Sunday, July 3, 2011

Immaturity is the Common Denominator

     The following is a guest post from Micah Lapidus, Director of Judaic and Hebrew Studies at The Alfred and Adele Davis Academy in Atlanta, GA. Lapidus has two blogs, Jewish Education 21C and The Rabbi's Pen. He's on Twitter at rabmlapidus. Lapidus is eager to make new "friends" and connect with reflective Jewish educators of all stripes: 

     Too often, when it comes to education, we think of the processes whereby children acquire the skills and dispositions necessary to be successful adults. This is particularly true when it comes to 21C. Take, for example, the concept of "media literacy": we want kids to learn to evaluate the legitimacy of various forms of information such as websites, master various user-generated platforms like wikis, blogs, and facebook, and be mature/responsible users of technology. If only most adults fit this bill! The AASL (American Association of School Librarians) Standards for the 21st Century Learner is a wonderful example of the massive expectations that are embedded in 21C learning standards. There's a name for a child who has even a basic mastery of the AASL's learning outcomes: "adult."       

     At the same time I believe we're fundamentally confused about what constitutes maturity in 21C. Consider the ascendancy of the Digital Native (Prensky, 2001) which brings with it a significant reversal: children are characterized as being more advanced, savvy, and technologically mature, then their teachers and parents (i.e. all the Digital Immigrants). One of the fascinating outcomes of the 21C buzz is that it challenges educators to think anew about the needs, interests, dispositions, habits, and desires of children. The irony is that when many educators think about children they envision the Digital Native who is, at least in theory, more mature than they are.      

     21C and the "generation gap" have led to a measure of confusion between "adults" and "children." We want children to behave like adults, and yet we've positioned adults as inferior and less mature than children. As 21C educators strive to engage children and help them to become more mature users of technology, there's a countercurrent which suggests that children are more mature and advanced than their teachers and parents.       I believe that John Dewey offers us a way of resolving much of this confusion. Rather than Digital Natives/ Digital Immigrants or a vision of education that aspires to morph children into skilled adults, we can consider Dewey's concept of "immaturity" found inDemocracy and Education, chapter 4. For Dewey, immaturity is the capacity to grow. Immaturity is not a condition to be overcome, but to be perpetually redefined; as we grow, new avenues of growth become available to us. We learn and grow only to again be immature.     

      Immaturity is a concept that unites children and adults rather than dividing us: we're all immature in different ways (meaning: we all have the capacity to grow). It's an idea that helps education move beyond a paternalistic desire to make children into successful adults. It's an idea that saves adults from feeling that they need to bow at the feet of the Digital Native. Immaturity forces us all to look at proximal growth opportunities-- it forces us to look at "now." To come full circle, immaturity reminds us that each person has specific learning tasks that we, and only we, can complete.     

      In Judaism, the most important mitzvah is the next mitzvah. Immaturity is an idea particularly well-suited for Jewish Education which perpetually emphasizes continual growth. Imagine a 21C Jewish educational environment where everyone is learning, where everyone embraces their incompleteness. Such an environment would be truly authentic and inspiring, it would be mutually supportive and collaborative. Much is gained in Jewish education through Dewey's concept of "immaturity" as learning becomes active, personal, relevant, and normalized. It might even be argued that immaturity is a necessary characteristic for Jewish education to go 21C.   

Monday, June 13, 2011

An Atypical Religious School Educator

Barb Heller is not your typical religious school educator. A singer/voiceover artist/ actress, Barb devotes much of her energy to teaching kids how to utilize the arts, including dance, drama and theater to grow holistically and connect to Judaism. She founded a workshop, Page to Stage Performers, and a camp, Kids Express Performing Arts Camp, to enrich Jewish youth’s through the integration of speech, meditation, Jewish studies, acting and song.

This past year, Barb engaged in a new experiment, the New School for Jewish Identity, a dynamic after-school program to enrich students in Jewish learning through the arts, with a focus on accessing student’s affective and creative strengths.

While this program has been featured as part of the Los Angeles Federation’s Next Big Jewish Idea, the program was unable to secure funding to operate for another year.

As a community, how do we continue to support experimentation in educating Jewish youth not currently engaged in Jewish day school education? How do we continue to support innovative and creative educators, such as Barb Heller?

To understand Barb’s experience working within this unique religious school model, we must hearken to her own works as she expresses her feelings of joy for what she has accomplished and concerns for continuing this critical work in the future:

"It is with a heavy heart that I share the following news, 
Sorry kids, we won't have this after-school program next year." 


