Self-Paced, Point & Click: The Jewish Problem with Programmed Instruction

by Joel Lurie Grishaver

Programmed Instruction

There is a growing fantasy in Jewish education that everything will be better if we only take the teacher out of the equation. This is manifesting itself in the claim that low level computer exercises can replace a day a week of Jewish learning. And it is leading to tools like self-checking folders that students work their way through at their own pace. What all of these hold in common is a reliance on an old education technique, programmed instruction, which was used mainly for industrial training and has mainly shown itself to be a failure in general education.

Programmed instruction grew out of the work of B.F. Skinner, the behaviorist who believed that learning was conditioning. In rewarding students who get the right answer, students become conditioned to repeat that answer. Programmed instruction sends students through a series of frames where they (a) receive information, (b) are asked about that information, and (c) are shown the correct answer. In more sophisticated forms, there is now a “branching” opportunity. If the student got the answer right, they move on to the next frame. If they get it wrong, they are put into a review loop.

The good news seems to be (a) the ability of each student to move at his/her own pace, (b) a high rate of retention (at least in the short term), and (c) the freeing of the class from the imposition of a teaching doing bad “frontal” education. But most of the advocates of programmed instruction, whether in software or folders, seem to forget three things:

1. Levels of Learning

Benjamin Bloom, one of my teachers, wrote a big book with J. Thomas Hastings and George F. Madaus called Handbook on Formative and Summative Evaluation of Student Learning. In it is a taxonomy of educational objectives that describes a series of “levels” of learning. In the cognitive domain there are six: Knowledge, Comprehension, Application, Analysis, Synthesis, and Evaluation. The problem is simple. Jewish life and real Jewish learning is all about Analysis, Synthesis, and Evaluation, the higher levels. Programmed Instruction is best for Knowledge, Comprehension and Application, the lower three levels.

There is also a taxonomy of affective objectives: Receiving (or Awareness), Responding, Valuing, Organization, and Characterization by a value or value complex. These affective objectives (usually called “Krathwohl’s Taxonomy”) are all about a process called “internalization,” whereby a student’s affect towards something goes from being aware (that’s the “receiving” part) all the way to the point where their affect has been internalized and consistently guides or controls the person’s behavior. It’s the path between knowing that kavod is a Jewish value and going through life treating people with kavod. Programmed Instruction can get you to Awareness, but it is not great at getting to the rest of the domain. Jewish education should be all about valuing and the rest of that process.

The argument can be made that Programmed Instruction is mainly being used to teach Hebrew language. That Alef Bet is only Alef Bet is partially true. But Alef Bet leads to Ashrei and Ashrei is supposed to build a connection to God. While learning folders with self-checking and computer programs may have a role in mechanical learning, they are incapable of taking it any further. When do you feel close to God? What is the right thing to do in this case? What do you think of when you say the Shema? These are all moments of Jewish learning that are simply not part of a computer’s function.

2. Community

The purpose of Bar and Bat Mitzvah is to acknowledge that a child is now old enough to function as an adult in the ritual life of the Jewish people. Reading Torah is a symbol that a child can now function as a member of the community. A new adult can now be counted in a minyan. Most importantly, this means that a new adult is old enough to go to a shiva house and be counted among those whose responsibility it is to help heal the pain of death. If we are going to turn our schools into B’nai Mitzvah mills, we could do worse than if they included the skills of participating in Jewish communal life and learning compassion and empathy. Those are not things that come from the kind of computer programs we have and are likely to have in the foreseeable future. They are the inverse of things learned when each student is moving at his or her own pace.

Tolerance is one of the things that one learns from being part of a learning community. So is patience, leadership, and being a good listener. The best way to learn how to participate in community life is practice. It is not an accident that Jews pray in community and demand community for most Jewish events. Studying prayer at home on the computer is not the best way to learn about community. Working alone at your own folder, checking your own answers, doesn’t develop leadership skills.

3. Teachers

Finally, the Jewish tradition believes in teachers. It sees teachers as rich (not mechanical) enablers of individualization and personalization. Teachers allow lessons to go off on tangents, listen to student needs, and take advantage of the moment. Teachers can appreciate and celebrate, understand and empathize. A teacher-free classroom can maybe transmit Jewish information, but it is not a Jewish classroom. The modeling of the Jewish classroom as Jewish learning community, the enabling of the community by a person manifesting and applying Jewish values – this is our goal. I know of no one who can claim that their best learning moment took place when completing a self-guided booklet. Not every teacher is ideal, but teachers are our ideal.

Every teaching tool that is effective has its time and purpose. Programmed instruction and computer-assisted instruction are tools that have their time and place. But ironically, as we have less time to spend together with our students, now is precisely the time for more student-teacher interaction, not less. As we are trying to teach the skills of communal worship, now is precisely not the time to invite our students to learn Hebrew from computer screens. When we are trying to instruct our students to maximize their humanity and use it to change the world, now is precisely the time to make human interaction a foundational value of Jewish education. The elimination of the human in education is a step backwards.

Steps Forward

At Torah Aura Productions, we are dedicated to producing curricular materials that realize a depth of understanding rather than focusing only on facts and feelings. That means that we also must be active partners with teachers and educators to maximize the Jewish educational impact on their students.

Programmed instruction is perfectly useful if the goal is to develop students who can perform at a one-time event. We’re encouraging a different goal: students who are lifelong Jews. Our mission is to make materials that help teachers and educators to enable their students to become empowered Jewish adults.

We believe in doing what it takes to develop good teachers who can actualize impactful Jewish learning. That may be more difficult than asking teachers to facilitate programmed instruction in booklets or on computer screens, but it’s a worthwhile endeavor. Human interaction is the key to the Jewish future. And because we believe in humanity, we believe that Jewish schools can succeed at doing something bigger, better and worthwhile.