I Have Seen the Future of Jewish Education, and It Is Us

A great deal has been made lately of the latest in Jewish educational technology, a sweeping program called Mercava.

I have written frequently on this blog about the importance of integrating technology in the Judaic studies classroom and have broadly championed such platforms as Google, Bar Ilan, and even ComicBuilder for creating immersive classroom environments, but I have misgivings about Mercava that I would like to air.

Before I share those misgivings, however, I must say that this appears to be the work of a highly dedicated group of people whom I believe care passionately about the Jewish people and believe sincerely that, without their work, our future is doomed. And beyond believing in the sincerity of these individuals, I wish that more people in the larger Jewish community shared their passion and energy. Our community would be a far better place if more of its members took on issues that they believed to be of importance and worked with such commitment to find solutions to those problems. Kol Hakavod to this group of innovative, envelope-pushing pioneers.

That said, nearly six years into my career as a classroom learning facilitator, I have begun to realize that there are two kinds of technology: the kind that is in the service of education, and the kind that asks education to serve it. The operative question: what is the driver and what is the passenger? Technology is healthy, but not as the catalyst for why we teach or learn to begin with. Mercava has gone beyond integration of technology to make technology the raison d’etre for why we teach and learn at all. When their promotional video opens by saying that “The most immediate challenge we face as educators … is that [children] are used to information coming at them very rapidly,” we are being introduced to a reactive, inwardly-focused module which is essentially a rebranding of the anachronism “technology for technology’s sake.” Although Mercava has updated that cliche to reflect their belief that technology is the only way to save our children and Torah itself from calamity, the two are essentially the same. This is technology that is served by education rather than serving it. Certainly there are great uses for technology – I use it in the classroom every day – but short of using it simply because it is technology, I use it because it is what happens to work best in those situations. This program takes as its starting point that technology itself is the answer, almost whatever that technology is and whatever it does, simply because it is technology. Rather than using knowledge, skills, or curriculum as a starting point and then integrating bold new technology where appropriate, Mercava has recast the entire purpose of education as being to bombard students with some sort of technology, and then they have worked outwardly to devise ways in which this technology can also, perhaps, educate. In my opinion, that is a backwards way to plan a curriculum or lesson.

What is “technology in the service of education?” Here is a screenshot.

Screenshot DEAL 7th Winter

The students’ names on the left were omitted to protect their privacy, but the points, totals, and averages are real. What you are looking at is a snapshot of DEAL, Drop Everything and Learn, a new platform innovated at my school to encourage independent learning by our students. More specifically, you are looking at how one group of students spent their recent Winter Break, and the choices that they made amid the myriad temptations in their lives. Numbers the students entered into the various subject columns resulted in the auto-generated “Totals” because Google was taught, using formulas, to calculate each Mishna as two points, each Amud of Gemara as ten points, each Perek of Tanach as five points, each hour spent listening to an online Shiur as three points, and so on. What was left to the students was to enter their learning by Perek, hour, or page, as each column requests. Because they were in competition with each other and with students in two other classes for individual prizes (Amazon gift cards), class prizes (Slurpees), and an ice cream party (for anyone who earned 50 points), the results were rather impressive. Because of the program’s integration of technology, the students were able to track their own learning, keep tabs on competitors, encourage friends in the same class to keep up, and build justifiable pride in their accomplishments’ being broadcast for others to see in real time. And because the program stressed independent, optional learning, it is, we believe, the beginning of a lifetime of learning in the only way they will ever do it – because they choose to. We are creating a culture of learners, an atmosphere of learning that goes far beyond the classroom and encourages the students to see learning as a real-life activity even right now. This is a snapshot of technology serving our meta-educational goal by creating a tool to get us where we already knew we wanted to go.

So to the “psychology of eating specialist” near the beginning of the video who tells us that, from her vantage point, “the current educational system – it’s not working for a generation of children who are used to getting immediate gratification,” I would respond as a Seattle-based teacher did today in an educators’ forum: “My students are not bored. My students love my class and look forward to their Jewish learning each day. They love the projects, the skits they write, the songs they write and perform, the debates, the interactive recreation of our history and stories. Bringing these stories and teachings to life for 21st century kids requires speaking their language and making it meaningful to them – but that doesn’t mean reducing it to a soundbite like the rest of their life.” I agree. But what I would add is that what makes the Seattle educator’s classroom hum is that she begins with curriculum and then adds technology as needed – again, “technology in the service of education.” As in every profession, a good educator integrates whatever tools are needed to do the job – technology, calisthenics, dramatization, projects, modeling, games. But those tools are added to service the education that has already been envisioned, not to provide its very backbone.

