Sharpening the Message: Recommendations for Improving the Effectiveness of Religious Education in Yeshiva High Schools
Source: Lookstein Lookjed Archives
With the help of a fellowship generously provided by ATID, I took some time during a mid-career pause in my own work as an educator to ask two questions that I know plague other mechanchim as they have plagued me for the past few decades: How well are we accomplishing our tasks, and what can we do to improve? I determined that the current state of Modern Orthodox education – indeed of Modern Orthodoxy itself – can be described as a paradox: on the one hand, our efforts over the past few decades have been phenomenally successful, and at the same time there is so much that cries out for improvement. Both halves of that sentence are true and neither one negates the other.
Torah education has flourished in our communities. We have managed to give increasing numbers of people both the skills and the motivation to continue their formal Jewish education on a lifelong basis. Thousands of Jews of all ages and backgrounds, both male and female, currently participate in regular programs of Torah study, something that was once confined to the ivory towers of the batei midrash.
And yet, many teachers have been expressing increasing amounts of concern. Educators at the leading one-year programs in Israel report that a very high percentage of students entering their programs cannot read or understand a sentence in Biblical or Rabbinic Hebrew, and many even lack the skills to pronounce the words properly. Furthermore, although students are often able to repeat back information they have learned in school, teachers have registered an increasing lack of ability to analyze information or discuss it with any degree of sophistication. Much recent energy has been expended on understanding and addressing this enigmatic dichotomy. It has become popular to place the blame on certain features of contemporary culture, or on the ostensibly pernicious influences of the internet and related technologies, but few practical suggestions have emerged regarding how to confront the challenges.
Religiously as well, our communities have demonstrated extremely impressive growth, both quantitatively and qualitatively, over the past few decades. At the same time, however, Modern Orthodoxy is beset by many challenges. To put it bluntly, we are not holding on to all of our children. For example, anyone familiar with the situation on university campuses is aware of the alarming numbers of students from Orthodox homes who abandon religious observance there (often within a very short time)….
In practical terms, my proposal contains four specific recommendations:
- The first point is deceptively simple: every school must clarify the principles upon which it stands, and what its goals are for its students. This means that the school should have a clearly-defined religious education mission statement that contains at least three components: what the school hopes its students will know when they graduate, what it hopes they will believe and how it hopes they will act. The students should be very familiar with this mission statement. If we want our students to be transformed by their studies, the first step is to tell them that. Why do they spend so much of their day studying Torah? What do we hope they will take from this study? What do we expect from them? If we do not tell them, they may never know.
- What is true for a school overall is equally true for each classroom. It is not enough to simply teach the Torah texts and concepts; our students need to understand why they are learning particular material. Further, they must be given structured opportunities to integrate this material into their lives.
In practice, this means that, after ensuring that our staff understands and identifies with the mission statement we repeatedly share with our students, they must consider how to apply that vision in each of their own classrooms. This will probably require teachers to make some moderate adjustments in their teaching methods.
Different subjects must still be taught in different ways, and pedagogical styles will of course still vary. However, in every classroom the teacher should: (1) Address explicitly and regularly the belief that the study of Torah is a holy and spiritual act and that the material we learn is meant to profoundly impact on our lives; (2) apply those principles to the specific material studied in that class; and (3) guide students to spiritually process their learning in a way that is personally meaningful to them. Adoption of this model will require teacher training. Such training can take many forms: It could be a series of in-service days for the entire faculty, or more extensive courses of study or individual mentoring for teachers.
- Periodically, it’s important to evaluate the school’s curriculum and to make sure that we are teaching the most important subjects. In principle, every Torah subject can and should religiously inspire. Nonetheless, it behooves us to review our curricula and determine if the subjects we teach are the ones most critical to our students’ Jewish well-being. In the full version of this paper, I devoted several pages to some specific suggestions.
- Finally, the informal, affective part of the school’s educational program should be more closely integrated with the formal part. There are several different ways in which this can be done.
To start, the excitement generated at these programs can be channeled back into the classroom, by explicitly addressing the imperative to not only care, feel and do, but also to learn. The religious and spiritual value of learning Torah, as well as the values of a religious lifestyle, can be the subjects of inspirational speeches and interactive programming. At some point during these programs, someone should speak about the daily classes the students attend, and how those classes serve as spiritual and religious opportunities.
Additionally, the topics of informal education can be coordinated with the academic curriculum, in order to address the same subjects from different angles. By doing so, as we build emotional and social support structures to help our students maintain their religious lifestyles, we can infuse these with intellectual content and a sense of purpose. This will better equip them to withstand the pressures to drop their affiliations, and will also help them develop deeper and more genuine religious personalities.
Read the author's complete article at the Lookjed Archives.
The author has published a more detailed discussion of his research findings and recommendations in pamphlet form, which can be downloaded from the ATID website. He hopes that his ideas will succeed in beginning a conversation on this important topic.