More Effective “Personalization.”

Joel Lurie Grishaver

Joel Lurie GrishavI get this e-mail from Ira Wise that is titled: “Your Next Topic” with just a web address in the body of the e-mail. I worry that his e-dress book may have been hacked and the web page will be filled with worms, viruses and other nasty things. I shrug my shoulders and clicked on the site. It turned out to be a good story and the topic of this article.

Read it yourself. Here are the highlights. A just out of college student is hired by a school district to tutor a 15 year old kid who was kicked out of school for pulling a knife. The kid shows up for a while and they do some work. Then the kid stops showing up for a few days. The tutor left messages. The kid shows up again, with “A friend of mine was shot” as part of the apology. The kid knows no more detail. The tutor grabs the teachable moment. They meet in a library and he heads over to the newspaper racks. He shows the kid how to use a newspaper. The librarian jumps in and helps. They find the story that the friend was alive and in such-and-such hospital. The tutoring goes on for a few weeks and then the kid is transferred to a halfway house for youth at risk. Next the tutor learns that no one (because of mega-data) actually expected his kid to show up for the tutoring. He then goes on a rant about data based projections replacing actual people in a relationship.

The article ends,

 “In the hands of a marketer, personalized learning is sold as the answer to our educational problems. With more data, they want us to believe, we can get people the content that they need, just when they need it. The unspoken piece to this—and this is the subtext—is that a machine can do it better than a person…coming from a logical place–from a place where the actual words mean actual things—it is difficult to make the argument that greater personalized learning needs to occur with fewer persons involved in the process.” —Hebrew Hemlock

There is in much of Jewish education a false assumption. The rhetoric seems to suggest that anything that looks like a school can’t be good for “The Jews.” We are operating with a lot of options in our vision of the ideal. Schools can be camps, schools can be outdoor education, schools can be project based (without a teacher monopolizing the time) and schools can be media labs. After all, one YouTube video is worth ten lectures. What is completely forgotten is the Socratic dialogue. But, more on that later.

I like experiential education and project based learning and am now writing resources for them but I fear that many are calling for their use to limit the degree to which teachers can be in the loop. Both make students responsible for their own learning. Any teacher (or anything that has a binding) that claims to be the source of expert knowledge automatically reverts the “drop-off school” into its overall failure. The big secret here is that the parents and the critics of Jewish education don’t believe that there is actually any important Jewish knowledge or skills—only feeling and identification. More important is the assumption that teachers only make things worse, they can’t make it better.

My Friend Danny Siegelonce wrote:

Psalm 55

Happy are we whose synagogue is small

because we love each Jew

because we have to

because we do

Happy are our children

who sit in sixes and fours

learning Torah

with the Rabbi

for he knows them well enough

to know them…

Happy are we whose home is a shul

and whose temple is a home.

Temple as Home

First of all, I dare anyone to find this poem on-line. Not everything is on the internet—though we like to think so. Second, contrary to the myth, no Hebrew school teacher lectures. What they do well—or poorly—is Socratic dialogue. They ask questions. Listen to answers. If they are good teachers—they then check out their understanding, what they heard, with the student—and then they reflect, comment and ask the next question. This is dialog—I-Thou, not monolog—I-it

Conversation, good conversation—that respects, honors, and utilizes student understandings—lets the teachers (someone representing the synagogue) “know them well enough to know them.” In our modern universe where learning is remote or done in small groups, we’ve minimalized the damage teachers can do by never letting them actually know the kids.

Third, it is interesting how we lift (and don’t lift) from secular education. The December/January issue of Educational Leadership is called “Getting Students to Mastery.” Secular schools are busy trying to up their test scores, not becoming summer camps. Mastery is a major topic in secular education. Few Jewish schools want standardized test scores by which their work can be evaluated. And I, for the record, don’t believe in any way in the process of standardized tests for evaluation. This (because of “the core” has become the essence of both public education and “pay-as-you-go,” “ drop-off,” private schooling. I wonder why all the “country days” are never labeled “drop-off” schools (the way that Hebrew schools are).

A leading technology used by “real” schools is also something in which most of us take little interest—the flipped classroom. This is where teachers record their lectures on videos which students watch at home–providing expert knowledge—and then brings what used to be “homework” into the classroom. This lets the teacher help students with the practice and grow their understanding with hands-on activities. I can only guess that out-of-school-preparation time and the concept of “homework” have kept away Jewish interest away.

For the record, we are presently posting Torah-Toons on YouTube, and preparing a flipped classroom guide to using it experientially in the classroom. We’ll see if we can talk schools into talking parents into family co-viewing, and doing actual experiential ed. in the classroom.

So here is the bottom line. Technology will provide some of its promise; no innovation ever provides everything it promises. But the old standards: community, adult interest, friendships, and the mastery of material that has practical application—still have important jobs to do in the process of Jewish identification. We are working in a universe with new physics and new rules that have to be honored. We are not going to be adding contact hours in any foreseeable future. And, nothing is going to beat the addition of the holy trinity: summer camp, youth group, and Israel trips. BUT, Jewish schools still have important roles to play—especially in “personalization.” We need to let our teachers “know them well enough to know them.”