A System of Discomfort

This post is by Ilana Horwitz, a PhD student in the Concentration in Education and Jewish Studies

This month, my colleagues, Matt, Jonah, and Ziva have written blogs in which they reflected on the notion of productive discomfort in Jewish education. Productive discomfort is essentially the idea that there is value in making students and teachers uncomfortable in order to promote students’ personal and intellectual growth. As Matt points out, when educational institutions become a market, there is no incentive to teach what customers would rather not know because it risks making them feel uncomfortable and potentially alienate them in the process. Jonah and Ziva thoughtfully explore what discomfort might look like in classes focusing on Israel education and Tanach study, respectively.

I would like to build on this theme by considering what productive discomfort might look like in the organizational framework (Cuban, 1984) that shapes the conditions under which teachers instruct students in supplementary schools (i.e., Hebrew, Sunday, religious schools that operate within synagogues).

It may be that the greatest obstacle to adaptive change in supplementary education is not a lack of creativity or ideas, but the inertia and appeal of what Tyack & Tobin (1994) refer to as the “grammar of schooling”— the regular structures and rules that organize the work of instruction. In public education, the grammar of schooling has remained remarkably stable in the face of reform efforts, and, as a result, public schools (and private schools, for that matter) look very much like they did in the early 1900s. One reason for that stability is that cultural beliefs about what “real school” looks like remain strong, so institutions maintain ceremonial categories and processes even when the alternative might yield better outcomes.

With respect to Jewish education, what are the prevailing cultural beliefs about what “real supplementary school” looks like? What kind of change might be possible before we make our stakeholders too uncomfortable?
Let’s imagine for a minute what some changes in the “grammar” of supplementary education might look like. What if supplementary school moved online? What if it uncoupled from synagogues? What if Jewish learning became organized around entire families instead of just children? What if Bar/Bat Mitzvah preparation was no longer linked to supplementary schools? What if Hebrew instruction was eliminated altogether? What if students were grouped by topic interest rather than by grade level? What we could eliminate school meetings on weekdays and replace them with regular weekend retreats?

Some of these might be worthy ideas. Others may not, but in each case, the hypothetical would stress the overall system. The deeper question is this: How much change and discomfort are students, parents, teachers, and synagogue directors, and other Jewish leaders willing to tolerate when it comes to the organizational framework of supplementary school?

I can imagine that these hypothetical changes might not sit well with many audiences. I can imagine the reluctance of congregational leaders, who rely on the supplementary schools for synagogue membership. I can imagine the reluctance of educators, who have been trained to work within a particular educational model in which they monitor and control students, assign tasks to them, and ensure that they accomplish them. I can imagine the reluctance of families, who reminisce about their own (ironically, often poor) experience in Hebrew school and appreciate its role in perpetuating tradition.

My point here is not to advocate for any of these changes in particular, but rather to suggest that the institutions that are part of the organizational framework of supplementary education,– including the parents, educators, students, and synagogue administrations — should embrace the discomfort involved with changing supplementary education.

  1 comment for “A System of Discomfort

  1. Dan
    April 3, 2014 at 1:08 pm

    I just came across your post.
    Your “what if” list sounds a lot like the nitzan.org supplemental programs. I’m involved with moedcommunity.org If you want to study programs instead of focusing on hypotheticals, come and visit!

    What if supplementary school moved online?
    At least for MoEd, community is a central focus. I could see older children and adults building real online communities, but I don’t see this as a strong approach for the earlier elementary grades.

    What if it uncoupled from synagogues?
    MoEd and other Nitzan programs are uncoupled from synagogues. MoEd rents space in a synagogue and has a healthy relationship, but attracts children from multiple synagogues and who are unaffiliated. I’ll note this also goes back to the older community Talmud Torah approach and it’s not that novel.

    What if Jewish learning became organized around entire families instead of just children?
    We have some plans in this area, but it isn’t a focus for MoEd. Also, speaking as a parent, there are times I want to learn as a family and times I need to do something else while my kids learn. My synagogue has some great family learning events, but there are logical issues to making everything a family learning event.

    What if Bar/Bat Mitzvah preparation was no longer linked to supplementary schools?
    MoEd isn’t touching b’nai mitzvah prep (our kids are from too many different backgrounds!) Also, most of the synagogues I’ve been involved with don’t focus there either. They teach basic synagogue skills, but learning a haftorah etc is usually outsourced to private tutoring.

    What if Hebrew instruction was eliminated altogether?
    Other Nitzan programs have other focuses, but MoEd decided that a 4-5 day/week activity-based program is ideal for language acquisition. Our staff is all native Hebrew speakers. We aren’t focusing on prayer as much as other supplemental schools in our area.

    What if students were grouped by topic interest rather than by grade level?
    I think all Nitzan programs have multi-grade classes (partially out of necessity and partially because that nurtures a community). MoEd has times in the day where everyone is together and time where kids can chose something that interests them.

    What we could eliminate school meetings on weekdays and replace them with regular weekend retreats?
    This seems part of the “make school into Summer camp” model. We’ve decided that regular, fun meetings has a bigger benefit than infrequent big events. That said, MoEd and some other Nitzan programs have full-day programs when schools are closed are also branching out into Summer day camps. I don’t see why an educational program needs to chose between regular meetings and less frequent immersive events!

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