Revolutionary Challenge – Changing the Classroom Culture Through Informal Education

  • by: Steve Israel

This article originally appeared in Mifgashim.
Part I
What are the aims of our educational system? I want to suggest here that the aims of Jewish education have to be redefined. We have become used to thinking of our educational system as one which tries to pour out kids who have a number of skills, both Jewish and general which will allow them to survive and compete successfully within the general society.
We pay lip-service to the idea of value education, to a large extent, in many schools in the Jewish (as of course, in the general) world. There are, of course, schools who do take the value side extremely seriously. However, it seems that in the Jewish educational world on the whole, value education has taken a back seat to the idea of achievement oriented education which enables the student to compete in the market place of society. Status and skills are the name of the game.
Now it is easy to understand why this has happened in a Jewish community still intent on proving itself to the outside world. The time has come however to ask whether we need to return to a very different agenda, a more Jewish agenda in many ways, an agenda that places at the top of its priority list, the production of human beings, of Jewish human beings – of mentches. I believe that that is exactly what we need to do. The question is how.
In this short essay, I want to talk about the way that informal education and a change in school and classroom culture can help to do just this. In order to do this we must firstly try and understand some of the central characteristics of informal education.
Informal education talks at its centre of a new set of relationships between the “teacher” and the taught. Formal education is based on an extremely hierarchical relationship between the teacher – seen as the fount of all knowledge – and the students, seen as blank pages that have to be filled up by the teacher’s wisdom and knowledge.
In an informal educational setting those relationships are changed to lessen the distance between the two “sides” and indeed to change the perception of the relationship between them as one of “sides”. Now the teacher and the students become much more of a learning partnership. The teacher/educator becomes a facilitator whose task is to help access the world for the student and to help direct the student towards a self-learning process. He or she does not have to pretend to be omniscient – it is legitimate for a teacher or an educator to say “I don’t know – let’s find out about it together”. This is done on the basis of stimulation, which encourages the student to see the whole of the world as a potential learning framework rather than the walls of the classroom and the voice of the teacher alone.
Another aspect of the system is a mutual humanisation of the teacher and the taught. Both begin to perceive each other not as the subject and the object of a learning process but rather as partners – of different status to be sure and with different life experiences – on the same side of the learning process. Moreover, in informal education, more control of the learning process is handed over to the students. They are brought into the decision making process and given more of a say in issues relating to their own studying. This makes for increased responsibility and, if this responsibility is genuine as opposed to merely cosmetic, it increases the involvement of the student and enhances motivation.
An informal educational experience loosens the usual norms that we find in many classrooms. For example, first names tend to be used rather than titles and last names, seating arrangements are more flexible, discussions and small group work are prevalent. It is, however, important at this juncture to clarify something that is often misunderstood about informal educational frameworks. Norms are changed – they are not cancelled out. Informal education replaces the norms of formal education with different norms – not with no norms!
On the level of the techniques of learning we can stress a number of major things. Firstly, the attempt is made to put the learner in the centre of the learning process. As much as possible, the attempt is made to link up the body of knowledge to be taught with the life situation of the learner. The educator tries to make things relevant. The educator’s main responsibility is to the child/student rather than to the body of material.
Secondly, the attempt is made to vary as much as possible the techniques of teaching and learning. Any technique that can enhance and stimulate the learning process is seen as legitimate. Drama and role-play, music, art, games – all are seen as legitimate ways to help the student internalise the material that is being presented. The learning is integrated to a maximum extent. The different techniques are seen not as external techniques that should be mastered by the student and thus – as in the case of art and drama for example – can be taught independently as separate disciplines, but as integral parts of the learning process employed to enhance the understanding of the material and the issues being explored.
A third variation from the prevailing norm is a wider use of resources outside the classroom and outside of the school to enhance the learning process; children learn from the world and the attempt is made to break down the artificial barriers between the learning environment and the outside world. The learning environment is broadened out to include the wider community involving visits to institutions and to people in the community, and more observation and analysis of the world of “real people” in work-places, community and welfare institutions and actual involvement in certain aspects of the wider community, through group projects and the like.
Another major aspect of informal education relates directly to the question of goals. The goals of informal education are always rooted firmly in values. Whatever information is being transmitted through the process, the attempt is made always to link it into a set of values, which represent the calling card of the institution in which the learning is taking place. Knowledge is certainly important but at the top of the pyramid is a series of values that represent the sort of human being that the educational process is trying to produce. Knowledge is at the service of the values; it does not stand independently.
This in brief is the world of informal education and even a cursory glance will immediately make clear the difference between the formal educational school system that exists throughout the (Jewish) world and the ideas outlined here.
Part II
In their purest form, the informal ideas are incorporated within the world of the youth movement, a world which over the years has been quite developed in many places in the Jewish world, especially in the Zionist youth movements such as Habonim-Dror, Bnei Akiva, Netzer and Hashomer Hatzair. These movements are certainly not always perfect representations of the ideas but at their best – and their best, through the years, has often been in evidence – they represent the purest application of these ideas that we find in the Jewish world. Unfortunately, they have often been dismissed by unknowledgeable critics as being non-serious frameworks which play at education and “look after” the kids, keeping them busy and off the streets rather than the potentially serious alternative educational frameworks that they are, at their best.
But my task here is not to dwell on the youth movements but rather to ask whether there are not some serious lessons that the formal school system can learn from the informal educational world. This is a vital and, in my opinion, often misunderstood issue.
