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 informĀ allĀ our performances), then we will continue to encounter frustration as we try to achieve our many other future oriented goals.

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