Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The 3 R's: Rigor, Relationships & Relevance

Last month, at CAJE, I had the opportunity to participate in two learning sessions with Marc Kay, an educator from the Detroit, Michigan area. Marc has taught in the following settings: day school, supplemental school, youth group, and is currently a secular high school English teacher. He brought a wealth of practical experience, as well as research-based findings, to his workshops.

The title of one of his workshops was “Jewish Education in the 21st Century: Relevancy and Rigor in the Classroom.”

Honesty compels me to admit that my initial reaction to the word “rigor” is to flinch: the connotation for me usually implies a lot of jargon that ends up meaning, “teaching to the test,” “college-credit for high school work,” and “how much can we cover in how short a period of time.” In fairness, my Merriam-Webster defines it as “a strict precision or exactness” – a values-neutral definition.

By adding “relationships” and “relevance” to “rigor”, Marc changed the equation.

“The primary aim of all education is not to enable students to do well in schools or colleges, but to help them do well in the lives they lead outside of the schools and colleges,” he explained. He went on to say, “This theory applies to our hope to how our students apply their Judaic education to becoming part of their greater Jewish community.” [emphasis added]

Marc debunked some of the false ideas of “learning” currently circulating:

  • finishing a textbook means achievement
  • listening to a lecture means understanding
  • getting high test scores means proficiency

Instead, he identifies the roots of learning as containing the following:

  • meaning, not just memory
  • engagement, not just transmission
  • inquiry, not just compliance
  • exploration, not just acquisition
  • personalization, not just uniformity
  • collaboration, not just competition
  • trust, not fear

Too many students see education as something that happens to them, he adds. Seeing real-life applications of what they are learning and understanding how they learn and developing the ability to monitor their own learning progress changes that passive state to an active one.

Relationships between students and teachers are a key factor. Learners flourish if they know that they matter to someone. From my own experience as a parent and teacher of students with learning difficulties, I know that students are more willing to exert themselves and plow through their challenges when they know that their teacher cares about them and believes in them.

Relevance comes into play when students are able to understand how the information or skill has some relevance to their lives; when they are encouraged to grapple with their own understanding of what they are learning; and when they learn how to learn as a result of the process.

In a meditation on the blessing that precedes Torah study, Rabbi Leila Gal Berner comments on the Hebrew phrase l'asok b'dvrei torah:

The Hebrew words here do not say "to study Torah," but rather to "be engaged" or "to be busy with" the study of Torah. We study Torah not an an intellectual exercise alone. Rather, we understand our "engagement" with Torah more holistically, as an evey day, every moment activity. We also understand that to be fully "engaged" with Torah is to wrestle with Torah - to challenge our tradition while loving it, to question while celebrating it. (Kol Haneshamah: Shabbat Vehagim, JRF)

Ultimately, Marc believes that we need to adapt our lessons (and our approach, I might add) so that the students we interact with can answer the question, “So what?”

How many of my students this week can answer why the content we’re grappling with matters and what impact it will have on their lives?

Thanks, Marc!

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