future. It is to a large extent the cultural product of societies that assumed the future would be much like the past…

…[Today] we have the problem of discovering the connection which actually exists within experience between the achievements of the past and the issues of the present. We have the problem of ascertaining how acquaintance with the past may be translated into a potent instrumentality for dealing with the past as the end of education and thereby only emphasize its importance as a means. When we do that we have a problem that is new in the story of education: How shall the young become acquainted with the past in such a way that the acquaintance is a potent agent in appreciation of the living present?

John Dewey, Experience and Education, 1938

Jewish education as an experience of personal, self-led discovery, where we have enough tools at our disposal to explore for ourselves rather than be told.

…With a friend, I reviewed some classic Piagetian interviews with a few children. One involved the ordering of lengths. I had cut 10 cellophane drinking straws into different lengths and asked the children to put them in order, from smallest to biggest. The first two 7 -year-olds did it with no difficulty and little interest. Then came Kevin. Before I said a word about the straws, he picked them up and said to me, “I know what I’m going to do,” and proceeded, on his own, to order them by length. He didn’t mean, “I know what you’re going to ask me to do.” He meant, “I have a wonderful idea about what to do with these straws. You’ll be surprised by my wonderful idea.”

It wasn’t easy for him. He needed a good deal of trial and error as he set about developing his system. But he was so pleased with himself when he accomplished his self-set task that when I decided to offer them to him to keep (10 whole drinking straws!), he glowed with joy, showed them to one or two select friends, and stored them away with other treasures in a shoe box.

… The having of wonderful ideas is what I consider the essence of intellectual development. And I consider it the essence of pedagogy to give Kevin the occasion to have his wonderful ideas and to let him feel good about himself for having them. …

Intelligence cannot develop without matter to think about. Making new connections depends on knowing enough about something in the first place to provide a basis for thinking of other things to do – of other questions to ask-that demand more complex connections in order to make sense. The more ideas about something people already have at their disposal, the more new ideas occur and the more they can coordinate to build up still more complicated schemes.

Eleanor Duckworth, The Having of Wonderful Ideas, 1987

Jewish education as relevant to life questions and as honoring and stimulating wonder, not suppressing it.

If there is anything we can say about the biologically intact, preschool child, it is that he or she is a question-asking, question-answering, questing, knowledge-pursuing organism, pursuing knowledge about self, others, and its world.

… Our schools (beginning in kindergarten), in a myriad of ways and with the best of intentions, require the student to make a sharp distinction between “what I am interested in and what I am supposed to be interested in, what I am curious about and what I am supposed to be curious about, what I know and what I am supposed to know, what kinds of questions I would like to ask and what questions I am told I should or it is permissible to ask.” Put more succinctly, schools do a remarkably effective job, albeit unwittingly, of getting children to concede that there are two worlds – the one inside of school and the one outside – and they have no doubt whatsoever about which of the two is intrinsically more interesting and stimulating….

The overarching goal rests on the recognition that children start school with the expectation that their curiosity about a myriad of things – about people, places, growing up – will receive some answers. …

All of the above is once again obvious, but if one were to observe classrooms from kindergarten onward, it would be hard to find instances where the obvious is being taken seriously…

Seymour Sarason, The Predictable Failure of Education Reform, 1993

Jewish education as empowering, as a space where those with the least power can unleash their creativity and make discoveries.

It once happened on a stormy day that the Sages did not attend the Beit Midrash. Some children were there and they said, “Let us make a Beit Midrash.” Why are there two forms for mem, nun, tzadik, peh, and kaf? It teaches that the Torah was transmitted from utterance to Utterance, from faithful to Faithful, from righteous to Righteous, from mouth to Mouth, and from hand to Hand…The scholars noted them, and they grew to be great sages in Israel; some say that they were R. Eliezer, R. Joshua, and R. Akiba. They applied to them the verse, Even a child is known by his doings (Proverbs 20:11).

Breishit Rabbah (midrash) 1.11

Jewish education as a process that helps people explore – within the context of Jewish tradition – who they are and what will constitute their life.

For successful Jewish education to occur, we must declare that the most essential element of Jewish education today is not our curriculum, not our educators, not even our Torah and certainly not our houses of learning. The element that matters first and foremost in Jewish education today are [sic] our learners. … If nothing else Jewish tradition should help people to answer four of life’s most existential questions:

  1. Who am I?
  2. Where do I fit in to this world?
  3. How can I live a more fulfilling life?
  4. How can I make the world a better place?

“When You’re Happy and You Know It – The True Purpose of Jewish Education,” David Bryfman, eJewishPhilanthropy, November 28, 2016

Jewish education as the development of habits of mind and heart – a focus on ways of thinking and being in the world.

Few of us learn the facts very well unless we see their utility to us as individuals and unless we practice their use… Habit grows from a mixture of conviction (“This is good for me; it is persuasive; I can use this to good advantage”), of practice (“I can do this stuff in my sleep”), and of reinforcement from the community (“The place where I live and study is a place that values this.”). Ultimately, it is people’s habits we most value and respect.

Theodore Sizer, Horace’s School, 1992

Jewish education as the development, specifically, of “habits of goodness,” of ways of being that resemble the best interactions with each other prescribed by our Jewish texts and tradition.

When we practice a social curriculum, when we struggle to integrate ethical practice into our daily fare, we … are trying to set down habits that we want children to carry from their desks to the pencil sharpener, out into the halls, the playground, and even into the world. And we dare to envision that world far more filled with civility and honesty, with community and nonviolence, than it is now…

We teach habits of goodness most often in the way we organize the social and academic lives of our students and in the way that we bring the children into the regular activities and ceremony of the day. Thus, the children become a part of our rituals, and as we infuse those rituals with active, lively meaning, meaning that is constructed in collaboration with the children, our rituals become real for them. They help them know and practice a way of being. They help them construct a way of thinking. Faced with new situations, faced with difficult choices, faced with uncertainty, they turn to the knowledge they have gained from these rituals for support and guidance.

Ruth Sidney Charney, Habits of Goodness, 1997

If we’re trying to achieve all of this…

  • What are the experiences (including in a classroom) that will yield these kinds of educational processes? If learning through hands-on experience, self-discovery, allows the most effective learning, how do we support such experiences?  What does a vision of learning through experience look like?
  • If our vision of education demands that learners take meaningful risks, how can we help those risks be taken safely?
  • Who are the teachers that we need, in any setting? What characteristics do they need? What jobs will they be doing? How do we support them?
  • How do we evaluate our success?
  • How do we think about educational planning through this new lens?

Beth Cousens joined The Jewish Federations of North America to launch the Jewish Education and Engagement Office in July 2015, focusing on Federations as platforms for change in Jewish education, life, and living. Beth has a PhD in Jewish education and was the recipient of a Wexner Graduate Fellowship. She is the author of numerous articles and research publications about Jewish life and living. She lives in San Francisco with her husband and son.

This article is reposted from the JFNA Blog Ideas in Jewish Education and Engagement. It is reprinted with permission.