From Teacher to Tutor: Solving Israel’s School Crisis

by Geoffrey Clarfield (February 2012)

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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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