religious kids school 248.88.
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimksi)
Perhaps no other problem plagues the religious Zionist education system more than the high percentage of students who have abandoned a religious lifestyle. Despite the recognition that religious education is not foolproof, a sense of crisis pervades religious Zionist circles, grounded in the belief that, more than ever, religious Zionist education is failing.
Accordingly, scholars and educators have sought out the root causes of this disturbing phenomenon. The litany of suggestions includes an overly authoritarian educational approach that invites rebellion, a bewildering range of individual choices offered to students and a materialistic culture antithetical to traditional values. Without dismissing the validity of any of these hypotheses, I would like to propose an additional factor.
I would like to explore the link between those who leave the ranks of Orthodoxy and those with learning difficulties. Though I am unaware of any study that examines the correlation between learning difficulties and retaining religious commitment, there is anecdotal evidence supporting this link. Indeed, I believe that a thorough investigation of defection from Orthodoxy will reveal that there is a higher percentage of students with learning difficulties among them than in the general population.
What is more, the psychological underpinning of this link is suggestive. In religious Zionist schools, most of the day is devoted to academic activities so that students with learning difficulties experience confusion and frustration. Additionally, students are generally judged according to their academic abilities and achievements. Consequently, students with learning difficulties are viewed (by themselves and by their teachers) as lazy, at best, and incompetent, at worst. In response, they often rebel and direct the rebellion against the school, as well as the religious worldview which it represents.
Seemingly great strides have been made in addressing this issue. Resources and new educational strategies have been employed in facilitating students with learning difficulties in improving their academic achievements.
As a result, students who previously were unable to function in our schools are able to complete their studies. Nevertheless, these changes do not address the root problem. The fundamental obstacle for students with learning difficulties is the fact that our schools focus on transmitting intellectual content (religious and secular) and valorize academic achievement, which is judged mainly through success in taking examinations. In such an environment, students whose strength is not in this area will ineluctably be marginalized and alienated.
As a result, what is required is a systemic change that presents a broader definition of success and rejects the overemphasis on intellectual achievements. Religious Zionist education must introduce a new vision that recognizes the singular potential of each of our students, his or her tzelem elohim. In forging this new educational philosophy, we must attend to Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligence and other educational theories that evince an understanding of the diversity of human skills, learning skills and virtues. Consequently, we must abandon our monistic educational ideals and adopt a more pluralistic sensibility, presenting alternative models of an educated Jew.
LET ME suggest two changes that can help bring about this reorientation: First, I suggest that schools should not be differentiated based on the academic level and performance of their students. Many religious Zionist schools, particularly high schools, are stratified scholastically, focusing on stronger or weaker students exclusively. The better and elite schools limit themselves to students who they feel can meet their high intellectual standards, forcing them to undergo a battery of academic tests before accepting them. These schools and the students who attend them are perceived as superior. This shapes the self-image of students who are not accepted in these schools and the way that they are perceived in the community.
By eliminating academic stratification between schools, the damage to the students not accepted in the elite schools can be eliminated. Instead of the current hierarchy, all religious Zionist schools should accept students with a varied academic profile, instituting curricula and educational methods that allow each student to develop his or her unique talents and skills. Schools should still develop different specialties, educational philosophies and religious outlooks. There should be schools focusing on arts, schools with specialties in science, schools with liberal religious orientations, schools with more conservative stances, schools with progressive educational philosophies and schools with more standard educational practices. But they should not be organized hierarchically, and by eliminating academic stratification this is possible.
Second, I recommend changing the method of evaluating students. Apart from the division between types of schools, religious Zionist schools manage to transmit to students who are weaker academically that they are "inferior" through numerical or alphabetical grades. Numerical grades are problematic for many reasons: They relate little essential information about the student; they relate primarily to the academic achievement of the students and not to their ethical or religious development; and their hidden message is that study must be motivated by external motivation. Their most damaging impact is the quantitative scale that they create by which students who are weaker academically are compared to other students and judged as lacking.
I am not suggesting, however, that schools should not engage in evaluating their students. But it must be done in a manner that treats each student as a singular being by providing a qualitative evaluation that reports on his or her strengths and challenges.
The writer is a lecturer in Jewish thought and education at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, and an academic adviser to the TALI leadership program.