Talya Halkin, THE JERUSALEM POST
Sep. 1, 2005
The new school year opened this week with the launching of the Dovrat Reform – the Education Ministry's controversial attempt to overhaul the country's education system. As this much-publicized reform finally gets underway, three educators committed to social change are quietly preparing to launch a new teaching program – which they believe can lead to a true grassroots reform – one teacher at a time.
"There is a tremendous amount of preoccupation with education in Israel, a widespread sense of dissatisfaction with the education system, and different kinds of analysis about what is wrong with it," Hagit Gor Ziv explained last week, sitting with her two colleagues in a small, empty classroom at Kibbutzim College.
Together with Galia Zalmanson Levi and Gal Harmat, Gor Ziv is busy these days recruiting applicants for a new Program for Critical Pedagogy, which is scheduled to open this October at the Kibbutzim College of Education in Tel Aviv. The program, which will be directed by these three educators, will train elementary school teachers according to the principles of social justice, environmental justice and education for peace.
"Critical pedagogy," Gor Ziv said, "focuses on education from a social perspective. It is based on an understanding that the central social problem is inequality, and attempts to address this problem."
The concept of inequality is not new to Gor Ziv – a soft-spoken woman with gentle brown eyes and a shoulder-length mane of white hair. In 1959, her parents decided to leave their home on Kibbutz Ginossar because, she explained with a half-smile, "they felt it wasn't egalitarian enough."
The family relocated to Beersheba's poverty-stricken D neighborhood; at her new school, Gor Ziv quickly learned what bad education was all about. After studying education in Los Angeles in her early twenties, she returned to Israel and became deeply involved in both formal and informal education.
Gor Ziv's two co-directors are no less committed to the question of how to create an education system that provides children with better, more equal opportunities as part of a more general philosophy of social change. Zalmanson Levi – a stout, energetic woman with a candid, direct manner – had initially majored in biology ("I wanted to prevent world hunger through marine biology," she explained, laughing) before turning to education.
Harmat, the third and youngest director of the program, is a delicate, curly-haired woman who has a quiet air of determination about her. Growing up in Nazareth and Afula, she spent her adolescent years in the Arab-Jewish youth movement Sadaka-Reut, which promotes dialogue for social change. In the early 1990s, she spent three and a half years shuttling back and forth to Bosnia, where she learned Serbian so that she could participate in creating a series of rape crisis centers there for women victimized during the war. She then went on to earn a masters from the gender and peace studies program at University for Peace in Costa Rica.
The term "critical pedagogy," as the three are quick to explain, grew out of the work of the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, who in the early 1960s began creating literacy programs for impoverished farmers (see box). In these "cultural circles," as he called them, he began by encouraging his students to think about the social and economic forces that profited from their lack of literacy and formal education – believing that the motivation to learn was directly linked to developing one's political consciousness. His students learned how to read and write within three months.
"In Israel today," Zalmanson Levi said, "we can pretty much predict with certainty what a child's chances for success are according to the socioeconomic group he belongs to, where he lives, and what his parents' level of education is. It's not a question of talent or personality, but of social milieu. We want to break this equation."
In reality, she pointed out, one of the most important factors for success in school is the connection the parents and the community have with the education system.
"You can't have real reform in education without involving the community," she said. "There is almost perfect correlation between teacher involvement and a child's success in school. It's a much more important parameter than the formal education of a child's parents. Parents are often afraid to get involved, yet the more involved they are, the more progress their kids make."
ISRAELI CHILDREN, according to the three founders of the Critical Pedagogy program, are categorized by their teachers in the first weeks of first grade, and spend the rest of their school years being directed through the school system in a predetermined manner, further perpetuating the large social gaps that already exist in Israel.
"Sometimes," Gor Ziv said, "I visit preschools where a teacher will say to me 'Well, this kid...' and wave her hand dismissively."
The problem is not, of course, unique to Israel.
"In the US," she added, "you can tell how far a child will go in terms of his education by the zip code he lives in."
There are also, however, more egalitarian educational models. According to Harmat, who spent time in Sweden (one of the Western world's recent models of successful school reform) studying how to promote dialogue between native Swedes and immigrants, the legally sanctioned principle guiding Swedish education is "a school for all" – access to equivalent educational opportunities regardless of background. Sweden, she noted, spends tremendous resources on making all schoolchildren part of the Swedish education system; as a result, nearly every high-school graduate will go on to higher education.
