Asher Levy

The Community Learning Centres movement has also been established in Israel. In the last twenty years, an innovative kind of educational thinking has taken root in Israel. This thinking has taken place outside the conventional educational institutions of the school system. It has happened in community centres and other informal institutions run by community members themselves. Asher Levy, the Director-General of the Association for Adult Education in Israel and former Vice-Director of the Israeli Association of Community Centres, describes innovative methods of community education and their experiences with them.

Community Education in Israel

Community Education

In the last twenty years, an innovative kind of educational thinking has taken root in Israel. This thinking has taken place outside the conventional educational institutions of the school system. It has happened in community centers and other informal in stitutions run by community members themselves. Some of this thinking is expressed in terminology: for example, the active form hinukh – implying a process whereby someone who knows educates someone who does not – has been replaced with the reflexive hithankhut, a process undergone by learners, in which the accompanying adults (or teachers) serve as facilitators. The teachers may be more experienced than the learners, but the ones who have an interest in knowing are the latter. This process cannot be dictated by the teachers’ knowledge; rather it must be driven by curiosity, initiative and daring – the main characteristics of learners. The dialogue between experience and knowledge on one hand and curiosity and interest on the other determines the success of the educational process.

Social Viewpoint

The philosophy of community education can be successful among learners in any community. The Israeli Association of Community Centers has chosen to work with those who have not been high achievers in school. This decision stems from an entire social philosophy, according to which communities who ignore the failure of their learners in the formal educational system exclude themselves from important decisions in public life and thus disconnect from the true life-flow of community members. The populations of places where the community education program developed could extract themselves from the vicious circles of poverty, want, feel ings of neglect and desperation only through higher education. In Israeli society, education is a sine qua non for achieving prestigious jobs in terms of social status and possibilities for socio-economic mobility. Besides its other important aspects, informal community education has become a tool of primary importance for significant change in the communities where it is employed. As a significant and professional space, it improves the prestige and importance of the communities in their own eyes.

Foci of Thought in Hinukh and Hithankhut

The focus of interest in conventional school learning is knowledge. The entire educational effort is invested in issues such as: What knowledge does the gradu ate need to have, and in what fields? What chapters should be chosen from each curriculum? What programs must be prepared? How should study materials be spread throughout the schooling career, taking into account the mental, physiologi cal and psychological attributes of children at different ages (when children are in the system for at least 12 years)? All this requires the training of teachers to teach particular programs according to the age divisions decided upon and the writing of appropriate textbooks, as well as the creation of methods of examination and evaluation of the learners’ achievements, all of which must be supervised by the state: thus an entire school system is formed which revolves around the knowledge which the school must transmit.

The focus of thinking in community education is the learner herself – and not only because the teachers in this system are nicer. The change of focus is primarily a function of the lack of legal sanction on the learner who chooses not to attend. She will come to the community school only if she feels like it. If we want her to feel like it, we must ask ourselves: what interests her? What is important to her? What does she need? The learner becomes the object of thinking of community education, which leads the other elements of community learning. Now we must choose instructional methods which will be attractive to the learner and answer her needs, so she chooses to keep on learning.

Educational Principles of Community Education

It now becomes clear that the methods used in projects utilizing these innovative schemes are based on educational principles unlike those of conventional education.

1. Everyone can do it

First, a complex of beliefs is centered on the predicate that everyone can do it. But what is “it”? Everyone can succeed at the tasks mandated by the formal educational system. Clearly, different learners have different abilities, but the system was not constructed with “geniuses” in mind, but rather for the average learner. Thus, an average child should be able to succeed in this system, which was built for him: those who usually achieve below average must make a greater effort, together with their supportive environments, in order to meet the average criteria that are set. Any child without an organic disorder can meet the demands of the system; in fact, even those with minor organic mental problems can, with great effort, meet these demands.

While more than 50 % of 18-year-olds in Israel do not graduate high school with a baccalaureate, the reasons for this have nothing to do with their mental faculties – they must be looked for elsewhere. One known cause of failure among learners is the complex of environmental expectations: those of the family, the peer group, the school, the teacher and, most importantly, themselves. When learners believe in the possibility of success, they can find the internal resources to take on the tasks meted out to them and succeed. To succeed with those currently failing in their studies, all the environmental dimensions I have mentioned must be worked on.

This principle has many correlates, all of which I cannot mention here; I will state only the most important one. If we are to fortify the learner’s faith in himself, his self-confidence and his personality, it is of primary importance to refrain from any sort of “tracking”. Any such categorization boosts those at the top (for whom it is usually intended), while stigmatizing all others and sentencing them to harsh futures. “Pygmalion in the classroom” proves that the belief of the environment and the learner himself in his potential are the best predictor of success in school.

