Toward Holistic Models of Assessing Judaic Studies Classroom Success in Day Schools

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Eliana Yashgur

Do the educational methods used in Jewish institutions (such as day schools) reflect their larger goals for students’ positive Jewish development? It is worth examining the modes of assessment in the Jewish day school and the messages they convey to students. For students to get a holistic Jewish education focusing on intellectual, spiritual, emotional, and behavioral development in the context of Jewish values, greater attention must be paid to students’ progress in these areas.

A key challenge in this regard is the fact that classroom, assessments in Judaic Studies are often similar to those of standard academic subjects. Limmud Torah often loses its unique flavor as a mode of spiritual direction. In addition to potentially disenfranchising students, this method puts Judaic learning at risk of being treated as any other intellectual pursuit, when the essence of Jewish education is about more than purely intellectual attainment. Many, if not most, Jewish day school classrooms employ traditional letter or number-scale grading systems for both secular and Judaic studies, measuring the amount of knowledge acquired. While this is an important and central goal of secular studies, limmud Torah operates on an entirely different system.

Limmud Torah as a commandment emphasizes knowledge amassment as well as time spent and effort expended. The Shulchan Arukh, Yoreh De’ah 246:1, frames the commandment as requiring one to commit time to studying Torah daily (being kove’a itim). Therefore, while knowledge amassment is important, we cannot ignore the other aspects of the experience and impact of learning Torah. The Hadran prayer that is recited upon the completion of a masekhet of the Talmud or seder of the Mishnah includes the words “we [when learning Torah] work and receive a reward” to contrast with other kinds of work in which the quality of the final product is the key marker of success rather than the quality of the effort put in. This is an apt contrast to the different forms of educational work students engage in. While various non-frontal and project-based educational models marked by different forms of assessment are being tested for secular subjects, especially STEM, it is still vital to track the objective level of knowledge amassment students attain. We would like to know that the future engineers and doctors we are training are competent in their fields. Yet, in the process of learning Torah, knowledge amassment matters as much as time and effort spent.

Another argument for assessing progress in Judaic Studies more holistically is that the current letter/number system often inhibits students from developing a whole Jewish self. A successful day school education should provide Torah learning that develops a student’s whole Jewish identity, which does not just mean memorization to get  good grades in Navi or Gemara. Content mastery is vital for this to happen, but without proper inculcation of the content in a larger context of understanding, a student’s Jewish development will be lacking. Content mastery is not enough. Deeper reflection upon the Jewish values guiding one’s life, how they function in tandem, and how they influence one’s decision-making processes should follow from learning Torah, and a successful Torah classroom should consider how the curriculum enables these thought processes. Grading  primarily based on content comprehension places a seal of approval on a student’s memorization of class material, diverting attention from the other goal of ensuring that the student imbibes that content in some meaningful way that will stay with them.

An obvious consequence of traditional grading in the Judaic Studies classroom is that students may view lower grades as a sign that they are not succeeding as Jews. Standard classroom grading may push some students away from engagement and interest in the class. There is ample evidence that lower achieving students identify less with the subject in question. Moreover, when students are forced to engage with something they do not identify with, they become even more resentful (Sinclair, 2004).[1] It is particularly striking to observe, based on the research of Yitzchak Tzvi Goldberg (2014), that students placed in lower-ability tracking for Talmud had statistically significantly more negative perceptions of their abilities in Talmud than did students in the middle and higher-level Talmud tracks.[2] This suggests that while the effects of measuring content mastery may limit the high performing students from fully expanding their Jewish selves, the risk is most pressing for the lower-achieving, who may actually pull away from limmud Torah.

While both content mastery and making deeper connections to the material are important, and in ideal Torah learning should overlap, this does not always occur in a day school classroom. Students learn at different paces, and it is difficult to objectively measure the extent and ways in which students are internalizing the text. Therefore, progress can be assessed through myriad means. It is precisely for this reason that grading is problematic. It is not that grading merely hampers an elusive “deeper connection” by forcing students to focus on memorization and note taking rather than internalizing and meaning-seeking. By grading we limit the breadth of effects that Torah learning can have on a student.

For example, picture a student learning the parasha with the commentary of Rashi. From the perspective of content, we note that students could be fulfilling the mitzvah of shnayim mikra v’ehad targum by focusing on getting through a certain quantity of text (if we define content by the amount of text covered, as it often is). But beyond this, students each have different forms of interaction with the content. Some, who may have more bekiut oriented minds, will remember more details. Others will notice patterns in parshiot that relate to larger narratives encompassed in that sefer. Yet others will focus on chronology and how an unexpected thread in the narrative reflects the principle of “ein mukdam u’meuchar baTorah” (“the Torah is not organized chronologically”). And in these patterns of learning, they will come back to remember the content of their learning at their own pace and in the way they can do it best.

