Over Shabbat Natalie (my wife) and I got into a long conversation with good friends who are active in the world of Jewish philanthropy and education. The conversation turned to Natalie’s work at the iCenter on the iChallenge incubator for innovative ideas in Jewish education on Chicago. Among the ideas she talked about were: not abandoning, but rather rethinking, supplementary education; extending camp into the school year and building a year-round camp approach to Jewish education; developing games and other educational frameworks different from traditional classroom experiences; and many others.

Natalie has specific examples of synagogues, camps, and independent entities in Chicago and around the country that are trying these and other new approaches. All of them are characterized by many of the things the iCenter includes in its Aleph-Bet of Israel Education, which are clearly applicable more broadly to Jewish education in general: most importantly that it is learner-centered, immersive, integrated, and experiential. the Aleph-Bet is likely to become a big thing in the next year or so: it strikes a chord, and lays out in one place many of the principles that more creative educators have been employing for a long time.

Philosophically, this approach to experiential education is not an innovation at all. It is chiefly a return to the ideas of John Dewey, whose work was eclipsed in the last fifty years by approaches that focused more on schools and curriculum. But creative, innovative educators have known and employed Dewey’s ideas for a long time, and it seems that Dewey’s stock has gone up as institutions have shown their limitations. Simply put, when you make Jewish life more about the survival of Jewish institutions than about the flourishing of Jewish life, your institutions will become irrelevant.

So now, instead of the synagogue school that meets after a long day in regular school, creative Jewish educators are thinking about play-oriented approaches to education. Principles from camp can be brought into Hebrew school (and day school, for that matter): playing games, making cheers, using arts and crafts, and ultimately changing the very setting and environment in which Jewish education takes place. Camp can actually become a center we build around, with summer camp not a stand-alone experience, but the linchpin in a year-round approach to Jewish learning that also involves smaller doses of camp.

As we talked about all this, an analog came to mind, which also came to be in the days of Dewey: Scouting. Read the previous paragraph and think about how Scouting employs all these elements. Camp is the central organizing principle for Scouting, and troop meetings employ all the elements we’re talking about here. Regular camp experiences, learning-by-doing, learner-centered approaches and attractive reward systems for learning (think merit badges): Baden-Powell figured all this out at precisely the same time Dewey was writing.

Both Dewey and Baden-Powell were responding to massive changes in their world. Scouting, like Dewey’s progressive education, was a response to an industrialized, urbanized world where education had become oriented around mechanical metaphors: schools, when children went to them, would take the raw materials (students), run them through a value-adding process, and produce outputs. This left too many children behind. So they both proposed something very different: starting with the learner at the center, preparing the student to respond well in a changing world. (Louis Menand has written about this extensively in his work on pragmatism, though I don’t know if he includes Scouting in this. He should.)

I have my own critiques of Scouting, principally that, like too many Jewish institutions, became too focused on institutional self-preservation and not on living out its educational mission. (Yes, Scouting’s approach to dealing with homosexuality and God is much more about institutional interests–namely the Church of Latter-Day Saints–than its educational mission.) But, like most successful movements, it is rooted in key enduring ideas and values. While the experience of most Jewish educators does not overlap with Scouting (because of the socio-economic segregation that describes so much of our lives today), those of us involved in trying to renew Jewish education would be wise to look at its model and learn from it.

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