Sunday, September 22, 2013

The greatest issues in chinuch today?

Good moed!

I've been invited to speak at a program after Succos, on the greatest issues in chinuch [Jewish education] of our children today.

I am going to skip the perennial items of (1) Good teaching and (2) The tuition crisis, because they are obvious and because I don't have much to add on those. But here are five items I have thought of; I'd welcome additions or comments:

1. Taking advantage of our advantages
We possess many potential advantages for modern education, including advanced research in educational methodology, greater educational technology and social connectedness, a social break (relatively) from anti-Semitism (in North America), parents who are yeshiva-educated, and access to the State of Israel.
The results of making proper use of these developments could be fantastic - but if were to attempt it without real thought and research, we would lose precious time and money on unworthy, wasteful, education-damaging projects.

2. Time
This has been a perennial issue, due to our dual curriculum, the constant push for extra-curriculars, and the need for both parents to work full-time jobs, but it is worse today.
Today, our social connectedness means we all know of great programs running in other communities, and we feel pressured to imitate them, especially as that same connectedness means that the creators of those programs come market them to us.
Today, our children have resume pressure to take on outside activities.
Today, parents are aware of research that suggests kids need down time from their programmed lives.
The result is that children have gaps in basic areas of their Jewish education - halachah, tefillah, Jewish thought, Jewish history, gemara... and they form weaker relationships with their parents and mentors.
My own feeling is that we need a longer school day, and educational extra-curriculars for kids who would benefit.

3. Independent children
Our kids have lines of communication (email, IM, Facebook, cell phones, texting) that are not subject to parental permission. Those same lines of communication give them the ability to purchase whatever they want, without parental control.
The result can be poor relationships with parents and mentors, and undisciplined approaches to learning and life. To me, there is a need for parents and mentors to combat this not by trying to impose control [although I really believe that high school students don't need cell phones], but by building relationships with kids.

4. Sophisticated ignorance
Children generally migrate toward shallow and superficial presentations of information, because those are easier to grasp and they tend to sound good. Today, those presentations are all over - blog posts (like this one?), Wikipedia articles, chat room diatribes, and so on. It's everywhere, and reading it is often encouraged through school as teachers assign kids to read Wikipedia and similarly shallow resources, rather than wrestle with more complex material.
The result is that children become cynical, and they closed to real explanation and analysis. When it comes to Judaism, they read and absorb superficial on-line atheism, thinking that they have now learned it all.
To me, parents need to spend time with kids talking through the issues they learn about on-line, and helping them learn to think and analyze on a more serious level.

5. Lack of spirituality
Our culture prizes intellect over emotion (particularly in males). Add in the fathers who are yeshiva-educated and likely to pull out a sefer during davening, and the time pressure that causes people to give short shrift to tefillah, and kids don't see a whole lot of emotion in the religion of their role models. Combine this with the academic cynicism our children will encounter in their teenage years, and religion is in trouble.
My thought would be to help remedy this by having parents work on their own spirituality, and make it visible to their children.

That's my current list. What would you add/delete? What would you change?


  1. TEACH HEBREW as a usable, spoken, written etc language!!

  2. A lack of professionalism among administration and teachers. No one holds either party to a high enough standard and no one truly oversees what is taking place.

  3. Batya-
    Do you find that North American schools are deficient in this today? I ask because I've been impressed with the Hebrew abilities my kids have picked up in two very different schools. The Tal Am program, used with properly trained teachers, has been effective in establishing a base in spoken as well as textual Hebrew in lower grades, and teachers in later grades have built on it.

    I agree this is a great need, although my own experience has been that this is improving. I have seen a big change over the past 30 or so years.

  4. "they read and absorb superficial on-line atheism..."

    This comment isn't representative of your usual thoughtful exploration of issues, Rabbi, if I may make so bold as to say so. Not all atheism is superficial; not all atheism expressed online is superficial. Not all expressions of atheism by teenagers are passing fancies, picked up like the latest clothing fad and just as lightly discarded a short time later. By the same token, not all expressions of religious belief or sentiment, whether found online or otherwise, are deep and fully thought through.

    You, yourself, aren't likely to find any expression or defense of atheism persuasive. That's your absolute right, and I respect and honor the depth of your belief. But some people, even those who are teenagers brought up in sincerely and profoundly religious homes, come to equally sincere positions of atheism. I don't expect you to think they have made the right choice, but I think you do them a disservice by such flippant dismissal.