I also notice that the Seattle teacher stresses all the things that the students themselves are doing – “the skits they write, the songs they write and perform.” In my experience, student creation and student choice are what build both short-term buy-in and long-term results. I do not see an emphasis on either of those by Mercava, although technology could be used that way. Here, for example, is a student of mine a few weeks ago using Google Sketch to create her own digital re-creation of the Mishkan based on her own learning of Chumash and Rashi:


And here is a student who preferred to work on the same project, at the same table, the old-fashioned way:


And here is the work of a student who completed the same project last year in a very different way:


As others have noted in educators’ forums, the video seems to show things being done for students – such as breaking down, color-coding or translating Gemara – things which, if done for them, do not encourage students to become skilled learners or to feel good about their abilities or skills. It seems like there is an emphasis on end-product, but not on process. In our throwing technology at them to save their souls from being lost by being device-less for part of their day, our students are not necessarily becoming more skilled or knowledgeable. And some combination of those, even today, is power.

A month ago my eighth grade Gemara learners had a great question related to Beit Din, so I emailed the question to a noted Dayan in New York. From the admirable display of interactivity with other learners and teachers around the world, I see that, for a moment at least, it is important to Mercava that students have such questions. Is this method better than sending an email, just because it’s more eye-popping? And will the Rav on the other end of the line care to respond? But more importantly than either of those questions, will the rest of the Mercava experience encourage that kind of questioning? I don’t see the kind of prodding of deep thinking that would lead to that.

I also do not buy into the doomsday prediction that, “by not acting, we will lose at least an entire generation of children – of Jewish children – at least!” I do not believe that this is our last chance, and that if we do not throw technology at the students in every conceivable way, Torah will be lost from the Jewish people forever. Dark background music and evocative grayscale photos notwithstanding, this video does not convince me that we are in the throes of a grave, apocalyptic crisis. Great things are happening in classrooms all across this country, and Jewish education has, partly but not entirely because of smartly-used technology, improved dramatically since I was a child in its retention and engagement of students and in its transformation of students into learners. Visiting the contemporary American Jewish school, one could find classrooms full of engaged, productive students, enjoying and gaining from their learning even without being constantly attached to devices. I give students and my colleagues around the country credit – and, for that matter, I give Torah itself credit – that we can put down our devices sometimes and experience life in other ways. I am glad that when I was growing up, my teachers credited my classmates and me with having enough sense to know the difference between the TV and movies we watched endlessly and the Torah that we learned in school. We knew there was a difference, and we expected there to be a difference. We didn’t need Torah to perfectly reflect the banalities of the world around us in order to be worthwhile – that, in fact, perhaps just the opposite was true. I have found my students today to understand, as well, that there is a difference between the world around us and their Torah learning. They appreciate that, at times, there can be an integration of those two worlds, and that is well and good; but they are also not confounded or antagonistic when those worlds cannot be integrated.

Where technology augments Torah, that is wonderful. Where technology is an end in and of itself, I take that to be a defensive posture that Torah is not strong enough to withstand the way we spend the rest of our lives, and I disagree. I find that students actually still respond to Ameilut when it is encouraged of them, and technology can often help with that, but not when technology obfuscates the need for Ameilut by saying that the answers are already there for the taking. As another blogger noted recently in an otherwise positive review of Mercava:

“The only features which I am not so excited about, which ironically are a major selling point in their promotional video, are the many embedded pictures and animations. This is one area where I differ from the vision of the Mercava. While I think pictures and videos about what is going on in the Gemara can be helpful at times, it will never make the Gemara a better learning tool. I think that good learning is messy. Kids learn best when they use their imagination and the teacher invites the student to interact directly with the text not a slick Disney-like video cartoon. They need to find inconsistencies and seek out ways to resolve them; to see a halachic statement and attempt to discover the universal principle on which it is based. As has been proven by the exhaustive research of Larry Cuban, making learning more like TV and movies with videos and cartoons does not make for better learning. It might be a temporary motivational boost but that will quickly wear off. Only real thought provoking activities will keep our students engaged and help them to fall in love with the learning as we have.”

I will end as I began, in praise of these mighty warriors who are admirably battling Jewish ignorance and indifference in the best way they know how. I, for one, while rarely adapting any new program at face value, am always open to ideas from all quarters, and I am sure my classroom will benefit from this, if in some way less grand than its creators envision. I am also sure Mercava will get many buyers, and I am just as sure that Torah will survive with or without it; if Torah is strong enough to survive without an unparalleled bombardment of technology, it is also strong enough to survive with it. That is my opinion, but don’t take my word for it – I’ve never worked for Disney.

This entry was posted in Classroom Experiences, Communal Matters, Jewish Education (meta). Bookmark the permalink.

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