Teachers should create lessons and assessments that enable students to engage with the material in ways that are relevant to their lives outside the classroom.
Students spend anywhere from 17,000 to 19,000 hours in elementary, middle and high school. Considering the amount of knowledge to which a student is exposed over all that time, if educators do not think about and plan toward relevance, authenticity and applicability of that knowledge to students’ life post school, their schooling has little purpose. In Understanding by Design, Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe recount a learning unit that most students, especially in the Northeast, engage in during the first few months of grade 1—a unit on apples. Students read apple books, do apple math problems, draw pictures of apples, and sometimes bake apple pies. I often ask teachers what they hope their students will understand and be able to do by the end of the apple unit. I often get responses such as “I’ve never thought about that before” or “I teach it because it’s in the curriculum.” Unless we think about what we are teaching, why we are teaching it and the usefulness of the learning to our students’ current and future lives, we leave them with a lot of knowledge but little understanding.
More problematic is the failure to make connections. There are many reasons why teachers might want to teach about apples, but there also must be a larger context. The context must be explained and connections made to other disciplines, including Judaic studies. One possible reason for teaching an apple unit is that we want our students to understand that where they live has a great impact on how they live, what they wear and what they eat. With a more meaningful and expanded view, students can learn about their place in the world.
Brain research, and in particular the information processing system as described by David Sousa in How the Brain Learns, has helped educators think about what they should be teaching and how they should be teaching it. Students are inundated with massive amounts of stimuli at any given time. We would like to believe that our instruction takes top priority but this is often not the case. Students are distracted by external stimuli such as noises in the classroom, conversations with other students, visuals around the classroom and outside scenery or internal stimuli such as personal issues. In actuality, students process and retain only 1% of all incoming stimuli.
Of the enormous amount of stimuli that enters the brain through the senses, the brain must decide what to hold onto and what to filter out. The information that is retained and ultimately processed in long term memory both holds meaning and makes sense—with information that is meaningful often taking precedence over information that is understood. The student may not fully understand the content, but if the brain perceives it as meaningful or relevant, that information will take top priority and will most likely move to working memory and eventually long term storage. In order for information to hold meaning, it must have context. Students should be able to explain why and how the information is relevant: how it relates to what they already know, and how the information can be applied in everyday life.
In Judaic studies, this is especially pertinent because if students learn language, text, customs and Jewish values through the lens of knowledge and pure skill acquisition, the knowledge has little value. If all students can do is conjugate verbs, parse sentences, relay how many soldiers went to battle or recite a brachah, but lack understanding of the meaning and relevance of what they are learning, what is the purpose? Students must gain a deep understanding of the biblical and rabbinic sources that they study in relation to how the learning will continue to guide their own practice and lifelong decision making.
In discussion with teachers about what they hope children will learn and understand through their teaching units, they often articulate lofty goals such as, “I want my students to understand that Joseph’s character developed over time and that one’s behaviors influences the way he is treated by others. These are behaviors that help children develop a Jewish moral code.” Yet in practice, the learning is at times at the level of rote recall: What did he do? Where did he go? What happened when he got there? Of course there are many exceptions, and many teaching and learning situations that are far more meaningful, rich and valuable. We need to learn from those outstanding situations and ensure that every Jewish learning experience for children is equally enriching.
Assessment drives learning. If we want to change the focus of instruction from knowledge and skill acquisition to deep knowledge and understanding that guides actions and behaviors, we should begin with a focus on assessment. If the assessment is authentic, there is a far greater likelihood that the learning will be authentic and meaningful as a result. The most effective way for teachers to begin thinking in terms of authentic assessment is to ask students to show their mastery of what they learned by taking on the role of a “real person” and create a product that a “real person” would create.
The product should be one that has value outside of the classroom. We could ask students to take on the role of a journalist and write a diary as Joseph might have written; write a screenplay in Hebrew; design a book with guidelines that explain how to celebrate a holiday for a family who has just come from another country where they were forbidden from celebrating Jewish holidays; write a chapter in a book on a topic related to Jewish history; develop a plenary session for an upcoming conference on a topic related to Jewish history, Israeli current history or the situation in the Middle East; take on the role of demographer studying the customs and practices of Jews in another country; write a chapter in a book on the Middle East peace process, or as a collector of Jewish folklore develop a PowerPoint on Jewish music through the ages and its relation to Jewish and world history.
One great strategy to use when assessing students is a RAFT. RAFT stands for Role, Audience, Format and Topic. Teachers ask students to take on a Role (travel agent) and develop a product for a particular Audience (grade 6 students); teachers outline the Format (a travel itinerary with explanations of why each site should be visited and what students will see there) and the Topic (plan a two week trip for students visiting Israel, what they should see and the significance of each place).
To make learning meaningful, educators must ask themselves essential questions such as, What is the core idea of the unit? Why should students care about this? How do we want the student to apply the knowledge and skills in everyday life? How can we teach toward application of the knowledge and skills? How will I assess the authentic application of the knowledge and skills? What do I want students to remember and be able to do in ten or twenty years from now as a result of what they learned?
If we as educators can ensure that we are delivering instruction to students in ways that encourage meaningful reflection and the application of knowledge and skills in ways that are relevant, then we will be assured that students are learning important life lessons that will serve them and the broader Jewish community in important ways throughout their lives.♦
Dr. Karen Gazith is the director of formal education at the Bronfman Jewish Education Centre in Montreal and an adjunct professor at McGill University in the department of Educational and Counselling Psychology. She can be reached at Karen.Gazith@bjec.org.
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