The Rationale For Educational Technology For General And Jewish Studies
By Tzvi Pittinsky
At first glance, educational technology does not seem to have a place in the Judaic classroom. As formulated in the first Mishna in Avot, the transmission model of education is a core Jewish belief, called in Hebrew the mesorah, in which Jewish teachings have been passed down from teacher to student across the generations dating back to Sinai. The student appears to be merely a receptacle for receiving the corpus of Jewish teachings from her teacher. What role would technology play in a teacher/student transmission model?
This transmission model has not only been a core belief of Jewish education but general education as well. Traditionally, school children were viewed as passive recipients of the education transmitted to them by their teachers. The ideal classroom was a room with docile students, seated in straight rows of desks, listening attentively and taking notes while their master teacher lectured from the front of the room.
However, anyone who has witnessed the crowded, noisy Jewish study hall known as the Beit Midrash, with pairs of students poring over Jewish texts knows that this is not the true view of Jewish education. The Jewish student has never been viewed as a passive recipient of Jewish learning but as an active participant in creating meaningful Jewish experiences.
This is illustrated by the Talmudic teaching (in Tractate Niddah 30b) that while still an embryo in her mother’s womb, the Jewish soul is taught the entirety of the Torah only to be forgotten upon birth. Our rabbis teach us the message behind this Midrash, that every Jewish learning experience is not really one of learning for the first time but relearning what was already taught and since forgotten. This is based on the educational theory first advanced by Plato that the learner can only acquire new knowledge by actively connecting what she is learning with her previous knowledge and experiences. (Etz Yosef on Ein Yaakov, Niddah 30b)
This progressive view of education, with the learner as an active participant in the educational process, has been adapted in the world of modern education through the research of luminaries like Dewey, Piaget, and Papert.
John Dewey describes the responsibility of the teacher to accomplish two goals:
First, that the problem grows out of the conditions of the experience being had in the present, and that it is within the range of the capacity of students; and, secondly, that it is such that it arouses in the learner an active quest for information and for production of new ideas. The new facts and new ideas thus obtained become the ground for further experiences in which new problems are presented. The process is a continuous spiral. (Dewey, 1938. Quoted in Martinez & Stager, 19)
Based on this, Jean Piaget adopted the constructivist model of education in which students “actively construct their knowledge in interaction with the environment and through the reorganization of their mental structures.” MIT professor Seymour Papert, working off the model of his teacher Piaget, formulated the constructionist learning model which “shares contructivism’s view of learning… [and] then adds the idea that this happens [best] where the learner is consciously engaged in constructing a public entity, whether it’s a sand castle on the beach or a theory of the universe.” (Papert, 1991. Quoted in Ackerman)
According to traditional Jewish thought, the need to create, to construct, is at the core of what makes us human beings created in the image of God. As Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik explains, “Man’s likeness to God expresses itself in man’s striving and ability to become a creator.” (Soloveitchik, 12)
This constructionist viewpoint is a central feature of effective educational technology integration today. Educational technology allows the student to learn, research, construct, and create; changing the role of the teacher in the process from the “sage on the stage”, the primary transmitter of information, to the “guide on the side” who assists students in discovering their own knowledge.
Papert realized this, stating:
It is 100 years since John Dewey began arguing for the kind of change that would move schools away from authoritarian classrooms with abstract notions to environments in which learning is achieved through experimentation, practice and exposure to the real world. I, for one, believe the computer makes Dewey’s vision far more accessible… (Papert, 1996. Quoted in Martinez & Stager, 19)
At the same time, Papert cautioned that for this to be achieved the goal must be to not just “use the new technology to implement what was only there because there wasn’t the technology” but to discover new ways that technology can truly transform education.
It is the goal of this site to introduce and guide the reader through various models of effective Jewish educational technology integration in order to help the funder and other educational stakeholders support projects that can be transformative for the world of Jewish education.
For further research on this topic, the reader is recommended to enroll for free in MIT’s MOOC (or massive online open course) devoted to this topic: Design and Development of Educational Technology. The Judaic and general sources utilized in this piece are posted on the following Sefaria worksheet: How Children Learn: A Case for EdTech Based on Jewish and General Sources .
Ackermann, Edith. 2001. “Piaget’s Constructivism, Papert’s Constructionism: What’s the Difference?” in Constructivism: Uses and Perspectives in Education, Conference Proceedings (Geneva Research Center in Education).
Martinez, Sylvia Libow. Stager, Gary S. Invent To Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom. Constructing Modern Knowledge, 2016.
Soloveitchik, Joseph Dov. The Lonely Man of Faith. Maggid Books, 2012.
UNESCO. “Most Influential Theories of Learning.” United Nations, Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization. Accessed December 17, 2017.
About the Author
Rabbi Tzvi Pittinsky is the Director of Educational Technology at The Frisch School, a Modern Orthodox yeshiva high school in Paramus, NJ. He is also a professor for MOFET’s International Online Academy and an educational consultant for the Jewish Funders Network and the Legacy Heritage Fund. He is an active blogger on topics related to the intersection of technology and Jewish education and an avid user of social media. You can read his blog at: http://techrav.blogspot.com and follow him on Twitter @techrav.
Rabbi Pittinsky leads professional development workshops throughout North America, Israel, and South Africa on a broad range of topics related to educational technology. He presents at various educational conferences, most recently at the the International Society for Technology in Education Conference (ISTE), the largest educational technology conference in the world, and at the Jewish Funders Network Conference.