Monday, July 6, 2009

Fish story

What did you learn in Hebrew school that you still remember? Or, if you did not attend Hebrew school as a child, what do you remember from any grade of elementary school?

One of my classmates from public school claims to remember nothing except that women in Tierra del Fuego bite the heads off the fish that they catch—not the most useful information to have readily available. I suspect, although I am not certain, that he does remember some genuinely useful things, such as the multiplication table.

What this reveals is that, in general, we remember best those things that we use regularly, and those that made a striking impression on us at the time. Sometimes the impression came from the sheer strangeness of the information (women bite the heads off fish) and was not necessarily what our teacher hoped to impart.

Schools of education teach that any school has three curricula: the explicit curriculum, the implied curriculum, and the actual curriculum. The explicit curriculum is the one designed by the director, curriculum committee, and school board. It comprises the choice of subjects to be taught, the stated learning objectives, the textbooks that are adopted, and the teaching methods that are recommended. It’s what we mean by curriculum when we’re not more specific.

The implied curriculum is unstated, but equally real. It consists of everything that students learn from the environment—for example, whether Hebrew school is more like school, camp, a play group, or something else. Some elements of the implied curriculum, such as the condition of the building, may not be in the control of the principal and teachers at all.

The implied curriculum also includes the message conveyed by what is taught or not taught. For example, I once had the opportunity to revise the curriculum of a school in which every grade studied two things: the Jewish holidays, and Israel. The high emphasis on holidays and Israel— and the absence of some other topics, such as Torah—probably taught students (a) that Jewish observance mattered a lot, (b) that real Jewish life existed only in Israel, and (c) that there really wasn’t that much to learn. They studied holidays and Israel in the first grade; after that, they kept getting the same material (from their point of view) over and over again.

The actual curriculum is, of course, what the students actually learn. Some of the actual curriculum comes from the explicit curriculum, but not necessarily with the intended emphasis (the fish weren’t really the point of the Tierra del Fuego unit). Some of the actual curriculum comes from choices made by the teacher, and some is inadvertent.

In any case, what we hope students will retain from school are the principles and ideas that a curriculum attempts to embody. Information and skills that receive constant use will be retained anyway. Facts that are not used constantly can be looked up, and skills can be re-learned. It’s the major ideas that matter most.

Recently I attended a seminar at the Jewish Education Center of Cleveland on Understanding by Design, a movement that builds curricula around “enduring understandings”: the ideas that have value in all settings and in all stages of life. Although a lesson built on Understanding by Design principles teaches the same facts and skills as any other lesson on the topic, it’s constructed to convey a central idea that transcends the information.

A third-grade class, for example, might take a short field trip to the sanctuary and learn the Hebrew names of the artifacts. The students might learn that the cover of a sefer Torah (Torah scroll) is a me’il (robe) and that the ornaments are rimmonim (pomegranates) or a keter (crown). They may or may not remember any of the terms, since most of us don’t talk about those things, especially in Hebrew, every day.

The enduring understanding that we might want students to gain from a visit to the sanctuary is different. What we’d most want them to learn is that the sanctuary is a holy place where Jews meet (the Hebrew name is beit k’nesset, house of assembly) to communicate with God and with one another. That’s an idea that is valuable throughout life, even if we forget the names of the artifacts.