This website has NOT been substantially updated since 2017. I hope that you might still find value in many concepts and autobiographical accounts but they do not necessarily my current sense-making or opinion anymore
It is virtually impossible to have a conversation about Israel without uttering a critical comment. Any person who has some connection to the land, and even those who do not in some cases, could spend hours complaining about all the things that are going wrong.
I certainly have my fair share of critique of what is problematic in the Holy Land. However, although what is happening in Israel might be a reason for a lot of (justified) concern, in this article I want to focus on something that Israel seems to be exceptionally good at: gap-years.
It is incredible how many different people in a variety of situations are in a gap year in Israel. Maybe I am a bit biased in this observation, being in the final days of a 12 month long gap period in Jerusalem myself. In any case, this situation and the community of young people on a gap year around me have made me interested in the different kinds of gap years in Israel.
For this article, I have interviewed more than a dozen participants, directors and other people affiliated with an organization that provides the opportunity to spend a considerable period of one’s life between high-school and university outside of education. In these interviews but also in casual conversations and from my own experience, I have gotten to know the dynamics of the gap year experience.
The focus of my research has particularly been on firstly, the mechina (Hebrew for ‘preparation’), which are designed to be ahead of the army and secondly, gap years for Jews from abroad. For the sake of completion however, I want to briefly mention the other possibilities of having some time off, or rather having some time on in Israel.
Not only Jews are coming from abroad to Israel. I myself am a case in point. Among others, there are several Christian organizations, particularly in Jerusalem, which allow high-school graduates to volunteer for them. That might be in all kinds of positions and is by and large not be connected to any mandatory religious activities. In most countries this is completely optional, however in my case, having served at the Austrian Hospice in the Old City of Jerusalem, is a substitute to military service in Austria.
For the Israelis living in Israel there are also many more possibilities than joining a mechina. The yeshiva, where Jewish texts are read and interpreted as well as the medrasha (seminary), which is for women, is one very common other option after high-school. Some of these institutions also offer secular variations of yeshiva or medrasha, where one can study Judaism as a philosophy and tradition.
There is also the possibility to do a shnat sherut (social service) and volunteer for a social cause and working in the health or educational sector. This is done in addition and ahead of the army. It should not be confused with sherut leumi (national service), which is a regular substitute for the army and it has the same idea of serving Israel through social work. The national service is very popular among orthodox women, who are conscripted but do not serve in the army per se.
Besides these formal possibilities there are many popular informal arrangements of spending some time as a Jew abroad. It is very common for example for Israelis, who have finished their military service to go abroad for several months. Usually they will go to the East and spend some time in India, where there are already some well-established hotspots for such trips.
Eventually of course there is also the (in)famous Israeli army itself, which would by the standards of most societies also count as a gap-year or rather gap period. Israelis are generally conscripted for three years of service while currently the women still serve (considerably) less than that. There are however many soldiers, who will stay in the Israeli Defense Forces longer to become officers or because they have been specially trained, which required them to sign an extension of their time of duty.
Although it is mandatory to serve in the IDF only about half of the young population of Israel actually do so, which is mainly due to two reasons. On the one hand, someone who is enrolled in a yeshiva is exempt from conscription, which means that the ultraorthodox population of Israel is not serving in the army – around a third of the young people. On the other hand, Israeli Arabs, which make up about twenty percent of the population, are overall also exempt from conscription.
For those serving in the army however there is one special program exactly tailored to make the most out of their time their: mechinot.
Mechina – Pre-Army Program for Israelis
A mechina is a program, which is specifically dedicated to be in between high-school and joining the army. Historically, the first mechinot was founded 1988 and was among others intended to prepare religious Jews for contact and life with secular people in the army. After the assassination of Rabin in 1995 the first secular and mixed mechinot have been created. There exist several dozens of such programs today, which are however very modest in size, averaging sixty people.
Given this history it is obvious that there is a variety of different mechinot. One can overall distinguish them on the basis of politics and worldview, and also if they are secular, religious or somewhere in between. Each particular ideology will be noticeable in the program. Finally, usually even similar mechinot have a different and often unique focus.
