In my experience as a Tanakh teacher for many years in both Orthodox and community schools, I have consistently encountered consensus amongst educators that learning should be meaningful and relevant to students. This has emerged in informal faculty room discussions, almost every department meeting, and professional development sessions. Teachers I interviewed for my doctoral research expressed similar sentiments:
“Anything that I teach, we’ll have a practical application for it. I want the students to be able to go home and think about it and say, ‘how is it relevant to me?’”
“For sure, that [the students] think it’s a little archaic, but that’s the job of the teacher to make it relevant.”
The importance of relevance cannot be overstated. In the words of one student:
“If you’re not seeing the relevance and you’re not understanding why you’re taking these classes, that kind of filters into your whole experience where why be, or continue to live a Jewish life, if it’s not going to be relevant to my belief, or my morals, or whatever.”
Despite their teachers’ intentions, when I interviewed students I discovered that they often felt that Tanakh learning was not relevant, and what came up in student focus groups was the sentiment that “the teacher … was more focused on learning all the material rather than actually comprehending and understanding the material and having discussions on it,” and “there is no sense in those classes that anything is important and relevant. It’s just, like, oh, there was a king and he lost a battle.” This disparity between what teachers think they are accomplishing and how the students experience the learning is what I call the relevance gap.
When I asked students to define relevance this is what they shared:
When I say something is relevant to me, I mean that it can be applied to my daily life. If something isn’t relevant to me, it means that I cannot relate, or think of anything that can be connected to the subject.
When something is relevant, it has an importance in my life and affects the way I live today.
If its relevant to me, its meaning or value can pertain and be applied to my own life.
Relevant means it affects me personally and is something I care about, not relevant is something that does not affect me or do not have interest in.
All of these student statements contain the common thread that a relevant lesson needs to speak to the student’s personal reality. But how much do teachers really know about their students’ daily lives, interests, and values? In the words of Herbert Blumer, “People may be living side by side yet living in different worlds.” Without really knowing students, it is impossible to create relevant learning opportunities for them.
To address the relevance gap, I turned to Design Thinking, a human-centered approach to business. In Design Thinking, understanding the user is an essential element of the problem-solving process. Adapting Design Thinking for use in education necessitates understanding the students and their needs, and when we consider adapting it for Jewish education, it requires the teacher to listen to what students consider meaningful. As Jonathan Woocher proposed in 2012 when he called for a Design Thinking approach to Jewish education, we need to reimagine Jewish learning as coming from an understanding of the learners’ lives and deeply considering the learners’ experience. This does not mean simply asking students what they want, and worrying about getting answers like, “more recess” and “no homework.” Rather, it means getting to know what is important to them, what they value, what they worry about, and what they hope to gain from Jewish learning—and then believing that our students truly desire meaningful experiences in their Jewish learning.
Perhaps this conception has its roots in Talmudic thought. “And this is what Rabbi Hanina said: I have learned much from my teachers and even more from my friends, but from my students I have learned more than from all of them” (Taanit, 7a). What I can learn from my students, more than from educational experts and fellow teachers, is who they are, and how I can best teach them. By asking students what is meaningful and relevant, teachers can also learn something unexpected and new, and, at the same time, develop a trust in their students’ ability to think deeply, gaining what Gadamer (Truth and Method) calls, “openness to the possibility that what the other claims can be correct or at least has something to say to them, that it is relevant to their lives”. Perhaps it is the job of the teacher to be open to the students having something relevant to say about the text, to be open to the possibility that they, as educators, do not need to rush in and offer up meaning.
The Design Thinking process is cyclical, beginning with getting to know the students, understanding their needs, desires, and interests, and deeply empathizing with them. It continues with identifying the problem or issue that needs to be solved, in this case, the relevance gap. Then we generate possible solutions to the problem, presenting them to the user, and getting feedback. It is only then that we implement the solution, evaluate, and restart the cycle again to further refine it.
