Tuesday, December 3, 2013

What's next Rabbi Wallerstein? by Allan Katz

Guest post by   Allan Katz
The centrality of Torah study and learning is expressed by Ya'akov's decision to send Yehudah to establish a Beis Hamedrash – a house of learning in Egypt, ahead of the family. It is no wonder that a talk by Rabbi  Wallerstein on Jewish education in the USA aroused so much interest. He said that competition, tests,grades and  homework and that different parts of Torah learning are considered as ' subjects ' and separate disciplines were responsible for kids not accessing and becoming excited about the beauty of the Torah. However there was one big omission in his talk  – how schools handle discipline problems. Many kids are falling through the cracks and are becoming  Lost at School  because of a punitive approach to discipline. Discipline only got a mention in passing  when he said that his father was a marine and he believed that kids should get consequences ( a euphemism for punishments). The question people are asking – what's next Rabbi Wallerstein ?

I am not going to discuss the negative impact on ALL kids, not only the academically weaker ones of competition,tests, grades and homework. I recommend reading the article by Dr Benzion Sorotzkin The Dangers of Rewards and Competition and listening to a short Radio interview of Alfie Kohn on awards and grades He  also briefly discusses the alternatives.
Here are some guidelines from Alfie Kohn  based on the best practices of progressive schools, education in Finland and the discipline code being implemented in many schools in the USA and especially in Maine, created by Ross Greene - Collaborative problem solving model  Here, unlike kids at traditional schools who find no value in the learning itself and only study to get a good grade, kids enjoy learning, find value in the learning and are intrinsically motivated to learn.

The Major problem with traditional schools is the learning is driven by extrinsic motivation. The belief  that 'lo lishmah' – extrinsic motivation automatically leads to kids learning 'lishmah -enjoying what they learn, and seeing the value and beauty in it does not help. Discipline is maintained also through ' extrinsic motivation' –' doing to' kids with rewards, punishments and consequences teaching kids to ask ' what will I get ' or 'what will be done to me ' and what's in it for me. Consequences don't help a kid reflect on what type of person I want to be, do my actions reflect my values or how they impact- the consequences  on others.

The more focused we are on kids' 'behaviors', the more we end up missing the kids themselves – along with their needs, their lagging skills, motives , reasons or any problems that underlie their actions. Instead of discipline, solve problems in a collaborative way, ' working with kids'. In this way we teach lagging skills, solve problems in a durable way, and  enhance the trust and relationship between the teacher and kid . We also  give the kid the space to engage in an autonomous way in the moral act of restitution and making amends. We help the kid to do  Teshuvah  and  give him a vision for the future .

Assessment  - What replaces Grades and Tests
The more kids are led to focus on how WELL   they are doing in school , the less engaged they will tend to be with WHAT they are doing in school . So for sure they will miss out on the beauty, enjoyment and the intrinsic value of their learning. If the focus is on achievement and performance, rather than the process of learning , then the learning is not about understanding and discovery. Joe Bower said that assessment is not a rubric but a conversation. The kid needs feedback which will improve his learning and a discussion how to go forward.

Jerome Bruner once said that we should try to create an environment where students can  experience   success and failure not as reward and punishment but as information. So Rabbi Wallerstein  is going in the right direction when he recommends a conversation with a kid on a test he brought home. The conversation is in learning, not about grades. But he gets it wrong by talking about 'achievement ' – the positive .Kids need to be taught that mistakes are our friends.We don't make progress in Torah and learning unless we fail. 'Lo omdim ul divrei Torah ud she nechshalim bahem.'  There is no positive or negative.

The best evidence we have of whether we are succeeding as educators comes from observing children's learning rather than from test scores or grades. A teacher said that' I assess my students by looking at their work, by talking with them, by making informal observations on the way. I don't need any means of appraisal outside of my observations and the student's work, which is demonstration enough of their thinking, their growth, their knowledge and their attitudes over time.' It also comes from watching to see whether they continue arguing animatedly about an issue raised in class after the class is over, whether they come home chattering about something they discovered in school, whether they read on their own time. Where interest is sparked, skills are usually acquired. Of course, interest is difficult to quantify, but the solution is not to return to more conventional measuring methods; it is to acknowledge the limits of measurement. The best way to see a kid's progress in Gemorah is by the questions he asks and that we can't test or measure.