Even though there is this variety between the mechinot, their programs all tend to have the following aspects in common:
- specific army preparation
- program specific activities
Although these are the frames for the activities that they share, the actual content might vary again.
The studying part is usually concerned with Israeli society and/or Judaism. The idea is that students understand the rich context in which they are living. Depending on the mechina these aspects will be treated differently. For example, there are mechinot who offer an abbreviated secular yeshiva.
In general, the studying part is very broad and in fact can also be shaped by the interests of the students. In some mechinot the students can invite their own lecturers and the counselors are relatively free in responding to the students’ interests in the topics that they want to address. Feminism has been mentioned in many interviews as a topic that has been introduced recently in many programs at the request of the students.
It might seem like a somewhat chaotic process but the students love it and contrast it with their experience of learning in school. An important feature is that nobody is keeping the students there. They are there out of their own free will as there are no tests or mandatory attendance. The topics themselves are compelling enough to draw the students in and after all they have chosen them out of their free will.
The preparation for the army also includes physical training to make the participants fit for the straining military lifestyle. But it goes way beyond that for in many ways the military culture is implicit in the program. Life in terms of the circumstances as well as in terms of the culture in a mechina is meant to simulate what it will be like in the army itself.
The main difference is that the members of the group are seemingly destined to be future officers. The army preparation in this way is very concerned with leadership training and there is certainly a push into this direction on the side of the program coordinators, which is in general also answered by an eager pull by particpants.
One way in which that manifest itself is that self-organization is a very common theme in the mechinot. Every participant will be assigned a certain position of responsibility in the program and is asked to perform certain tasks for the group. It is also generally encouraged to come up with new initiatives by oneself.
A considerable part of the program is spent volunteering for a social cause. One of the intentions of including this into the program is to actually have a hands on experiences of being socially involved and not simply be talking about it all the time. The volunteering part is very individual again, however a common activity, especially among the more leftist mechinot, seems to be taking care of elderly Bedouin Arabs.
The trips to various parts of the country is one more thing that they all share. The mechina will usually bring participants from all places of the country together to a certain location such as a kibbutz. From there several excursions are organized to strengthen the community spirit and in order to appreciate their country in a hands on manner.
Trips that focus on the former include hiking trips, trips that focus on the latter will lead them to Jerusalem. Another common educational trip, especially among the secular mechinot, is a tour through Judea and Samaria aka the West Bank or Palestine that lasts a week. Overall this will be the only time when they are directly engaged with Palestine, even in secular mechinot. After all, Palestinians are unlike Israeli Arabs not considered part of Israeli society and therefore not subject to be studied in this context.
What most of these trips have in common is that they are organized with Israeli organizations in the region and there is little contact with the actual Arab population. A meeting with human rights organizations such as Breaking the Silence is a common feature, another is talking to the settler community in Hebron.
Besides the trips there are also several other planned activities, which are part of the formal program. There are administrative meetings such as weekly gatherings to discuss the following days, in which the participants will be reminded how far they are already into the program. Besides that they there will be designated occasions for group reflection in a formal setting.
A very remarkable feature is also that some mechinot will have one-on-one talks with the participants. Among others they set the intention and some goals at the beginning of the year and check whether these goals are actually followed or need to be altered halfway through and at the end if they have been achieved.
Mechinot are generally considered to be very thoughtful and stand in high-regard in Israeli society. There are largely two reasons for setting up and supporting such a program by the institutions. On the one hand, there is the very practical aspect of fostering more responsible and capable soldiers, which might take on leadership positions. On the other hand, such a program also makes for better (though not necessarily more obedient) citizens.
On an individual level, one interviewee reported that his mechina did a good job at helping him to address the question of ‘who am I’. In these and other ways, mechinot account for purposefully supporting the development of better and more wholesome human beings – as I can subjectively attest to from my interviews.
Gap-Years for Non-Israeli Jews
The other very broad and common gap year in Israel is for Jewish high school-graduates from abroad. Although there are programs who emphasize that their participants come from many different countries, the vast majority of Jewish students are from America. Much like the mechinot are preparing its participants for the army, these gap years are specifically seen as a time in between high-school and college.
