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.

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