A kid can demonstrate his learning through projects, designing experiments for a science fair, writing a play and then giving a performance, making a 'movie' on what is being studied. A student can share and reflect on his work by using a 'portfolio'.

 Since the research says there are no academic benefits for homework for kids below 15 and only negative effects on the love for learning, the default should be no homework unless the homework is really deemed beneficial to kids.

Deborah Meir said that teaching is mostly listening and learning is mostly talking. So kids should do more of the talking than the teachers, and that depends on the how the teacher has managed to engage the kids' interest in the topic and their excitement about learning in general.  Learning should be organized around problems, projects and questions, especially students' questions – not around text books, lists of facts or skills or separate disciplines. Learning becomes multi-disciplinary with all areas of learning connecting to each other.

The 3 C's of  Intrinsic Motivation
When the needs of kids for autonomy, competence and relatedness are supported and kids find meaning and purpose in what they are doing , they become self- determined and intrinsically motivated 

Collaboration- students are connected to their peers within a safe and supportive community of learners ,see their peers as ' learning resources' , and learning is cooperative ( chavrusa) not competitive
Choice – student autonomy is supported by inviting kids to participate in decisions about what they are learning and classroom life. Kids learn to be responsible and make good decisions by making decisions and not by following instructions.
Content – the curriculum should be meaningful, engaging and relevant so sparks student interest and curiosity.
Change is best when done slowly and in a cooperative way. Principals, teachers and parents should always have their long term goals for their kids in mind. If we want to raise G-d fearing kids who are caring and responsible, have a love for learning and feel unconditionally accepted and loved by adults in their lives , we have to help kids focus on WHAT they are doing and not HOW WELL they are doing. In this way they will see the beauty of the Torah and take 'ownership' of their learning.


  1. This is an amazing comprehensive and well thought out article that also happens to be full of bovine excrement.
    General education (which some sinful Jews still do get) is not only about knowledge but about preparing for the real world. In the real world employers expect you to show up on time. They expect you to do your best 100% of the time. They expect success 100% of the time. They don't coddle, they don't give second chances. They dock pay, they suspend and they fire if their expectations are not met.
    Is it any wonder that the world's most successful economies are run by people who come from school systems where excellence is defined and demanded as opposed to minor countries like Finland which, despite 11 months of winter a year can't even field a winning hockey team?
    To recall Bill Gates' 11 rules of success, the world doesn't care about your self esteem. It cares about whether or not you have the skills and knowledge to do the job. Rav Moshe,zt"l, wasn't Rav Moshe because his teachers clapped every time he showed up for class and told him how wonderful he was, he was Rav Moshe because he was pushed and drove himself to excellence.

  2. The Torah commands a father to teach a son. That is private schooling. Once you combine people with different abilities and different interests, what one teacher can teach them without boring most of them most of the time? If we make classes for smart kids and classes for the other kind, we have war from bitter parents and humiliate many children. The solution is to prepare a class whereby children are constantly working on their own and little input is needed from the teacher. Children who need to memorize and practice doing examples and write letters surely can proceed on their own with a minimum of clash. But when we have someone who has to speak and put most of the class to sleep, how do we succeed?

  3. ok article. but it's not at all about the main focus of wallerstein's drasha.

  4. Economic success , test scores and school systems
    There is no connection , it is a myth and Asian school kids are great test takers lack creativity and an intrinsic love for learning
    Is the state of a nation’s economy meaningfully affected by the test scores of students in that nation? Various strands of evidence have converged to suggest that the answer is no. For individual students, school achievement is only weakly related to subsequent workplace performance. And for nations, there’s little correlation between average test scores and economic vigor, even if you try to connect scores during one period with the economy some years later (when that cohort of students has grown up).[6]- Keith Baker, Gerald Bracey Moreover, Yong Zhao has shown that “PISA scores in reading, math, and sciences are negatively correlated with entrepreneurship indicators in almost every category at statistically significant levels.”[7] So this debunks the myth that test scores drive economic success.

