Extending the Symposium on Jewish Education

As the rabbi of The Alfred and Adele Davis Academy, Atlanta’s mechina-8th grade Reform Jewish Day School I thoroughly enjoyed reading the “Symposium on Jewish Education” at RJ.org. It’s wonderful to hear thought leaders from within and beyond the Reform movement analyzing trends, citing innovative practices, and making bold predictions about the future of Jewish education. The power of relationships, the impact of technology, the need for personal meaning, the interconnectedness of world Jewry, and the democratization of information… these are just a few of the themes that emerged across the various posts. I particularly appreciated the remarks of Rabbi David Ellenson, in his position paper submitted to the Jim Joseph Foundation (cited by Dr. Charles Edelsberg) that highlighted the ongoing centrality of Jewish schooling and suggested investing in institutions that are currently achieving great success in Jewish education so that they can continue to focus on and achieve their missions. I believe The Davis Academy, and many of our Reform Jewish Day Schools are such institutions.

The Alfred and Adele Davis Academy

Among the many ideas that warrant serious consideration when thinking about Jewish education in a Reform or liberal context is the difference between “performance” goals and “learning” goals. While this distinction has implicitly driven my own work and the work of countless colleagues, I’ve only recently acquired this specific terminology. My teacher in this area is John D’Auria, president of Teacher21. His work builds on that of renowned educational psychologist Carol Dweck.

Performance goals have to do with winning favor in the eyes of others. Winning a game, dazzling a crowd with a great guitar solo, or having a perfectly memorized Torah portion for your bar mitzvah– these are examples of performance goals. Getting an “A” on the big test is also an example of a performance goal. Performance goals have a powerful hold on us. We all want to please our parents and teachers, impress our friends and strangers, and experience the thrill that comes with performing well. The problem is that performance goals can be all consuming and distort our focus. Unfortunately, when it comes to Judaism, winning, dazzling, memorizing, and getting an “A” aren’t what it’s all about. Clear enough?

What do learning goals look like? Rather than focusing on the win, we might focus on executing the new plays that we worked on in practice all week. Rather than dazzling the crowd with our Jimi Hendrix like prowess, we might try to implement a new technique that we’ve been refining with our guitar teacher. Rather than memorizing our Torah portion we might strive to develop an appreciation for its meaning. Rather than focusing on the test, we might focus on the knowledge we’re being asked to master, evaluating whether it is of use in our lives or not. The joy of learning goals is that they are proximal, achievable, enduring, and transformative. Eventually we’ll earn the esteem of parents and teachers, friends and strangers, but we’ll do so from a much stronger and sure place.

When we focus ourselves, our students, and our communities on learning goals rather than performance goals, we are fulfilling our mandate as Reform Jewish educators.

I’m hard pressed to find a rabbinic colleague or fellow Jewish educator who favors performance goals over learning goals. The challenge is that the world around us can’t resist a great performance, and all too often couldn’t care less about great learning. Prone to anxiety and unable to resist comparison, it’s easy to sacrifice learning on the altar of performance. Many of our institutions, day schools and otherwise, are designed to make sense within this context of performance. Prospective parents are typically more concerned with test scores (performance) than they are with the depth and rigor of professional development amongst the faculty (learning). When it comes to life cycle events like b’nai mitzvah, confirmation, and beyond, congregational colleagues confess that it is difficult and sometimes impossible to migrate young adults and families away from performance and towards learning. It’s hard to be one voice speaking against the crowd.

One could argue that, from the very beginning, Reform Judaism has been counter cultural because it has always promoted learning goals over performance goals. It’s one of the reasons that bar mitzvah lost out to confirmation for so many years in Reform communities. As it has been a hallmark of our past, so too the prioritization of learning over performance must be a part of our future. Until we can demonstrate that the choice is clear, that learning must triumph over performance (or at the very least infuse and inform all our performances), then we will continue to encounter frustration as we try to achieve our many other future oriented goals.

Cultivating a Growth Mindset

The following is a guest post from Drew Frank, the Director of Academic Operations and Lower School Principal of The Alfred and Adele Davis Academy. You can follow Drew on twitter @ugafrank. He shared a version of these remarks at Back To School Night.


I want to share with you some very important research that is helping shape our classroom, guidance, and school experience here at The Davis Academy.  Over the course of the past year, I have had the pleasure of working with a number of educational researchers and thinkers who are looking into the amazing work of psychologist Carol Dweck.  Her research has helped shape our teacher training during preplanning and will be incorporated throughout the year.

Carol did many research projects, but her seminal work was on the idea of the growth mindset.  Carol’s initial research was done by bringing in thousands of children for a testing session.  She would first give them an easy task which she knew they could solve.  Next she would give them a challenge which she knew they could not solve.  She observed two very different reactions.  The first set pushed away from the table, exclaimed, ‘this task is dumb’ which led to ‘I am not smart enough or good enough’. The second group of testers actually moved closer to the task and embraced the challenge.  It was this distinction and trying to figure out what makes someone shrink away or embrace a challenge that focused the rest of her research.

Years later after doing many follow up studies  she made the distinction between the fixed mindset, those who feel they have a fixed amount of intelligence, ability, and competencies, versus those who have a growth mindset or believe their intelligence, abilities, and competencies are ever growing.  The piece of her research most important  for us  as parents and for us as educators, was that the key factor was not in how adults interacted with children when the children experienced failure that impacted their mindset, but what we said after a success that was internalized by children.

In her latest research she selected 1000 students who tested in the 9th stanine on New York’s  end of year assessments. By selecting this group she knew she had a top group of achievers.  She split the group in to two set.  Group A she gave the easy task, and then after they got it correct  she said, ‘Wow,  You are great.  awesome job’. Group B, she gave the easy task then after they got it right, she said, ‘I love how you used a diagram to solve that’ or, ‘I noticed and appreciated that you listed the components and I think that really helped you to solve the problem’.  She then gave both groups the hard problem.  At the end of the session she thanked the students for participating, and she held up two envelopes and told the students they could only select one.  The first had the list of all participants and where they all ranked on the tasks.  The second had the solution to the second, more difficult task.  The first group that received the, ‘great job, you are amazing’ feedback selected the rankings over 80 percent of the time.  However, the group that received recognition for the strategies they employed selected the ranking less than 30% of the time.

So what does this mean as parents and educators?  While it is almost instinctual to praise the ‘A’ on a spelling test, the goal scored in a soccer game, or the beautiful created piece of art with a, ‘You are so smart, you are the best, great job’ it is far more impactful an beneficial if we can recognize the processes and strategies that were employed as opposed to the results that were attained.  We are going to be incorporating this research in our classrooms, professional development, and parent learning opportunities this year.