All About Experiential (Jewish) Education: The Mystery Revealed

GLEANINGS
Dialogue on Jewish Education from The Davidson School 
Issue 1, Winter 2014 

Mark S. Young

Experiential education is the mysterious term that has enveloped our field over the past decade. What are we educators, learners, administrators, and philanthropists supposed to do with this term? What are its meanings and nuances, and how have they been interpreted? What do the opportunities and potential of experiential education represent within our larger field of Jewish education? Let us also tackle the 600-pound gorilla: is experiential education really the silver bullet that will mollify our field's challenges and woes?

It is an honor to greet you as the opening writer for The Davidson School's inaugural issue of Gleanings, an education newsletter that offers insights, reflections, and challenges to the field of Jewish education. In this issue, we invite you to explore articles—by our faculty, staff, students, alumni, and guests—that revolve around experiential education, a concept that has captivated our field. 

What I found most interesting while reading these fantastic pieces, perhaps frustrating at first but empowering after I thought about it, is that these articles do not provide a clear-cut answer to any of the above—intentionally. Rather, they propose fascinating ideas, share program models, narrate personal stories, and suggest new questions. I find this refreshing and pertinent. Our contributors model what we discuss here at The Davidson School about experiential education: that it is about 1) learners discovering, exploring, and understanding on their own terms; 2) facilitators and learners feeling empowered to cultivate and strengthen relationships with each other and the content; 3) the intentionality of our work, focusing on our goals and deciding the best techniques and modes of pedagogy to most effectively achieve our goals, and 4) reflection, the notion that we must take the time to examine, question, and wrestle with our experiences so we can extrapolate the key learning and conceptualizations from them. 

The Davidson School has been all about experiential education for decades. We educate students in our graduate programs and participants in our multitude of professional development institutes about Dewey, Vigotzky, and the principles of constructivist learning. The Davidson School expanded this focus thanks to the generosity of the Jim Joseph Foundation, its education grant to The Davidson School, and the launch of our Experiential Learning Initiative in 2010. The initiative is a five-year project that has given scholarships to 34 of our MA students so that they may enroll in a cohort specifically oriented to "Jewish experiential educators," involved in intentionally designed fieldwork projects, internships, cohort activities, and special courses. Brianna Spatz, a student of The Davidson School, shared some reflections and recent experiences in the field, which appear in this issue. The Experiential Learning Initiative has also engaged 38 mid-level professionals in Jewish Community Centers (JCCs) throughout North America in conversation and training about experiential education and its connection to leadership, through the lens of Jewish content. But an ultimate goal of the initiative has been to move forward the learning, understandings, complexities, and simplicities of Jewish experiential education (JEE; or experiential Jewish education [EJE], take your pick) to the field at large. Truly, our subsequent projects—such as ReFrame for synagogue education—are doing just that. Rabbi Jason Gitlin, our ReFrame project manager, and Dr. Zachary Lasker, director of education projects for the Melton Research Center for Jewish Education and of The Davidson School, glean their stories and insights for us here as well.

What might be most inspiring about the following articles, however, is that they take the mystique of "What is experiential education?" out of the equation by tackling the term itself. Dr. Jeffrey Kress, interim dean of The Davidson School and my partner in directing the Experiential Learning Initiative, encourages you to take the experiential Jewish education challenge, looking beyond the words to the goals of our work. We should look beyond trying to define or understand the term experiential education or figuring out how to bring experiential education to our institutions; rather, let's focus on our educational goals—specifically, how we can best impact the development of our learners (youth, teens, and adults), and how some of these concepts can get us there—without obsessing over experiential as a term. Lyndall Miller, director of The Davidson School's Jewish Early Childhood Education Leadership Institute (JECELI), offers a similar take from the perspective of early childhood development. 

I have been inspired over the past three years as coordinator of our Experiential Learning Initiative to realize that experiential education—like any good form of learning, and quite frankly, like any good form of leading—means to take the time to truly understand oneself as a learner, educator, and leader. You, as the participant, matter to the conversation; and you, as the participant, have a responsibility to engage. You, as an educator and leader, have an accountability to engage others, not just to transmit; and by engaging, the transmission occurs so much more successfully—and with excitement. Certainly Ray Levi's piece on the experiential approaches to learning within our Day School Leadership Training Institute (DSLTI) exemplifies this lesson. 

Finally, there is an even bigger relationship at stake beyond the learner, facilitator, and content, and that is with the community at large. Rachel Meytin of BBYO provides her own working model of engaging with teens' experiences and interests through the building of connections not only between teens and the content, but between an individual and the larger Jewish (and non-Jewish) community. Truly, our work is about expanding the network and group identifications, not merely strengthening one's own individual experiences and learning.

We hope you glean much from the pieces that make up the inaugural issue of Gleanings. But more importantly, we hope you are left with new questions to explore, ideas to pursue, and challenges to overcome. Our initiative has been all about experimentation, innovation, questioning, and reflection. In the spirit of experiential education (or whatever we shall call it—again, read Jeff Kress's piece), I invite you to a journey here that is fulfilling, inspiring, and experiential. Shalom. 

Mark S. Young is the program coordinator of the Experiential Learning Initiative at the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of The Jewish Theological Seminary. The Experiential Learning Initiative is a five-year project generously funded and supported by the Jim Joseph Foundation.