Teachers, according to Gor Ziv and her colleagues, are the key to the success of critical pedagogy. It is this belief that prompted her and her colleagues to create a program that would encourage educators to develop their social consciousness and organizational skills – in order to ultimately create meaningful social change through education.
"Our point of departure," said Gor Ziv, "is that inequality is a given situation that was created by people, and it can be changed. The model we have in mind is feminism – a tremendous revolution that was ultimately carried out through education."
The three have few words of praise for the so-called "integration" programs launched in Israel beginning in the 1970s, with the ostensible purpose of providing children from different social backgrounds with equal educational opportunities. When she began her career as an educator, Zalmanson Levi recalls, she was working at a community center in Tel Kabir, in south Tel Aviv.
"Integration meant sending kids from Tel Kabir to high schools in north Tel Aviv," she said. "I was working with junior high students, and understanding how they experienced integration tells you what didn't work about the whole idea."
To begin with, she said, there was the issue of class – of clothes and brand names that separated students from the north and south. The students from Tel Kabir were not invited to participate in social activities in the north. Nobody ever came to visit them in their neighborhood. While the school got funds for participating in the integration program that were used for after-school activities, the Tel Kabir residents had long boarded the school buses that took them back home by the time these activities took place. At the end of junior high, most of them were not admitted into high school.
"The social interaction between the two groups ranged from non-existent to catastrophic," Zalmanson Levi said, by way of summing up the experiment. "For the teachers, these kids were second-class students to begin with. For the kids themselves, integration amounted to an experience of failure, rejection, humiliation and stress."
THE THREE advocates of critical pedagogy agree that there is a connection between their educational philosophy and that of "open" or "democratic" schools, which have been growing in number in Israel in recent years. Nevertheless, they were quick to point out, there are also fundamental differences between the two educational approaches.
"It's important not to spill out the baby with the bathwater," said Zalmanson Levi, whose own son attended a democratic school. "Democratic schools do some very nice things, but they are problematic in several ways."
As Zalmanson Levi pointed out, due to the tuition costs demanded from parents to sustain the school, democratic schools have become a social bubble, which automatically creates a class-based process of selection.
In addition, she argued, "The main value in democratic schools is student choice – and that is where pedagogical effort and organizational structure are directed. I don't agree with that; I believe that in a democracy, the principle of equality is above that of choice. Yet if democratic schools would decide that equality is their main value, their very existence would be jeopardized, because not everyone can pay."
Although it focuses on fostering change in disadvantaged communities, these three educators stress that critical pedagogy is a philosophy that must be applied across the social spectrum. They pointed out that in Israel today, even schools catering to middle- and upper-class children are overcrowded, and children in them suffer from the same methods of pedagogic categorizing and labelling. Non-normative behavior is often treated by a Ritalin prescription, and lack of confirmation results in exclusion from the school system.
Gender-related discrimination, Harmat pointed out, is another form of inequality that appears across the board. For instance, even after the Education Ministry established that exams and other forms should address their readers using both masculine and feminine grammatical forms, they are still written in the masculine first person singular.
Abuse, Gor Ziv noted, is another ill that plagues children regardless of their socioeconomic background. In a recent book she published about children's rights, she said, she was asked to reconsider the use of an illustrative image concerning physical and sexual abuse.
"I was told it wasn't a good idea to expose children to certain visual images," she said. "But there are kids who are exposed to that kind of abuse in reality. There is a desire to protect kids so that they don't know there is evil in the world – at the expense of children who are hurt."
Creating a model of social solidarity, Zalmanson Levi agreed, extends across the social spectrum, and includes education for social consciousness in so-called "stronger" populations. Schools in well-to-do neighborhoods, she said, have to decide what kind of society they want to affiliate themselves with.
"Kids living in well-to-do neighborhoods have no idea what is going on in this country," she said. "Schools in such areas have to decide whether they want to be part of an alienated, consumer society based on philanthropy – or one concerned with social justice."
While she was living in Bosnia, Harmat noted, children there received shipments of gifts from schoolchildren abroad – a gesture of goodwill that nevertheless reflects a distorted social perspective.
