What does it take to engage our students?

What is it that you hope your children will become as a result of their Jewish day school education? As a parent of young children and as a Jewish day school educator, I want my children and my students to grow into knowledgeable and literate Jews, capable of sustaining engagement with their Jewish learning and identity throughout their lives. I imagine that I am not alone in my hope that my children will be simultaneously invested in building their lives around Jewish and Torah values, while also contributing to a broader, secular community. I would imagine that we would want our children to think critically and deeply about the complexity inherent in their Jewish identity and observance, while still feeling immense pride for and love of their religion, sacred texts, and cherished traditions. 

What would it be to fall short of this goal? Would you be satisfied if the result of your child’s Jewish day school education was simply an adherence to Jewish tradition and observance driven by compliance and obligation, absent a sense of love and meaning? I venture to say that this is not the vision you have for your child. After the investment we have made as parents and as educators in providing a Jewish education for our children, we want their Jewish identity to be meaningful and beloved rather than burdensome.

 How do we, as educators and as parents, attempt to accomplish this? 

We need to navigate how to make our children’s lifelong commitment to their Judaism more than a guilt-ridden obligation or a list of rules to follow. And this charge starts with taking a look at the approach to day school education. As a doctoral student in education at Johns Hopkins University, I am deeply interested in what contributes to students’ levels of engagement, or lack thereof, in their Judaic Studies. And I am curious, all the more, if day school teachers are able to differentiate whether a student is simply compliant or truly engaged, and what the impact is on our students’ Jewish identity and their Judaics skill and conceptual understanding.

Think for a minute about the students in your classroom. Are they invested and enthusiastic about their learning, putting forth the cognitive effort, expressing excitement and actively participating, feeling ownership for their learning and achievement? Or are they merely compliant and participating, doing what needs to be done to make the grade and avoid any negative consequences? Do we know how to identify if our students are engaged rather than simply following the rules? And how can we foster an environment that encourages and cultivates engagement rather than a sense of compliance?

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Student engagement has become a big buzzword in educational discourse in the past decade. While researchers initially focused on engagement as a way to decrease the rates at which students were dropping out of school, research has pointed to far broader impacts of keeping our students engaged in learning. Engagement encompasses behavioral, emotional, and cognitive dimensions of a student’s psychological interest, and active involvement in learning and achievement. It is NOT simply doing what is supposed to be done. It is the enthusiastic, authentic, and effortful investment in learning. 

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Engagement in learning is positively correlated not only with academic achievement, but with deeper conceptual understanding, more thorough skill development and retention, positive self-esteem, life satisfaction, and resilience. In contrast, when students are not engaged in their learning, they are more likely to struggle with substance use, anxiety, depression, and school failure. 

Studies suggest that even when students have above-average intelligence and come from families of high socioeconomic status, their disengagement with learning can diminish opportunities for achievement and can increase anxiety, anger, and maladaptive development. What’s more, students typically progressively disengage in school from the time they enter kindergarten and then move through elementary and then high school. Children may even begin to show signs of disengagement as early as first grade. 

What, then, does this all this mean for the state of affairs in our Jewish educational system? How can we provide a Jewish education that fosters engagement, enthusiasm, psychological investment, rather than compliance -- or even worse-- rejection?

We know from the learning sciences that both children and adults learn best when we feel that our learning is relevant and purposeful, when we have choice and autonomy in the process of what we learn, and when we believe that our sustained effort will move us towards mastery and competence. Conversely, we are far less engaged when our learning is controlled and driven by a teacher’s agenda, or when we are made to feel as if our role in the learning process is simply to be an empty vessel that receives information that our teacher puts in. Students disengage from school and lack motivation to learn and achieve when they do not perceive themselves as competent and actively participating in their learning or success. 

Students in Luria Academy, a Jewish Montessori school in Brooklyn, NY

Students in Luria Academy, a Jewish Montessori school in Brooklyn, NY

Student-centered and inquiry-based learning award us the opportunity to foster an environment in which Jewish subjects spark enthusiasm by making them relevant to our children and something they can have autonomy over. This pedagogical approach pushes teachers to facilitate student learning rather than control it, and allows students the control and creativity to make their Jewish learning personally meaningful. By exploring engaging questions, finding what they’re curious about, and real-world, authentic application of texts and skills, our students can construct and organize their knowledge in deeply meaningful ways. They don’t have to simply follow the rules, because they are part of making the rules. Rather than being the receivers of information, students are the creators, discoverers, and designers of information. 

If our goal is to raise engaged, enthusiastic, and committed Jewish children, our work needs to start in making sure our children are engaged and enthusiastic in their Jewish learning. Otherwise, we run the risk of teaching our children that compliance, simply following the rules, is the expectation they need to meet. Perhaps we must think less about finishing a specific perek [chapter of a Jewish text] or sefer [Jewish text] and more about whether our students are leaving our classrooms with a growing passion and sturdy commitment for their religion. And perhaps student-centered, inquiry-based learning is the way for us to make sure that happens. 


Elana Weissman is on the Lower School Administration of a Jewish Day School in Maryland and is pursuing her doctorate in education at Johns Hopkins University, where her focus is on young students’ engagement in Judaics Studies.