How to improve Israeli education

We need to focus on how to learn within the structure of the subject matter.

Children in classroom (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Children in classroom
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
The low placement of Israel on international educational comparisons has raised a flurry of consternation. Our system of education should concern us. Nothing matters more to survival and quality of a country than how its students are educated. However, international comparisons of test scores are irrelevant for a multitude of reasons. Cross-cultural comparisons of test scores are useless. There are too many mitigating reasons for differences in scores, including who each country tests, how diverse the populations, how many languages are taught and spoken or the economic status of the people who live there. Using test scores to compare cultures is no different than determining the quality of a culture’s health by counting and comparing the number of beets they eat.
During the ‘80s, for example, Americans were extremely worried about achievement inferiority in math and science compared to Japan. However, when I visited Japan and learned first hand about their education system, I discovered that Japan, at that time, had no special education and did not allow any troublemakers to attend school. The test score difference was due to America testing all children and Japan eliminating students most likely to lower the national average.
The second major reason is that learning cannot be measured by tests. Every teacher knows this to be true. It has been proven hundreds of times that there is no such thing as an objective test. In a way, measuring learning is like measuring how much you love your children. There are indicators, but no actual measurements.
That being said, Israel has real and deep problems with the way we teach students. The one I’d like to explore is how our policies affect student motivation.
No empirical studies are needed to see that many students in Israel lack sufficient motivation to learn. There are three main factors that influence the level of student motivation. Would you like to discover them? Pick one of the best teachers you ever had in your entire life. List what that teacher did to help you learn. Now do the same for a teacher who was one of your worst. What did that teacher do to prevent you from learning?
If you are like most people, these are three of the most important factors, for both teachers: your personal relationship, your belief that you could succeed and the connection of what you were learning to what you cared about.
It is the teacher’s responsibility and educational policy to ensure students are motivated. Some believe it is the child who is responsible to motivate himself and who should suffer if he isn’t. That is true in fantasy land but not in reality. School is for all children to learn as much as they can, not just the good ones. For those children who lack the motivation to learn, we can’t simply let them fail. Here are some things that we can do.
Developing personal relationships: can you remember a time when a teacher publicly embarrassed you? Most adults have never forgiven that teacher. School and national policy should make elimination of student humiliation a priority. We need to end writing names on whiteboards, end public exposure of academic or behavior charts. Teachers need to welcome every student.
They can be at the door when class starts to greet the students. They can call on students equally and help students who give wrong answers to find the right ones instead of just saying, “wrong,” “can anyone else tell him the answer.” We can spend more time helping those who most seem not to care. They are the ones who need us the most.
Belief in student success: the most basic rule of learning is the harder you try, the more you will learn. All decent parents know the magic words, “try again.” No parent ever says, “You fail at zippering your jacket, but we have to move on to shoe tying.” After a fall while learning to walk, dropping a spoon in the high chair or attempting to master any behavior, parents encourage their children to keep trying. They instinctively know the value of effort. Israeli schools value achievement far more than effort.
A new policy is needed, not to lower the value of achievement, but to raise the value of effort. No child who tries should ever fail and any child who doesn’t try cannot get the highest grades. In the workforce, production matters. In school learning skills is more important. Students learn skills best by trying their best.
How do you measure effort? The same way you measure achievement: by guessing. Neither effort nor achievement can be measured so we use other methods to help make our best guesses. Improvement, asking for help, doing more than is asked are far better methods of evaluation than any test. Moreover, as long as a child knows that effort matters, he will rarely have a reason to give up.
Relevance: overall our curriculum is well developed. Yet many improvements can be made. I’m a strong believer in classical education. Children need to learn how to read, do math, science, value the arts and clearly express themselves. However, teaching most facts is a waste of time. Facts are always changing in all core subjects. Do you really know how many planets are in the solar system? It’s changed three times in the past two decades. How many new words are added and old words are removed from the dictionary every year?
We need to focus on how to learn within the structure of the subject matter. For example, learning the scientific method and how to use it is more important than learning who invented penicillin.
We further need to teach why these subjects matter. Sixty to eighty percent of jobs our middle school students will get as adults don’t even exist yet. A 19th century curriculum has no place in the 21st century. If I tell you that I can make you better at something you care about, you will be highly motivated to learn. A new curriculum must be developed around blending a classical education with what students care about.
It doesn’t matter what we teach, what matters is what children learn. We can improve motivation to learn for all children if we try.
The writer recently retired as head of the graduate program in behavior disorder at David Yellin College in Jerusalem and is the author of 20 books on student behavior and motivation including the international best seller Discipline With Dignity.