A Research-Based Approach to Judaic Curriculum Development

  • by: Dr. Steve Bailey

Presented at the Israeli Association for Research in Jewish Education Bar Ilan University, December, 2000

This paper presents an innovative model of a research-based Judaic curriculum currently being implemented in a large Jewish Day School in the Diaspora. The model is based on a recent study involving 25 Jewish Day Schools (grades 8-12) from 11 cities in four English-speaking countries. [I am not detailing the study; it is being published by the Lookstein Center at Bar Ilan in a few months. The point of this paper is the curriculum plan.]

The Curriculum Project

After this study was completed, I was given the opportunity to develop a “zero-based” Jewish Studies curriculum for a large Jewish school in the Diaspora, from 3-12, over a period of four years. This paper describes my practical strategies for this project, developed during my first year, based on the research recommendations of the study and my own experience as a developmentalpsychologist and founding director of an experimental Jewish high school in America. I’ll describe the curriculum approach as a step-by-step process.

Step 1

A curriculum development project for Jewish Studies is much more than preparing materialto be taught in the classroom. For our purposes, we are defining curriculum as the sum total of all controllable variables that affect the learning of a student as assessed by the outcome of his or her Jewish knowledge and skills upon graduation. In otherwords, a curriculum development plan needs to identify the significant factors that influence the student’s acquisition of the knowledge and skills deemed important for his or her successful Jewish education.

As such, I identified three significant influences of student learning. At the centre, of course, is the actual curriculum. The key question here is: “What are the Jewish educational goals of this particular school community?” To answer that question, which formed the framework for my curriculum planning, I asked the same specific question of the School Board, administration, faculty, parent body (by mail) and selected groups of representative students. The question to each of these groups, was: “What Jewish skills and knowledge do you expect a student to have when he or she graduates this school?” I used the recurrent themes from respondents to classify the curricular goals for the school (see below). My rationale was simple: it is the responsibility of the school to educate its graduates in away that meets the expectations of its “consumers” while, at the same time, producing a Jewishly literate student according to an educational standard acceptable to professional Jewish educators.

But the degree to which the students learn the curricular material, especially in Jewish studies, is affected by the student’s attitude towards that material. This attitude is influenced by two factors outside the classroom: parental ethos and school ethos. Parental ethos refers to parent/family attitudes towards the value of Jewish studies and to the value of Jewish practice in the home. The effect on the student is seen in terms of students’ motivation to invest time and energy into Jewish Studies and to commit to the practices of Jewish life. Supportive families increase motivation and commitment while unsupportive families devalue the Jewish learning experiences and home practices. Thus, school sponsored adult and family education programs are one important strategy to increase parental support for Jewisheducation and thereby increase student motivation to learn.

Second is school ethos. This refers to the overall atmosphere of respect and support for Jewish Studies and Jewish values within the daily routine of the school. Some schools place high value on the Jewish learning component of the school experience, as reflected in the quantity and quality of non-classroom activities related to Judaism while others see Jewish educational goals secondary as reflected in school activities focusing on secularacademic and cultural goals. In other words, the “Jewishness” of the school environment fundamentally affects student motivation and commitment to his or her Jewish education.

Step 2

Having heard from each group of the school community about what they believed a Jewishly educated graduate should know, the next step is to take the information gleaned from the school community sources noted above and formulate the Jewish skills and knowledge the successful graduate should achieve. I found that they fell into three categories: Cognitive, Behavioral and Affective/Social.

Cognitive – This category is what we can term “basic Jewish literacy,” reflecting essential knowledge in areas of Jewish classical texts, laws and customs, holidays, liturgy, etc.

Behavioral – This is Jewish practice, reflected in essential skills of Shabbat and holiday observances, prayer, kashrut, tzedakah, traditional ritual and customs as well as ethical behavior.

Affective/Social – Under this category falls the essential “Jewish spirit,” reflected in Jewish identity, meaningfulness and relevance of tradition, commitment to Jewish practices and values as well as a Zionistic commitment to Israel and the Jewish people.

Step 3

Next, these broad goals of essential Jewish knowledge and skills had to be translated into observable and measurable outcomes for the graduating student. Research has shown that ambiguous, global statements of educational goals are neither useful for practical classroom teaching nor useful for assessing outcomes. Therefore, each item in each of the three categories had to be formulated into concrete cognitive content and concrete observable skills so that we would be able to assess the students acquisition of the knowledge and skills we defined in the previous step. “Jewish spirit” could not be measured as objectively as cognitive and behavioral goals, but could be measured using the appropriate assessment tool, one which measures degree of meaning, commitment or values on a five-point qualitative scale.

