Self-Paced, Point & Click: The Jewish Problem with Programmed Instruction 3

by Joel Lurie Grishaver

Programmed Instruction

There is a growing fantasy in Jewish education that everything will be better if we only take the teacher out of the equation. This is manifesting itself in the claim that low level computer exercises can replace a day a week of Jewish learning. And it is leading to tools like self-checking folders that students work their way through at their own pace. What all of these hold in common is a reliance on an old education technique, programmed instruction, which was used mainly for industrial training and has mainly shown itself to be a failure in general education.

Programmed instruction grew out of the work of B.F. Skinner, the behaviorist who believed that learning was conditioning. In rewarding students who get the right answer, students become conditioned to repeat that answer. Programmed instruction sends students through a series of frames where they (a) receive information, (b) are asked about that information, and (c) are shown the correct answer. In more sophisticated forms, there is now a “branching” opportunity. If the student got the answer right, they move on to the next frame. If they get it wrong, they are put into a review loop.

The good news seems to be (a) the ability of each student to move at his/her own pace, (b) a high rate of retention (at least in the short term), and (c) the freeing of the class from the imposition of a teaching doing bad “frontal” education. But most of the advocates of programmed instruction, whether in software or folders, seem to forget three things:

1. Levels of Learning

Benjamin Bloom, one of my teachers, wrote a big book with J. Thomas Hastings and George F. Madaus called Handbook on Formative and Summative Evaluation of Student Learning. In it is a taxonomy of educational objectives that describes a series of “levels” of learning. In the cognitive domain there are six: Knowledge, Comprehension, Application, Analysis, Synthesis, and Evaluation. The problem is simple. Jewish life and real Jewish learning is all about Analysis, Synthesis, and Evaluation, the higher levels. Programmed Instruction is best for Knowledge, Comprehension and Application, the lower three levels.

There is also a taxonomy of affective objectives: Receiving (or Awareness), Responding, Valuing, Organization, and Characterization by a value or value complex. These affective objectives (usually called “Krathwohl’s Taxonomy”) are all about a process called “internalization,” whereby a student’s affect towards something goes from being aware (that’s the “receiving” part) all the way to the point where their affect has been internalized and consistently guides or controls the person’s behavior. It’s the path between knowing that kavod is a Jewish value and going through life treating people with kavod. Programmed Instruction can get you to Awareness, but it is not great at getting to the rest of the domain. Jewish education should be all about valuing and the rest of that process.

The argument can be made that Programmed Instruction is mainly being used to teach Hebrew language. That Alef Bet is only Alef Bet is partially true. But Alef Bet leads to Ashrei and Ashrei is supposed to build a connection to God. While learning folders with self-checking and computer programs may have a role in mechanical learning, they are incapable of taking it any further. When do you feel close to God? What is the right thing to do in this case? What do you think of when you say the Shema? These are all moments of Jewish learning that are simply not part of a computer’s function.

2. Community

The purpose of Bar and Bat Mitzvah is to acknowledge that a child is now old enough to function as an adult in the ritual life of the Jewish people. Reading Torah is a symbol that a child can now function as a member of the community. A new adult can now be counted in a minyan. Most importantly, this means that a new adult is old enough to go to a shiva house and be counted among those whose responsibility it is to help heal the pain of death. If we are going to turn our schools into B’nai Mitzvah mills, we could do worse than if they included the skills of participating in Jewish communal life and learning compassion and empathy. Those are not things that come from the kind of computer programs we have and are likely to have in the foreseeable future. They are the inverse of things learned when each student is moving at his or her own pace.

Tolerance is one of the things that one learns from being part of a learning community. So is patience, leadership, and being a good listener. The best way to learn how to participate in community life is practice. It is not an accident that Jews pray in community and demand community for most Jewish events. Studying prayer at home on the computer is not the best way to learn about community. Working alone at your own folder, checking your own answers, doesn’t develop leadership skills.

3. Teachers

Finally, the Jewish tradition believes in teachers. It sees teachers as rich (not mechanical) enablers of individualization and personalization. Teachers allow lessons to go off on tangents, listen to student needs, and take advantage of the moment. Teachers can appreciate and celebrate, understand and empathize. A teacher-free classroom can maybe transmit Jewish information, but it is not a Jewish classroom. The modeling of the Jewish classroom as Jewish learning community, the enabling of the community by a person manifesting and applying Jewish values – this is our goal. I know of no one who can claim that their best learning moment took place when completing a self-guided booklet. Not every teacher is ideal, but teachers are our ideal.

Every teaching tool that is effective has its time and purpose. Programmed instruction and computer-assisted instruction are tools that have their time and place. But ironically, as we have less time to spend together with our students, now is precisely the time for more student-teacher interaction, not less. As we are trying to teach the skills of communal worship, now is precisely not the time to invite our students to learn Hebrew from computer screens. When we are trying to instruct our students to maximize their humanity and use it to change the world, now is precisely the time to make human interaction a foundational value of Jewish education. The elimination of the human in education is a step backwards.

