In the 1990’s and 2000’s, Judaic teaching capitalized on newer approaches to curricular scope and sequence (spiralling up), giving way to the development of proven pedagogic approaches for skill-building over the last 10 to 15 years. While we can appreciate and lean on the merits of that effort, it is a misplaced focus. When it comes to Judaic Studies, the most important aspects of pedagogy teachers should embrace are those associated with motivational pedagogy. Whether or not a child wishes to engage in the wisdom of our thoughtful lessons after the school day ends impacts more than our job performance. It is the very reason we perform our jobs.

Whether or not a child wishes to engage in the wisdom of our thoughtful lessons after the school day ends impacts more than our job performance. It is the very reason we perform our jobs.

We all should aspire to create a setting where Jewish students want to learn Judaic Studies when they aren’t in the classroom. We know that the depth and power of our tradition can guide, inspire, and influence their lives in positive ways.

The research and instructional practices that will most likely deliver our end goal -- self-actualized Jews -- are those related to motivating learners from within. Study of Jewish wisdom, values, history, and practice should be personally rewarding in the short term to endure over the long term.  

In the past decade, there has been a compelling turn in positive psychology toward the power and lasting value of intrinsic motivation. While the research and thought leadership on harnessing intrinsic motivation has many definitions, conditions, and settings, six main components seem to be most applicable to student learning in the classroom:

  1. Relatedness - This describes a person’s desire to maintain close, safe, and satisfying connections in one’s social environment, while feeling part of it. Students feel motivated when they have deep connections with peers, a teacher, or even parents not present in the classroom. Creating rapport and developing a trusting culture make learning easier.  When students don’t seem to feel connected in any way, shape, or form, it is incumbent on the teacher to help them find or build the relationships that will personally matter and inspire.

  2. Autonomy -  This is a great place for students to bargain and negotiate so they have ownership and control over their own learning. The more a student demonstrates responsibility and follow through, the more you can offer different levels of independence. This can include demonstrating progress toward mastery or simply completing an experience that moves toward that goal. This requires careful differentiation so students needing more scaffolding can be and feel successful in self-managing.

  3. A Progression Towards Mastery - Students need to feel they are making headway on what they may perceive as an endless journey.  It’s often the cause of frustration and the resulting avoidance behavior. Be sure you have systems in place for students to track their progress -- bit by bit.  This is also an area where a little one-on-one work goes a long way with students to help them gain footing with more complex skills.

  4. Purpose - This encompasses the sense of directedness connected to goals with emotional, spiritual, or extrinsic entanglements that energize a person to act and offer clarity. In Judaic Studies, an emphasis on the importance of learning in relation to our religion, community, world, family, etc. is just not sufficient for many students’ to accept as a purpose deep enough to overcome other interests. Our religion has multiple stated purposes within the bounds of our ancient wisdom, which both transcend time and drive students (e.g. social justice, kindness, ethical leadership, closeness to the Divine, etc.). Having the students develop their own formulations of a purpose helps create ownership.

  5. The Need to Feel Significant- Each person wants to feel special whether that actualizes in a niche within a group or simply getting a sense that you matter. If a student feels overly challenged in a class, that student may look for a different path toward success -- like doodling or connecting with a friend. Different from relatedness, this drives a desire for specialness or a way to be distinct. Even within a group of teenagers that want to look the same, each seeks to celebrate the characteristic that makes him or her feel unique.

  6. Maintaining Homeostasis - The brain creates physiological and psychological boundaries to maintain reality. Maintaining stability within the boundaries is known as homeostasis. Each person’s brain works to sustain psychological homeostasis, which it defines by means of experience and personal thought patterns that keep it within its boundaries. This need for balance can cause a person to resist beneficial change or rush to alter a fine situation. It also means a person can interpret sounds or sights as undesirable because they seem weird or out of a personal “comfort zone.”  Sometimes, that is good. Unchecked, this could lead to hidden biases, lost opportunities, and undesirable choices.

There is no mystery solved here. The real mystery seems to be how to help schools shift away from traditional extrinsic motivators -- like grades -- toward what we know has been effective and positive for as long as we have been observing human development (and now with the research to prove it). A few brave schools have embarked on this journey by building into their curricula and teacher training strategies for cultivating intrinsic motivation.

Equally compelling in this campaign for a paradigm shift is the evidence about overuse of extrinsic motivators. While most people recognize the benefits of tapping into intrinsic motivation, many do not embrace the research-backed reality that overuse of extrinsic motivators can extinguish the very intrinsic motivation we seek to ignite.  

The Jewish people have successfully transmitted our wisdom, values, and practices for generations -- well before schools relied on potentially demoralizing outside forces such as grading. Let’s put our minds together to develop new best practices and approaches that focus on helping students develop a positive Jewish identity, an enduring commitment to Jewish wisdom, and a lifelong passion for Jewish learning.