What sets these gap years apart from other gap years is that they are specifically for Jews coming to Israel. After having grown up outside of Israel and ahead of entering college they come to Israel to connect to their roots and find their Jewish identity. Coming to Israel as a Jew has often been described as a spiritual experience, even if one is strictly secular.
This is certainly what all these organizations are aware of and actively cater towards. The Jewish students are in general eager to get an understanding of what Israel really is and what is so peculiar about Judaism. The organizations are in various degrees trying to provide just that: a positive, but not naive, experience of what it means to be a Jew and what it means to be a Jew in Israel.
In the case of the America-centric programs that means that they are very aware of American college culture. On a practical level that means that the programs are mindful that the gap year for example enables them to find a more mature approach to drinking, which is legal by the age of 18 in Israel. However, what the programs and also the educational institutions are more concerned about is that the students can make more of the time that they spend in higher learning.
There is the notion that the time of college in America is the time to find yourself and set out for life. In this way freshman years are stylized as rites of passage and the campus as a place for binge drinking parties. If academics is something that is not nearly taken full advantage off, one might wonder whether the money might not be better spent somewhere else than for the expensive tuition.
Now, the gap year programs, especially the high-quality ones are very expensive in their own right. And it is slightly paradoxical that taking on even more expenses should actually yield a more efficient use of one’s resources for education. However, time and time again students who have taken gap years demonstrate the ability to make disproportionately more out of their expensive time at college. Even the Ivy League actively encourages students to go on gap years. After all, even the best and the brightest can benefit hugely from being more mature.
When one gets to the details, the specifics of the programs vary widely, however it is possible to find some common features. Most of the programs include the following:
- Ulpan (Hebrew course)
- trips and lectures
These features are all in place to give students the possibility to get a first hand experience of what it means to be a Jew in Israel. Beyond that however, the different programs might have a very different emphasis. In the following are the organizations that I have interviewed:
– Aardvark has been founded seven years ago and it’s biggest strength is the extreme extent to which the students can individualize the program. The international student body can add to a core of mandatory activities a vast array, which are optional. This is only possible through another special feature of Aardvark: the very low staff to student ratio.
– Big Idea, which has been previously mainly offered summer programs, has just finished its first year of their gap year program. Their international program is focused on letting participants experience and actually identify with Israel as the Start-Up Nation. For that reason, they are also located in the emerging city of Beer-Sheva and are in their five months program pursuing a professional training in high-tech.
– Kivunim, which is in its eleventh year after its foundation by the educator Peter Geffen, is very anxious to show the students to the complexity of Israel and Judaism. They purposefully want to let students form their own opinions and expose them to many different environments and perspectives. Among others, Kivunim tries to accomplish ths goal through their four big trips abroad, which the program is famous for.
– Nativ is the flagship program for the conservative Jews in America. It has been running various activities for thirty-five years and maintains partnerships with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and offers yeshiva courses. They are very proud of fostering the Jewish identity of their participants and letting its students make better “informed Jewish decisions”.
In all of these programs the concern for the participants and their commitment to let this be an intense and meaningful is obvious. Although there is sometimes a strong difference between where these programs set their focus, all the above mentioned programs were eager to provide a year for the students for them to learn, grow and strengthen their Jewish identity.
Quality of Programs
In many of the interviews with the American gap years there was mention of a struggle for a better balance between letting students take over more responsibility for themselves and not let everything be organized for them. In some ways this is complaining on a high-level however, as it attests to the thoughtfulness and intensity of program.
It has to be mentioned however, that in many other settings however, it is quite the opposite. Participants of some programs in Israel might end up having nothing better to do than cooking poor meals for a year, doing meaningless and boring volunteer-work and maybe get drunk every now and then.
Especially the practice of volunteering is in many gap year programs simply a waste of time. Due to the language barrier and other reasons helping in a home for the Bedouin elderly was not a very helpful experience for one mechina participant. In another case, a participant of a shnat sherut, where she helped struggling children in school, even stopped the program prematurely.
In assessing the impact of these programs, it is important to remember that the usual age for a gap year, around eighteen, is a period of change anyways. It is therefore little surprising that young people should go through a considerable change process even if these programs were of not very good quality. After all they are still in a new setting with new people and maybe even a different culture, which always requires adaptation and is all regardless of the quality of the program itself.
