Learning, Doing, Being

Jewish Education and the Frontal Cortex Part II

Joel Lurie Grishaver

After I published by blog entry on Jewish Education and the frontal cortex, I got this e-mail:

Anyway…The six points at the end are a great articulation of what all of us believe, and have believed for a long time. (And it feels good to have neurology back us up.)

But that articulation depresses me, because it feels so big. I have 41 teachers. Maybe 6 of them can do those things.

(And that’s nothing new. Hebrew school teachers have always sucked. But now that neurology’s involved, it feels like I can’t help but notice just how much they suck.)

I have continued reading in the areas of Neuroscience, Cognitive Psychology, and education. I am presently working my way through a book, Mind, Brain, and Education: Neuroscience Implications for the Classroom, David A. Sousa, Editor.

Facing the Future

The Jewish education world has decided that “the drop-off Hebrew School” has failed and that we now need to build bold alternatives. One movement wants schools to become more like summer camps; the other movement believes that technology is the answer. Both movements agree that the future must be dramatic and must be now. I want schools to be camp-like. I want them to use technology, and I want them to sacred communities that are powerful and unlike anything else students experience elsewhere.

Evil Teachers

America has been blanked by No Child Left Behind, a legacy with of mercy left behind empowered, George Bush’s  educational change. Explaining No Child Left Behind, the website ed.gov says:

These systems must be based on challenging State standards in reading and mathematics, annual testing for all students in grades 3-8, and annual statewide progress objectives ensuring that all groups of students reach proficiency within 12 years.

Many educators, your blogger included, believe that a system based only on math and reading test, destroys learning. It creates a tense, narrow, test centered mess where little learning can take place. It also blames teachers for student failure and fails to give them much credit for success. But worst of all, it makes them teach the wrong things, in the wrong way, to students who have other needs. In short there is no setting left for a student just to write a poem.

…believes that students’ academic performance is solely a function of the quality of their teachers. If students have low test scores, it is their teachers’ fault, while students with high scores had great teachers. …social science research has demonstrated for many years that what families do, and the advantages or disadvantages that family income confers, have even more influence on academic performance than what teachers do. Poverty makes a difference: When children start school at age 5, before they ever meet a teacher, there is already a gap in their vocabulary and readiness to learn. (Diane Ravitich, The Washington Post)

If you want to understand how NCLB is destroying American Education read Diane Ravitich or “Obama’s War on School” in Newsweek.

If, secular teachers are being blamed for the failure of the American educational system and are having their dignity peeled away in the process, complementary school teachers don’t have a chance.


Which of the following is an easier change: (a) creating power-point with video for every lesson, (b) making sure that the classroom is free from stress.

A or B:

(a) Figuring out how to use Google Earth to teach about Natanya or (b) making your classroom a safe place.

(a) Running a five group simulation of the destruction of Jerusalem, or (b) making sure that the environment is confluent with the values being taught.

While we need to make changes in our school, a mean teacher using Skype [www.Skype.com] to tutor may save the family a round at carpool, but is still a mean teacher.

The truth is, neurologically sound pedagogy is easier to implement than radical technology or active experiential education—and those media still need to work with student brains to succeed.

The Short List:

Here are a few basic lessons from neuroscience for the classroom. These all should be steps that any of the 41 teachers can be guided towards.

a.  A sense of safety enhances learning. Stress inhibits it.

b. The schools culture impacts the learning outcomes.

c. Being “relevant” and teaching “meaning” and “context” helps to move things into short term then long term memory.

d. Real live people make a greater impact on learning than do video images. This validates the teacher, small groups, and classroom community.

e. Joy enhances learning. Success at learning releases dopamine that builds a sense of joy.

f. The brain has intact filters (RAS). Teaching in unexpected and new ways helps to get learning through the RAS. “A novel experience also has a great chance of becoming a long term memory.”

g. What makes computer games such engaging learning experiences is something labeled “achievable challenge.” We learn our lessons when our lessons are also based on achievable challenges.

h. Success based on taking risks also releases dopamine and increases pleasure.

i. Letting student move around increases the blood flow and learning.

j.  Frequent honest assessment builds the sense of success.

This is by no means an exhaustive list, just some of the things that caught my eye.

Basically, when it is all boiled down, we just have to stop offering bad classrooms. Our job is to lead all of our teachers to enable student success (dopamine). Bad classrooms have to be fixed. No matter what future we envision, the teachers have to stop sucking and that is our responsibility.