2. Not just cognitiv

In opposition to conventional educational thought, the philosophy of hithankhut does not focus exclusively on the learner’s cognitive-intellectual faculties. Accord ing to studies, these abilities are particularly developed in about 25 % of learners. These students are the best achievers in the formal system, which has been devel oped with them in mind. 75 % of learners are better-developed in other faculties, such as the emotional, esthetic, motor, social etc. These days, when everyone is talking about “multiple intelligences”, schools still focus on the learners’ intellectual faculties. The other 75 % must struggle in school, where the stress is always on intellectual skills (learning material, understanding it, remembering it in the long term, collecting and using it in exams and papers). They have a hard time; they drop out; they form the majority of the population that does not achieve the bac calaureate. On the other hand, we often meet adults who were terrible students and, despite the fact, have succeeded greatly in life. They may be artists, famous athletes, businessmen or even social and political leaders. This happens because life is much richer and more varied than the narrow fields which the schools have decided to stress, simply because it does not know how to quantify and measure the success of students in other fields, which are not purely intellectual. In order to help students whose intellectual skills are less developed to succeed in school, we must utilize their other strengths through artistic, ludic, athletic, collective and supportive methods.

The community is the most natural location in which these activities may be brought together under one educational and environmental roof.

3. Never alone

The community is also the natural location for the next dimension of hithankhut. Especially when working with challenged students, educational work can never disregard the other circles of life of the learner. Of course, the learner’s family’s attitude towards school has the greatest effect on her own attitude. A family which denigrates or despises learning is a death-stroke for the learner’s chances of success. The attitude of the peer group is also important for the learner’s chances for achieve ment. In addition, we know how important the various media are for the learner’s perceptions nowadays. No one has yet taken this dimension into consideration in the instructional practice of the schools. Of course, it is impossible to exaggerate the importance of school and every teacher (not just the one facing the student at a given moment) on educational achievement. Therefore, any effort to help students succeed must take all these factors into account. The conventional system is not built to take the various elements that must be dealt with into consideration.

In the community, frameworks can always be built which connect to the children’s parents on other levels and which can be utilized for the learners’ education. Com munity education is also a natural location for peer-based social groupings which can also serve as support groups for the learner. Community institutions are also well-equipped to take up communications and other “soft” activities in learning contexts.

4. Working on strengths

The formal education system is ever focused on the learner’s weaknesses. If achieve ments in mathematics, for example, are unsatisfactory, more hours of instruction in mathematics are added. A community education system does not focus on the learners’ weaknesses, and does not deal with problems through the piling on of more hours of instruction. What use will more hours be if the problem is chronic and up until now instruction has been unsuccessful? If we depart from each learner’s strengths, on the other hand, we discover possibilities of empowerment and the development of the learner’s faith in her own ability to deal with severe challenges. In pedagogy it is always useful to start from the places where the learner is strong, and lead from there to harder spots.

This strategy has its own effects on methodology: the learner must develop a new learning history, a history of successes. The opening can be found wherever the learner feels that she knows, and in order to build a history of successes from there on, these successes should be planned.

The contents of learning must be made relevant to the learner’s everyday life. In addition, it is important to enable greater freedom of choice as the learner progresses. The learner’s reasoned choice empowers her and fortifies her ability to make independent decisions in the future. Most importantly, by turning to the learner’s strengths we tap into her powers and energies, thus enabling her to deal with the challenges of learning far more effectively than we would through struggling with her weaknesses.

5. Everything belongs to the learner

Learning belongs to the learner, it is for the learner. It cannot include motives and methods that are hidden from him as he deals with learning challenges. The learner must be “in on the secret” of his studies. Why is he learning? What for? Where does he want to go? Why are these subjects taught and not others? How does he like to learn? What makes him succeed? Why are the questions and subjects of the educational system phrased as they are? What do they want to know? What is at

the base of this entire process? When all subjects, methods and interests are laid clearly before the learner, he can better tailor his efforts to what is demanded and succeed. The practice of transparency also shows respect for the learner and his right to his destiny: he becomes master of the process, instead of its servant.

6. Application of the new approach in Israel

The learner-centered approach to community education has been applied in Israel for more than 15 years. Today the program is active in about a hundred community centers around the country, out of which about 35 are located in Arab neighbour hoods. It reaches out to up to 15,000 learners a year, mostly youth. Around 1000 teachers are employed within the program, all trained through a unique and tailor made training system. The teachers all have the benefit of close counseling by vet eran teachers. Especially at the beginning, many education workers were sceptical about the success of the new learning methods. However, the learners, their parents and the communties embraced the concept and slowly but surely key stakeholders in the Israeli education system follow and rally support for the new approach. The program has had to fight for its life financially, yet it survives – not least by virtue of donations from private persons. In Hebrew the program is titled PELE, an acronym for “another kind of educational activity” which also means “marvel”.