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Wednesday, May 27, 2020
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In some ways it seems that we, as educators, ignore that the school year begins in Elul. We spend much time learning about the texture of the month and preparing for the Yomim Noraim, but we miss out on the educational model that Elul and the High Holidays present to us as teachers.

Elul is characterized by its focus on Teshuva. In thinking about the laws of Teshuva, I wonder if they can, and perhaps should, serve as a model for how we teach. More specifically, can they serve as a model for how we grade?

In a talk Rabbi Kenny Schiowitz of Teaneck’s Shaare Tefillah gave about Teshuva, he drew an analogy between how we interact with Hashem during this time of year and how a student might interact with a teacher after doing poorly on a test. Rabbi Schiowitz’s analogy got me thinking.

The premise of the Teshuva process is remarkable: If one follows the proper steps of Teshuva, he is forgiven for his transgression. Actually, to be more precise, his sin is atoned for, wiped clean, struck from the record. What we observe in this process is that God is willing to wipe our slates clean if we properly do Teshuva. This concept is so central to Judaism that we have come to expect that our slates will be wiped clean on Yom Kippur. Without this hopeful guarantee, despondency would set in.

Why don’t we adopt this same attitude and strategy in our classrooms? If our goal as educators is indeed to educate, to develop the faculties and powers of our students, then why don’t we allow our students to master what we are teaching them?

Instead of allowing them to do Teshuva when they are assessed on their knowledge and skills, we typically give the students one chance to show us what they know and can do, at least for credit. One test or project at the end of each unit of learning is the barometer by which we measure what our students have achieved. Some students will earn A’s, indicating that they are masters of the information and skills. Others will earn lower marks, indicating that they haven’t mastered what we have taught.

Occasionally a teacher will allow his students to take a makeup test if they have done poorly. Some teachers employ complicated calculus to compute a student’s final score for a grading period by averaging make-up scores with first attempts, by dropping the lowest score in a grading period, or by weighing tests differently, with tests near the end of the grading period counting for more than those earlier in the year.

While these models come closer to reflecting what a student has mastered, none of them is based on the model we expect from God. When I fail to fulfill an expectation God has set out for me, I am given the chance to completely erase that failure. This is not so for our students.

What would it mean if we were to offer our students a chance at true Teshuva? Each time our students took a test they would be offered the opportunity to erase that test and take a new assessment to show they had mastered the material. This crude model is a form of what is known as Mastery Learning (you can find out more about Mastery Learning online). It allows a student to try his hand at an activity until he gets it right.

As parents, we teach using the Mastery Learning model for our own children. Think of the time you trained your daughter to tie her shoes. You modeled the proper behavior for her, let her try, stepped in when she needed some help, and encouraged her to keep trying until she got it right. No parent can imagine adopting our default classroom model for shoe tying. If your child failed at the first few attempts, you wouldn’t simply label her as “a D- shoe tier” and give her Velcro shoes for the rest of her life; you’d continue to train her until she earned an “A.”

Similarly, I would argue that we should give our students a chance to master what we are teaching them, especially if we are training them in skills that we believe are important to their future success as professionals and Jews.

When I have spoken with fellow teachers about utilizing this model, we have explored the challenges it presents. Teachers are concerned that employing this model would mean a great deal of extra work for them. This is a valid concern. However, a properly executed Mastery Learning unit doesn’t include the teacher spending endless hours giving make-up tests to students who didn’t “get it” the first time. Rather, assessments are linked to learning as a way to check the effectiveness of instruction and the level of mastery students have achieved as the unit progresses. Unit planning and design include frequent checks to make sure the learning is on track rather than one summative assessment at the end of the unit.

Teachers are also concerned that if they allow their students to try and try again, there’ll be little incentive for their students to prepare properly the first time. Data from the field suggest that this is not the case for students participating in Mastery Learning assessments. One reason I see behind this is that it seems that students who feel they will be given every chance to succeed are motivated to succeed. They consistently prepare well for the first in a possible series of assessments. The “guarantee” of eventual success that the teacher offers motivates the students to do well.

The New Year is a time for reflection not only on our personal deeds, but on the holy work we do with our students. Perhaps the model of Teshuva can inspire us to reassess our assessment practice. Perhaps it’s time we started grading like God.

By Rabbi Maccabee Avishur

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