In contrast, one point of criticism of the high-quality gap-years might be that they are very exclusive. For the Jewish American gap years the cost is the most obvious hurdle. Even though the programs are (minimally) subsidized by the Israeli government through an intermediary organization called Masa Israel (journey to Israel), the expenses still amount to high five figure numbers. A gap year is still a considerable investment for a Jewish American family. It must not be forgotten that these are expenses on top of college fees and tuition.
For the mechinot the problem lies more with the available places for young people interested to do a mechina. The fees vary from mechina to mechina but overall with half of the expenses covered by the Ministry of Defense and Education and scholarships are available for those, who cannot afford these reduced costs. Thus, the financial hurdle is much less of a problem in the case of the mechinot.
However, because of the small number of programs and the small group sizesthere are far fewer available places than there are students willing to do a mechina. The acceptance rates of such programs are therefore not uncommon to approach those of elite universities.
The Essence of Gap Years
What makes gap years so interesting for me is the intense personal development that is going on there. In the best programs this development is almost tangible as it is happening and is very apparent to others when returning to one’s earlier environment. In some way a gap year marks the start of one’s life and more specifically the start of a life that most likely would not have been like this without the gap year. But what makes gap years so meaningful?
There are features that all gap years have in common, which I would call the groundbed of personal development. These might be summarized in the following way:
- it is a new environment and new activities, one is shaken out of one’s comfort zone and begins something new
- there is a social group, of probably more, like-minded people who encourage one and share one’s path of development
- when starting a gap year, one is expecting to learn something and to grow, which is self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts
In terms of personal development, how fruitful a gap year has proven to one depends mainly on how consciously one has gone through the experience. Through awareness and reflection it is possible to find out many new things and integrate these findings. This can be done in a formal way as mentioned in the mechinot or in a personal one. The simple process of digesting one’s experiences once in a while can make a profound difference.
However, overall in this personal-development environment it is often dangerous to assume that the effects of a certain period, such as the gap year, have to be present immediately. There might very well be a late-blossoming of appreciation and insight. In hindsight most everybody acknowledges the gap year as a period of growth or even transformation that has been very meaningful to them.
Lastly, it is beautiful to see how the gap year environment is saturated with growth in every aspect. Of course there are the participants who throughout their time in their program. However, also the educators are developing personally and so is the entire program and organization. In this way, gap years might very well be self-developing organizations that are geared towards the growth of all entities.
All in all, gap years in Israel provide the space for an astounding amount of growth and are responsible for a lot of good developments in society as well as in the individuals that are in contact with this program overall.
What is very praiseworthy in my eyes about Israel is that there really is an acceptance to take longer for one’s studies and one’s development. Here one does not have to be finished and set for life by the age of 18 or even before that. The new vantage point that is acquired through this additional time for maturation has certainly contributed to the resilience and innovation of the country.
Concluding on a personal note, it has been beautiful to see the personal-growth that I have myself gone through in this year in Jerusalem. I will certainly remember it as an extremely impactful time in my life.
Why should we help people, indeed why should we safe lives – if life is full of suffering? Saving lives, whether be it heroically acting when a fire breaks out or donating to the Against Malaria Foundation, will only extend this suffering. This must be an especially disconcerting thought if one takes into consideration the condition of the people which are supported through humanitarian aid as their lives will generally, if saved, (still) involve a lot of plight and misery.
However, extreme unhappiness is far from being limited to the countries who are worst off in the world. Also in developed countries misery is plentiful, and these are by far not limited to the poorest parts of the population either. One indicator of this claim are the suicide rates, which tend to be very high even or rather especially high among countries with full-blown social support.
This almost nihilistic kind of reasoning is very extreme but I think that it must be confronted by anyone who is serious about doing good in the world. One part of the answer to this philosophical issue of extending suffering by saving lives seems to me to be found in what is generally called “life-purpose”. There are good reasons to believe that it can give a life not only meaning but also lasting happiness through that.
A life-purpose can be found in different ways. What is striking however is that almost all kinds of genuine life-purposes are directed towards helping other people. Being a parent, I can imagine, is so rewarding and meaningful precisely for that reason. It is the most obvious and maybe most natural way of caring or rather having to care for another person. What I have had in mind more generally, however, was being able to work on an issue that one can identify with.
