Successful Jewish education needs to be highly engaging if it is to have any chance of competing for the attention of our young people.
The 21st century has afforded us plentiful interactive tools, resources and online platforms to help create attention-grabbing lessons. Teachers encourage students to learn independently through designing videos, creating games and discussion boards or “gallery walks”’ to comment on one another’s projects, ideas and research. These allow students to work creatively, think critically, learn with their peers and have fun.
Online Jewish resources have become increasingly invaluable during school closures across the Jewish world. But what happens when normality resumes?
There is significant debate in the educational community as to the impact of digital tools on learning outcomes. Some evidence suggests they are a mere distraction. In my view, these methods can really amplify Jewish content and values. Applying new methods to age-old values and texts allows our ancient tradition to live and breathe and helps ensure that Jewish studies is not a “poor relation” within the school day.
However, there is no substitute for a teacher’s ability to engender personal engagement and questioning and to explain deep content. Without this, any tool is of limited value.
In September, the London School of Jewish Studies is introducing a new programme combining leadership skills and Jewish studies. The Teach to Lead programme, based on the Teach First model, will develop high-calibre Jewish studies teachers across primary and secondary schools.
Our goal is to provide truly inspiring role models for our Jewish schools, building on the contribution already made by our alumni. Efraim Lerner, for example, who graduated this year from with MA in Jewish education and is a member of the behavioural management team at the Darchei Noam Centre, works on integrating Jewish learning and special educational needs support in both the physical and the virtual environment. He is now creating a resource within Quizlet International for religious and SEND education.
The new cohort will be tasked with re-envisioning Jewish education for the 21st century to ensure we don’t only replicate old methods and approaches but bring new perspectives and solutions. They will have the opportunities to learn from practitioners around the Jewish world. They must be able to think creatively about what our young people need today to respond to Jewish ideas and how to nurture thinking Jews who are strong in their identity, knowledgeable about their heritage and passionate about their Jewish faith.
They will need to integrate not only technology into their teaching but also real lived experiences. As the ongoing “Jewish Lives” study of young people in the UK discovered, the most impactful Jewish education is experiential. Exposure to learning outside the classroom, notably trips abroad to Poland and Israel, can markedly change outcomes in terms of Jewish engagement and connection.
At tough times, Jews have always invested in education. In talmudic times, Yehoshua ben Gamla was the first to advocate for the establishment of a formal school system to sustain education outside of the home setting, involving professional teachers rather than parents. Even more so now, we must focus on and invest in our teachers. The modern classroom needs to use the best technologies, but the tech is only as good as the teacher who uses it.
Abraham Joshua Heschel famously said, “What we need more than anything else is not text- books but text-people. It is the personality of the teacher which is the text that the pupils read; the text that they will never forget.” The learned teacher matters more than the material. In 2020, as we emerge from this defining moment in our educational landscape, there is no going back. We need tech, but what we need more is “tech people”.
Joanne Greenaway is chief executive of the London School of Jewish Studies