Family & Education

How do you measure success in a Jewish classroom?

The most important things in life can't be graded


DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - OCTOBER 08: Students play with a recreation of Noahs ark as they learn about Noah during lessons at the Jewish Hebrew School on October 8, 2021 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. The Jewish Hebrew School run by Rabbi Levi Duchman operated unofficially on a small scale for five years before the United Arab Emirates and Israel signed the Abraham Accords, the formal normalization agreement brokered by the United States in 2020. Since the Abraham Accords were signed, the school officially opened as the first Hebrew speaking school in the UAE, catering to children up to twelve years in age. (Photo by Andrea DiCenzo/Getty Images)

The scene is familiar. A child comes home from school, smiling and brandishing a piece of paper with some red writing on it: “Mum, I got my exam results back. I got 80 per cent!”

Mum exclaims: “Fantastic! I’m so proud of you.” Almost inevitably, the follow-up question is: “What did everyone else get?”

As head of Seed’s schools programme, I oversee a partnership with 15 schools across the country, running family programmes, classes and events. I have also taught in schools in Israel and the UK for ten years.

I see amazing things happening — wonderful teaching and enthusiastic children. For me, one question is essential: how do we measure success when it comes to Jewish studies?

Yes, teachers can set syllabuses, literacy expectations and levels. But what constitutes success? And who sets those measures of “success” — the school? Parents? The student?

The response of the parent who wants to know how their child compares with other students is not merely “I’d love my child to be top of the class” competitiveness. It reflects the classic dilemma of measuring educational success.

The syllabus is essentially the same for everyone. Yet people are individuals with varying abilities and capabilities. Schools have to manage an intrinsic tension between objective attainment and personal progress; between collective expectation and individualism.

When it comes to Jewish studies the dilemma is arguably more pronounced. While in Jewish thought there is a clear right and wrong, there is also a crucial understanding that everyone has their own journey.

As Rav Eliyahu Dessler (died 1953) puts it, our free will is limited to our current appropriate challenge. Expectations currently beyond me are not my current concern; the temptations that are beneath me are also not my challenge. This doesn’t mean there can be no lifetime ambition, but the free will ladder is navigated rung by rung, challenge by challenge.

Consider the following anecdote. I was running a question-and-answer session in a school, when a year -student asked me, “Is there any point avoiding milk and meat together when we are not kosher at home?” Although the class teacher was blushing at the bluntness of a “non-kosher” admission in front of a rabbi, I enjoyed the question. I responded that “everyone is on their own journey” at which point other hands went up with children saying “but I don’t keep kosher either, rabbi!”

In Jewish thought, achievement and success are not about world records, they are about personal bests: reaching your potential, climbing your own ladder, in line with Rav Dessler’s analogy. Children’s own free will and challenges are a key part of measuring success.

A key issue felt by many a Jewish studies teacher is whether Jewish studies is simply “a subject”. We don’t learn Judaism, we live it. Jewish education is not about learning. It’s not even about doing. It’s about becoming. It’s about becoming more refined, better, Godlier. Certainly, exams contribute in terms of focus, work ethic and knowing the material. However, the most important things in life cannot be calibrated; try put a number on happiness, confidence, balance, or relationships.

When my son was taking his exams, his primary school sent the following letter to parents: “Above all, remember that the results do not represent in any sense your son’s worth. They do not show how much he cares for others or helps his friends when they need him… no grade can reflect his sincerity.”

Beyond the personalised goals, syllabuses and levels, perhaps the realistic goal of Jewish studies is to give every child the best Jewish base and platform in life — make sure they can read (and translate) Hebrew, make sure they can follow a siddur and have good Jewish knowledge.

Make sure they value key figures in Jewish history and have Jewish role models. Make sure they have a strong Jewish identity and are enthusiastic about their Judaism.

When my daughter was in year 4, her teacher announced one week that the weekly spelling test would be in Spanish. The reason? There was a girl who had recently moved to the school from Argentina and the teacher wanted to make sure this girl succeeded in at least one spelling test.

So Jewish studies can give every child the opportunity to succeed, beyond skills and enthusiasm, in a personalised and meaningful way.

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