By Steve Freedman
“Na’aseh v’nishma– We will do and we will understand.” That is what the Israelites proclaimed as they were about to receive the Torah from God. We will be commemorating that moment in the creation of the Jewish nation next week when we celebrate Shavuot.
What a remarkable statement. In order to enter the land of Israel, and live successfully there as a Jewish people, they needed to accept the covenant first, the contract that would enable them to live as God’s people in this Promised Land. A people cannot survive or thrive without laws, expectations and norms. What is fascinating is that the Israelites were committing to doing so even before understanding these laws they were about to receive.
What did our ancestors from so long ago intuitively know about the necessity of doing something even before understanding it? They knew that to really understand, you need to “do” – you need to act, behave, create, and participate actively in the learning and understanding. You can memorize and learn through study, but deep understanding often comes from doing and creating. Our ancestors recognized that they would best understand their responsibility and their purpose on earth by performing mitzvot and living according to God’s ways, and that the more active they would be in the partnership, the greater their understanding and commitment would be.
Fast-forward a few thousand years to the rise of the Industrial age, and public education. In those early years, the great educational thinker, John Dewy, passionately professed that children learn best through doing. He said, “Just as a flower which seems beautiful and has color but no perfume, so are the fruitless words of the man who speaks them but does them not.” It is through action and doing that we create meaning and understanding. It is how we make connections, solve problems, and see new possibilities. John Dewey believed that education was not a preparation for life, but life itself. He believed that the entire world was the classroom for learning, and that allowing children to pursue their curiosity and interests would spark their passions for learning and understanding.
Take another trip in time to today. Brain research validates what our ancestors knew long ago, and what great educators like John Dewy knew as well. When you are actively engaged and creating, you learn best. After some thirty years of the standardization craze, No Child Left Behind, and Race to the Top, we are approaching the tipping point where it is finally being accepted that our educational system is broken, and that we need to re-embrace what we always knew – children (and adults) learn best by being actively engaged in learning that is authentic, relevant and interesting.
If we look to our tradition, this wisdom has always been there; after all, Kohelet said, “There is nothing new under the sun.”
Na’aseh v’nishma – We will do and we will understand. A statement made thousands of years ago is really the basis of the Maker Movement that has swept the world and is being incorporated into more and more schools, including Hillel Day School. When we created our Audrey and Bill Farber Family I.D.E.A. Collaborative, in 2014, including a prototyping lab, maker space, art studio, and greenhouse, we had making, doing, and creating very much in mind.
Maker education, which is an increasingly essential component of a Hillel education, is an approach to problem-based and project-based learning that relies upon hands-on, often collaborative, learning experiences as a method for solving authentic problems. Makers integrate creative goals with technical skills. According to Maker Ed, a national non-profit organization that provides training and resources, maker education helps students develop new perspectives, confidence in their own abilities, and a “passion for learning” – which is central to the mission of Hillel.
A lot has changed since the Israelites stood at Mount Sinai, and some things never change. We as Jews need to rededicate ourselves to the practice and understanding of Judaism. To remain a strong people committed to our values, traditions and common destiny, we need to be active participants in our never-ending story. The more we do, and do with our children, the more we will understand its continued purpose, value and relevance in our contemporary lives. It is our destiny to continue what our ancestors started.
The same goes for education. Now is the time to recommit to what we always have known intuitively about learning. Schools must be environments where children learn by doing. The more children are active participants in their learning, the greater the understanding they will have. And when they make connections, problem solve, use critical thinking skills, and collaborate with others, they are building skills that will serve them well today and in the future.
Steve Freedman is the Head of School at Hillel Day School of Metropolitan Detroit.