From Teacher to Tutor: Solving Israel’s School Crisis

by Geoffrey Clarfield (February 2012)

According to a recent report from the Taub Center for policy analysis there has been a 41% increase in students who graduate from high school in Israel. In addition, they found that teachers' knowledge had improved. This may sound wonderful but anyone who has travelled or lived in Israel will tell you that Israeli parents almost universally lament that the quality of public education is declining. As one Israeli parent once told me, “School is free but educating your children is very, very costly.” Most Israeli parents are their children’s constant tutors and if there is a subject they do not know, they will hire a tutor to help their kids.

Then there are the behavioral complaints. Israeli primary and secondary schools are noisy, boisterous and largely undisciplined, famous for their disrespectful treatment of teachers. No, the average Israeli school has not yet become the kind that you find in inner city America that need metal detectors at the entrance, but on the other hand, if you have ever visited a British public school (what Americans call private) the difference in the behavior between Israeli and British students is the difference between chalk and cheese (as the British would put it).

There are those who say that the chaos in Israeli schools is aggravated by a lack of male teachers and this causes younger male students to act out against their predominantly female teachers. This is probably true, but it could be fixed by adopting the inexpensive British public school practice; the first class of the day is exercise and exhausting competitive, which also end the school day. Simply put, the British know that kids cannot concentrate unless they burn off a lot of energy.

In Israel today parents and teachers agree that there is a crisis in Israeli public schools. Teachers are not paid enough, the ratio of teacher to students is too large and set to grow, lack of discipline is a constant problem and the costs of school infrastructure and administration are rising exponentially. Despite the fact that Israel is a wealthier society than it once was in its early years, there is general agreement that the quality of education has not risen alongside the rising standard of living.

There are even those who say that the quality of education has gone down. They argue that the respect between teacher and student has disappeared, that there are few male teachers to provide role models for Israeli boys, general knowledge is declining, disciplined debate and discussion is practically non existent and that interest in learning foreign languages and literature (other than English) is less than it once was.

Israeli parents and students are now more than ever, anxious that school should give their children the skills to “make it’ in life. By this they mean that schools should give their children the skills that will eventually guarantee their entrance to University and College and ultimately gainful employment in a radically changing economy – an economy where it is clear to all that there are now only “winners” and “losers.” The fact that today’s jobs may become tomorrow’s dinosaurs is often ignored in the panic for a “relevant curriculum.”

When the crisis in Israeli education is discussed on Israeli TV or in the papers most solutions fall into two categories. The first is financial and the second is moral. The first argument suggests that if more money and human resources are given to schools then this will improve the overall standard of education. The second argument is that better rules and a demand for better behavior from the students, with the support of their parents, will change the situation.

These solutions do not take into account that governments are historically inconsistent in their support to schools and that periodic cutbacks in educational funding make long term planning difficult, if not impossible. Israel has had to cut back many teaching positions aggravating an already grave situation. Also, most families have both spouses working, making it difficult to donate the time and energy necessary for participation in a variety of parent/teacher activities.

These solutions also do not take into account the behavioral norms of the contemporary Israeli family where children feel that they have equal (if not greater) rights than their parents do, to express themselves when and where they please, on any subject. An anthropologist would argue that to a certain degree this is a wonderful thing, a Jewish value that makes Israel a start up nation of natural entrepreneurs. (It is modeled on the Biblical story of Abraham arguing with God – a rare thing in any religion). So we cannot depend on Israeli children to take “parental guidance” as a model by which to solve the content or social relations of the educational system. 

The weakness of all these approaches is that they are top-down. They start from the top of hierarchical, national “policy based” organizations where the authority to implement change is concentrated. This makes people in these organizations conservative and frightened of changing the system, since such changes often confront vested interests and suggest that many positions in the hierarchy should or could be abolished or, that these people be reassigned within the educational system.

These approaches inevitably start with government, or the school administration or some external authority and then pass their specialist wisdom down through the teacher to the parent and then to the child. As a result educational reform in Israel has become lost in bureaucracy and administrators set the agenda, not students and parents. 

The entire system does not start from the natural curiosity of the child, and from the natural desire of most parents to facilitate that curiosity and from the revolutionary changes in computer technology and the internet which literally put the world’s educational resources at the fingertips of the inquiring student typist.

Through multi media video, CDs, software and online courses via the internet schools and parents now have access to enough resources, which if properly organized, would dramatically reduce the time a child needs to spend in formal schooling – twenty or thirty students stuck to their seats and acting out in front of a young teacher. It may even raise the quality of that schooling experience.

In an ideal situation, adoption of this approach would free the child to explore the world and his or her individual talents and interests, and could perhaps go a long way to create a more balanced and responsible adult citizen.

