Lately, I’ve been spending a good amount of time ruminating on the idea of experiential education as a whole, and how we as Jewish educators have largely drunk the proverbial Kool-Aid when it comes to making our teaching experiential. It’s become a definite buzzword – teachers and communal professionals specifically identify themselves as experiential educators, there are numerous professional development programs targeting experiential education as a practice, and across the board, programs and initiatives that people are investing in largely fall under the ‘experiential’ banner.
All of this is great – I’m fully on board with learning that’s interactive, and applicable, and based around active engagement with content and cohort at the same time. But what I’m wondering about is the conflation of experiential education and the idea of everything being fun. As educators, and presumably nice people, I’m pretty confident in saying that across the board, we want people to have a good time when they engage with us and the work that we do, and that we aspire to build positive associations between our learners and the content we are so passionate about. I personally would be much less inclined to love my job as much as I do if people were negative or unhappy with my work, and I assume that’s a pretty universal feeling. And I’m more inclined than most to break out an icebreaker, an art project, or a self-deprecating joke. So all in all, a prime candidate for Team Fun, right?
Except for some visceral reason, I bristle against the assumption that all of Jewish learning should be fun. I can’t even begin to describe the number of conversations I’ve had that have centered around that very question – how do we make anything/everything fun? I mean, I’ve literally been in conversations where someone has suggested putting an element of fun into Yom HaShoah so as to ensure positive connections with Jewish identity, rather than a focus on tragedy. While this is surely an outlier, it still begs the question:
Should all Jewish learning be fun? Or is it something more?
Clearly, I’m in the ‘something more’ camp. While I’m all in favor of positive connections, fun to me has connotations of lightheartedness, easiness, and entertainment. And therefore it has its time and place – certain things should of course be fun. Team building activities, Purim shpiels, any and all celebrations – definitely, bring on the fun. And fun should be integrated into other places as well – there’s an element of fun in text study, in singing, in travel. But each of those activities also includes something much deeper. Rather than ‘fun,’ the focus needs to be on connections, exploration, and breadth and depth of experience. Personally, I have far more memories of experiential education moments that moved me than those that were fun and fleeting.
In many of the settings where Jewish education happens, particularly those that are part-time, fun is thought of as the ideal state. After all, if kids had more fun in religious school, they’d come more, right? They have fun at camp, so they like it, but unless we can harness the fun element elsewhere, we’ll never compete, right? I fundamentally disagree.
Jewish education needs to challenge and excite, to motivate and inspire. Sometimes it’s fun. But other times it’s so much more.
I believe that the reason that experiential education environments and activities deliver the greatest impact isn’t about fun. It’s about ownership, relevance, and the opportunity to connect with content, peers, and the greater story of the Jewish people. We should make it positive and enjoyable – but also find times to lean into discomfort, to grapple with complexities and be confident enough that we’ll make the desired impact, which will hopefully trigger much deeper exchanges than the ubiquitous conversation of:
How was your day/class/meeting?