Tikvah Wiener
Head of School of The Idea School, the first project-based learning Jewish high school in America

On Data and Deep Learning

Image from weknowmemes.com

A recent cartoon circulated among educators caught my eye. It satirizes a shift in parental attitude about who is responsible for poor grades, students or teachers. In 1969, the cartoon contends, parents shamed children when they received low grades; today, it’s the teacher who parents attack, as their children smugly watch from the sidelines. The cartoon’s caption: See the Problem?

I think the cartoon gets it wrong, since the problem, in my mind, isn’t who’s to blame for low grades, but the grades themselves.

Grades are data points, but what do they measure? Generally, a grade measures how well a student did on a certain number of tests and quizzes. In some classes, students get grades on essays or projects, and perhaps even a score on class participation. But what kinds of competencies do these grades reveal?

At a conference a number of years ago run by the Future Project, an organization that partners with schools to ignite change, the Harvard professor and educational innovator Tony Wagner said something along the following lines:

“What does a driver’s license show? It shows you’ve memorized some material, sure, but it mainly shows you’ve mastered the skill of driving. You’ve developed a level of competency in the area of driving that’s based on knowledge and the actual ability to control a vehicle.

“What does a high school diploma show? Mostly that a student has done a certain amount of seat time.”

In Jewish schools, where we’re concerned with students’ spiritual growth and want our children developing in emotionally and socially successfully ways, an emphasis on grades can run counter to these religious and psychological goals. After all, is there some tally for how a child has deepened religious practice or grown spiritually? Should there be? And what about the progress a child has made in becoming more organized, collaborating successfully on a project, or learning to manage time and emotions well? The latter skills translate into a productive adulthood, but we don’t often stop to teach them, much less measure them in some quantifiable way.

So these are the limitations of grades: they measure some very precise things that some kids can do very well, but they leave us without information about important types of competencies that students may or may not be developing, because grades generally don’t address religious, social, and emotional growth.

In his famous book “Drive,” Daniel Pink also points us to another potential problem with grades — that they create extrinsic, and not intrinsic, motivation for students. Indeed, when I’m driving carpool and kids are talking about school, the conversation often becomes dominated by numbers:

“I got an 86 on the test.”

“Well, I got a 78, but I fixed my answers and got six more points. The class average was a 79, so I’m good.”

“She got a 96. She always does well.”

And so on. But these aren’t conversations about learning.

Can you imagine what it would be like to drive around a bunch of kids who were talking about research they were conducting on poverty in Bergen County, the action plan they were creating to combat it, and how that relates to Jewish obligations to feed the poor? Or what if our children, instead of comparing grades, were setting the Constitution against biblical and Talmudic law and wondering what it would look like to see Congress next to the Sanhedrin? And what if students came home and instead of correcting tests for more points, were revising artworks that represented episodes in the Torah, or refining questions they were going to explore in a beit midrash?

And what if they were undertaking these projects and activities not because they had to get a particular grade, but because they understood that the purpose of learning was not only to make them ready for the world of work, but also to make them better citizens, people capable of managing deep emotion, and more spiritually aware and ethically responsible Jews?

Manette Mayberg of the Mayberg Foundation, which funds JEIC, the Jewish Education Innovation Challenge, an organization that seeds projects to reimagine Jewish education, puts it like this:

“I know in both my heart and my head that we are doing a huge disservice to our people by imitating a system of evaluation designed for subjects like math and history. Those subjects don’t cut to the core of a person’s identity. They aren’t subjects unique to a people who have a responsibility to distinguish themselves among nations. Those subjects don’t inform the values that build a home or a marriage. They aren’t the basis for morality or ethical behavior. They don’t build future Jewish leaders. Success is reflected in the happiness and well-being of these day school graduates, not on a job title or income level.”

At The Idea School, the new project-based learning Jewish high school my colleagues and I started this fall at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly, we’ve been animated by the work of Ron Berger, a PBL guru, who asks what school might look like if kids had to do high-quality work and be kind to be cool. To get students to do high-quality work, he advises educators emphasize the revision process, so students become comfortable doing multiple drafts of an assignment. In one famous video, “Austin’s Butterfly,” Berger has kindergartners and fourth graders critiquing a “scientific” drawing that Austin, a first grader, has done of a butterfly.

The kids can barely say the word draft, lisping it adorably at times, but under Berger’s calm and steady guidance they all give Austin kind, helpful, and specific feedback. Austin goes from drawing a butterfly most kids his age might draw to producing a highly realistic and recognizable eastern tiger swallowtail. He learns, as Berger says, “to look with the eyes of a scientist.”

We now live in a world that’s full of data. We can get analytics on anything we want, and learning to manage and absorb data is a skill we all must master. But when it comes to our children, I think we need to be more mindful of the types of data we focus on. Yes, we need grades to put on a transcript so students can get into college, but those grades shouldn’t be what we emphasize as important to a well-lived Jewish life.

The real lesson of the cartoon I started with, I think, is about our children’s self-image. Though the goal of the cartoon is to show the folly of blaming teachers for kids’ poor grades, I can’t help but be struck by the look on the child’s face in both panels. Both chill me in different ways, but for the same reason: They both show a child with a terrible self-image, one that doesn’t bode well for his success in life.

What we need to do is elevate learning and demand something deeper and truer from it. We should demand that it not only create depth of knowledge and refinement of skills, but nourishment for the soul and a desire to be our best selves.

How do you measure that? I don’t know. Neither does Ron Berger, as he says at the end of his book, “An Ethic of Excellence”:

“How do I really know what I have done for students? How do I know what my school has done for students in the long run? How does one measure something like this?

“I think of my life in my small town. The policeman for my town is a former student. I trust him to protect my life; I trust him to work kindly and carefully with the young students in my school, which he does often and does tenderly. The nurse at my medical clinic is my former student. I trust her with my health. The excavator who measured and dug the foundation hole for my house, who built my driveway and septic system, is a former student. I built my home on his work. The lifeguard at my town lake is my former student; she watches my grandsons as they swim. There may not be numbers to measure these things but there is a reason I feel so free and thankful trusting my life to these people: They take pride in doing their best. They have an ethic of excellence.”

About the Author
Tikvah Wiener is Head of School of The Idea School, a project-based learning Jewish high school located at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly, NJ. www.theideaschool.org. She lives in Teaneck, NJ, with her husband and children.