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Not Just Fun and Games: Preparing Teachers for Meaningful, Constructivist, Experiential Education

♦ by Shira D. Epstein and Jeffrey S. Kress

The authors propose kinds of teacher reflection and discussion that can lead toward greater student engagement and encourage an organic development of informal techniques in the classroom.

The terms informal and experiential conjure up images of children singing songs at a Shabbaton or laughing together while playing sports or games at a summer camp. While we have no objection to integrating songs and games into teaching, implementing disconnected activities for the sake of “fun” will be of limited impact. Further, equating experiential education with discrete moments of fun leads educators to compartmentalize the work (“Now I am being an experiential educator, and now I am not”) and to see the experiential moments as items to check off a list (“This week we played three games, so I did my experiential duties”).

What we aim for is deep integration of basic elements of experiential education into the definition of what it means to be a day school educator. We have found that when teachers are asked to play out the idea that learning should be fun, what they really mean is that they want students to be engaged in learning. We utilize the framework of “constructivism” to bridge this seeming gap between the goals of teaching for “fun” and “engagement.”

Constructivist Jewish educators maintain that all students, no matter their background or intellectual advancement, arrive in our classrooms with a wealth of lived experiences. A teacher’s role is to develop activities that connect learners with this prior knowledge so that they experience Jewish subjects as relevant, meaningful, and applicable to their world outside of day school. Linking constructivism and experiential education demonstrates that the latter is not a foreign concept to classrooms.

Middle school students in New York inquire about the Occupy Wall Street protests downtown: Why do people participate in time-consuming protests? What do they want to accomplish? How do you know when a protest is “successful”?

We also draw on the groundbreaking work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi to reframe fun as flow, the type of experience in which the participant becomes completely immersed to the extent that even his or her sense of time blurs. The participant and the activity become one. Meaningful challenges hold potential to foster “flow.” Such deep engagement occurs when participants are engaged in clearly defined, meaningful activities for which the challenges push participants to—or even beyond—the limits of their skills. Flow can occur in activities not traditionally associated with laughter and merriment. We have heard students and educators describe feelings of flow that occurred while writing a paper, teaching a class, or singing Shabbat zemirot.

A helpful conversation for educators in this regard has to do with the goals of Jewish education. We are often surprised that while many of our students have worked in Jewish educational settings prior to beginning their masters, they have not had opportunities to engage in this conversation. We ask educators to imagine a “graduate” of their program who comes back to visit when he or she is, say 21 years old, and to brainstorm a description of this young adult. The results invariably encompass a range of Jewish knowledge, behaviors, emotions, beliefs, and attitudes. For example, an outcome such as engaged in prayer can be “unpacked” to reveal elements that fall into each category.

Although novice teachers will often refer early in their training to the desire to be the “guide on the side,” much of the formality of day school teaching leads them to more readily embrace a frontal role. Constructivism shifts the role of the educator to a model that is more often outwardly visible within Jewish experiential learning, that of co-investigator alongside students. One way to achieve this is to ask teachers to focus on the types and frequency of questions they ask in the classroom, thereby illuminating the degree to which they facilitate discussion. As part of a professional development initiative, teachers can listen to recordings of their own work, or be observed by a peer who then offers feedback on their use of questions, and how they might better frame activities that allow for a more facilitative stance.

Problem-based learning, in which students explore a key question through an extended project, is a pedagogical approach that enables this type of co-investigation and could become the focus for professional development. For example, middle school students in New York inquire about the Occupy Wall Street protests downtown: Why do people participate in time-consuming protests? What do they want to accomplish? When students are told about the recent massive housing protests in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, they push further: How do you know when a protest is “successful”?

The educator might ask students to consider what they already have learned about historically significant protests. What have been the outcomes of different kinds of protests? What would they want to know about the recent protests? How might they go about learning more? The students and teacher might craft a project in which they visit Occupy Wall Street, interview protest participants, and review footage from both New York and Israel.

Classroom educators can build upon student interests and shape those questions so that they cohere and align with the school’s formal curriculum and overarching goals and standards. The experiential learning that flows from these questions becomes the primary vehicle for classroom learning.

Informal/experiential education is often imagined in active terms with varied activities—singing, dancing, hiking, etc. However, theorists such as Dewey have pointed out that activity alone is insufficient to ensure educational impact. Rather, reflection on activity facilitates connections between new experiences and existing frameworks for understanding that provide the groundwork for meaning-making.

There are very simple, but potentially very powerful, techniques that can be implemented by classroom educators in this regard. Teachers can incorporate reflective activities that encourage students to ask “meta” questions such as, “What is one thing I learned today that I found particularly meaningful (or challenging, etc.)?” or “What surprised me at school today and why did I find it surprising?” Many schools have also established teacher-facilitated advisory groups in which teachers participate, thereby fostering a culture that supports students in making connections and in turn, making meaning.

Recent research in neurobiology has underscored what perceptive educators have known for some time learning does not occur in a cognitive vacuum, but is deeply entwined with the personal dynamics of the learning context. Informal settings often excel in the latter arenas even as they question how to incorporate “more content.” Day schools often confront the reverse challenge. Again, initial inroads are not difficult and can have a perceptible impact on the “feel” of a classroom.

In some schools, for example, Judaic studies teachers begin class by asking each student to “dedicate” the day’s study to honor or mark an event, person, or concern that is on their mind and which they share with the class. Many teachers have rituals that mark transitions in classroom time, such as morning meeting, or a refocusing exercise after recess. Many educators have taken the advice in Ruth Charney’s book Teaching Children to Care and made community-building an intentional and transparent element of their work, regularly processing with students their progress in this arena. Asking teachers to attend to the “little things,” such as how they greet students when they enter the room, can make a big difference.

Bridging theory and practice within teacher training

We find it very helpful to ask educators to think about their own education. For example, teachers can consider those experiences that have helped them grow professionally. It is likely that they will focus on times (whether in a pre-service program, student-teaching, formal or informal mentoring, etc.) when they had the opportunity to bridge theory and practice through fieldwork and reflection. Acquiring the complex range of competencies, knowledge, and attitudes needed to gain access to a community of professional educators requires active engagement with “real life” manifestations of that community.

Using their own experiences as a basis for reflection, teachers can generalize to their work, considering why these hands-on experiences are so powerful and how a classroom setting can incorporate similar elements: How have they been engaged as co-intentional learners? How have they engaged in active reflection within their own learning? When have their socio-emotional needs been met and when have they not and what are the implications of each?

Further, teachers can reflect on the learning experiences and/or those educators they feel greatly shaped their lives as Jews (or other faith traditions). They notice commonalities that cut across educational settings: caring relationships with peers and educators, safety and support, an educator who knew their interests and built on them. They describe activities—in and out of schools—in which they felt deeply immersed and about which they were able to reflect and discuss with their peers. This discussion helps facilitate the disconnection of practice and place; the active ingredients of Jewish growth need not confine themselves to one particular type of setting. As they consider the elements that contributed to the power of their own past experiences, they can draw lessons on how to create a classroom that replicates those.

In conclusion, our vision is that informal/experiential education are not just popular buzzwords, and that incorporating these elements into a classroom is not just a matter of adding more fun and games. Rather, constructivist theory and attention to the experience of being a learner in a classroom calls for ongoing effort to create environments for Jewish growth.♦

Shira D. Epstein is Assistant Professor at the Davidson School of Jewish Education at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. She can be reached at Shepstein@jtsa.edu.

Jeffrey S. Kress is Associate Professor and Academic Director of the Experiential Learning Initiative at the Davidson School of Jewish Education at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. He can be reached at jekress@jtsa.edu..

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