“The False Promise of Group Harmony”: The Centrality of Challenging Practices in Teachers’ Professional Development

Mar. 04, 2014

Source: Journal of Jewish Education, Volume 80, Issue 1, pages 53-77


This article discusses an action research study of a week-long Summer Teachers Institute which immersed teachers in the study of Jewish historical and cultural texts. We investigate how this kind of cultural immersion created opportunities for transformative learning – the kind of learning that would not merely be the application of “new lessons,” but that would also help teachers reconceptualize their teaching practices regarding Jewish religion and culture. Our findings suggest that text study practices of challenging – in tandem with practices of supporting and voicing – were central in constructing a “relational learning community.” Such a community was a necessary condition for transformative learning.


We introduce you to a weeklong Summer Teachers’ Institute that was launched with the proposition that deeply immersing teachers in the study of historical and cultural texts (e.g., documents, film, and physical spaces) reflecting Jewish culture and civilization could help them address the complexities of teaching about religion and culture. We investigate how this kind of cultural immersion created opportunities for transformational learning—the kind of learning that would not merely be the application of “new lessons” but that would also support teachers’ growth in revisiting their teaching practices regarding culture. We identify the kinds of obstacles that can be constructed in these contexts, the place of “challenging practices” in deconstructing and traversing these obstacles, and possibilities for growth and development in the context of a relational learning community.


This article will focus on the ways that the participants wrestled with the practice of challenging. As Elie Holtzer's teaching so clearly articulated, the practice of challenging is linked to supporting and voicing. Our findings suggest that while the participants identified “challenging” as one of the most important ideas and practices that they learned, supporting and voicing were important key corollary aspects of this process, especially in the construction of what we call a “relational learning community.” In addition, our findings teach us that because the act of challenging was not only invited, but also required of them during the Institute, participants engaged in “role sanctioned” challenging, offering them the opportunity to take risks that they might not otherwise have felt comfortable taking. Moreover, by taking these risks the teachers experienced a kind of authority in their learning—that is, authoring the knowledge they were constructing in this context. We suggest that embedding challenging practices in professional development frameworks can provide powerful opportunities for transformative learning. Thus, in this article we argue that when participants engage in “role-sanctioned” challenging, they have the opportunity to author new learning, which is often accompanied by an internal sense of disequilibrium. In this recursive process of challenging, destabilization, and new learning, teachers have the possibility of engaging in transformative learning.

Updated: Apr. 30, 2014