Step 4

Developmental psychologists and educators have long known that learning is bounded by developmental factors, both cognitively and affectively. Curriculum goals, therefore, need to be ranked developmentally, reflecting age appropriate expectations. Using the stages of Piaget, Kohlberg and Fowler as well as learning theorists such as Bloom, the curriculum items were ranked developmentally from Primary through Secondary grades. Thus, curriculum for the lower grades focused on acquisition of facts and bits of information, drill and modeling behavior, while goals for older grades focused on more abstract ideas, text analysis, critical thinking and personal meaning. The teaching methodology suggested in a particular year’s curriculum reflected these developmental variables as well.

The curriculum is also a “spiral” curriculum. This means that when the same general subject is taught at different grade levels, it is presented at each higher grade at a qualitatively different learning level, reviewing the previous knowledge and adding new elements. So if holidays are taught each year, the curriculum is planned so that there is a review of from year to year, but ideas and information are added so that there is not redundancy, meaningless repetition and lack of academic stimulation. In a spiral curriculum, the same topic is taught at a higher cognitive and developmental level, so students remain challenged intellectually and increase their fund of knowledge and skill each year.

Step 5

Next comes an overall planning strategy. Curriculum goals for each year need to be outlined to assure yearly outcome goals are met and to develop the material in a “spiral” curriculum format. This results in an overview chart which defines the order and content of subjects and topics to be covered at each grade level.

Step 6

At his point the actual curriculum is developed for each Jewish Studies subject within the year. I have called the actual curriculum the Essential Jewish Learning (EJL) curriculum. The name implies that the curriculum contains the essential knowledge and skills required for the specific subject area in a particular year.

Unlike standard curricula that legislate what is to be taught eachlesson, for how long, session by session, this approach does not legislate mandatory time frames (except by Term) or methodology. One of the important results of our initial study was that teachers need to be free to elaborate, condense, expand or minimize material they teach, reflective of their personal interests, teaching strengths, the academic level of their particular classes and the reality of unpredictable changes in daily schedules. So to say a particular lesson will take two periods or that a specific lesson has to be finished in a specific week, is unrealistic and will evoke non-compliance. At the same time, EJL curriculum contains all the information for which students will be assessed on an across-the-board test (that is, all sections of a yeargroup receive the same Term test). Teachers may teach more, but not less. Brighter classes are enriched by extra material, but are still responsible for the EJL material. In reality, teachers “teach to the test” – that is, the EJL curriculum represents the essential knowledge and skills that will appear on the Term test for all students. In effect, the EJL curriculum says to the teacher: You need to teach this material by the end of the Term (in the next 8-10 weeks). How fast you go, how much more you add is up to you, but the basic material in the curriculum needs to be learned by the time the student takes the Term exam.”

Within the EJL curriculum, essential knowledge and skills are grouped into four categories, reflecting diverse teacher interest.Based on the results of our initial study, we found that teachers all agreed, regardless of the subject area, on the importance of teaching:

1. Traditional texts
2. Jewish values and ethics
3. Jewish identity (relevance to their lives)
4. And on making the learning a satisfying, positive experience

But some teachers stressed one approach or one goal over another, reflecting their personal interests, teaching style, background and ideology of teaching. As such, to encourage use of the EJL curriculum, all four areas were incorporated into each lesson. That is, in each lesson, students have a text base to study, there is class discussion of values inherent in the subject matter, a focus on relevance for their personal expression of Judaism and activities that make learning pleasant and satisfying. Within this material, teachers can express their own preferences in terms of emphases, but are always bounded by the material to be taught.

To focus students on the essential material and to hold them responsible for outcomes, a Student Workbook is designed to reflect the same specific information that is found in each unit of the EJL curriculum. Through various developmentally appropriate questions, activities and summaries, students work with the material to be acquired, but are not asked, in the Workbook, to do work that does not have an ultimate purpose of acquisition of the EJL curriculum. So the workbook serves, not only as an activity book, but also as a review and study guide forthe Term assessment. Teachers can supplement the workbook by pictures or maps to colour, computer searches, projects, etc., but if these are not related to the EJL material, they will not be subject to assessment on the Term test. This makes sense if you keep in mind that the purpose of the curriculum is to teach the essential knowledge and skills of Jewish literacy in a subject area to all students and have all students at each year level, responsible for the outcome of acquiring that essential knowledge and those skills. Accountability of both teachers and students is thus, assured.