Implementing Design Thinking
I have incorporated Design Thinking into my Tanakh teaching practice using the principles listed below.
- Know your students—their beliefs, interests, needs, values, etc. You cannot make a lesson relevant for a student you do not know.
- Meaningful for the students should be determined by the students.
- Autonomy and personal choice based on preference can help foster meaning. Get to know your students interests and preferences and then act on this knowledge.
- Constant reassessment of relevance should be built into the course structure: Student reflection is used as feedback and as a guide for the teacher
- Meaning is dynamic. What is relevant and meaningful changes over time and with different groups.
Esther Friedman is a PhD candidate at Melton School at Hebrew University of Jerusalem and is writing her dissertation about ideological challenges for Orthodox Tanakh teachers in pluralistic day schools. She has chaired the Tanakh department, written curriculum, and mentored teachers at Tanenbaum CHAT in Toronto.
See all the previous issues of Jewish Educational Leadership
On the first day of school, I asked my students to complete a long survey in which they were asked to share what they felt was the purpose of Tanakh study, what they personally hoped to gain from the course, what challenges they expected to face, as well as how they thought or hoped that the teacher may address these concerns.
I read their answers that evening, a most vital element, because students will stop trusting adults who promise to listen and then do not follow through. I then created a pie chart of the themes that emerged from their responses and presented these findings in class the very next day. We discussed what I learned from the surveys and how it would inform my teaching. I then asked the students to complete another survey, anonymous this time, about their personal beliefs and how they define relevance.
As the term progressed, I continued to ask for feedback—“what one thing in this unit felt meaningful or relevant?” “What one thing we learned did not feel meaningful and why?” Each time that I asked them to share with me, I came to class the next day making it clear that I had read their feedback and was prepared to take action based on it. I presented ideas for how to proceed and asked my students for more feedback, making it clear that the learning belongs to them, is designed for them, and that their vision of meaningful learning matters to their teacher.
After the completion of each unit, I asked the students to write a two-paragraph reflection on something that we learned, that they think has or will impact their Judaism in some way. After returning their graded work, I asked students to fill out the following anonymous online poll:
In yesterday’s two-paragraph reflection about something meaningful that you learned in this unit, how honest were you?
a. Honest? I honestly just wanted to a get a good mark.
b. At first, I just tried to think about anything the teacher would like, but in the end what I wrote was true.
c. It was really truly about something that I learned and found meaningful.
In both of my classes, no one chose option “a,” approximately 80% chose “b,” and the other 20% chose “c.” The good news is that there were no students who found the learning completely meaningless; the bad news is that only one in five was able to easily find meaning in the lessons—and this was after I asked them for input on what they wanted to learn and was already basing lessons on years of feedback about what students found meaningful.
For my own practice, what I gained from this process, was that meaning and relevance are not drawn automatically, but that given the opportunity, students can learn to extract meaning from their learning. After coming to this realization, I added the following sixth principle to my list:
- Students must be actively taught how to extract meaning and relevance from their text-based Tanakh lessons. This may be something that we as adult learners of Torah may be able to do automatically, but students cannot.
I will need to continue to work on the ways that I aid my students in learning how to find what is relevant and meaningful to them in the text.
As the school year progressed, I also found that students were more willing to give negative feedback about lessons that they did not enjoy or find relevant or meaningful. I took this to mean that I was gaining my students’ trust. Once they saw that I would take their needs, values, and interests seriously, and adjust my teaching accordingly, they were willing to be more open and honest.
To teach Tanakh in a relevant way, a teacher must be prepared to invest in getting to know the student, to create lessons based on that knowledge, to collect feedback, and then be prepared to constantly adjust and adapt the teaching to what the students have expressed in that feedback. A Design Thinking approach to Jewish education puts the learner at the center and has the potential to help teachers create relevant, meaningful, and rich learning experiences—bridging the relevance gap.
Illustration of how design thinking translates to design thinking for education