Playing to Learn

Haim Watzman

Peter Gray came to my youngest daughter’s school last night to talk about why I should just relax and let my daughter play her way through her adolescence.

About fifteen months ago, Misgav, now 15, asked to transfer to the Sudbury School in Jerusalem. The school, located a short walk from our home, operates on the model of the Sudbury Valley School in Massachusetts. That means, in short, that the kids run the school. There are no course requirements, the kids only study if and what they want to. Staff exists to facilitate what the kids want, not determine what they should learn. Play is considered no less, perhaps more valuable, than formal classes. The school enrolls children from the ages of 4 through 18 and any activity or lesson is likely to include children of a wide variety of ages.

Gray became acquainted with Sudbury when, more than 30 years ago, he decided to send his son Scott there. Scott is now a staff member at the original Sudbury school and also spoke to us last night. A psychologist at Boston College, Peter conducted research about the school and became one of its major advocates, as can be seen on his blog.

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Requiem for a Mathematician, and for an Education System

Oded Schramm was an awe-inspiring mathematician. His death at the age of 46, in a climbing accident in Washington State, is sad in all the ways a normal life cut short is sad. The discoveries he would have made and never got to are only a small piece of the sadness. The mathematician, after all, was also a person, a husband and a father. As a small comfort, the last 26 years of his life were apparently a miracle: According to the Ha’aretz obit, in 1982, during the war in Lebanon, his tank took a direct hit. Somehow he survived.

Reading Schramm’s foreshortened biography made me think about Israeli education. He was born in Jerusalem, went to school here, got his BA and MA from Hebrew U. Given the condition of Israeli schools today, will they produce more Schramms?

As reported last week, Israel’s underfunded school system gets terrible marks from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development:

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Universal Education Insurance

Haim Watzman

Motti works out with me at the gym at the Jerusalem Pool. A cab driver by profession, he’s a bit younger than me and shares my exercise addiction; like me he has a teenage son who also works out at the gym. We work hard to stay healthy, and we both want our kids to succeed at school. What’s the connection?

Last night we managed to pry my niece away from her Birthright trip for a short visit with the family, and I called on Motti to drive us back to the hotel outside Jerusalem where her group is staying. It being the end of the school year, on the way back to the city, we chatted about our sons and their schoolwork.

“He doesn’t want to study,” Motti said half-mournfully, half-derisively about his tenth-grader. His son attends a secular public high school in the Katamonim neighborhood, a school that serves a large section of South Jerusalem that includes disadvantaged and poor neighborhoods as well as lower middle class areas.

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For Tom Friedman to Win His Bet, Friedmanism Must Go

Gershom Gorenberg

Sometimes when I read Tom Friedman, I’m so taken by his bubbly optimism, I want to drink whatever he’s been sipping. Especially when he’s bubbling about Israel, as in “People vs. Dinosaurs” . Says Tom: In contrast to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who thinks that Israel is in its last days, zillionnaire investor Warren Buffett is putting lots of money on Israel’s rosy future. And Tom is betting with Buffet.

In principle, I’d agree. But for Buffet to hit the jackpot, Israel’s government will have to reject Friedmanism – all of Milton Friedmanism, and some of Tom Friedmanism.

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How To Succeed In School With A Lot Of Trying

I’m a proud father today-my 17-year old son Niot received a 97 on one of his bagrut (national high school graduation) exams-a particularly hard one. Any father would be proud of such a high mark, but I have cause to be more proud than most. Just a few years ago, most of the teachers who knew Niot doubted he’d be able to earn a diploma. We, his parents, doubted it, too. But now we can send out an announcement (we’re debating if we want to follow what a friend did and order some through Jostens, or simply do so online) to our friends and families about how well he’s done!

In elementary school, Niot had trouble sitting still in class. He didn’t seem to “get” many of the lessons. Frustrated and bored, he developed anti-social behaviors, including fierce outbursts of anger and sometimes violence. The teachers, counselors, and administrators at his school did their best, but were largely at a loss for how to handle him. Ilana and I were as well. Luckily there are schools, similar to this PreK-12 Independent School in Raleigh, that know how to help their students giving them the much-needed attention they may need and struggle to obtain.

After seeking outside advice, we had Niot tested for learning disabilities. The tests showed what we’d sensed all along. The boy was not stupid or dim-minded. He was bright, but his mind didn’t work the way the standard curriculum and teaching procedures expected them to work.

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What Education Costs Us

Poor kids get worse educations and graduate from high school at lower rates than rich kids. That’s bad. What could be worse? The Bank of Israel’s annual report (not yet available on line, but here’s a report in today’s Ha’aretz) says that the education gap has remained virtually the same since 1992. We’ve made no progress at all.

Or Kashti writes there:

The study found that in the 2004-05 academic year, the proportion of students who earned a bagrut (matriculation) certificate was 25.5 percentage points higher in the two highest socioeconomic deciles than in the two lowest deciles. That is almost identical to the gap recorded in 1992-93 – 25.3 percentage points

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