Tuesday, November 7, 2006

Expanding Horizons through Virtual Cases of Teaching by Sharon Feiman-Nemser and Jon A. Levisohn

Educational quality, in Jewish education as in general education, depends on the quality of teaching. But teachers tend to teach in the ways that they were taught, and often are limited by their abilities to envision alternatives. So how can teachers expand their pedagogical horizons?

What if it were possible to visit vibrant Jewish studies classrooms across the country or across the world? What if it were possible to see multiple models of the thoughtful teaching of parashat ha-shavua (the weekly Torah portion), or Mishnah, or the book of Isaiah? What if these visits were not just glimpses of a classroom in action, but systematic explorations of an accomplished teacher's practice, complete with reflections on her goals, insights into her planning, and samples of her students' work?

Imagine the Tanakh or Chumash faculty at a Jewish day school, gathering to explore a website with classroom video of an innovative teacher presenting parashat ha-shavua to a first grade class. The school's director of Jewish studies leads the case-study discussion: What is the teacher doing? What does she want children to learn? How does she manage the group and attend to her subject? What challenges does this approach entail?

The faculty at the school have access not only to the teacher's pedagogy but also to her goals and decision-making. On the website, the teacher explains her planning process, shares her own analysis of the videotaped lessons, and thinks aloud about some of the challenges. Although the faculty are distant in time and space, the technology enables them to learn from this thoughtful teacher's practice. The goal is not the dissemination of best practices but of new ideas about practice, new questions, and new images of teaching Torah.

Next, the director of Jewish studies leading the session clicks on electronic copies of student work from the featured lesson. What do the teachers see in that student work? How have individual children understood the parashah? What does the student work reveal about the impact of the teacher’s pedagogy? For the faculty, the examination of student work opens up fundamental questions about what students know and how they know it, questions that they immediately take back to their own practice.

This kind of case study – rich, multi-layered, thoughtful, critical, grounded in documentation of real teaching – is within our reach, and has already been advanced in general education (for example, see recent work at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching). In fact, a draft of the case described above, of an accomplished and thoughtful first grade teacher of parashat ha-shavua, has already been developed, as a pilot project at the Mandel Center at Brandeis.

We do not need advancements in technology to build or distribute these multimedia cases of teaching and learning within Jewish education; we only need to provide thoughtful educators with the time, the intellectual support and the resources to develop them. An online virtual library of such cases of teaching would become an invaluable resource for transforming practice throughout Jewish education.


Sharon Feiman-Nemser is the Mandel Professor of Jewish Education at Brandeis University and the Director of the Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education. She has led teacher education programs at the University of Chicago, Michigan State University, and Brandeis, and has published numerous articles about teacher education, new teacher induction and mentoring. Jon A. Levisohn is Assistant Professor of Jewish Education at Brandeis and Assistant Director of the Mandel Center. His work focuses on philosophy of education and philosophy of Jewish education. Recent publications include "A Plea for Purposes," Jewish Educational Leadership, Fall 2005.

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