It is almost Adar. This is the month of the holiday Purim for the nation of Israel. It is the celebration of the survival of the Jewish people in face of the impending execution of a bad idea, that the Jewish people should be exterminated. While it is important to remember and celebrate our redemption, it is even more important to remember why the Jew should be valued and redeemed. Reasons include that we accepted the one G-d, the Torah and the laws transmitted to Moses, and that we took upon ourselves the love of a book and the obligation of being role models in living according to its precepts. Mordechai knew that when we Jews come together to act righteously, the Almighty bring; about our redemption. The Jews thus earned “light and gladness, joy and honor.” (Esther 8:16.) Moreover, “many from among the people of the land professed themselves Jews, for the fear of the Jews had fallen upon them.”
It is almost Adar. In the schools of Israel, it seems the lesson of Mordechai has been forgotten. Israel was redeemed because Mordechai loved Esther and his people, because he acted with integrity and provided a model to emulate. Our system has given in to a bad idea, and the educational model that results from this false premise does not honor the Jewish reason for existence. It is time to restore integrity and return to a model worthy of emulation.
This false premise is that children do not want to learn, and thus need to be coerced into doing so. This seems to infect every aspect of our educational system and thinking (I might suggest that it extends into the area of our parenting as well), and it is because we come from this premise that our children appear to result as we have painted them. Even worse, we honor the idea that “children don’t want to learn” by providing them numerous structures and mechanisms that reinforce that message.
In Adar in Israel, a most egregious expression of this is the Takanot Purim (Purim Regulations) that pervade nearly every school. Sometime before the start of Adar, the students and the administration in almost every school agree to a set of rules for the month of Adar leading up to Purim. These include things like each teacher must show a video in one class, or each teacher must tell a joke to begin the class, or have one class outside, or that a die should be rolled to determine how much time should be taken off of the class. And then one can add to this a Purim fair, or in the case of one school I worked in, not seeing a class most of the month because they used their Achuzim (Percentages, in this case the school insisted that no student should have a grade effected until he had missed at least 15% of his classes) to skip classes to prepare for the Purim fair.
The understanding is quite clear. Everyone “knows that people don’t want to learn,” or is it that we send our children the message that learning is to be avoided if at all possible. Schools have schedules, but not really, as it seems almost every week there is something that interferes, a class trip, a national test, an extended recess, etc. And then we impose upon them grades and tell them they are all important. We add to this meaningless exercises, and base the grades on these. Then we wonder why are children are bored and uninspired or act out. So we try to use more carrot and stick approaches. We give students vouchers for good behavior, and students start asking us if they have acted well enough for a voucher, these vouchers to be used at a kiosk, for which students waste more class time. But then when the incentive is gone, students figure there is no reason to act a certain way to gain the incentive. The lesson that we have tried to teach is lost on them.
There is no child born that does not wish to and choose to learn. Every item in the mouth, every finger in a socket, every rip and tear and fall is a part of learning. By the time our children enter school, most have learned to count and their alphabet, to walk, to control their urges, to build, and to relate to others. Some have learned to play instruments, some are quite expert on skateboards, at soccer, some have developed wonderful talents through their games and play.
If we want our students to continue to respect learning, we must respect it ourselves. It can be modeled that good behavior is appropriate just because it is. We can teach sensitivity, but not by acting insensitively. We can also teach respect, but can only do so with respect.
If we want our students to learn and to love doing so, it is best to share our own enthusiasm for a subject. This is what Mordechai and Esther taught us. Be righteous, be a model, and the world will follow you, and even G-d will show up to help. Mordechai did not tell others to don sackcloth and ashes. He put them on himself. Esther took upon herself a fast. The Jewish people joined her. They knew what was at stake.
Perhaps we should take on this model in our education. If we want curious, involved, respectful, yet powerful children, we should be all these things and allow our students to be so as well. But these things don’t become understood as part of school avoidance schemes and carrot and stick approaches to our students.
Their curiosity and enthusiasm are already there; we only need to avoid killing it. But if we keep believing that our students don’t want to, and trying to force them to as a result, our task will become ever more difficult and less rewarding, and we will continue to fail to serve and educate far too many of our students.