There is an old saying (often attributed to the wit of Mark Twain) that goes something like this: “I never let my schooling interfere with my education.” While many of our students can certainly relate to this at some point, Jewish educators too can most certainly feel the tension between teaching their students according to an approved curriculum, and the need to cultivate an education for each individual student based on his or her specific needs. Finding the balance between a satisfactory, agreed upon standard that every student must be able to meet along with tweaking each student’s individual school experience in a way that will be most beneficial to them, is no easy task. However, there are still some things that you can do in the classroom to help ensure that each of your students has an opportunity learn in a way that will help them grow and learn as individuals approaching their own Judaism, while still being able to meet baseline standards that will keep them on track.
The “Cookie Cutter Effect”
Education requires basic standards that need to be enforced in every classroom. Standardized education is an understandable and even desirable way to ensure that every student can develop and learn along guidelines that have proven to result in a positive educational experience. At the same time, it is no surprise that not all students have the same learning styles, skills, capabilities or interests. The challenge for the educator, is to not allow themselves to fall for the “cookie cutter effect” while teaching.
Individuality is often seen as a positive trait, but more than that, it is an inevitable reality of human existence. Because no two students are exactly alike, it would be a mistake to view them as all the same, as though they can all be shaped and molded into the same model of student. The “cookie cutter” makes this assumption about students.
The “cookie cutter” approach to education requires a lack of understanding that students are individuals with individual needs. Taken to an extreme, it views students as stereotypes and clichés, and the entire learning experience as an assembly-line process that can be given either the stamp of approval or disapproval based on an arbitrary letter grade. In the end, students do not benefit from this approach, because learning is about more than receiving a passing or failing grade – it is about genuine educational enrichment where an individual’s strengths allow them to flourish, while weaknesses are explored as potential areas of improvement.
Standardized Education and the Parental Response
While many educators lament the difficulty they must face when trying to balance their teaching between following standards and individualizing education, some parents are taking matters into their own hands by homeschooling their children. The idea is that with a homeschool education, parents, who know their own children better than anyone, will have the ability to help cultivate their education in a way that fits them better.
It may make sense for some students, but home schooling has its downsides as well. For one, not every family can make the commitment for home schooling their children. For another, children can miss out on socializing with other children and participating in a lifestyle that allows them to fully flourish. In Judaism, where the community plays a major role, many homeschooled children may miss this component of their Jewish education.
Perhaps most importantly, these children are also missing out on the wealth of experience that a Jewish educator may bring to the table. Parents are not trained like a Jewish educator, and, in many cases, are not nearly as knowledgeable as they are.
So, what can you do to help those students who need a more individualized education?
Differentiated instruction is a teaching method that allows for individualized education among groups of students. The way it works is that flexible groups of students are formed to receive instruction. The same students are not in the same group for every activity or assignment. Rather, they are moved around according to their abilities. As an educator, you will design lessons around the needs of each group. For example, one group, made of more quiet introspective students, might write a paragraph after listening to a reading, while another more extroverted group puts on a skit. A third group might create an art project to show what they’ve learned. This type of learning not only allows for a more individualized approach to education, but it also allows for students to be exposed to a variety of learning opportunities and styles.
Individualized instruction focuses on the specific needs of the individual student, one at a time. This teaching method can be used on its own, or it can be part of differentiated teaching. Some students who receive individualized instruction may rely on teachers to help them understand and learn. Other students can skip topics they already know and go on to advanced information.
Different schools will have different abilities to accommodate differentiated and individualized instruction. You will need to work with your institution to see what you can make happen in your classrooms.
Get to know your students
Every student is unique. As an educator, it is a good idea to allow yourself to get to know who your students are, and what makes them tick in the classroom. Notice which students seem to find an activity fun or interesting. Ask for honest feedback and keep track of what works for each student and what isn’t. This way, you can create your lesson plans with your students in mind, and make sure that no one falls through the cracks. If a student is struggling to keep up, making yourself available outside of regular classroom hours for a little extra guidance can go a long way. If this is not possible, suggest a tutor that can help. Getting to know what your students’ learning styles, interests, strengths and weaknesses are, will allow you to be a more well-rounded educator as well.
Educators run up against many challenges in the classroom. Being the kind of educator that can help a variety of individual students and their individual cases is a very common challenge, but rising to it and finding a way to change it is very rewarding. Your students are not cookie cutter people, just as you are not a cookie cutter educator. Allow room for individuals to flourish in their education, and your career will be that much more rewarding. Standardization in schools are a good starting point, but finding the balance between the standard and the individual will take your classroom experiences, for both you and your students, to the next level.
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