by Alexandra Fleksher
The classroom is filled with noise. Students are on the floor in circles, crouched in corners, and walking about, engrossed in discussion. Books are open, papers are being scribbled upon, and pages are being flipped as the students are taking active responsibility for the learning task at hand. If you have ever seen a classroom like this, you have witnessed student-centered learning. It is a marvelous thing.
The student-centered classroom is one in which students are engaged in an active process of learning. Students are held accountable for their work through performing tasks, projects and assignments, often in a small group or one-on-one setting, utilizing cooperative learning and project-based strategies. Often reciprocal learning strategies are used, where students perform identified tasks and then are responsible for teaching over that information to fellow students in small groups.1
The student-centered classroom differs from the teacher-centered classroom in that the student is the one who has more “air time” than the teacher in a typical class session. While there are certainly times where a lecture and note-taking is appropriate and beneficial, student-centered teaching moves away from frontal instruction as a primary method, and more into the brain and heart of the child, recognizing that the most lasting learning occurs when students are engaged in and responsible for the learning that occurs.
In other words, “Each class session teachers must choose between being ‘a sage on the stage’ or ‘a guide on the side.’ In doing so, it’s important to remember that the challenge in teaching is not covering the material for the students; it’s uncovering the material with the students.”2
Now, does this sound familiar?
Children sit for 12 years in a classroom where the implicit goal is to listen to the teacher and memorize information in order to regurgitate it on a test. Little or no attention is paid to the learning process, even though much research exists documenting that real understanding is a case of active restructuring on the part of the learner. Restructuring occurs through engagement in problem posing as well as problem solving, inference making and investigation, resolving of contradictions, and reflecting. These processes all mandate far more active learners, as well as a different model of education than the one subscribed to at present by most institutions. Rather than being powerless and dependent on the institution, learners need to be empowered to think and learn for themselves. Thus, learning needs to be conceived of as something a learner does, not something that is done to a leaner (Catherine Fosnot, 1989). ((Johnson, David W., et.al, 7.))
As Jews, we know this. Walk into a beit midrash and see cooperative learning at its best. We certainly have the educational framework in our tradition. We know that learning with a chavruta is like two knives sharpening each other,3 that Torah can only properly be acquired through a chavruta.4 It is obvious to anyone who has had a good chavruta that chavruta learning provides peer-support and friendship in the learning process which is a winning combination. Indeed, the Aramic word “chavruta” comes from the word “chaver” – friend – and refers to the person with whom one studies Torah.
Besides offering social benefits, chavruta learning sourced in our tradition serves an educational purpose as well. Rabbi Yose Ben Chalafta told his son Rabbi Abba that he was ignorant because he did not study with another person.5 In fact, it’s either chavruta or death,6 the implication being that true advancement in learning can only take place with a study partner. Why not bank on this concept and translate it into real day-to-day learning experiences in our schools which meet the unique needs of the students of this generation?
Thankfully, there are many evidence-based teaching strategies available that make this type of learning accessible for any grade level and any subject matter, not just Judaic Studies. But teachers, especially if they do not formally continue their education, need to be informed and equipped.
Why should you care? As Jews, we care deeply about Jewish education and the content of what our children are learning. We should also care about how they are learning, and how they are being taught. We trust our administrators and teachers to take care of that, and many do it very well. Yet good teachers know that there is so much more to learn and improve on, and so many other methods and techniques that they could add to their tool kits to make their teaching that much more effective. Good teachers recognize they can always reach more students, differentiate instruction better to meet the needs of all the children in their classrooms, use better materials, improve classroom management skills, gather more instructional techniques, build better relationships with students, and the list goes on and on. Teaching is field in which there’s so much more to learn, not just teach.
Is this happening in our schools? Some teachers self-educate more than others. They are always curious and eager to amp up their game, reading books and articles, keeping up to date with the latest in educational theory and methodology. Yet a teacher such as this can work in a vacuum, doing wonderful things in her particular classroom, but stand as an anomaly if the school itself is not creating an environment of promoting continuous education for teachers.
Clearly, some schools are more progressive than others. Those schools make it a priority to incorporate innovative curriculum design and teaching techniques into the classrooms, providing on-going and consistent professional development for teachers and ensuring that everyone is on board with the school’s mission. All schools, however, need to take a long hard look at themselves to see if professional development is truly a priority.
It is not essential, and not always feasible, for day schools to hire young talent straight out of graduate school, who are well-versed in “edu-talk” and are confident in being able to translate it into the classroom. (Many of our schools can only offer part-time positions, as the day is split into Hebrew and English, so young, educated teachers starting off their careers often are not interested.)
On the flip side, many of the teachers in our schools have numerous years of teaching experience. They may have attended college or graduate school long ago, and while some do keep up with the more updated methods, others may not. Yet if a school is focused on offering professional development opportunities, in and out-of-house, then our most beloved, experienced teachers can add yet another tool to their instructional box and become that much greater.