In recent years, there has slowly but surely been revealed an increasing willingness in many schools around the world to incorporate what are usually referred to as “informal educational techniques” within the learning process. More schools are willing to experiment with variations in learning techniques that are lifted right from the heart of the informal system. Increasingly, we find in “progressive” learning institutions a willingness to incorporate elements such as increasing use of small group work, and a deviation from frontal education in the classroom; school trips and camps; the introduction of outside seminars into the schools (in the Jewish world, especially on subjects such as Jewish identity, Zionism and Israel); involvement in the community; and integrated education with the same subject being handled by different teachers from different angles.
The major reason that an informalisation of many aspects of the formal school system has taken place, results from the realisation that the traditional formal system has failed in many of its goals and has created a school culture that leaves many students unmotivated and apathetic. The logic used says that the incorporation of some of these aspects can succeed in combating some of the alienation found in the system and sparking the interest of the students. Now, in my opinion, this logic is correct and all these changes are desirable. My personal belief is that the more that schools incorporate these features of informal education, the better off they are likely to be.
However, the borrowing of these techniques from the informal system raises some very serious questions. To a large extent, I would argue that much of the incorporation of the informal that has been done is little more than cosmetic. The goals of the schools have remained largely unchanged; these techniques have been brought in to a great extent to bolster up the old system and to render it more effective.
However, informal education involves a far wider vision with very different goals. Informal education, in fact, changes the basic values and assumptions on which traditional education has been based. The entire set of hierarchical relationships that characterise the traditional learning system are challenged radically by the underlying characteristics and assumptions of the informal system. When the formal system adopts certain informal features to make the learning process more “user-friendly”, the heart of the system remains untouched.
The basic question that needs then to be discussed is whether within the formal system there is room for adopting elements that are more fundamental to informal education, elements that touch the heart of the system rather than the periphery.
The question is relevant for two reasons. Firstly, if the formal system has come to the conclusion that there are valuable lessons to be learned from what might be termed the peripheral elements of informal education, could it not be that there might be even more valuable lessons lurking at the centre?
Secondly, it has been suggested that one of our major problems in the school system results from an increasing realisation that schools have to step in and play a larger role in the value vacuum caused by the abdication of the traditional family role in nurturing Jewish values. Now, if this is true, then it seems arguable that there might well be things that the schools can learn from a system that is actually consciously predicated on the need to educate towards values.
I would suggest that indeed there is a need for our schools to start examining the major plunge into the heart of the informal educational system. I would argue that there are enormous benefits that would accrue to the system as a result of the willingness to confront and question many of the basic assumptions of the prevailing system through the prism of the informal system. However, it is clear that there are some major difficulties that would need to be examined.
One set of question marks revolves around the willingness of existing staff to respond to the demands of the system. The informal system can open up the staff to a far more demanding and potentially threatening set of role requirements. Many will feel uncomfortable and vulnerable in a system where role demarcations are not clearly delineated and where relationships with students are more fluid, more personal and more ambiguous.
These particular question marks can, in my opinion, be dealt with. For one thing, a teaching staff changes over time and principals who “buy into” the system can start looking for teachers who feel more comfortable with the basic assumptions of the new set of perspectives and are capable of functioning well, within the less defined, less hierarchical framework. However, I pin my main hopes in this respect, on the rewards that many teachers would find within the new system.
My belief is that many teachers would enjoy very much the new set of norms that would start to characterise the relationships with their students. Instead of hiding behind a wall of institutional authority bolstered up by a strong series of sanctions and threats leading in the worst cases to an “us and them” situation, many teachers would be increasingly appreciated. Many would thrive amid the more personalized relationships encouraged by the new framework. In the long term, this seems to be a smaller issue.
A more serious issue concerns the limits of change. It is clear that there are limits that would have to be placed around the informalisation of the school system. For one thing, the school system does not work within a vacuum. You cannot do away with an exam system which tests – at least in certain disciplines, external objective knowledge – in favour of a system far more committed to personal values and development than to knowledge, when you are part of a nationwide educational framework that demands objective achievements. A second problem concerns those students who need a more structured learning framework because that is the way that they learn best. Thirdly, if this system is based, among other things, on an attempt to increase personal motivation, what do you do with those students who have little or no motivation, even in the best of learning frameworks?
Informal frameworks tend to be voluntary. People drift in and out. If they don’t like what they find, they can simply leave; not so in the formal system. Fourthly, what is the nature of sanctions and discipline in an informal system?
These are big and central questions. They can be addressed and answered in many different ways but whichever answers are reached, it is clear that they represent major challenges and will impose limits on the possibility of informalising the formal system. Here is not the place to deal with them. Any school willing to start grappling with the issues would have to explore these questions and start to work towards their own answers.
However, the difficulty of finding answers should not prevent us from asking the questions. It is the suggestion here that the formal educational system of Jewish schools can derive enormous benefits by an informalisation of the system and an incorporation of many of the aspects of the cluster of ideas and values that underlie informal education.
Let us be clear on one thing. The crisis of identity and values that we find within the western Jewish world necessitates new directions of thinking. There should be no attempt to rest on any laurels that might be strewn around. Schools might or might not be doing well. What is clear is that in the changing Jewish world in which they find themselves, they have to do better.
It is the contention here that all schools can gain important tools for going forward from within the informal educational system.
Think about it!