  5. Bratschegirl-
    I understand your response and I can see that I should have worded it more carefully - but all I meant is that they absorb superficial on-line atheism, not that all atheism expressed on-line (or anywhere) is superficial.
    How would you re-word the sentence to express that?

    1. I don't concede your point, though. Certainly, there exists what you describe as superficial online atheism. There is also atheism that is thoughtful and rigorously defined and defended. You seem to be saying that, when a teenager from your community begins to harbor doubts, it must be because of an encounter with the former. I'm just suggesting that that is not the only possibility.

    2. Or perhaps I'm misunderstanding you. If your question is, say, "why are some of our kids so easily swayed by encounters with even flimsy and superficial approaches to atheism?" then the answer might be that they have been insufficiently taught to evaluate whether they are being presented with an intellectually rigorous argument, and therefore are swept up by one that is passionate, even if on critical examination it is without substance.

    3. Bratschegirl- I don't think I'm saying either one. Rather, what I'm saying here is that our students are developing a sophisticated ignorance via their exposure to shallow material on-line, and this includes shallow challenges to Judaism.

    4. So let's stipulate, for the sake of the discussion, that it is as you say above. Do you think they don't recognize that the materials they are encountering are shallow? Or do they not care that they are shallow?

    5. Both, I think. Did you see Daniel's note below?

    6. I did. "older children should be taught how to assess the reliability and accuracy of information found online (and, indeed, in books) for themselves..." is pretty much what I meant above when I suggested that insufficient ability to determine whether an argument holds water might be playing a major role.

      The conundrum comes, of course, in the definition of what is a "reliable" source. Some adherents to any sort of small-o orthodoxy, whether the topic is religion or otherwise, will simply class anything coming from someone outside the fold as unreliable and/or inaccurate, and anything from inside as reliable and accurate, based not on the strength of the argument but on the conclusions reached. Whether or not this happens in your community I have no idea; but someone who has had that experience might, I think, be especially vulnerable to finding a contrary idea attractive simply because it comes from outside.

      [Let me know when I've reached the point of overstaying my welcome in this particular thread, if it isn't already behind me.]

    7. You haven't overstayed in the thread, but I'm not at all clear on why you would attribute such a position to me. I didn't voice it here, or anywhere, and I don't believe it. Indeed, you might take a look at my stance on biblical criticism just two posts back, as it is the same as my position on atheism: One might very well come to it through rational thought, I just think that it's incorrect.

    8. Wasn't asking based on the content of the conversation, only because it was starting to look like I was responsible for a lot of the real estate devoted to it and didn't want to hijack it altogether. Lest I be misunderstood, I really appreciate very much that you've never been anything but welcoming and patient with my comments. Shavua tov!

  6. Lack of knowledge of Tanakh and basic texts because of a rush to enter into Talmud prematurely.

  7. One problem we've run into as school leadership is a dearth of testable achievement standards. This is especially a problem for Hebrew language. Although I have also been impressed by my son's achievements through the Tel-Am program, it's impossible to compare our results to other schools or to an Israeli-equivalent grade level. As a school we've looked into this, and it seems that by-and-large the powers that be don't actually want to know (because they suspect that the outcomes are actually pretty terrible).

  8. Rabbis are not trained in philosophy and so cant answer questions. If they would know that then it would not be so bad. But they think they know what they do not know. and they come off sounding like idiots to anyone with the slightest background in philosophy.

  9. As a nearly-qualified librarian point 4, in a wide sense, has been a key topic in my librarianship MA: how to teach people that Google and Wikipedia do not hold all the answers and some of what they say may be questionable or wrong.

    Such an approach needs to be embedded throughout the curriculum as well as in formal information literacy classes (which do not always exist in secular schools, let alone in the time-pressed Jewish school curriculum) e.g. when doing any kind of research project, students should be guided, according to their level, towards appropriate sources and taught why some sources are more reliable than others. At a young age, this may largely be a lists of dos and don’ts, but older children should be taught how to assess the reliability and accuracy of information found online (and, indeed, in books) for themselves.

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  11. R' Joshua, Adam-
    I would lump these under time and quality teaching; it seems to me that what you describe are the effects of these problems.

    Thanks for expressing my point more clearly than I did!