In most domains of student learning in schools, it is assumed that mastery is achieved through a combination of instruction and/or student discovery, guided practice, and application or lived experience. In math class, for example, when students encounter a new skill, they may work through it step by step with a teacher or learning partner, solve a series of problems to ensure that they have internalized the process, and then apply it independently through a project or exam. Research skills, crucial to success in college and beyond, are acquired similarly: a teacher may guide a student toward initial understanding of data collection, outlining, argumentation and analysis, and then the student practices each skill through small assignments before ultimately producing a full-scale research paper of which he/she can be proud. Even in the domain of athletics, learning is achieved through direct coaching, practice and then ultimately application on the field in a competitive environment.
Strangely, in the distinctive areas of learning for which Jewish day schools are perhaps best known—and may be the most important ultimately for our students’ contributions to the world—we tend to abandon this proven model of learning. We expect that our students will embody admirable character and strong leadership skills, and yet we so seldom employ this reliable paradigm of discovery/guided practice/application in these realms of learning. Instead, we expect that these competencies will be absorbed simply through modeling or osmosis.
Character and leadership can in fact be taught and practiced, however, and Jewish day schools’ missions of societal improvement and world transformation empower—and in fact obligate—us to equip our students in these areas. In our school, these areas constitute a focus of our 10th-grade curriculum. Focusing on the issue of poverty and homelessness, students study the Jewish texts that motivate us toward repairing the world. They are taught—and practice—how to demonstrate empathy in an interaction while maintaining dignity and avoiding patronization. And from the perspective of leadership, they learn about advocacy—how to speak cogently, how to make an impassioned case, even how to dress—and about persuasive writing.
The next step in the learning process—as it is in so many other disciplines—is application and experiential education. The students take a class trip to Washington, D.C., for two days of service and advocacy. On the first day, they engage with the homeless population of the District, bringing these individuals food and conversation—and joy and humanity. The following day, they visit Capitol Hill to lobby members of Congress, taking on the same issue from a different angle. Through their remarks that are driven by both data and emotion, their confident-yet-deferential approach and even their professional attire, they are implementing in a real-world arena the skills they have been practicing in the classroom—just as they would in any other discipline.
How do we know this approach works? The same way we would assess this in math or Jewish text study: based upon the students’ ability to apply these skills in later years. Last month, during our 11th-grade college tour in Boston, one student reported that the highlight of the trip for her was an impromptu interaction with a homeless woman, during which our student provided food and dignified conversation for a person who was sorely lacking in both. Reflecting on the experience, the student explicitly noted that it was because of the skills she had acquired in association with the previous year’s D.C. trip that she felt comfortable and empowered to do this. And from the standpoint of leadership and advocacy, we are particularly proud of our many alumni who have taken on leadership roles on their college campuses in response to recent “Israel Apartheid Week” programming: writing persuasive, nuanced op-ed pieces in campus newspapers; organizing educational events; and mobilizing the pro-Israel community on campus. These alumni do not all share the same political perspectives, but all have internalized a sense of responsibility to step forward as leaders and serve as articulate spokespeople in areas that will shape Judaism and the broader world in the years to come. Through a purposeful school curriculum, inside and outside the classroom, they are equipped with the abilities necessary to do so effectively.
All schools seek to inculcate their students with a particular set of skills—some of which are best demonstrated in a classroom and some of which are not. While a reliable formula of discover/instruct/practice/apply has been developed for the cultivation of the academic skills, this formula has only seldom been applied to the mastery of character and leadership—skills that are arguably the most important to emerge from a schooling experience. What we have learned from our own high school program is that these skills can in fact be taught in a similar manner, provided that teachers are given the time to attend to them and students are given the experiential opportunities to apply them. There is perhaps no higher purpose for which an institution of Jewish learning exists, and we could not be more proud of the long-term outcomes that we see in our alumni during their college years and beyond.
By Michael A. Kay
Michael A. Kay is head of school at Solomon Schechter School of Westchester, soon to be The Leffell School.