"Is that how I should start out my end of the school year speech?"  I think late one Sunday evening as I start to think about how I'll end the last class of our "Ground-Breaking, dynamic, after-school Jewish Learning Pilot Program".  

Maybe I should just level with them, "Its not your fault. Its a lack of funds."  No, they won't get that.  Some of these kids were tossed out of their former Jewish Learning Institutions because of their learning differences.  Some voluntarily left because their Academic Subjects weren't challenging enough.
Most just left because their parents didn't have an extra $18k to spend on their kids' education.  They don't wanna hear about money.  They didn't ask for this situation.  They just wanted a place to feel proud to be Jewish and not have to hide it from the other kids at school.  

How can I put into words how exciting it was this year to start out in October with a handful of kids, end in June with double the amount, and meanwhile have most of the kids ask me weekly, "Can we have this program every day after school and not just two afternoons a week?"

Maybe I should just talk about the hardest day so far at the school, the moment when one of our third graders said to me after our Pesach, "Zar" meditation when I posed the question, "What makes you feel stuck in your life right now?" And his answer was, "Going to a non-Jewish school."

Maybe that was the moment when I began to think that perhaps our school wasn't the right solution to the over-arching Jewish Education Problem in our community.  Perhaps the solution was not to create more after-school programs that cater to kids dropping out of Day School, but to try to make it more affordable in every way for Jewish kids to be immersed in Jewish Day Schools.

Or, maybe I should just talk about how our students did prove my hope-filled theory that being able to bring singing, dancing, writing plays, poetry, drawing and doing pantomimes with our parshyot and chagim actually did make it more meaningful for all grade levels and observance levels.  Maybe I should thank these kids for inspiring me and helping me to see Jewish learning in a different way and for helping me to bring inspiration back into the after-school Jewish learning space.  

When I approached my Supervisor, Cecelie Wizenfeld, back in August of last year about this project, we both had the right kind of wonder stardust for it. Rabbi Elias of Congregation Mogen David was thankfully, so supportive, and within weeks we had our business cards made, poster up outside the building, and kids at desks on Tuesday and Wednesday afternoons learning Hebrew Language, Torah, Tefillah, and Music.  

We started with the hope that these "Day School Drop-outs" would find a safe space to grow Jewishly and feel supported.  I feel we accomplished this.  But what happens to them now?  Half of our kids are going back to day school, the other half are either getting too old for our program and will hopefully find themselves at NCSY for their new After-School HS Learning program, but the other few, where will they go?  How do I tell them that we can only continue operating if we get at least 3 x the amount of kids for next year and is this a worthwhile goal? Shouldn't we be fighting for that larger number of kids to be back in Day School?

This summer, I'll be attending an Educators Program at Pardes.  I hope to learn a bit more about the future of Jewish Education and what we can do for the kids who would prefer to go to Day School but just can't afford it right now. For this population is growing and there must be a way to help them quench their thirst for Jewish Learning and personal growth.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Shavuot as Experiential Education

Shavuot: A Commemoration of Experiential Education

Shavuot: Celebrating Experiential Education


The discussion of experiential education within Jewish education has evolved over the past decade thanks to the work of Barry Chazan, Joseph Reimer, David Bryfman and others.  Foundations, such as Avi Chai, seek to support research, experimentation and implementation of experiential education in Jewish schools and programs. Even more recently, academic institutions have embraced training and studying experiential education in Jewish educational settings through graduate and certificate programs at Yeshiva University, Hebrew Union College, Jewish Theological Seminary, Hebrew College and Brandeis University. Yet despite the recent investment institutionally and academically in Jewish experiential education, the Jewish tradition bears witness to a commitment to experiential education as probably the oldest form of Jewish education.

The Association for Experiential Educators offers the following definition of experiential education:
Experiential education is a philosophy and methodology in which educators purposefully engage with learners in direct experience and focused reflection in order to increase knowledge, develop skills and clarify values.

In some forms, experiential education engages participants holistically, incorporating physical activity, while providing social and emotional challenges. The “teacher” serves as an active learning alongside the learning, facilitating the engagement and providing structure and goals for the experience. The “student” functions as a fully active participant who shapes their experiences in constructing a learned understanding.

During the holiday of Shavuot, amongst a variety of celebrations, we commemorate the experience of revelation at Sinai. This event serves to educate the Israelites experientially for how to live as a purposeful (covenantal) community in relationship to God, with the guidance and support of their “Rav” or teacher, Moshe. The experience itself bears the criteria of an experience designed, constructed and conducted to educate experientially.

