Of Grades and Judaics – Responding to the Call to “Pursue Distinction”

If we agree that we want to build Jewish self-esteem in students and cultivate their Jewish greatness, what role does administering exams and assigning grades serve?
— Manette Mayberg, Mayberg Foundation Trustee

How should Jewish Day Schools respond to this radical appeal? 

Pressure from testing and grading inculcates little love for learning among students and creates tension at home. However, the consistent rejoinders demur that Judaics classes without grades won’t motivate students – What would punish tardiness or disrespectful behavior or what gives a class gravitas? These criticisms have merit in the present form of Jewish Day Schools. The current hierarchical structure of many Judaics classrooms situates authority and knowledge in the teacher’s hands, leaving students to be graded on compliance, likability, and innate talent. This appeal dreams a world where new underlying assumptions alter the context, changing the espoused values of a Judaics classroom and producing artifacts that do not include grades or their harmful side effects.

So, how do we create a classroom where the first question students ask about their Torah learning is how is this internalized in my soul? instead of will this be on the test?

Here are some “thirty thousand foot” observations gleaned from JEIC’s research and granting experience to produce Judaics classes without grades.

Sync the elements of the Ecosystem. Our research shows that four elements co-exist in each School Ecosystem: Funders, Educators, Consumers (parents and students), and Influencers (outsiders who build capacity). These four groups are differentiated by their decision-making. The control exerted by each group shapes the learning environment. Greater discord among the elements leads to diminished stability and limited effectiveness in student learning. The more the Ecosystem is at Shalom (peace and respect), the stronger the learning environment will be.

Harness the power of intrinsic motivation. Human behavior expert and author, Dan Pink, outlines three types of intrinsic motivation – Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose – and substantiates their effectiveness in student learning and growth compared to traditional extrinsic motivators. Imagine a shift where students could warrant the right to more autonomous work in exchange for continued effort towards mastery and exploration of purpose.

Reinvent report cards. Functional fixedness is a cognitive boundary where someone treats an object in a way that precludes uses other than the original learned use. Instead of seeing teacher feedback as a measure of students’ demonstrations of success relative to others, overcome the functional fixedness and create feedback that measures students’ individual journeys towards Jewish self-esteem and Jewish greatness.

Develop peer supports. Foster a classroom culture where students helping others succeed has value. You will know when you have attained it when every student feels at home in the Jewish Nation, each student feels an expertise in his/her chosen niche to advance the Jewish Nation, and students are alone only by choice.

Envision students as the teachers of the next generation. This applies whether the students ascend to heads of household or heads of school. Inspire children early and often to see themselves as future parents and leaders whose strengths will guide the community to build on the accomplishments of previous generations.

JEIC believes that our people will draw on our understandings to create solutions for these and any challenge we face, and we are partnering with the best and brightest in our pursuit of radical change.

This article was adapted from its original post on eJewish Philanthropy and the Jewish Education Innovation Challenge Blog.