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.