I have called this approach “Community Based Computer Education” CBCE for short, having worked for many governments and educational institutions I am aware that no one will take you seriously without your very own acronym. I can confidently state that CBCE is one way of taking the first step towards solving the educational crisis in Israel.

This is because it starts with the curiosity of the student. Israeli children, like those in other industrial countries are crazy about computers. They are fascinated by the Internet and delight in E-mail. Among boys, typing, which used to be thought of as a “woman like” and “weak” skill, is now part of the macho terminology of Israeli youth. At the same time it is “cool” and “sexy” for girls to be hooked up to the Internet and be good at computers.

But perhaps most importantly, and from the parents' point of view, computers facilitate the decentralization of the educational process. Another way of saying this is that computers and their software provide much of the form and content of a typical school lesson, yet in an interactive form.

This puts the choice of both form and content of education as well as the timing and placing of the educational process back into the parents and the students' hands. In short, it can take large parts of the educational process, out of the formal school environment and put it back into the household and community.

Children will not be cut off from teachers or their peers if education is decentralized. This is because a new curriculum would be interactive. When a child sits down in front of a computer and installs an interactive, educational CD-Rom, or links himself to an online course of study a new relationship is created. It is a virtual relationship in the sense that both sides interact. If the material is on a CD Rom that is more fixed, or if it is online then there are people online with whom you also interact, not only your teacher and classmates. That is the quality of being “virtual.” 

Imagine a group of Israeli student who opt to learn French. They will either learn in modular form from a specially prepared CD or from an interactive site designed for Hebrew speakers. The relationship is based on dialogue not lecture. It is similar to that of the master and apprentice of the Middle Ages. That is to say, software is designed to be both stimulating and emotionally friendly.

Unlike real teachers, software does not argue with its spouse before it comes to teach, it does not have a physical body and it is designed to maintain a constant and supportive tone while communicating. This is more than can be said for most teachers in Israel today! And those who interact online can inform the teacher if a child is acting up or out. By moving much learning to software and interactive sites I am making a major suggestion – “Turn the teacher into a tutor.”

From teacher to tutor; how does this happen?

First, when a child starts up a software program or is part of an interactive online module of lessons, he or she is greeted by text on screen, or a spoken voice. The child sees images, letters and numbers and recorded (or actual) voices and then is led through a series of activities that go step by step. The child either speaks to or types in questions and answers to the computer. Depending on what the child does or says the computer answers or so does the person who is online.

In most cases the computer responds like a person and chooses a response from hundreds of thousands of options, not too different from a person choosing which sentence he will insert in any common conversation. This creates “virtual communication” and what is most important is that it is psychologically real for the user. Successful, virtual communication builds a person’s intellectual and social self-confidence. It does not necessarily cut them off from fellow students and teachers. Likewise an interactive site can provide the same sense of disciplined, modular reality and if the kid gives up, can inform his tutor.

For example in a software program of mathematical games or problems, if the child does not succeed, a program usually shows virtual and good-humored patience. After an incorrect entry to a problem it might say ”Good try ! But that is not it. Here is a tip” and then suggest subsequent ways of solving the problems.

In short, most educational software, and online programs are structured on the premise that the software is acting the role of a knowledgeable, kind and entertaining tutor who never loses his patience and divides tasks up into small incremental steps. And surprisingly enough an online real person can do the same or, use a combination of the two. Lessons are delivered in small, stimulating chunks with reviews and periodic quizzes. It is next to impossible for a child to fall behind.

The fact that some children may proceed faster than others does not disrupt the learning cycle. Interactivity injects much flexibility into teaching for if one student finishes earlier than another there are always a  host of related and complementary activities ready at the flick of a switch or the press of a button that can engage that student while the others are catching up.

This takes into account the massive educational research coming from Howard Gardner at Harvard who argues that the brain is modular. There are eight major kinds of intelligence (logical mathematical, spatial, linguistic, bodily kinesthetic, musical, interpersonal, intrapersonal, naturalistic, existential) and we are born with different levels of acuity in these domains and learn at different speeds. Why has this paramount reality been largely ignored in almost the entire school system of Israel? It is not for lack of access to Dr. Gardner’s numerous and well written books.

The quantity and quality of commercially available software and interactive programs is growing by leaps and bounds and the revolution has just begun. Much of it can be downloaded from the Internet and there has been a recent explosion in privately produced Israeli educational software that but it has yet to take centre stage in Israeli schools. If the child is busy interacting with the computer, or an online learning community, he or she can also compare notes with other students in the same class. This encourages positive social interaction.