Diana Silberman-Keller, in her article “Images of Time and Place in the Narrative of Nonformal Pedagogy” from the seminal book on informal education, Learning in Places, describes the critical importance of space and time in defining effective nonformal education.  Immediately, at the opening of the Sinai narrative, the text defines the time and space for this experience:

In the third month after the children of Israel were gone forth out of the land of Egypt, the same day came they into the wilderness of Sinai. And when they were departed from Rephidim, and were come to the wilderness of Sinai, they encamped in the wilderness; and there Israel encamped before the mount.  (Exodus, 19:1-2)

The teacher establishes specific goals for the experience:

Now therefore, if ye will hearken unto My voice indeed, and keep My covenant, then ye shall be Mine own treasure from among all peoples; for all the earth is Mine; and ye shall be unto Me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation. These are the words which thou shalt speak unto the children of Israel.

The teacher provides specific actions and structures to create active participation and safe boundaries:
And Moses went down from the mount unto the people, and sanctified the people; and they washed their garments. And he said unto the people: 'Be ready against the third day; come not near a woman.' And it came to pass on the third day, when it was morning, that there were thunder and lightning and a thick cloud upon the mount, and the voice of a horn exceeding loud; and all the people that were in the camp trembled. And Moses brought forth the people out of the camp to meet God; and they stood at the nether part of the mount.            

The experience itself creates wonder and eventfulness:
Now mount Sinai was altogether on smoke, because the LORD descended upon it in fire; and the smoke thereof ascended as the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mount quaked greatly. And when the voice of the horn waxed louder and louder Moses spoke, and God answered him by a voice.

The participants engage in reflection and reaction
And they said unto Moses: 'Speak thou with us, and we will hear; but let not God speak with us, lest we die.

According to Menachem Leibtag, citing the Ramban, the Israelites even engage in democratic negotiations twice with God throughout the process, although these conversations are read between the lines of the text.  Initially God was to have spoken exclusively through Moshe, but later God offers an alternative plan of direct revelation. According to many commentators, the Israelies later counter in the midst of the experience itself, and Moshe takes over for God in delivering the final eight of the dibrot. This reveals a direct engagement between the participants and the constructor of the experience, allow for the participants to have ownership and control over their learning, along with a degree of risk of failure.

Later on, the Israelites create their own experience with Moshe, without God’s direct involvment. During this encounter their seal their covenant to the Book and announce their response to this experiential learning process:
And he took the book of the covenant, and read in the hearing of the people; and they said: 'All that the LORD hath spoken will we do, and obey.'

The Hebrew Na’aseh V’Nishmah, literally mean “We will do, and we will listen”, but often the root of Nishma, Shma, can mean to understand. With this final statement, sealing the Jewish tradition to engage in action in order to develop understanding. Here we learn to “do first, understand later”.

On Shavuot, a relative new custom takes on the form of promoting experiential education in the Tikkun Leil Shavuot. The first night of Shavuot, before we read the Torah portion of this momentous experience at Sinai, Jews all over the world engage in communal study of Jewish texts and ideas. As the hour becomes late, and the suns starts to rise, the delirium of a night with no sleep (and too much junk food and caffeine, create a “high” that allows us to in some way recreate the euphoria of those early Israelites engaging experientially in the most awesome education of our people’s history.

Utilize this year’s Shavuot to reclaim for your whole year the power of the educational experience that the commemorative holiday of Shavuot imparts to us. Free yourself of your own educational boundaries to do and then understand.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Game ON for JewishEd Digital Games

Game On: The Time is Now for Jewish Game-based Learning

Back in 2001, Marc Prensky argued the changing nature of how children’s brains are being hardwired in the digital age demands a embrace of Digital Game-based Learning.  Ten years later the debate of game based learning rages on.  Even then, Prensky refrained:

Of course many criticize today’s learning games, and there is much to criticize. But if some of these games don’t produce learning it is not because they are games, or because the concept of “games-based learning” is faulty. It’s because those particular games are badly designed. There is a great deal of evidence that children’s learning games that are well designed to produce learning, and lots of it-by and while engaging kids.

Digital games offer considerable access point for learning. As students ever more increasingly engage in games with ever complexity, learning games utilize a familiar and comfortable medium to generate learning growth. Digital games occupy a culturally relevant tool that students identify as fun, while utilizing educational design element. The report, “Game Changer: Investing in Digital Play to Advance Children’s Learning and Health,” concludes that:

Digital games offer a promising and untapped opportunity to leverage children’s enthusiasm and to help transform learning in America.

