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Australian educators learn a lesson in Israeli togetherness

Posted By Deborah Frenkel On October 22, 2007 @ 6:12 pm In | No Comments

Australian and Israeli educators bond over the Yachad program.Some Australian indigenous communities refer to them as ‘seagulls’ – itinerant do-gooders who descend suddenly upon the disadvantaged townships offering hope and energy, only to disappear into the ether in a puff of broken promises.

But one group of Israeli thinkers from Hebrew University is challenging this stereotype, emphasizing its commitment to the communities – primarily located in rural, outback areas – for the long term. They have named their program Yachad – ‘together’ in Hebrew – but it might equally be called ‘boomerang,’ after the famed Aboriginal weapon which, no matter how far you throw it, can be counted upon to faithfully return.

Yachad is an initiative of the University’s NCJW Institute for Innovation in Education, which designs educational programs directed towards socially at-risk groups within Israeli society. Since 2004, a Yachad pilot project has been operating at eight schools across rural Australia. Now a larger contingent of community leaders and academics is considering ways in which the program – and their students’ prospects – might be strengthened further.

A group of 12 senior Australian educators have just completed a week-long visit to the university to learn about implementing the remedial education system in their country, and in doing so have discovered just how effective cross-cultural cooperation can prove.

“My dream is to establish some center in Australia where much of the work will be done,” said HU Professor Elite Olstain, who has headed the project since its conception. “If we have started a whole process of interaction between communities, then we will have done something really special.”

Olstain, of the Faculty of Education, estimated that around 300 Australian students have benefited from the Yachad Accelerated Learning Project, or YALP, so far. For those students – whose backgrounds place them at an educational disadvantage – the three year intervention program offers a second chance to succeed, Olstain told ISRAEL21c.

Such a chance is all too rare, since educational systems, in Israel and Australia alike, all operate upon the assumption that students share some cultural common ground. But for many children, apparently self-evident concepts can seem bafflingly foreign. In Israel, for example, students who have grown up speaking Arabic might approach textbooks with a degree of reverence which makes them unwilling to engage with them actively, leading to problems with plagiarism. Likewise, in indigenous Australian communities, the terms “study” or “summarize” may be virtually meaningless if a student has never encountered them previously.

YALP aims to address this educational disadvantage through intensive remedial intervention. Its techniques – such as the use of one-on-one 10-minute lessons and peer tutorial systems – have proven strikingly effective, with outcomes including improved attendance rates and library use, and the greater class participation of the targeted students.

Olstain tells the story of ten-year-old George from regional Victoria, who couldn’t read – he was “mentally blocked.” But the 10-minute system worked, and within six months he won a national prize for children making the most improvement in reading. Now his mother proudly complains of the fact that ‘I have to hide my Christmas list, because otherwise George will read it’, said Olstain, adding that YALP’s pedagogical flexibility “might be summed up as ‘if I can’t learn the way you teach me, teach me the way I can learn.’”

And as the Australian visitors discovered, this cultural openness can operate on a global scale -to spectacular results.

“We have a lot to learn from Israel,” says Sue Willis, Dean of the Faculty of Education at Monash University in Melbourne. “It has significant foreign language communities, from Russia and Ethiopia in particular, and has had to make enormous gains in a very short time, not only in bringing individuals to a level of literacy in Hebrew but in bringing them to literacy itself.”

Australia shares a similar record of immigration, she told ISRAEL21c – more than 22% of the population speaks English as a second language – but lacks experience in educating individuals for whom reading and writing are foreign concepts in themselves.

That’s where the Israeli expertise comes in. During their visit, the Australian delegation toured a number of sites where Yachad’s techniques in cross-cultural language education have been implemented – such as the Bedouin tent community of Kseyfeh, near Nazareth, and the Jerusalem College of Technology’s ‘Ethiopians for Engineers’ program, both of which draw students from non-mainstream educational backgrounds. The experience, says Willis, has been beneficial – but by no means one-sided.

“We also have a lot to learn from each other. If everyone had the same perspectives, then we would learn nothing.”

For a program which takes its name from the idea of unity, a remarkable amount of energy has been generated during the two-week discussion of differences. “More than anything,” notes Willis, “it’s the fresh eyes that help.” And if the buzz in the seminar room is anything to go by, those eyes will soon see a future even brighter than before.