Finally, the interactive nature of these programs frees the classroom teacher from lecturing and disciplining, online or offline. He or she can leisurely monitor students progress and deal with any problem that the computer or online tutors cannot answer. This is precisely the ideal situation that Martin Gardner hints at in his book, The Unschooled Mind.

This revolution can turn the teachers into a tutor and a colleague. It turns the adversarial atmosphere of the classroom into the more collegial relationship that exists between coach and athlete. The athlete wants to please his coach and the coach wants his athlete to win. This is the emotional relationship that follows from creating an interactive classroom.

Finally, there is one major advantage to this system of learning and teaching. The teacher need not be an expert in the topic that is being learnt. Take for example interactive language learning. In fact, the teacher may build rapport with young students by joining in the class and participating in the text, sound, graphics and video that passes before his eyes in the learning of some new body of knowledge or some language skill.

Imagine a class of Israeli students and their teacher going through the basic lessons of Japanese! Then imagine them seeing a film on some aspect of Japanese culture like martial arts (children love that). In short the teacher is more like a guide, like a Rabbi who guides his students through the complexities of the Talmud. She is neither a lecturer nor master of discipline and her role as police officer of the class is seriously reduced.

The social dynamics of the “wild classroom” (found in many Israeli schools) where a few dramatically misbehaving students set the agenda, can be quickly “defanged” as the decentralizing technical and social processes of the interactive classroom work themselves out. In most cases when a child is deeply engaged in an interactive program and he is disturbed by a fellow student he or she is usually quite effective in brushing them off – he or she will have better things to do. And, if the groups of students are small there is less chance for total classroom chaos to erupt. The teacher can more easily deal with he or she who acts out.

In short the teacher no longer has to teach to the lowest common denominator. The quick are not bored by the slow, and the teacher moves from student to student giving hints and help as his or her new role of “facilitator” enters the consciousness of the student. It is unlikely that the Israeli educational establishment will adopt this system, however. They are still stuck in the classroom of the sixties.

Oddly one of the first steps towards creating the interactive classroom is to first take it out of the daily school round. For most children school is something they have to do. If Israeli children could vote, schools would close down. So,  the C.B.C.E. approach suggests that the first interactive classrooms be located in  community centers. Children associate these places with clubs (“chugim”) places of disciplined fun and thus there is at the start a positive emotional association.

The model project suggested here goes as follows. Take a few children from one class and invite them to join a computer/homework club. The club will be based on three half-hour units with a ten-minute break to take place one late afternoon each week. Each unit will actually be based on the curriculum and topics that the children study at school – without them being directly aware that this is the case. Areas of foci will include the basic skills and areas of knowledge: mathematics, logic, problem solving, languages, history, cultures, the arts and the world of science and nature. 

In order to stimulate the children, prizes and awards will be given out when they pass certain benchmarks. These computer sessions can always end with a documentary film and facilitated discussion related to their studies and which the teacher facilitates through a small discussion.

The goal is to familiarize the children with the world of software, structured online learning communities and educational products available on the internet. At the same time it can complement and, in some cases, act as a substitute for their classroom experience, within the framework of the national curriculum, but, in an atmosphere where small groups interact, build solidarity and use their tutor to facilitate their natural curiosity.

The first group of students would be a group of students from grades one to eight. Older students, soon to graduate from high schools could act as facilitators/tutors alongside one of the staff of these community centers (matnassim in Hebrew). This could help by providing younger students with “positive role models” – something that is lacking in Israeli schools outside of organizations like the Scouts 

Periodic and participatory review and evaluation of the project by parents and children would fine-tune it over a period of a year. It could then expand to deal with different parts of the curriculum and be adapted to different strata of society.

Time and facilities need to be set aside by a community center to implement this educational experiment, either for free, or at minimal cost. I am  convinced that such an experiment, carried out with the support of a school and a community center, may act as a pilot project to redesign Israeli education in the decade ahead. Perhaps it is already happening and needs to be “rolled out nationally” as educational bureaucrats would like to say.

If such a program works, it could then be used as a model to radically redefine the way primary and secondary schools use their people, time and resources in the years ahead. It is hoped that with the assistance of interactive computers, video and the online learning communities that inhabit the 21st century internet, teachers can once again become tutors as has always been the case in the Jewish Yeshivas and in the West's most prestigious Universities such as Oxford and Cambridge.

The Israeli men and women who made their money in high tech know that without better education they will have no future imitators. Perhaps they should invest in this kind of approach to education. It is new, exciting and innovative. Jewish philanthropic institutions could easily provide qualitative innovations and pilot projects based on the CBCE model that hopefully one day will be taken up by other donors and eventually by the Israeli educational establishment itself. One day I hope there will be no more teachers in the Israeli (or the American) school system for that matter, only tutors.

Geoffrey Clarfield is an anthropologist at large.


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