Monday, March 1, 2010

What If Jewish Education Were Run Like the Boys Scouts?

Children commonly complain that they don't like religious school. But the boy scouts do something somewhat similar to religious school (teach particular ideas and skills, inculcate good character, have children help others) and they seem to have a good degree of success. Can the Jewish education establishment learn something from the boy scouts?

My knowledge of scouting is limited (I was a cub scout for one year, and my kids are not scouts). From what I understand, the basic approach of scouting is that there are lots of "merit badges" in numerous categories. They start out simple (like knot-tying) and then progress to things like camping, astronomy, first-aid, gardening, woodworking, reading, etc. (Google it for all the specifics.) To earn a particular merit badge, scouts need to be able both to explain a specified set of things and do a specified set of things. Scouts work together on these badges. And along the way, there are all sorts of character lessons.

I would imagine that some merit-badge categories are mandatory and others are optional. But the result is that all kids will have a common core set of knowledge and skills (they'll all know how to tie a square knot) but different kids will choose different paths beyond that.

The kids get an actual physical badge, and these get sewn on either a uniform or a sash that are worn on certain ceremonial occasions.

The structure of religious education is the same as scouting. A religious school teaches kids certain core ideas and values and practices, and then kids might explore others on their own. But the way this is taught is usually the traditional classroom approach.

Could a religious school or some umbrella organization implemented a system of Jewish merit badges? For example, one category might be prayer. Kids could get a merit badge for knowing (and demonstrating that they know) certain common prayers, along with their English meaning. Another category might be holidays. Kids could get a badge for knowing about the holidays and participating in them. (You do the 4 Purim mitzvot and explain what they are, and you get a Purim merit badge.) There could be merit badge in Torah, in social action, in Hebrew, etc.

Religious school, or at least part of it, could be run like scout meetings. It would be more fun, and kids would be working together to earn merit badges or demonstrating what they know.

I see at least three key advantages of this approach.

The first is that it would force religious schools to clearly identify what they would like the kids to learn and do, both in terms of knowledge and skills and actions. And this overall structure will help both kids and adults.

The second advantage is that it presumably would make continuing with Jewish education more attractive to kids after their bar- or bat-mitzvah celebration. Stick around and get the really advanced badges, like Maimonides and Gemara and Social Action III. In fact, the bar- or bat-mitzvah could be an opportunity to obtain a bunch of merit badges (reading from the Torah, etc.), and this would subordinate the ceremony to a child's Jewish education as a whole, rather than the other way around.

And the third advantage is that it would give the kids an incentive to work on Jewish education outside of religious school. If kids could earn a merit badge for (say) reading and understanding Genesis, at least some kids would be motivated to do so on their own. This sounds farfetched if Jewish education is seen as something boring and horrible imposed on children. But if Jewish education is something serious and interesting and fun, at least many kids will pursue it on their own. Decentralization seems to work in lots of spectacular ways, and education should not be any different.

I would appreciate any reader comments, especially from those who have direct experience with teaching religious school, with scouting, or with both.

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