Thus I believe that when we decide to helpa person in whatever way possible, especially when it is from a position of responsibility, we should not just stop in the act of lifting them out of temporary plight. Instead of just thinking for a persons short lived well-being so to say, we have to think about their lasting happiness as well, I believe. And what that could mean is giving them the opportunity to finding their own life purpose.
Now, education is maybe the single form of support that has the most responsibility for the long-term future of an individual. Speaking in terms of well-being and happiness, education should not just make it possible to get any kind of job but making people think of their life-purpose or their life’s work.
Therefore I think that every upper-secondary education should include or at least take into consideration a simple three step approach to this issue:
1 – Make young people aware of the issues that exist.
This can range from global issues of climate change, mass migration, threats from nuclear and biological warfare, unsustainable usage of resources, etc. to local issues such as struggles of the poor and unemployed. There are however also countless layers of issues in between from political over cultural to sustainability-related ones. Not only for purposes of general knowledge and awareness but also to put one’s own issues into perspective would it prove invaluable to know the main issues on the global agenda.
2 – Clarifying the ways that they can have a (significant) impact – now and later.
All too often it seems as if young people are dejected when they see the issues and despair about the state of the world or at least their own future, rather than taking them as an invitation to do something about them. Presenting them with the role models such as Felix Finkbeiner could show them that it can be done. Put apart from such exceptional people there are an abundance of opportunity to get involved – besides starting something by oneself.
More importantly however is to show that there are an abundance of opportunities which can change something about the world. The idea of “gaining momentum” when one is young is crucial here I think. That is the belief that spending time preparing and learning the right things can often give one leverage potential for having a lot of impact. One does not have to “have an impact now” – in fact being fixed on this idea can make one have less impact overall or even cause the person to turn away dejectedly.
3 – Providing the skills and knowledge necessary to have this impact.
This is fully in line with the concept of gaining momentum. Especially at the upper-secondary level we are not talking about educational basics anymore. Thus there is clearly the possibility of formulating a curriculum or curriculum choices that align with this idea of having a life purpose or at least doing so even more. I am convinced that the awareness of global and local issue also has the potential of being a huge motivator to learn – and to live a great life. It certainly has been so for myself.
Apart from actual content exposure in class however, even providing them with the impulses and links to learn and explore outside of the classroom can prove very useful. One of the best examples of such an approach are MOOCs, but there are also countless other sources of knowledge and ways one can learn skills such as educational Youtube-channels or the lesser known Skillshare. I am working on a website myself, which apart from laying out out global issues in easy and digestible form and also has a library of such sources.
Of course, there is no need for young people in their teens to know what their life’s purpose will be, but making them think early about this issue could prove very valuable for their later life choices. Being familiar with the issues, as well as the idea of oneself being able to do something about them, from a young age can have very positive formative effects for a meaningful, good and also happy life I believe.
Coming to a close, one of the most meaningful life-purposes might well be being involved in such humanitarian work as alluded to in the first paragraph. Whether be it directly through working at a humanitarian NGO or only through donating large amounts of one’s earnings – the latter potentially being much more effective, doing good can give a life a lot of meaning.
Actually this concept might be one of the most positively revolutionary impulses that education can provide now. If even only a tiny portion of current curricula were augmented with the three steps outlined above in mind, high-schools could turn out armies of change makers. Indeed there are so many young people living today that this is much more than just metaphoric sweet-talking.
All in all, I deeply believe that focusing in this way on global and local issues is not only extremely important fort the earth’s future or international sustainable development, but also because it can provide so many people with a source of meaning and thus happiness in their lives.
As such, I can only reaffirm James Martin‘s view expressed in “The Meaning of the 21st Century”, that our global issues are not only a curse but also a blessing for humankind as it can potentially provide so many people, whole generations, with significant life-purposes.
In the hectic and hyper-connected world of the 21st century it is deemed a virtue to notice the beauty of the moment.
Aesthetics are rapidly becoming more important for the affluent societies of the developed world after efficiency has already been maximized in products.
