Saturday 20 December 2008

What are we Teaching?

Before making my move to Israel with two young children more than 10 years ago, one of the things that I was not concerned about was the Israeli education system. I was obviously concerned to find the right schools that would allow my children to feel at home, and provide them with the best chance of a successful integration. I did not think for a moment, however, that the education system may not be up to a good standard, or may not provide my children with the tools that they require to succeed in life. I took it for granted that a Jewish country, that embodies age-old Jewish values and priorities, would place the education of its children very near the top of its list. I have, unfortunately, been proven wrong.

My children settled down into their respective schools quite quickly. It was the parents who took longer to settle down and get accustomed to the different quirks of the Israeli school system. In the first few years of primary (elementary) school, I noticed that the homework diary that we had been instructed to buy contained more names than homework tasks. When I enquired what the purpose of the list of names was, I was advised that the first homework task each day was to phone the kids who had been absent from school that day. This was the reason for them appearing in the homework diary. This task was more important than the homework.

And so it was that I discovered how the Israeli school system works. During the first few years of school, the emphasis is on social tasks rather than academic ones. It is important to check in on the sick kids, and turn up to birthday parties to provide support to other kids in the class. Academic tasks are also given out on the understanding that the children are only expected to do an hour's homework each afternoon. In the event that the homework is not finished in the hour that has been allocated, the children are not expected to finish it. The reason? It is important to have time for friends and for after-school activities each day, and homework should not interrupt this. In a country where social skills and getting along with each other is an important lesson to learn at school, this approach is admirable. But all the while, it is sending the message that school work somehow has a lower level of priority than everything else.

This latter point is emphasized even more by the time the children reach middle and high school. There always seem to be a thousand good reasons why children need not attend lessons, or why lessons are replaced or even cancelled. Israeli children seem to be busy with numerous outside activities, many of them good and wholesome. My high school-going son is an active member of the local scout troop, and I am very supportive of the time and effort that he puts into this activity. Despite this fact, I feel that his studies should always take priority over his scout activities. The school, it seems, does not agree. He is excused from attending lessons for almost any scout-related activity. If the scouts have held a function that has resulted in a late night for the children, they are often able to receive special dispensation to skip the first few lessons of school the following day. Worse than this is the high school's policy that all kids are entitled to skip a certain number of lessons each semester without being recorded as absent or penalised.

In my view, what is worse than all of this is the total lack of replacement teachers in the school system. It is inevitable that teachers are sometimes sick, go on school trips with other classes or need to attend enrichment courses during school hours. On these occasions, their scheduled lessons are cancelled. No replacement teachers, no setting of tasks or extra work. Simply cancelled. Whilst I am trying to teach my son to take his responsibilities and commitments seriously, and to make alternative arrangements where people are relying upon him for one thing or another, the school system is teaching him exactly the opposite. The school even has a system which allows for the easy sending of SMS messages to the pupils of a particular class to advise them that the lesson has been cancelled so that they do not turn up. Not only is this letting down the Israeli youth who need to maximise every learning hour that they can, it is also teaching them that it is OK not to fulfil your commitments to others. Surely, this is one of the worst things to be teaching our children? And yet, it is coming from no less than the education authority itself.

It is true that Israeli students fill highly sought-after places in the most respected universities, colleges and institutions of higher learning around the world. It seems to me that this is in spite of the education system in Israel, and not because of it. Imagine how much more Israeli youth could achieve if they had a higher quality education base to work from.

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