Professional development does not need to contribute to the financial strain of our schools. While certainly a school has the option to hire an expert in the field to fly in and give a full-day seminar to staff, there are other effective methods to train teachers in-house. Schools can utilize the “best practices” model by showcasing star teachers within the school who effectively use a variety of teaching methods that are tried-and-true for their particular student body. Schools can identify the teachers in their schools that are highly trained, knowledgeable, and successfully and tap in to them as sources of professional development for the faculty. Administrators can focus dedicated portions of the school year to specific educational concepts and strategies, providing training, application and follow-up with curriculum coordinators at the helm. Striving for excellence in instruction, though, must be on the administrator’s list of priorities for such an endeavor to succeed.
For those wary of seriously considering “new-fangled” teaching methods (and, by the way, the original research on cooperative learning was done in the 70s and 80s), there’s really nothing to lose by adding something new to the tried and true repertoire. And the reality is that our students have changed over the years, so trying to reach them in new ways might be exactly what is needed. Find administrators who has been in the business for more than 15 years and ask them what changes they have observed in the student body over the years. It is overwhelming. Social, emotional, psychological, familial, and societal changes. Attention issues, often related to the distractions of the latest technology. Different types of religious struggles that channel teenage angst in a way unique to this generation.
How we teach the students of this generation has to adapt, too. Our youth need us to see them and speak to them. We must undergo a paradigm shift, moving away from feeling that we must bear the onus of teaching material to our students, but rather that our students must bear the responsibility of learning for themselves.
While in a teacher-centered classroom, a teacher realistically expects a third of the class to be engaged in the classroom discussion if she lectures interactively, and for straight-up lecture, there is no participation, save for questions. In an effectively run student-centered classroom, 100% of students are engaged in the learning experience with teacher direction and input. Everyone is reached, everyone’s voice is heard, and everyone’s contribution counts, which means everyone counts. Because teaching is an opportunity to not merely impart information, to not only provide life-long skills, but to build students now, with far-reaching effects.
This type of instruction provides very important benefits the student in numerous ways. And if the student is learning successfully, the teacher of course benefits, too. Student-centered learning teaches students personal responsibility for their own learning and individual accountability.. It includes explicit skill instruction, teaching students how to think, analyze, evaluate and problem solve. The collaboration that occurs in the classroom benefits both learning – and peer relationships, which is so important to children, especially in the middle and high school years. Additionally, it provides more opportunities for students to receive direct instruction and be engaged with teacher. Each student has opportunity to answer questions and share insights and opinions, which leads to is an increased feeling of mutual respect between teacher and student. Student motivation is improved. Instruction can be differentiated more easily to meet the needs of individual students. Finally, this type of learning set-up increases physical movement which benefits the brain, a big relief for students who are used to sitting in desks from one class to the next, hours on end.
Skilled teachers know that variety is key. Any one method, if overused, can become tiresome for both student and teacher. What is crucial is that a teacher has his or her ultimate goal in in mind when creating a lesson, whether it is a skill-based or affective goal or both, and then work backwards from that, formulating the specific methods she will use so that her students can effectively achieve that goal.7
The beauty of this technique is that it can be applied in both a Limudei Chol and Limudei Kodesh classroom. Consider the difference between a high school student listening to her teacher read and translate a Ramban and share his or her insights and applications with the class, vs. two students tackling the Ramban on their own, adding their individual insights and formulating their own application to their lives. Where is the role of the teacher in this? She is walking around the classroom, listening in on the partners, providing constructive feedback and corrections when necessary, positively reinforcing, and building a relationship with her students which is centered around the stimulating shared process of learning. Certainly, the teacher can regroup the students afterwards to enforce her particular skill-based and affective goals of the lesson. But consider how much more is gained!
Rabbi Yair Hoffman, in his article “Sarah Schenirer’s Unfulfilled Legacy”, calls for us as a community to create happier homes and happier classrooms as the first things we can do until a new revolution occurs to bring home our off-the-derech kids. “We need to reach out to the people we see and smile at them,” he writes. How beautiful that would be if we could accomplish this even more in our classrooms? If we reached every single one of our students because we had the educational tools as teachers to effectively teach according to how that child learns best? If we could give each child more “air-time” on a day-to-day basis at school, instead of relegating our students to sit period after period just listening and taking notes? If we could recognize their questions, answers and opinions, and on a more one-on-one level, provide individual reinforcement that communicates to the student the self-affirming notion that “I count and what I have to say matters”?
Yasher Koach to the teachers and institutions in our communities that are doing this well. Let us support and encourage our schools to raise the bar in supporting excellent education for our children – and provide an environment of continuing education and continuous improvement for faculty. It is because our teachers are the ones on the first line of defense, day after day.
“The best answer to the question, ‘What is the most effective method of teaching? Is that it depends on the goal, the students, the content and the teacher. But the next best answer is, ‘Students teaching other students.’ There is a wealth of evidence that peer teaching is extremely effective for a wide range of goals, content and students of different levels and personalities” (McKeachie, et.al, 1986). ↩
Johnson, David W., Roger T. Johnson, Edythe Johnson Holubec. The New Circles of Learning: Cooperation in the Classroom and School. Alexandria: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 37. ↩
Taanit, 7a. ↩
Berachot, 63b. ↩
Yerushalmi Nedarim, 11:1, 41c ↩
Taanit, 23a ↩
See Jay McTighe’s and Grant Wiggin’s Understanding by Design, Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2005, on improving student achievement. ↩