Educational deparments all over the world see this need and try to respond by providing compulsory secondary education of arts and music.
In this essay however, it will be argued that this is the wrong approach to make a young persons heart more perceptible to beauty and that forcing something deemed pleasant onto somebody is wrong.
On the one hand, artistic analysis and imitation is not the same as appreciating and creating beauty.
What students learn in art class is to ponder about a picture rather than let it sink in.
They are required to study its context and history and classify it into a certain epoche.
The effect that real beauty and truly great pictures have however is that they make us forget everything around us and seize the murmurings of the mind for a while.
Equally, artists describe that when they are at their most creative they are in a state of flow and only concentrate on their painting.
From my experience in art’s class however do most students simply try to imitate some picture they find on the internet so they can show something to the professor. There is sadly not much creativity in that.
On the other hand, making artistic classes a requirement will not necessarily make non-aesthetic students more interested in art.
Just like parents schools often have the best intentions for making young people do stuff they do not like.
This is only understandable when it comes to essential societal skills such as reading and writing or doing calculations.
However, often educators want to make students a gift by giving them for example more art’s courses.
Sometimes however this only estranges them even more from the subject because they find it a bore and only part of a checklist of things to do for a good report card.
The art’s class may then only reside in the memory as a meaningless subject important for a good mark, which is certainly not the intention of the educators.
All in all, I would claim that we are in desperate need for more attention to the beauty around us.
Compulsory art’s and music classes as they are now however will not do the job for persons who are not inclined into this direction anyhow.
Providing such courses for them is very important of course. However it is a hard truth that we certainly are not in lack of supply of professional artists and musicians.
Advancements and the profusion of portable gadgets such as smartphones have placed the issue of the relative importance of a teacher’s qualities again at the heart of the discussion of schooling.
How much does a teacher have to know and how good does he have to be in sharing this knowledge?
This essay will argue that it is more important for a teacher to be on good terms with his students than to know everything there is about the subject he or she teaches because
students are not required to have such excellent knowledge and a positive atmosphere of learning is key.
Firstly, in the age of the internet perfect subject knowledge is neither for the students nor for the teachers essential.
While Wikipedia cannot substitute rudimentary knowledge of a subject to make use of more advanced one, it certainly can spare the students to learn everything by heart.
This makes it important but not essential for the teacher to know his or her subject in and out.
What is most important is that the teacher is able to convey the rudimentary in the best way possible.
It is here that the teacher has to have a rock-solid knowledge of his field while still being able to understand aspects beyond this, without necessarily having memorized them.
Secondly, the access to the content is not the issue anymore in today’s education but the willingness to be exposed to that content is.
Not only has Wikipedia an enourmous stock of knowledge right at one’s fingertips but also there are vast quantities of eduactional material all around the web.
From MOOCs to blogs or even simple Youtube videos the amount of learning material is not an issue anymore – given that you have an internet access.
The problem for most students in the developed world is their motivation to learn about this topic and that is still something that a physical teacher could be best at providing.
Thus it is key to be able to relate to students in order to help them reach their best.
From this emapthy and connection an atmosphere of learning is likely to arise which is what can bring forth great learning experiences.
All in all, a warm-hearted and empathetic teacher is very likely to be of much greater use to students from the Generation Y than someone who knows everything about the subject by heart.
After all school is, or at least should be, not about what the teacher knows but what the student learns or will learn.
More and more universities use tests to determine whether or not applicants have what takes to study in their halls. As the number of prospective students overall is also rising, these exams gain more and more influence when it comes to curricular considerations. In this essay the need for such testing will be evaluated, their effect on schools will be examined and it will be attempted to describe what these exams mean for young people’s lives.
Firstly, unquestionably scholastic aptitude and one’s readiness for college must be tested. It is not possible to simply allow everybody to go to university, whether or not one has the skills to do so. The strain on resources and teaching quality that having too many students in the first semester is extremely high. If schools do not ensure that all graduating students are able to study, universities will have to fill the gap. It is also understandable that universities want to attract the best and the brightest out there and entrance exams are a way for students to they are what these institutions want.
