Learning about Learning

Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education, Brandeis University

Moving Beyond “Jewish Identity”

For many years, Jewish educators have relied on the phrase “Jewish identity” to describe their educational goals. We hear about “strengthening Jewish identity” or “deepening Jewish identity.” The Mandel Center’s new book, Beyond Jewish Identity: Rethinking Concepts and Imagining Alternatives (Academic Studies Press, September 2019), argues that this formulation is a problem. What does it actually mean? What are the unintended consequences of talking that way?

This is the first book to examine critically the relationship between Jewish education and Jewish identity. It looks at the costs of framing Jewish education in these terms and provides educators, policy makers, scholars and policy-makers new ways of thinking and talking about the desired outcomes of Jewish education.

Edited by Jon A. Levisohn (Brandeis University) and Ari Y. Kelman (Stanford University), the essays collected here argue that the use of “Jewish identity” as an educational goal hampers efforts to think seriously and aspirationally about Jewish education, and offer new possibilities for thinking about what Jewish education can be for.

Questions About Questions

by Sarra Lev, Reconstructionist Rabbinical College

Last spring, I participated in a gathering that was part of the Rabbinic Formation project, a study of the role Talmud learning in rabbinic formation, sponsored by the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education at Brandeis University. The gathering included cognitive scientists, sociologists, education specialists and Talmud specialists. We spent the day looking through rabbinical students’ written responses to questions about learning Talmud, as well as syllabi and course work from three rabbinical schools (JTS, HC and RRC), and transcripts of extensive interviews with some of those same students. We also listened to brief recordings of classes. All in all, the day was exhilarating, and left me with many questions about Talmud learning in the context of rabbinical school, but one issue in particular, the relationship between “skills” and “content,” struck a chord. Continue reading

Reframing the Conversation on Jewish Learning

Cover of the book Advancing the Learning Agenda in Jewish EducationA few years ago, Brandeis professor Jon A. Levisohn and Jewish Theological Seminary professor Jeffrey Kress began a conversation about what Jewish education might look like if educators shifted the focus to students’ learning, rather than teachers’ teaching. Levisohn is a philosopher; Kress is a psychologist. But together, they wondered how to shift the focus of discussions about Jewish education. How might those discussions pay more attention to shaping character, creating meaning, and making connections, and less to what teachers say or do?

If the goal of Jewish education is to help Jewish people live better lives, they thought, we need to think harder and more critically about the desired outcomes that support this flourishing. That conversation led to a 2015 conference at Brandeis that brought together researchers in Jewish and general education, from Jewish studies and the learning sciences, for an unprecedented exploration of how Jewish education can be expanded and enriched through a focus on learning.

Now selected essays from conference participants have been collected into a new volume, Advancing the Learning Agenda in Jewish Education (Academic Studies Press, 2018). It offers creative and critical perspectives on unexamined assumptions about learning in Jewish education, and promotes the idea that learning is never only about subject-matter knowledge but is always at the same time about the learner’s relationship to the subject—an idea that has taken hold in the science learning community.

Levisohn, director of the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education, said that the project was prompted by “a concern that Jewish educational processes built around outcomes that are too flat (such as learning facts) lead to alienation. It comes at a cost. There are too many cases in which students learn the material that teachers teach—but find it utterly irrelevant.”

Levisohn, Kress, director of research at the Leadership Commons at the Davidson School of Education, and their collaborators wanted to ask deeper, harder questions about student learning, such as, Kress said, “What frameworks for understanding and being in the world emerge from involvement in Jewish education? What would Torah learning look like if it were framed as socialization into a community?”

“We were dissatisfied with conversations about outcomes that seemed too narrow or too cognitive,” Levisohn said. “We need to focus on bigger, broader goals of meaning, connection, and flourishing. People need to have homes—within communities, traditions, and discourses. Jewish education can help to provide that home.”

Advancing the Learning Agenda in Jewish Education provides a fresh set of perspectives on a new set of questions about Jewish education. It offers new ideas, Kress said, “about what it means to be a learned Jew, and how Jewish education can inform multiple elements of the human experience.”

Talking about Race in Jewish Day Schools

Due to a last-minute conflict, Yavilah McCoy of Dimensions Educational Consulting was unable to attend the recent Mandel Center conference, Inside Jewish Day Schools. Instead, she graciously pre-recorded this stirring framing statement for our panel entitled  “Embracing Diversity, Teaching Equity: Race and Ethnicity in Jewish Day Schools,” providing a context and a rationale for centering race and ethnicity in our conversations about teaching and learning and school culture in yeshivas and Jewish day schools.

 

 

 

The Impact of a Conference

by Elliott Rabin

IJDS Conference | April 30, 2018

Last week, I had the luxury and privilege of spending a couple of days with some 70 educators, administrators and professors at a remarkable conference on Jewish day school education, Inside Jewish Day Schools, hosted by the Mandel Center at Brandeis. Many things about the conference felt fresh, even pathbreaking to me. The focus entirely on day schools, within an academic setting. Attention paid to challenging subjects from contemporary society that rarely get addressed in the day school context: race, gender/sexuality, class. A screening of excerpts from the movie Race to Nowhere, with frequent interruptions in which we grappled with questions about homework. The framing notion of the “grammar of day schools,” component features that are accepted as a given. Addressing some of the big, catbird-seat questions about Jewish studies.

. . . the barrier between “academics” and “practitioners” of Jewish education appeared, for two days, entirely permeable . . .

But what struck me as most special and unusual about the conference was that the barrier between “academics” and “practitioners” of Jewish education appeared, for two days, entirely permeable. This conference was set in a magical kingdom where Continue reading

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