Traditional grading practices threaten this individuality so inherent in the process of learning Torah. If students are judged based upon the same benchmark, they would often end up having to take the same steps to get there and this disenfranchises the students who may be unable to learn at the required pace or order, and detracts from students who may indeed have other valid ways of approaching the text.

Additionally, grading can erroneously suggest that Torah learning is linear and clear-cut, which it isn’t. Meaningful Torah learning happens not through a one-time overview of a text, but by grappling with difficult ideas over time and sitting with material until the picture becomes clearer. It goes without saying that this applies for theologically or ethically complicated matters, which may take years of Torah learning and patience as well as maturity to understand. If students’ minds are occupied with grades, the thought processes leading to longer-term contemplation of various issues may not be given the time and space to take root. This can be the case for any number of important topics in Jewish thought today, ranging from feminism to sexuality to ethics of modern economies. Moreover, when students bring up topics of interest like these, the opportunity to discuss these issues may be shut down due to pressures to cover the planned material.

A system which uses grading may do a disservice to the intangible pleasures of deep understanding. Evidence on mixing intrinsic rewards (i.e. deep connection with the material) and extrinsic rewards (i.e. prizes and grades) shows that intrinsic motivation diminishes when external rewards are used (Stipek, 2002).[3] Even when the information taught in class is meaningful and interesting, testing will decrease the intrinsic value it holds.

Furthermore, students in a Jewish day school also differ in family background. A meta-analysis of 31 educational studies found that parental involvement can increase educational achievement by up to 30 percent (Fan and Chen, 2001).[4] Students coming from families that are less religiously involved have greater needs. Not only are they at a possible disadvantage in terms of Hebrew skills and cultural and lived Jewish knowledge, but they may be even more dependent on the school to help them develop emotional and personal connections to Judaism. A holistic emphasis on classroom progress would be in the interest of students with little Jewish background. Here, the teacher can play a major role in giving a student a well-rounded Jewish identity.

As an alternative to traditional grading, we can tap Jewish wisdom on how to assess internal experiences related to Torah. We might examine the motivations for Jewish involvement that are discussed in Jewish texts. For example, the Rambam writes that although both love (ahavah) and fear (yira’ah) direct one’s service of G-d, ahavah is greater, but there is a role for yira’ah as well (Rambam, Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah, Yesod 2). Students may discuss when each of those motivates their service of G-d, in light of what Jewish sources say. This way, students may be able to critically examine their Jewish internal lives and what drives them toward the observance of Torah and mitzvot, or towards a relationship with G-d. Text sources on educational motivations for limmud Torah may shed light on students’ own Torah learning habits, and direct them in deciding how they want their learning to take shape.

This would be further reinforced by tracking progress and continuously having students examine their motivations in the service of G-d and understandings of the text they are learning in terms of their own spiritual path and educational background. It would be hypocritical to introduce students to a richer approach to their Torah learning and yet focus on assessing them in an impersonal way. Instead, assessments in the form of feedback from a teacher or guided student-to-student exercises would honestly reflect the importance of personalized experiences in Torah learning. This would help to ameliorate the potential problems that proponents of traditional grading fear with the removal of numerical assessments in Judaic Studies. Students must still be held to a certain standard and expectations must still be made clear. Yet this can be done in a far less demeaning way, particularly for subjects that are not merely academic but also personal and can have lifelong relevance for all students.

Another question for exploration could be: “How am I comparing myself to my friends?” While traditional classroom assessments compare students to one another, the natural modes of limmud Torah has a different approach. The gemara states that “kinat sofrim tarbeh khakhma” (BT Bava Batra 21a): the envy of scholars [amongst one another] increases knowledge. However, the MaHaRSHA (on BT Bava Batra 21a) comments: “[it says] ‘envy of the student scholars’ (kinat sofrim), and not ‘envy of the elders’ (kinat khakhamim), because the elders learn Torah without envy for one another”. In other words, while Jewish tradition recognizes that people come to Torah with different personal motivations, striving for spiritually relevant motivations is the ideal. Such passages can help students think about the way they approach their Torah study.

Students can also examine their emotional connections to Judaism in ways that reflect debates in the traditional sources. For instance, examination of the contexts and purposes of kana’us (zealotry) in Jewish texts, including the story of Pinchas and Zimri (Numbers 25:10–30:1), can alert students to the importance of emotional appraisal and critical analysis of personal motivations. Using project-based learning in which students think through a challenging question and work in groups to solve problems will give them practice in stretching their minds to exercise different kinds of thinking and motivational directions.

