What Does It Take to Engage Our Students?

From Section:
Trends in Jewish Education
Sep. 11, 2017
September 11, 2017

Cource: eJewish Philanthropy


Studies suggest that even when students have above-average intelligence and come from families of high socioeconomic status, they will experience increased anxiety and anger and decreased academic achievement when they feel disengaged from learning. All the more astonishing is that engagement in learning is on the steady decline from entry into kindergarten and through high school, with children sometimes showing signs of disengagement as early as first grade. How do we take this ivory tower research and make sense of it within our Jewish educational system? How can we provide a Jewish education that fosters engagement, enthusiasm, psychological investment, rather than compliance – or even worse – rejection?

We know that both children and adults learn best when they feel that their learning is relevant and purposeful, when they have choice and autonomy in the process of what they learn, and when they believe that their sustained effort will move them towards mastery and competence. Conversely, they are far less engaged when their learning is controlled and driven by a teacher’s agenda, or when they feel as if their role in the learning process is simply to be an empty vessel that receives information from the expert teacher. Students disengage from school and lack motivation to learn and achieve when they do not perceive themselves as competent and actively participating in their learning or success.

Student-centered and inquiry-based learning awards us the opportunity to foster an environment in which Jewish subjects spark enthusiasm by making them relevant to our children and something they can have autonomy over. This pedagogical approach pushes teachers to facilitate student learning rather than control it, and allows students the control and creativity to make their Jewish learning personally meaningful. By exploring engaging questions, finding what they’re curious about, and real-world, authentic application of texts and skills, our students can construct and organize their knowledge in deeply meaningful ways. They don’t have to simply follow the rules, because they are part of making the rules. Rather than being the receivers of information, students are the creators, discoverers, and designers of information.

If our goal is to raise engaged, enthusiastic, and committed Jewish children, our work needs to start in making sure our children are engaged and enthusiastic in their Jewish learning. Otherwise, we run the risk of teaching our children that compliance, simply following the rules, is the expectation they need to meet. Perhaps we must think less about finishing a specific perek [chapter of a Jewish text] or sefer [Jewish text] and more about whether our students are leaving our classrooms with a growing passion and sturdy commitment for their religion. Student-centered, inquiry-based learning is the way for us to make sure that happens.

As a doctoral student in education at Johns Hopkins University, I am deeply interested in what contributes to students’ levels of engagement, or lack thereof, in their Judaic Studies. And I am curious, all the more, if day school teachers are able to differentiate whether a student is simply compliant or truly engaged, and what the impact is on our students’ Jewish identity and their Judaics skill and conceptual understanding.

Read the whole post on eJewish Philanthropy.

Updated: Nov. 27, 2017
Inquiry | Pedagogy | Research