Using Summit Learning to Re-Think the Structure of Judaic Studies

As I discussed in an earlier blog post, a large part of what drew our school and teacher to Summit Learning was the systematic, outcomes based approach it takes towards the structures for learning, teacher roles and student experience of school. It encouraged us to better design and align our 6th grade general studies experience to meet the educational values we already shared. As a Modern Orthodox day school, though, students learn both Judaic and General studies in their dual curriculum program. If we want the school experience to be more aligned and systematic, then, where do Judaic studies fit in? To what extent can and should our design for Math, Science, History and English be applied to Tanach (Chumash, Navi) and Torah She’bal Peh (Mishna, Gemara)?

In this post I will begin with a review of the different components of Summit’s structures and goals and suggest ways in which these components naturally transfer to Judaic studies. In the next post, I will consider potential reservations and discuss ways in which adopting Summit’s structure and platform may transform the ways in which teachers and schools develop and share curricula.

Summit Learning Outcomes and Judaic Studies

Summit argues that the academic outcomes of school break into two components:

1) Content Knowledge– Summit recognizes that mastering discipline specific content knowledge is necessary for students to continue to learn and apply their knowledge. How can you use your ability to inquire, present or construct an argument if you don’t know anything?

2) Cognitive Skills– These are the skills student need to use and make sense of what they know. They are the skills that are harder for technology to replace and that are critical in college, career and enriching our lives. They include broad categories like textual analysis, inquiry and products and presentation and specific skills such as theme, word choice, selecting sources, constructing an argument and counterclaims.

How do these outcomes match up with our goals for Judaic studies? While we will not delve into the full range of Torah sources here, it appears that there are fundamental similarities when we examine the goals of teaching and learning Torah:

1) Content Knowledge– Without Judaic/Torah literacy, students cannot continue to learn, they cannot live an observant lifestyle and they cannot raise families and building communities that embody these values. Literacy does not only involved content knowledge but also the ability to access core texts. In general studies, a critical way in which content knowledge is developed is through reading. Early grades help students “learn to read” so they can continue to “read to learn”. In Judaic studies (at least outside of Israel), though, the work of “learning to read” generally continues into higher grades because texts are in a language that is not part of students’ daily world.

2) Cognitive Skills– While one could debate the range of skills that are part of Judaic studies, it is clear that we are not only interested in students being knowledgeable or literate. Torah study asks learners to enter into dialogues with the texts and knowledge being imparted to them. We want students to question, analyze, hypothesize and make sense of what they learn. This is necessary, on one level, to understand and apply halachic concepts to new situations not explicitly addressed or fathomed by previous generations. On a second level, there is recognition that become part of the debate and dialogue develops more identification and connection with the texts, characters and values they portray.

Structures for Learning: The How Follows the Why

In Summit’s design, a students’ week is divided into three different types of learning structures, referred as their “Pillars of Learning”:

1) Project Time: The overwhelming majority (they recommend 70%) of students time is spent working towards completing projects. In the final product of these projects, students use apply their “Cognitive Skills” such as Constructing an Argument, Inquiry or Presentation (see the full list and rubrics here) to their content knowledge in order to produce an meaningful, discipline specific authentic product.

These products may involve more classic PBL proposals to real world audiences or may focus on the type of products students will need to create college or career (like a research paper, essay or seminar). When I discussed the process of curriculum design with the head of Summit’s Curriculum Team, he said they begins by asking: What will students need to do in college and the “real world” in this discipline? That product is then broken down into its different components through “Checkpoints” where students receive formative feedback. Each checkpoint is then aligned with the specific cognitive skill required to successfully complete it.

During project time, teachers facilitate student work on their projects by providing differentiated models and activities that help students work towards the product at their personal skill level, all while applying their individual background knowledge.

2) Focus Areas / Personalized Learning Time: The remaining amount of students’ academic time is spent working on Focus Areas for each discipline (English, History and Science- Math is a separate story). A Focus Area is a content unit which contains a certain number of objectives, a list of resources students can use to learn these objectives, diagnostic and formative assessments. Resources may include print or digital text, video, audio, pictures, presentations or note take guides that are potentially helpful to the student in moving toward mastery of the content area. In English, Focus Areas may include topics like figurative language, theme, plot or research. In History, it may include a unit on Greece, Rome, Causes of the American Revolution or Industrialization in Europe.

The novel approach of Summit is to argue that the primary role of the teacher in content instruction is carefully curating content and supporting students in learning how they learn best. If knowledge is the ultimate goal, students can choose different pathways to master that knowledge as long as they are held accountable in the same way. Similarly (though this doesn’t necessarily have to go together), students can proceed at different paces and master different amounts or depth of content. In content learning, group work and exposure to different types of thinking is less important. Therefore, students do not have to be held back or pushed forward based on what others in the class are ready for. Students requests assessments for each Focus Area when they feel ready and, after teacher approval, are given the opportunity to demonstrate mastery and move on or to find out what they must review further before attempting the assessment again.

Application to Judaic Studies

Summit’s differing structures helps highlight the need to align structures for learning with goals. If we already establish the value of both content knowledge and cognitive skills in Judaic studies, what could these structure of learning look like in Judaic classes? I believe the Summit structures align with traditional Jewish structures of Bekiut and Iyun learning.

1) “Beit Midrash Bekiut” Focus Areas: Students study texts in a page after page (for Talmud) or chapter after chapter (for Tanach) approach. Focus areas could either be divided by page/chapter or a specific skills progression students move through to mastery (consider: Vav HaHipuch and Shoresh identification or literary analysis skills like word patterns or figurative language in Tanach). Resources are provided and, with guidance, students choose options that work best for them to master the material. The learning need not be technology based- resources simply provide support which, perhaps, student are discouraged from using as they become more proficient. When ready, student take content assessments and either move on or return to review. Such an approach would allow students to move through content or skills at their own pace and build literacy and in a more individualized, and therefore more efficient, way. It would also enable students of different backgrounds and abilities to feel a sense of community as they can learn different things in the same physical location (like a Beit Midrash).

The Beit Midrash time would also provide the context for text driven study which, for many students, will be the way we hope they continue engage in Jewish learning after their formal learning concludes.

2) “Iyun” Project Time:  If we follow Summit’s design, here we need to raise the fascinating question of what application of Torah knowledge looks. What is an “authentic” application of Tanach or Gemara study in our lives and the lives of our students? The answer to this question, which like differs by community and school, defines the basis for the products projects are being designed around in Judaic studies. Students may be working to use their learning to write a d’var torah or prepare a shiur. They may be learning how to employ their knowledge in a debate with a chavruta, writing a halachic responsa, or writing an op-ed – looking at a contemporary issue through the lens of the Torah they know. Whichever particular product you choose, the model asks us to consider the skills students will need to apply their knowledge in creating these products and explicitly model, guide and provide feedback to students as they work towards them.

In this blog post, we summarized the different elements of Summit Learning and examined the appropriateness and adaptability of those elements into Judaic studies. Obviously, much more work needs to be done in flushing out the specific content of the structures. The structures themselves, though, are the true innovation of the approach and push us to think carefully about the relationship between goals, learning structures and the teacher’s role in Judaic studies.