Thinking? What's That?

With 34 years of experience as a history and civics teacher, most of them at the Emek Hefer Regional High School, Dr. Yitzhak Azuz no longer believes the education system will improve in the near future. Actually, he says, chances are greater that it will continue to deteriorate. He feels the main problem is neither the shortage of class hours, which is particularly egregious in the secondary schools, nor the constant fight for funding for programs and activities. The root of the problem goes much deeper, to the training the teachers received - which is based on repetition, memorization and asking students to open their notebooks.

"Most of the learning in high school is based on learning large amounts of material and attempting to regurgitate it on the matriculation exams," Azuz said. "Over the years, a trend has developed of making things as easy as possible for the student with summaries, abstracts and 'focus sheets' that the Education Ministry itself publishes. We have gotten to the point where teachers, particularly in the humanities, provide students with a series of questions and, beside them, a list of answers as well. To understand the process, one has to see the teachers' joy on the day of the matriculation exams that they managed to pick the right questions in their practice exam, so all the students had to do was just parrot what they had learned. In such a system, there isn't a lot of room for optimism."

Azuz is not impressed by the "Pedagogic Horizon" reform program and the changes in the matriculation exams recently announced by the Education Ministry, which should start to be felt as early as the present school year. Around two weeks ago, Azuz, who also heads a training program for principals at Beit Berl College, attended a supplementary training course for history teachers that followed the Pedagogic Horizon guidelines. These principles stress the importance of understanding at the expense of the familiar repetition of bits of information lacking any context.

"The moderator brought a historical film about Zionism to the course," Azuz recalled, "and most of the discussion that ensued after the film's screening revolved around the question of whether the teacher has enough time to use such tools. I asked what the goal of bringing a film actually was and didn't get an answer.

"I suggested that one purpose could be to spur motivation to learn, and another could be to use the film as a means of developing thought processes - and of course, the two should be integrated. For example, one could elicit from the film criteria that characterize Zionism and then check to what extent they appear in other pictures or texts; one could open a discussion about different historical sources; and so forth. The teachers at the course got angry with me. They claimed it is impossible to demand such things of students. That's okay; for over 30 years, people have been accusing me of demanding too much of students."

Azuz, 57, was born and raised in south Tel Aviv, "a boy on the margins," as he describes himself. He dropped out of high school, but within a year completed the matriculation exams while doing his army service. Since then, he has managed to acquire advanced degrees in criminology, history and guidance counseling. At the Emek Hefer high school, he teaches mostly grades 10-11 and helps students prepare for the matriculation exams in history.

At the end of last year, Azuz gave his students a feedback questionnaire. He asked them to rate his knowledge of the material, development of their thinking, adherence to school regulations and fair treatment. The grades were high. On the other hand, when he asked if they would recommend him as an ideal schoolteacher, only a few indicated they would do so.

"I received a high grade on all the really important indexes, but in the students' eyes, the ideal teacher is one who appeases them and smiles at them," Azuz said. "To the students in my classes, it is clear that I adhere to the rules: You have to come prepared and cannot be late, chat or eat during classes. They look at me as if I had fallen off the moon; they say I'm the only who makes such demands. There are some teachers who are afraid of their own shadow. They don't dare to reprimand the students, even for the smallest things, because the parents might complain to the principal. It's a situation that creates anarchy."

When asked whether the situation in Israeli high schools was different when he started teaching, over 30 years ago, he responded: "You don't have to be romantic and cling to illusions. Then, too, the situation was not good. But at least there wasn't this constant desire to please the student. The student was not at the center and was not perceived as a consumer, a concept that in any case was taken from the business world and used in reference to education."

Later, he recalled another important difference between the two eras: "Then, there was more respect for education."