Ministry Says Stressing 'Independent Thinking' by Cutting Academic Subjects, Exam Sections

The Education Ministry is revising the high-school curriculum for many subjects to emphasize understanding and analysis rather than memorization and repetition. The changes are part of the ministry's new Pedagogical Horizons for Learning program, and have been underway for the past few months. The new program stresses independent thinking on the part of the student.

Academic subjects are being cut by up to 20 percent. The first signs of the reforms will be seen in this summer's matriculation exams.

The Pedagogical Horizons program is based on changes in curriculum, teacher training and matriculation exams. On Monday, Education Minister Yuli Tamir held a meeting on the program's progress. Prof. Anat Zohar, the ministry's director of pedagogical affairs, who attended the meeting, said: "Instead of shallow learning, which focuses on passive knowledge of information and rigid general exercises to solve problems, Pedagogical Horizons emphasizes active learning and creating meaning on the part of the student." By the end of the year, 17,500 teachers will receive new training in the program.

The decision to cut down the amount of material taught stems not only from the wish to emphasize the facets of understanding and thinking, but also from a serious shortage of classroom hours, particularly in secondary education. Between 2001 and 2006, about eight weekly classroom hours were cut in high schools. Even though this trend was halted in the past two or three years, and few additional hours were added, schools still lack the basic number of hours required.

Over the last year, teams of regional supervisors from the Education Ministry have been examining how best to adapt the state education curriculum to the Pedagogical Horizons program. This is being done partly by cutting out subjects, by making students prepare some of material outside school time and by changes to matriculation exams.

For example, the history subjects included in the year's matriculation exams, which change every year, will be announced earlier. This will allow history teachers to focus more on these subjects.

In English, two of the matriculation exam sections will be canceled, and replaced by questions on English literature. This is intended to allow more room for creativity and will emphasize English writing skills.

In Bible studies, students will be allowed to turn in a research paper instead of two optional parts of the matriculation exam. Five high schools are currently participating in an experiment to replace the entire compulsory section of the Bible exam.

In civics, students will be required for the first time to write an essay as part of their matriculation exams, in which they take a personal stance on public issues. In addition, 20 percent of the civics classroom hours will now be used for various other activities.

While no final decision has yet been made in Hebrew studies, it looks likely that about 15 percent of the material will be cut out.

In geography, about 20 percent of the material will be replaced by environmental studies. In addition, students will no longer learn about other regions and countries but will focus rather on the Middle East and Israel.

"Pedagogical Horizons is one of the most significant steps we have taken in the Education Ministry," Tamir told Haaretz. "The program requires us to relinquish a central concept: It is impossible to teach all the material, and it is possible to say there are subjects that students will not learn in school. We need to continue with the process of reducing the material learned. This will not lead to ignorance or a lack of knowledge, but to a situation whereby the student knows he has to continue to learn, and now also has the tools to do so." She said it will take at least another four years to complete the project.

Senior ministry officials are worried that after the coming elections, a new minister might very well have a different set of priorities concerning the program.