The report found that digital games need to be tapped into as a vital medium and resource to promote meaningful learning, for they “have the potential to teach children rich content, critical academic skills for literacy and math learning, and the kinds of creative thinking and processes needed for later success” (Edweek, June 23, 2009). Utilizing games in a learning environment greatly improve the motivation for learning, along with 21st century skills, such as  time management, leadership, teamwork and creative problem solving (How Social Media and Game Mechanics Can Motivate Students).

While reaching and motivating student and developing critical 21st century skills is essential for 21st Century Jewish education, great challenges remain for utilizing this platform to enhance Jewish learning.  The most obvious being the costs for developing games, producing games of quality that will live up to the standard students are used to and securing game designers familiar with Judaism and Jewish education.  While much of the fervor for education games evolves out of a demand for being STEM learning, Rabbi Owen Gottleib argues that Jewish philanthropy needs to support the research, development and usage of video games to promote Jewish education, Jewish identity and Jewish community. 

Games provide a unique means of cultivate a social identity in an engaging and designed learning environment.  According to James Paul Gee, a leading writer and research games-based learning, Digital games are, at their heart, problem solving spaces that use continual learning and provide pathways to mastery through entertainment and pleasure. In his research article Learning and Games, Gee describes how games design operates with modern learning theory in the “Situated Learning Matrix”, where games place the player into a simulated, learning environment: a goal-driven problem space.  The Situated Learning Matrix includes: Identity, Goals and Norms, Tools and Technologies, Context as Problem Space, Content.

Gee develops a model that includes Games (social context) and games (software) but states that both are important for learning. In games where players utilize a first person avatar (Halo, World of Warcraft), they take on a specific identity, in terms of goals and norms stemming for their character’s social group. Gee defines learning as situated in experience, specifically driven by goals and identity-focused experience. These games stress the modeling of world with specific characteristics, in contrast to games played from a top-down view (The Sims, Command and Conquer). By providing a situated learning matrix with a modeled environment and a player’s micro-control over elements in the games system create a complex system of empathy and situated meaning.  Within a community of gamers, the players enters into to Game in order to collaborate with others, gain membership and build on prior knowledge through interaction and relationships with others.

Understanding how modern learning theory applies to elements of digital games, provides a clear picture of how Jewish education could benefit from games and Gaming.  Jewish education uniquely operates in a situated learning matrix design model in which identity development functions to full a goals-driven learning experience through tools, a problem solving space interacting with content new to the learning.  Utilizing games would not only support Jewish education’s vision for a learning experience, but also refine the model.

Jewish education needs to invest resources (designers, time, research, funding and experimentation) into developing the software (games) and social context (Games) for engaging Jewish learners in Jewish education.  Utilizing first person, strategy games and other video game models to develop key skills, relation to content and identity driven goals will offer Jewish educators a refined to that will engage learners, while developing key skills.

To do so will require great investment, patience and high standards for quality.  Yet imagine a first person video game that immerses a Jewish student in Jewish history to solve distinct problems, such as the Chanukkah narrative, Bar Kochba revolt or story of David. Open-ended video games provide a unique model for personal creative experience, in which students could build their own Jewish community, within different historical settings, while collaborating with others, and learning to study Jewish texts of different periods in order to best ascertain appropriate modeling for the game environment. 

Ravsak’s Moot Beit Din in the past, serves as a great offline model for a situated learning matrix engaging students in goals-driven study of text in order to engage in a community of learners in creating a specific content output.  Why not create a Moot Beit Din video game to create both a social context and design elements to develop student’s skills within a community of learning in a fun model.   

The tuly the possibilities are endless. What we need is inspired educators, gamers and funders to invest in gaming NOW. Games are not just another tool to superficially invest in, but in many ways the critical answer to creating cost-effective, dynamic and high engaging Jewish learning opportunities. Through gaming, Jewish educators can break down the walls of distinction between schooling locales, and immerse students at different levels in experience that customize to their game play.  For all the investments our institutions make it curriculum, programming and infrastructure, we need to direct ample amounts of resources to Research and development.   How will engaging in case studies based on Jewish texts impact students once they are immersed a world in which Jewish texts, values and living matter by design?  Through this, Jewish modeling would truly matter in the lives of Jewish youth.

Until now, we have only addressed how games-based learning can impact the players, but what about the gifted students who can be taught and mentored in games based design to become the leaders in this educational transformation? Why not a Jewish summer camp for designing games for Jewish learning? If kindergarteners can do it, why can't any Jewish kid?

If we close our eyes, and go beyond the cultural hubris we feel towards video games, are they not just a well designed form of Experiential Learning? If we can finally embrace in the 21st century experiential learning as a critical form of Jewish education, why not gaming?