It follows from the above that a EJL curriculum kit is made of the following co-ordinated units:

1. A Teacher’s Guide that presents the specific knowledge and skills to be taught. Each Guide begins with an introduction to the teacher that explains the rationale of why the particular knowledge and skills offered in the unit was considered as basic literacy for all students. This serves to make the teacher a “partner” in the curriculum because they are made to see why it is important for them to teach the material presented. Methodologies and developmentally-appropriate trigger questions for classroom discussions are included.
2. A Student Workbook for each unit taught is prepared for students. This presents the material in the Teacher’s Guide in the form of activities, essays, summaries, questions, charts, group work, etc. In many cases, the Workbook serves as the textbook for the class.
3. A Term test, (given at the end of 8-10 weeks) based solely on the EJL Teacher’s Guide and Workbook. Individual teachers may add a section to the across-the-board test that represents their individual enrichment teaching, but only their students are required to answer those questions.

Step 7

Next is in-service training related to the practical application of the EJL curriculum. From well before the first curriculum was developed, meetings with teachers were held to inform and discuss the rationale behind this new approach and to persuade and cajole them into accepting and using this curriculum. Without teachers “buying into” the project, the whole enterprise would fail. Having accepted it and helped with its development by formal and informal comments all along, teachers now have to be advised and guided – not instructed — in the proper use of the curriculum.

Part of the training focuses on setting up a well managed classroom. I teach behavioral management techniques and teach how to formulate clearclassroom policies as ways to set up a proper learning environment. I also teach the skill of using questions – open, closed and rhetorical – to create an active, interested and challenging classroom. Other methodologies are left up to the individual propensities of the teachers.

Our initial study pointed to the importance of an ongoing “Curriculum Forum.” This is a weekly 40 minute meeting and represents an opportunity for teachers to communicate and learn.

Specifically, it covers four areas:

1. Review the past week in relation to the planned curriculum
2. Share teaching methods that worked and those that did not
3. Plan the current week and monitor future timing
4. Suggestions for curriculum modifications

Finally, this stage also includes observing teachers in the classroom. This allows for informal supervision and support for teachers and gives me a chance to see the strengths and weakness of the curriculum materials in a variety of classrooms.

Step 8

A crucial part of this plan is holding teachers accountable for teaching the essential curriculum and holding the students accountable for learning the taught material. This is an inherent assumption of a successful spiral curriculum in that certain abilities and funds of knowledge are expected when a student moves to the next higher year.

To assure fairness in assessment, I make up all Term tests for all subjects based solely on the Teacher’s Guide and Student Workbook. This assures that the essential teaching has taken place and the learning of essential knowledge and skills has taken place. As I mentioned, teachers can add their own questions – to be answered by their own students – but the basic material is required by all.

I also use a “mastery learning” approach to fulfill the expectations of a spiral curriculum. This means that if a child fails a Term test, he or she must retake it until passing. Even if this means working over a vacation. This is necessary because a certain set of knowledge and skills is expected before a child moves to the next year.

Step 9

Any professional program needs to be evaluated in terms of outcome. The ultimate question that needs to be addressed brings us back to the original question asked of the school community: “What Jewish skills and knowledge do you expect a student to have when he or she graduates the school?” The success of the curriculum needs to be measured against the criteria of this first question. In other words, “Have the students,in fact, acquired the essential Jewish skills and knowledge expected of a successful graduate?” If the answer, in broad terms is “yes”, then we continue our work along the same paradigm. If the answer is “no”, we need to look for causes, which may be multiple. Teacher factors, curriculum factors, administrative factors, school ethos, parental support – all these and other variables may contribute to the relative ineffectiveness of the curriculum goals. Such an evaluation needs to be made in an ongoing, non-defensive manner. In that way, issues needing modification can be adjusted and resolvable problems can be addressed.

In closing, it is important to note that a fundamental premise of this approach is that a successful curriculum is customized to aspecific school community. As such, what is considered essential knowledge and skills for one school community may be quite different for another. For example, a Modern Orthodox school will consider significant knowledge and skills in Talmud as essential,while in a Community school, skills in Talmud may not be essential, but some basic familiarity with Mishna will be. And so it goes for Tanach, Hebrew language, Jewish History, etc.

Does it take time, energy and money to shape a specific curriculumthat meets the needs of a particular school? – Yes. But it is vital to the success of Jewish education that the next generation of students in every school is successfully educated in the essentials of Jewish literacy and Jewish life.

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