Secondly, schools increasingly have to conform to standardized exams, which is damaging the spontaneity and the uniqueness of teaching. As passing university exams are what matters to both students and parents alike, schools have to streamline their curricula to meet the universities’ requirements, which is restricting spontaneity and uniqueness in teaching. The SAT in the US for example has made it literally impossible to spend more time on anything that would be out of the norm. However, it also holds schools accountable to the performance of their students.
Finally, entrance exams put enormous pressure on students. Already when young people enter middle-school their teachers remind them that in a few years they will have to take, what is considered the test, which decides about “life or death”. The message that students hear over and over again is that their whole life will depend on whether or not they will be able to get into that university. This creates a stressed learning atmosphere that accompanies students from the start.
All in all, I would say that the current way of learning and the motivation to learn has completely misguided. This seems to me just an escalation of the system that has been in place for 200 years and will not be turned over tomorrow. However in my opinion opportunities have to be given to create new forms of learning. School autonomy and a vision for how this autonomy should be used are what we need.
Just as anything else in life learning has its fundamentals. Krishnamurti famously said that “the whole movement of life is learning”. Other wise definition like statements of what learning is proclaim that the nature of the question, like the nature of the error (of reflected) is learning. Such definitions branch far out of what learning is like in school and yet there also these definitions apply.
Learning via a teacher on the basis of a certain curriculum however is different from the curiosity-based learning. It is in outlook an external force wishing that the students learn, whether it is society at large or the teacher in the concrete situation, while curiosity is by definition coming from the student him- or herself.
This hints to my general message that schooling, especially in practice violates the two innate principles of learning, which are a) learning has to be done by the student him- or herself and b) learning has to be wanted by the student to be effective.
In schooling practice now, I see those two principles not regarded and I would argue that this is in fact the cause of the great problem of disengaged learning and poor results.
A teacher teaching is still a far way from a student learning. If a student does not want to learn (and cannot even be convinced by incentives or punishment) there is no way that learning happens. This is the whole basis of the shift to student-centered learning.
Students may be able to memorize and spit out certain learning in order to please their figures of authority, but as soon as this has happened the incentives lack to study more or to retain and refine the knowledge beyond that point.
Learning in essence can only happen by the student and for the student. Building schools centered around these principals instead of frontal teaching, coerced learning and curriculum will mark a shift to better and more energizing learning.
Since this is a blog about learning written by a student, I want to share with you my subjective and feeling oriented story of school – to be interpreted as one might like.
I am what many people would call a poster student: I have all 1s, equivalent to As, in my final year of high-school, my worst grades ever were three Bs out of thirteen in my seventh year of schooling and I have been publicly praised for the Vorwissenschaftliche Arbeit (Pre-Academic Paper), which I have written as part of my final exams.
Furthermore, I have been part of the student representation every year apart from in tenth grade when I was in Ecuador. During that time I have organized two information events with speakers for students, set up a student-mentoring schemes among the students and equipped our school with a digital infrastructure via secure google-accounts – including successors for the latter two tasks. Doing these things, alongside reading and journalling a lot was possible because
I was feeling miserable about school, even though by the standards this education system I was successful. On top of that I was never really able to feel really good about these grades. I would be let down by a single 2 or B and even when I got straight 1s in all subject my euphoria would last for a maximum of about an hour.
Even though people would expect that I would get an 1 on every test, I would still be extremely stressed out almost every time before a test – sometimes this meant that I could not sleep for a night because of a Latin test the next day. The pressure to perform well was even higher because 1s were expected.
I have never been in the position of what it meant that one just passed a test, only once did I fail a test, but it did not matter with that teacher and my worst grade was a 4 (equivalent to a D) in English in fact – but I got a 2 in my report card all the same.
This is luxury. I can only imagine what it is like to go to school loaded with expectations of peers and teachers that one might very well fail the test or may not even pass. Obviously one’s expectations are different in such a situation but I personally feel extremely uncomfortable when I think of all the constant negative feedback and suggestions that what one does is not good.
For myself however school felt never like a threat only like a burden. School was like a necessary but bearable evil one had to endure. I felt constrained and obstructed by school, never able to follow my interests and all my proposals and suggestions were met with resistance, whether it was the projects outlined above or a topic suggestion in class. Particularly at the beginning of this last year I felt like I wanted to learn so many things, just most of what they taught me in school.