Steps Forward

At Torah Aura Productions, we are dedicated to producing curricular materials that realize a depth of understanding rather than focusing only on facts and feelings. That means that we also must be active partners with teachers and educators to maximize the Jewish educational impact on their students.

Programmed instruction is perfectly useful if the goal is to develop students who can perform at a one-time event. We’re encouraging a different goal: students who are lifelong Jews. Our mission is to make materials that help teachers and educators to enable their students to become empowered Jewish adults.

We believe in doing what it takes to develop good teachers who can actualize impactful Jewish learning. That may be more difficult than asking teachers to facilitate programmed instruction in booklets or on computer screens, but it’s a worthwhile endeavor. Human interaction is the key to the Jewish future. And because we believe in humanity, we believe that Jewish schools can succeed at doing something bigger, better and worthwhile.



  1. I have a very mixed reaction to this article. On the one hand, I agree with all of your points about the values and objectives of Jewish education. On the other hand, it feels very much like an attempt to discredit the materials of another Jewish textbook publisher. Your assumption seems to be that these materials are intended to be used by themselves and not in the context of a bigger picture. I don’t believe that is the intention of the publisher. When used as one of a number of teaching tools – INCLUDING an engaging, dynamic teacher, a community of learners and a community of celebrants of Jewish life, and especially given the limited time we have with our precious students, these materials absolutely have a place in today’s classroom. Even more so in the home, where students are actually motivated to continue their learning even when their parents don’t have the ability to help them. Supplemented with small group or whole group instruction and with regular community experiences that include opportunities to learn and talk about the concepts and values that are such an important part of Jewish education, I believe these programmed materials have value.

  2. Lisa –

    Thanks for your response to the TAPBB article. Because of your thoughtfulness and because you are well-published in your support for programmed instruction in Jewish education (, I wanted to respond personally.

    1. It was not our intent to “discredit” another publisher’s material. Rather, it was our goal to explain what makes our materials different. I think a lot of educators assume that Hebrew/Prayer materials aren’t that different from each other, and that it’s really “six of one, half-dozen of another.” We disagree, and because we want to differentiate ourselves in the market, we feel the need to articulate why we oppose the current trend towards programmed instruction.

    2. I guess you’re right. If you have teachers who are “dynamic”, and your school features a “community of learners and a community of celebrants of Jewish life,” then you can use programmed materials as a foundation, and then ask teachers to add a depth of understanding and meaning. But lets be clear: the materials are not designed to empower the teacher to develop this sort of meeting.

    We’re suggesting that educators have a choice between (a) materials that require the teacher to create real meaning by him or her self; or (b) materials that are designed to empower the teacher to create real meaning. Shouldn’t schools choose the materials that enable depth and meaning?

    Furthermore, publishers of these programmed materials advertise them as being easier for undertrained and unskilled teachers. They say things like “No special teacher training required,” and that their materials are designed for teachers with “different abilities and capabilities.” If the whole point is that the materials are designed for less-capable teachers, how can you argue that they can only be successful if they’re used by really good teachers?

    This is the fundamental problem with programmed instruction. It claims to be easier to use and easier to teach. But in reality, it is much much harder. That’s because programmed instruction only touches on the shallowest levels of learning, and requires the teacher to develop depth and meaning (synthesis, analysis, the affective process of internalization) with only these shallow programmed materials as a foundation.

    Given the limited time we have with students, it is really important that we teach them how to be members of prayer communities, rather then working individually and alone to develop the basic skills needed for their bar or bat mitzvah, a single day of self-aggrandizement.

    We produce materials that are entirely designed — from the ground up — to enable teachers and students to engage in learning that is deep, meaningful, and goes way beyond facts, skills, and feelings. Our goal as a publisher of Jewish educational materials is to make success in Jewish education an achievable reality. We believe that “success” means students developing into enabled and empowered Jewish adults (not just students who can pronounce some Hebrew for b’nai mitzvah), and we ardently believe that programmed instruction cannot be a core technique for accomplishing this goal.

    Thanks for your thoughtful response, and for the opportunity to further articulate our educational vision.

    Kol tuv,

    – josh

    Joshua Mason-Barkin, MAJE/MAJCS
    Director of School Services
    Torah Aura Productions
    4423 Fruitland Ave.
    Los Angeles, CA 90058
    (800) BE-TORAH x122

  3. Joel,

    I will agree that teachers must be part of the regular instructional program no matter what the situation (yes, even when computers are involved). In fact, all the more important when computers are involved in order to keep learners on task. Also, teachers should be involved both in the production of technology related learning tools (especially in in designing project based learning curricula) and in the instructional training on how to use them.

    I also think it’s too simple to just say that computer based learning focuses on three lower level learning skills and that other methods of learning are the only ones that focus on the three higher level learning skills. I think it all depends on how you implement the technology.


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