It’s Ok to Argue: Insights on Designing an Israel Education Professional Development Initiative
November 29th, 2021
On any given educational project, it is not unusual to be challenged by deeper societal issues than the project directly aims to address. What is unusual is being given the opportunity to pivot to address these deeper issues as part of the same grant from a funder of the project. Yet this is exactly what we were enabled to do as we launched the Israel education 4HQ program, part of a three-year community of practice called the Professional Development Initiative (PDI) supported by the Jim Joseph Foundation.
The originally planned project was designed to empower Moishe House programmers to engage their communities in stretching conversations about Israel. Working with The Jewish Agency for Israel Makom’s cognitive and pedagogical toolbox, we began making progress toward our goals. All evaluation pointed towards a successful embrace of complexity and courageous programming. Yet, at the same time, we felt we were reaching a limiting factor—a deeper societal issue, unrelated to Israel specifically—that affected the outcomes of the program.
We heard and saw that many program participants were extremely uncomfortable in discussions that led to disagreement. In exploring further, it was clear that this dynamic was not limited to Israel. Moishe House is an environment that aims to provide inclusion and comfort to people looking for a sense of community and fellowship. As such, it seems that the costs of disagreement, and being socially judged for one’s opinion, are too risky. Folks were far more comfortable skirting around issues, reserving judgment, and happily sitting on numerous fences, for the sake of maintaining a sense of community.
While this made a lot of social sense, it also made for stilted educational engagement. We began to realize that adult education about Israel effectively lives in the argument. Without argument—passionate disagreement—Israel and its issues remain theoretical, detached, and even somewhat illicit.
Although not a specifically “Israel-related” issue, this social imperative to avoid disagreement on most issues was a powerful impediment to achieving our Israel education aims.
And then came COVID-19. As significant funds went unused, the Jim Joseph Foundation expanded the scope of the grant to enable us to pivot towards this broader issue: arguments.
The literature on arguments is both abundant and limited. Much has been written and implemented about debating, the disagreement into which one enters in order to correct the opinion of others. Even more wisdom has been gained in the field of “problem-solving,” or “conflict transformation,” where one develops skills in diffusing disputes and making creative decisions. It turns out that far less has been shared, however, about disagreement for the sake of learning, about argument for the sake of identity development.
It is into this vast and challenging space that we were able to stumble and begin to thrive. Not only were we able to pivot within the original project, strengthening the project itself, but we were also able to develop an entire new direction based on our “on the job” discovery.
In January we will publish—Stories for the Sake of Argument—a source book and a training manual for educational arguments about Israel. Together with the stories, we are now running many “argument circles” for educational organizations. Soon we also will embark on a U.S.-wide training program for 500 educators to “teach from the argument.” And a more detailed “Pedagogy of Argument” is being written, which should be ready for Pesach 2022.
Many invigorating questions remain: Are there any elements of Israel that should not be “open to argument?” What is the place for passion in a healthy argument, and how does one manage it? When is the developmentally appropriate age to begin teaching through argument? What kind of educational support can and should be offered to families who buy and work with the book?
We look forward to addressing them as we move forward.
Robbie Gringras, formerly the creative director for the Jewish Agency for Israel’s Makom, is a performer, writer, educator, and co-creator of For the Sake of Argument. Abi Dauber Sterne, the previous director of the Jewish Agency for Israel’s Makom, is an educational consultant and co-creator of For the Sake of Argument. Learn more at forthesakeofargument.org.
Read a previous blog about another program in the PDI by Kiva Rabinsky, Chief Program Officer at M²: The Institute for Experiential Jewish Education.