All in all however, I have to say that I have learnt a tremendous amount in school and I have had so many opportunities – most of them taken in my own initiative without any offers. I know almost all of my close friends through school, although only one in my own class. Quite some smart people come out of my school and the education system has not really failed them, but I often think about what might be possible – what must be possible and those who are not so fortunate to have been born with such parents and the be so persevering in learning.
Let’s assume that miraculously tomorrow there was a new kind of school for upper secondary education in your neighborhood. Everything from the laws through teacher education to all the societal factors has been redone and is working.
Would you like to go there, would you send your children there? Would you, as a self-responsible and generally curious person, knowing about your overall strengths (and weaknesses), choose or at least prefer the school I will describe now?
So, at this school there are no grades, no classes, there isn’t even a school-building that you go to every day. At your “final exams” pretty much all you have to do is to present yourself and what you have learnt in the past years that you have been in school now. That may sound a bit (or very) unconventional, but hear me out.
This school is intended to strengthen the strengths and weaken the weaknesses of every student and is not only paying lip service to that. The specific mindset, as outlined in the graphic below is that one’s learning time and attention should roughly be split like this: 50% on one’s strengths, 25% on new things and 25% on one’s weaknesses so that they do not hinder using one’s strengths.
Importantly this approach is only championed after students have already reached a solid fundamental general education.
To go about developing these strengths in the best way possible students have a personal mentor. As for example a friend of the family (not a relative), has been trained to support the student’s development in the best possible way. As he or she is has the best interest in helping the student to succeed, also making sure that the student keeps motivated and is learning is part of the job.
Furthermore, as everybody is unique and has individual strengths (and weaknesses that need urgently to be addressed) there is not just one school but many different and uniquely focused learning hubs. Places of learning, which are best suited to develop a specific strength. They generally offer various courses, where there is demand for but are also simply social melting pots of ideas and conversation with huge meeting rooms and spaces to meet, learn, discuss and talk.
One student is always inscribed at one learning hub, which could be called the home base. There a professional adviser supports the work of the mentor and supervises the student’s development. checking up in a personal talk about one’s developments. In addition, one’s learning experiences are also written down in a personal learning diary or transcript by oneself.
Apart from these learning hubs also learning initiatives like talent groups or leadership-courses are in contact with the students. Providing opportunities for working on a cooperative project or getting to meet somebody are also a natural part of this extension to the courses in a learning hub.
As a default setting one is inscribed into a number of courses, which always range for three months roughly, and suit the scheme of 50-25-25 layed out above. Gradually one can choose which courses to attend or whether one just learns in a different way altogether. This process is advised and supervised by one’s mentor and marked down in one’s learning diary.
Finally, when one believes that it is the right time and/or there is not much more that one is able to learn and one’s mentor and adviser agree, one can choose to do a final project or prepare for the final phase of one’s career in school. There are only small TOEFL-style standardized exams, which check one’s proficiency in English as well as one’s ability to use one’s mother tongue in written form correctly. Markedly there is no standardized exam in maths or any scientific subject. Such exams are held by colleges or in college-prep courses but they are not be mandatory.
The formal transition from the safe haven of school to life out there is marked by a public event where one, along with all the other graduates of that time, presents oneself. One writes one’s CV and a portfolio of projects alongside a presentable abbreviated version of one’s learning diary. At the presentation one is talking about one’s strengths and the learning one has undergone, as well as anything else, which one deems viable. It is important to point out that to these presentations also potential employers are invited to the event and to join the ceremony.
In effect such a system would mean that one can design, guided by one’s mentor, a personal learning curriculum and one’s own learning experience. The only person one has to hold oneself accountable to, as a self-responsible and curious person, is oneself.
I hope these major aspects of this alternative model is able to give a feel for what such a school could be like. I would like to point out that this vision of an upper-secondary education is part of a larger educational model for K12.
At the time of this writing I am still a student of this last part of K12 to which I have just presented an alternative version. My main intention was to devise a model of education which I would like to learn in. Giving freedom for those who can handle it, but one which could work for everybody – or so I hope… I would love to hear whether you think it could work for you and whether you would like to learn like that.