  5. Finland vs Asian schooling system
    I was unaware that some readers , don't know that since 2001 Finland has become a mecca of education pilgrimage. The Finnish education paradox is they have done consistently well on the PISA tests despite not preparing kids for them, spending less hours at school and parents not paying for tutors. They have succeeded because kids are given a love for learning. They achieve excellence through equity , meaning that all kids have a chance to succeed and the achievement gap is very small. The high scoring Asian countries focus on testing, drill and skill, and parents spend a lot of money on tutors so their kids become excellent test takers but at a cost. The system is killing creativity and the intrinsic motivation to learn. This has led to Asian governments to make changes in education policy. The Asian parents who can afford it are opting out of their so-called high performing schools and sending their kids to western schools so that they will get an education and not just be good ' test-takers'. Excellence has more to do with creativity and constructing modern knowledge than taking a test. Rav Moshe succeeded because his drive was fuelled by a love for learning. He was intrinsically motivated – Asian kids are not. Evidence of excellence in learning is not being a good test –taker. Asian kids don't have a love for learning, they can read well but they don't want to read.
    Far from coddling kids, progressive education is far more demanding and less predictable than the traditional system. The introduction of a non- traditional science program led a student to exclaim' We see what this is all about now , you are trying to get us to think and learn for ourselves – well we don't want to do that. It is about kids taking ownership for their learning and becoming life long learners.

  6. Imho- Frum Jews appreciate and can identify with constructivist educational principles as they are very similar to a Torah approach. Nel Noddings, professor emerita at Stanford University, “the main aim of education should be to produce competent, caring, loving, and lovable people.” John Dewey reminded us that the goal of education is more education. Education…is a process of living and not a preparation for future living. Education is not a preparation for life but life itself. To be well-educated, then, is to have the desire as well as the means to make sure that learning never ends. The Torah is our life, learning Torah is not a preparation for life but life itself. So I am surprised when the purpose of education is defined as knowledge and preparation for life = hold a job and follow instructions. It is a Torah education which teaches thinking and communication. So what skills do kids need in the real world – to be good test takers or be deep thinkers. being concerned only with achievement or the process. Deep thinkers are usually not good test takers. Kids need to be able to work with others and collaborate in solving problems etc. check out Dan Pink –The learn to make good decisions by making decisions .The last person I would get advice on education is Bill Gates. Together with the politicians who are clueless about education he is responsible what people like Dianne Ravitch call the dark ages of American education – using high stakes standardized testing to reduce learning to a ' number' - a business man understands data and numbers – so if scores go up – that's good. and it makes no difference if education becomes all about test –prep and schools become a beit haroshet le'tzi'onim

  7. I did not talk directly about self esteem and certainly not about the teacher clapping when the kid comes to school – because a constructivist teacher won't even clap when the kid shows evidence of great learning. He will give feedback and engage in a conversation with the kid which will also focus on future learning and improvement. Bill Gates will give awards and clap when this happens. There are 2 types of self esteem – contingent self esteem which depends on the approval and acceptance by others which is usually conditional on the kid's behavior and grades and non contingent where a kid is accepted for who they are and not what they do. This helps them develop a deep sense of self worth. Praise itself, no matter if earned and rewards destroy ' self esteem'. As I said in the article kids should experience failure or success not as reward or punishment but as information. Grades and ' awards' like all rewards undermine the interest of kids in what they were doing.

  8. Imho – a brilliant quote from Judith Shapiro why a person should get a good education.

    “You want the inside of your head to be an interesting place to spend the rest of your life.”

  9. Fantastic commentary , Coincidentally if you are searching for a a form , We came across a template document here http://goo.gl/xSWLRn


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