The self directedness students practice while creating their own paths in limmud Torah would have a strong payoff as students develop their own religious life narrative. Importantly, this allows more room to focus on learning to have healthy and positive relationships with teachers built on mentorship and care, rather than judgment and assessment. A Torah teacher can serve as a guide for students learning to develop a personal connection to their Judaism. Even for students who will end up relying on Torah scholars solely for official halachic guidance, having a holistic and personable relationship with a teacher that is not primarily based on judgment can help them develop an appreciation for this kind of relationships with Torah scholars.[5]

Many alternative educational models which do not emphasize frontal classroom learning have come into popularity in Jewish day schools. Curriculums focused on Problem Based Learning, where students learn about a subject through “doing” and exploring a problem firsthand, can lead the way in developing autonomous religious identities in the classroom (Krakowski, 2017).[6] Many methods of interactive learning have their roots in tradition. Chavruta and open beit midrash models allow students to learn collaboratively with their peers and also learn cooperation skills which will serve them in their educational and personal lives.

Interactive classrooms model for students a genuine process of engagement built on incremental growth and problem solving. Rather than running a race against other students to memorize information, students in an interactive classroom can learn to approach their religious growth with a whole-person mindset, exploring Torah on their own pace and autonomously. Importantly, such a classroom replicates the traditional beit midrash more naturally. The model of chavruta learning has been a staple of limmud Torah much longer than the educational style many Jewish day school classrooms employ. Developing a peer relationship based on learning Torah is perhaps one of the most meaningful educational pursuits in the realm of Torah.

Adapting chavruta style learning models to Jewish day school curriculums would involve an assessment of the attentional, social, intellectual, verbal, and spatial learning skills and habits of students. Based on a proper understanding of students’ needs, chavruta based learning systems can be tweaked accordingly.  This model can create a classroom in which quantitative measurements of learning are unnecessary, and more wholesome assessments of Jewish spiritual growth can adequately take their place. They can enable teachers to harness students’ skills and interests and use them to funnel students’ mastery of Jewish subjects and values in a personal and well-rounded way.

Within these systems, students must still be held accountable for adhering to the program of study. Yet this accountability can come out of a system of assessment that values students’ progress holistically and seeks to measure their growth in multiple ways. Students will be motivated and encouraged by qualitative feedback from teachers that very clearly comes from a place of care and desire for students to grow rather than judgement. Their motivation for learning will be reinforced by the academic curriculum itself, such as the esteem generated by making a siyum in front of friends. By challenging those running the Judaic Studies classroom to think more broadly about how to assess students’ progress, the goals of holistic Jewish education will be closer to our reach.

[1] Sinclair, Alex. “Torah Lishmah or GPA? The Contribution of Practitioner Insights to the Visioning Process of Bible Education in a Day School,” Journal of Jewish Education  70 (2004): 1–2, 40–50.

[2] Goldberg, Yitzchak Tzvi. “The Effect of Ability Grouping for Talmud on the Academic Self-Concept of Jewish Orthodox Middle School Student” (PhD diss., Walden University, 2014).

[3] Deborah Stipek. Motivation to Learn: Integrating Theory and Practice. (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2002).

[4] Fan, Xitao, & Chen, Michael. “Parental Involvement and Students’ Academic Achievement: A Meta-Analysis,” Educational Psychology Review 13(1) (2001): 1–22.

[5]As an aside, Miriam Hirsch (2017) notes that grading creates an automatic power dynamic between teacher and student that in dire cases may enable abuse through the grade manipulation. This could invite sycophantic behavior on the student’s part, undermining the environment of respect and ethics inherent in an ideal Torah learning community. Hirsch, Miriam. “Jewish Day School Wounds and What We Can Do About Them,” Journal of Jewish Education 83(4) (2017): 367–392.

[6] Krakowski, Moshe.  “Developing and Transmitting Religious Identity: Curriculum and Pedagogy in Modern Orthodox Jewish Schools,” Contemporary Jewry 37(3) (2017): 433–456.

Eliana Yashgur recently graduated with a BA from Princeton University. She currently lives in Jerusalem, and plans to pursue graduate study in psychology. She is an alumna of Midreshet Harova and the Center for Modern Torah Leadership, and is an administrative board member for Bnot Sinai and the BINAH Conference. Additionally, she served as an intern for the Mayberg Foundation and on the educational staff at Camp Moshava. Her interests in creative educational techniques impact her approach to teaching Torah subjects as well as mathematics.