Alison Fisch Katz
Don't ask why something happened; ask what for

People of the book

The phrase ‘the People of the Book’ is usually taken to mean the Israelites of the Hebrew Bible, and metaphorically it refers to the most literate nation on earth because of our obsession with learning the Talmud
A page from the Talmud, the Oral law of Judaism, August 19, 2007. (photo credit: Mendy Hechtman/FLASH90)
A page from the Talmud, the Oral law of Judaism, August 19, 2007. (photo credit: Mendy Hechtman/FLASH90)

The phrase ‘the People of the Book’ is usually taken to mean the Israelites of the Hebrew Bible, and refers to their descendants, the Jews. Metaphorically – at least in Hebrew translation – “Am HaSefer” refers to the most literate nation on earth because of our obsession with learning the Talmud, following and arguing with its complicated round-table discussions, recognizing its metaphors, as well as interpreting and evaluating its significance for modern life. However, with the 2016 results of the OECD educational survey, this latter reference has been severely undermined.

The educational outlook in Israel today is scary. The latest results of the survey that graphed basic adult skills in 34 countries among people age 16-65, in literacy, numeracy, and problem solving in rich (digital) environments shows that Israel is ranked 28th in reading skills, 29th in numeracy and 24th for problem solving in digital environments. On a scale of 5 levels, the results for literacy are documented as follows:

• Only 8.1% of Israeli adults scored at level 4 with the ability to integrate, interpret and synthesize information from complex or lengthy texts that contain conditional and/or competing information. In most participating countries/economies, the largest proportion of adults scores at Level 3 in literacy (35.4 %), except in Israel, where the largest proportion of adults scores at Level 2 (33%).

• Looking only at the 25-34 age group which is more proficient than the adult population as a whole in all domains assessed, they still perform 9.9 points below the OECD average for this age group in literacy.
Predictably, everyone is wringing their hands from Minister of Education Naftali Bennett (“the study only validates what we already knew … a decade of deterioration has led to a real state of emergency”), to Deputy Bank of Israel Governor Nadine Bodu-Trachtenberg (“we must not only aim to improve the average”), to Education Culture & Sports Committee Chair Yaakov Margi (“we are teaching our children, but we are not providing them with learning skills”) – The Marker, June 28, my translations. The desperation conveyed in these statements is not from surprise (Bennett is clear on that) but because the situation is now shockingly documented for all the world to see.

Considering that we have a reputation as ‘the start-up nation’ rivalling Silicon Valley itself, how is this possible? you may ask. The answer is that the technologically talented among us comprise a very small minority of the country at large and, secondly, that technical know-how does not equate with complex reasoning and critical thinking – which are skills that are acquired within the domain of verbal analysis.

Bennett recently implemented an admirable campaign for mathematical education. But in the same breath (or, should I say with a stroke of the same pen) has signed his name to the initiative issued by the Council of Higher Education Planning & Budgeting Committee (VATAT) to outsource EAP (English for Academic Purposes) from all institutions of higher education to the Open University. EAP – some institutions call it EFL (English as a Foreign Language) – are compulsory tertiary courses for all undergraduates in the country without which they cannot be awarded their degree, and cost the student an extra fee on top of tuition. It is supposed to be an equalizing initiative whereby all undergraduates can achieve an identical English education without having to pay for it: the VATAT remunerated the Open University to the tune of NIS 3 million to write online courses which are open and free to all students from Beginners Level through to Advanced I, thereby also endorsing one specific English teaching methodology.

The problems with this initiative are manifold:

a) The objectives of the initiative were never discussed with academicians in the field. It was the result of a handshake between two bursars and was never offered for tender.

b) The courses are strategy rather than content-based, providing a heuristic, reductive method of reading which shows the student how to recognize the linguistic mechanics of any given text but not how to connect this machinery to the whole argument, synthesize its ideas, interpret their significance, or infer conclusions. As a result, texts are often outdated (sometimes by as much as 25 years) because what is important is strategy, not content.

c) The courses are not subject-specific – that is, the texts are of general interest and are not tailored to disparate disciplines such as Business English, Science & Technology, the Social Sciences, Law, and the Humanities – because, according to a strategy-based theory, they don’t need to be. So students glean an impoverished knowledge base for their chosen field and do not attain the skills to weed out irrelevant material when faced with a choice of many articles for specific research projects.

d) The exams that have been offered as examples for these courses are similarly based on a heuristic with many multiple choice questions and options to answer in Hebrew. Real understanding and evaluation are not required.

e) The courses are not synchronous online courses. They comprise 6 or so units of pre-taped remote video, with no virtual classroom (which is why they are free). Imagine learning reading comprehension in a watch-with-mother fashion with no real-time discussion, feedback, or monitoring? Such a format is a direct result of the above heuristic theory that essentially says: this is a ‘how’ skill, not a ‘doing’ skill and it can be acquired passively rather than actively.

As Head of English at a leading technological college in Jerusalem, I have worked assiduously over the last 5 years to retire the heuristic model and its accompanying copy/paste response to develop instead content-based courses with a solid theoretical foundation that is both subject-specific and research-informed. In our courses, structure is not split from meaning; comprehension is generative, driven by summarizing, paraphrasing, concept mapping, and evaluating. My students are learning the skills to assess textual material beginning with its theoretical point of departure all the way through to the implications of its thesis by means of advanced verbal analysis, and I am so proud of them.

But now the government is telling me not to bother. In fact, it is telling me that it intends to sanction and certify an outdated and unworkable theory for the whole country. Not only is the entire profession now under threat, but academic freedoms are being severely undermined. It is my mandate to enable students to think reasonably and critically in English and I have the freedom to choose the latest theoretical models and teaching methodologies as I see fit. No one model should be imposed upon me. In another scenario, if the Council of Higher Education were to say to all institutions that they wish us to explore digital teaching methods for English courses – that would be different and welcomed. We could envisage a serious research project resulting from scholastic round-table discussions regarding real academic objectives that would integrate knowledge from a plethora of sources, the use of cutting-edge technological platforms, and the promotion of virtual mobility. Indeed, we’d all be scrambling to write our own online courses, illustrating inter-collegiate competition at its best to the sole benefit of the students who rightly choose one institution over another.

But that of course would not be free to students, nor would it enable the VATAT to cut its national budget. Instead, English learning is being relegated to cater to the lowest common denominator in favour of a quick fix for financial difficulties and instant gratification for those who just want to tick off the box containing mandatory English courses. The OECD survey tells us that adult Israelis cannot read long texts effectively – even in their native language – so why does the Ministry of Education support diverting investment from academic reading comprehension courses and castrating an entire profession which is clearly needed?

The fallout isn’t just in the classroom. There is a reason why Israel has lost the media war and can’t win it back. Off the top of my head, I can think of only a handful of people currently in government who can string three ideas together (in both Hebrew and English), convey them effectively, and debate opposing positions. Everyone else is either still busy translating word by word or incessantly interrupting their interlocutor because they don’t have the capacity to follow an argument to its end.

About the Author
Dr. Alison Fisch Katz hails from England. She has lived in Israel for 35 years and is Head of Academic Studies in English at the Azrieli College of Engineering Jerusalem. She holds a PhD in English Literature from the University of Leeds, UK.
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