Success in Jewish Education Scares Me 5

Joel Lurie Grishaver

A story about Cuisenaire rods. Cuisenaire rods were a great innovation the teaching of mathematics. These rods are definitely a European thing and probably socialist (as well as experiential math). They were different length colored rods that were used to help numbers make sense. The longest was ten units long and colored orange. The rod that was five units long was colored yellow. Two yellows were as long as an orange. So does a red (2) and a brown (8). It helped students to visualize the way that numbers were built. There was one problem—a lot of pieces to pick up at the end of the lesson.

Eventually, they were too successful (and probably were the subject of too many conference workshops and articles). A major American textbook publisher decided to make them simpler. They made one color snap-together shapes that had indentations for every number. Snap together plastic was easier to clean-up. Eventually, the publisher gave up on producing manipulative materials and put pictures of them in their textbooks instead. It was like “Video Killed the Radio Star”, which could also be seen as an application of Gresham’s Law as taught by Shelly Dorph), “In Jewish education, ‘Bad money always drives good money off the market.’”

The same narrative functions in Jewish education. Here is an example. About thirty years ago family education was the hottest new technology in Jewish education. It became too successful. Now every synagogue in the country (except for those with a collective AARP membership) is family-oriented and every school actualizes experiences called “Family Education.” Recently, the Consortium for the Jewish Family (a new name is coming) received a grant from the Covenant Foundation to jump-start the movement so that the quality and impact of these out: http://yfrog.com/z/h28zdxmjexperiences can be improved. You can find out about this summer’s family education conferentce, check out the Jewish Family Education Conference in Detroit.

Right now, the latest ‘hot topic’ in Jewish education is experiential education. It has just been adopted as a retro-fit to the entire curriculum of one of the major publishers. Believing in the movement, I am scared that it will go the way of Cuisenaire rods.

Text Me an Experience

For the past four years I have been working on creating materials that are specifically designed for experiential education. In other ways, since the founding of Torah Aura Productions we have been creating experiential materials. We are a company founded at camp and rooted in camp. I know that a number of people believe that textbook and experiential are oxymoronic. But, I do not. I believe that education starts with a nugget of understanding or insight that we are trying to enable students to grasp. For the Jewish tradition, these insights are usually locked into texts. And I have always believed (a) that for Jews good text study is experiential and (b) they can be at the heart of powerful Jewish experiences. I have always envisioned my work as experiential, confluent, and a lot of other terms that have grown out John Dewey’s work. We have been shaping our materials to be used in groups, to be short and precise, and to defeat the reading out loud of long passages.

While I am anything but an expert, defining experiential education seems useful.

First, it is education, so it is connected to planned change. This is not that vicarious learning doesn’t happen in all learning environments, but education is by definition about backwards planning. It starts by defining outcomes and finding ways to hit that target.

Second, Experiential Education is active learning. Learning happens when students “do” something. The learning comes from the doing.

Aristotle said, “For the things we have to learn first before we can do them, we learn them best by doing them.” (Bynum, W.F. and Porter, R. eds. [2005], Oxford Dictionary of Scientific Quotations. Oxford University Press. 21:9.)

Third, the deep learning in Experiential Education is in the reflection on learning. It is when they verbalize the experiences they have had.

A non-educative experience is an experience where a person has not done any reflection… (Dewey, John. 1938. Experience and Education. Macmillian)

Experiential Books

Any book can be used experientially. That is just a question of adaption. But it is possible to create books that specifically create experiential moments. We play by these rules.

  • •  First we envision the experience(s) that will culminate the lesson or lesson segment.
  • •  We create the text needed (and only the text needed) to actualize that experience.
  • •  We figure out an experiential way of digesting that text piece (often a group task).
  • •  We then segue into the primary learning activity—making sure that reflection on that activity is part of the process.

The things to know are that textbooks are not the opposite of positive experience. They can indeed be tools that enable and actualize experiential learning. Materials that are shaped in reading level, focus, and length make their use in active learning easier.

Experiencing the Future

Here is the problem. We know that experiential education is a valuable resource for Jewish education. We know that there is a large conversation that involves talking about its application and techniques. We also know that the larger this conversation gets, the greater the chance that experiential education will be trivialized. Success comes with risks of sustainability as “everyone” begins to jump on the bandwagon. New ideas are subject to entropy.

What can we do? We can accept the inevitable. We can hold to best practices. And, we can integrate these tools into our on-going skill set. It can join values clarification, inquiry, open classrooms and a whole host of past innovations that no longer have the buzz, but are still integrated (in one way or another) into the way we teach.

There is a huge difference between a fad and an innovation that has a natural flow and ebb. Our job at the moment is to create the best practices, the important resources; the serious applications of experiential tools and not worry about the future. Education always winds up being about today’s practices. What we innovate now will become memories and history. Right now, we need to be careful about quality applications of Experiential Education and let the rest take care of itself.

By the way, you can still buy Cuisenaire rods.

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5 comments

  1. Dear Joel,
    I used wooden rods in second grade and loved them. I also know a little bit about curriculum and textbooks. First of all, they are not one and the same. Religious school teachers hopefully receive a written curriculum with goals and objectives, sample learning experiences and possibly sample lesson plans from their directors of education. Textbooks,and engaging learning experiences, support the curriculum goals and objectives. We are the People of the Book, of the text and of a great written tradition. Experiential education does not need to mean the abrogation of the text itself.
    It is there to support the curriculum and to make learning meaningful and memorable for students.

  2. I love this article!
    Thinking…the story of creation – first there was doing and then reflecting…it was good. Then came family education – Shabbat! Then came the ttm text (Torah, Talmud, and Mishnah) now it is up to us to repeat the story by doing, socializing and reflecting…

  3. While Gris and I agree on many things I want to push back on one of his core assumptions….

    “We are a company founded at camp and rooted in camp”

    While this might be true i want to be very clear that summer camp does not in and of itself equate to experiential Jewish education.

    I have traveled to many summer camps – and often I am able to observe and participate Jewish learning taking place. A group of campers sitting around a tree listening to a 45 minute shiur (lesson) on the weekly Torah reading. News flash! The tree does not maketh experiential Jewish education.

    Conversely I walked into a day school and I witnessed the most awesome simulation game that I ever experienced. Second newsflash – schools do not preclude experiential Jewish education from taking place.

    Experiential Jewish education is not a ‘hot topic.’ It is a grounded and principled philosophical and pedagogical approach to what good Jewish learning should be. It is not just about the setting (although the setting can definitely help)!

    I look forward to discuss this further with many of you on an upcoming webinar on “experiential Jewish education” coming soon to a computer near you! Stay tuned for further details…

  4. Thank you so much for this article, and your insights and suggestions! “Experiential education” and “camp atmosphere” are the hottest buzz words in Jewish education. I keep scratching my head–what does this mean? How is it different from other innovations that have been used successfully (some of which you mentioned).

    Thanks for opening a gate!

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