"We are accustomed to thinking that we live in peace, and that war is elsewhere," she said.
"It's easy to send things to the other end of the world," Gor Ziv added. You can afford to be philanthropic, she argued, when your generosity holds no threat.
If you decide, however, to fight hunger in your own city or country, this argument goes, you will be forced to contend with your own position in the social order.
"It is not easy," Zalmanson Levi said, "to discover that you are part of an oppressive social group."
"But it can also be very empowering," Harmat added encouragingly.
THESE DAYS, the three are busy recruiting students, who will graduate from the new four-year program with a bachelor's degree in education. In addition to studying pedagogy and basic subjects such as literature, math and science, students will also study topics related to social and ecological justice, education for peace and gender equality, and will do field work in schools and with various social organizations.
The program aims to create a socially involved group of teachers, and its directors are reaching out to applicants from different social sectors, in line with their understanding of "education for peace." The concept, they explained, does not apply narrowly to dialogue between, for instance, Arabs and Jews. Rather, it regards society as a whole, and sees the need for fostering reciprocal relations with a large range of social groups that are habitually marginalized due to economic conditions, physical disabilities, ethnicity or other reasons.
Akim, Israel's National Association for the Rehabiliatation of the Mentally Handicapped, has already expressed its willingness to finance half of the program's tuition fees for five of its parent activists. The program's directors are currently looking for grants that will enable others from across the social spectrum to enroll in the program while continuing to support themselves. Other candidates, they said, include several Arab women, a number of Orthodox Jewish women who are active in their communities, a practitioner of alternative medicine who has decided to become an educator, and a number of women active in Mahapach, an organization for social change based on community and student volunteer work.
"Part of the idea is to appeal to people who are involved in community education but who have never studied formally," said Harmat, who formally worked as the CEO of Mahapach. There is, for instance, a group of mothers in the Tel Aviv's Florentine neighborhood who teach children in the community reading through cooking classes.
"Basically, they are already working according to our educational principles," she said. "We want to teach people how to turn theory into practice, but also make people who are already practicing critical pedagogy to turn their experience into theory."
When she went to present the program in Florentine, Harmat said, "The women there didn't believe anyone would want them in a college program, and said things like 'I'm too old, I'm not educated enough.' They've basically internalized the roles assigned them by the dominant social order. Most of these women work as educators, but they wouldn't dare think that they could get a degree in education."
Regardless of their background, all applicants to the program will have to measure up to the Kibbutzim College's acceptance criteria, which include a psychometric exam – a challenge some applicants may have difficulty surmounting on their own. Harmat, however, has a solution for this hurdle as well.
"We will give our own course on how to pass the exam, according to the principles of critical pedagogy," she said confidently.
Like other tests of its kind, she argued, the psychometric test required by Israeli colleges and universities is based on class-based norms. The vocabulary that is tested for, she pointed out, is itself related to a certain social and cultural milieu, while the technique of answering questions based on a process of elimination requires a measure of self-confidence that is also socially conditioned.
Building on Freire's model, Harmat believes that by creating awareness of the social politics involved in access to education, she can motivate her students to study out of a belief in their ability to succeed.
The social conditioning underlying seemingly objective questions, she noted, is part of the education system from the word go – and cannot change until teachers are aware of it.
"Try to help a kid solve a math problem about how much water it takes to fill a bathtub, when nobody they know has a bathtub at home. The whole concept is just alien to them," she said by way of example.
Gor Ziv, who has been working at the Kibbutzim College since 1981 and who has spent the past 15 years traveling abroad every summer to teach in the service of the Israeli Foreign Ministry in Asia and Africa, believes that social change can come both from within and without the system.
"I did a lot of things inside the system," she said, "as did Galia, who worked for the Education Ministry. It's a complex process, but we're very optimistic, and we have a lot of allies within the formal education system. There is an understanding there too that meaningful change has to happen."
Will the birth of this new program eventually lead to the founding of a school based on the principles of critical pedagogy? The program's three directors are not enthusiastic about creating yet another circumscribed learning environment.
"We believe it is no less important to change things within already existing frameworks," Zalmanson Levi said. "We don't fantasize about building our own school. There are enough existing schools into which a lot of change and new goals can be introduced." n