Alumni Spotlight: A Professor Looks Back on His Journey in Civics Education
When we first met with Aviv Cohen in 2011, we discussed his passion for Civics Education as an international doctoral student in the Program in Social Studies. Now, five years later, he is joining the faculty of the Seymour Fox School of Education at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and continuing his research in civic education and teacher training.
In 2013, Mr. Cohen moved back to Israel before graduating because he decided to do his field work there for his dissertation. While in Israel, Mr. Cohen conducted research in three separate classrooms, spending time with teachers and students. Since graduating, he has been teaching at a graduate university as an adjunct lecturer for teacher preparation programs for civic education teachers.
He sat down with me via Skype to talk about his journey to becoming a professor, his continued research, and his opinions on education today.
NORI KATO: It’s now five years since we last met with you to discuss your experience in the Social Studies Program. You’re now becoming a professor yourself, can you tell us when you decided to pursue academics as a career and how you came to that decision?
AVIV COHEN: Growing up, my dream was to be an archaeologist. My undergraduate degree was in archaeology and political science, and then I had a crisis in the third year of undergraduate, where I said that archaeology isn’t for me. I was more interested in the present than I was in the past. I moved on to doing a Master’s degree in Political Science and also getting a teacher’s certification. When I was a civics teacher, I taught high school for three years, and I enjoyed it very much, and I very much believed in it.
While I was writing my Master’s thesis, my advisor pushed me and said, “Why don’t you do a Ph.D. abroad?” And I got accepted to TC!
I remember there was a moment studying at TC, when I said there are two things that I like to do: research and teaching. I like to think and engage in conversations about both of those topics, so what else than being a university professor? I get to combine both things that I really like.
So you didn’t always know you wanted to be a professor?
We have a lot less opportunities here in Israel. We only have five universities and some colleges, I wasn’t that sure that I would find a job as a university professor so that’s why I was teaching as an adjunct for the last few years. But it worked out.
You worked with Bill Gaudelli as his Teacher’s Assistant and he was also your advisor. Can you tell me more about your relationship with him and if he’s impacted your time at TC and as a scholar?
He was my advisor from day one. I remember first meeting with him, I arrived from Israel to New York shocked and overwhelmed with everything. He exposed me to not just knowledge, but ways of thinking about social issues and ways of thinking about teaching, and how to combine those things. I just remember having conversations with him. Every week or two I would go to his office and we would talk. I would explain stuff about Israel, he would explain stuff about the United States, and we would just have these really good conversations.
Personally, he was a really good mentor. He was sensitive and understanding. I would talk about how I miss home. He pretty much understood that and was empathetic to that. I owe him a lot.
Now you’re returning to your alma mater, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Can you tell me about the course you’ll be teaching?
I’ll be teaching in the School of Education. They have two different departments I’ll be affiliated with. One is a teacher preparation department, and there I’ll be teaching methods courses for Civics teachers. They also have a General Education Department for people who are doing undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral studies in education. I’ll also be teaching their general courses. One course is about reading foundational texts.
The research that they want me to focus on is on teacher education. I’ll also be teaching that topic, sort of expanding on the civics research I was doing. They’re pushing me in that direction, but I’m glad to be pushed.
What is your research currently on?
My dissertation deals with conceptions of citizenship and the fundamental question of, What does it mean to be a good citizen? How are those kinds of conceptions translated to the classroom settings? I spent time in three high school classrooms in Jerusalem which were all preparing to take a nationwide high stakes test. Ultimately, I found that what it means to be a good citizen varied between all three cases. How and why did that occur?
I was also interested in understanding how different conceptions of citizenship played out inside the classrooms themselves. What happens when a teacher has a certain view of what a good citizen should be but then he has to teach a curriculum that doesn’t align with his personal views? What happens when a teacher brings a view into the classroom but then the students raise different views that oppose him?
Two topics came out of this dissertation. One of the topics, competing conceptions of teachers in the classroom, was accepted to the Oxford Review of Education and will be published in the future. But I’m also working on another publication that’s not finished yet.
You also received a research grant a couple of months ago from the Mofet Institute in Israel, can you tell me about that?
It’s research about teacher education in civics. I’m going over the syllabi of all the institutions that do teacher education for Civics to see all of the trends and the themes that they deal with. Beginning in a couple of weeks, I’ll start interviewing all these professors of methods courses, trying to understand how they see the teacher preparation in civics in Israel. What are the main challenges? What are the main ideas? Do they talk about controversy as part of the teacher training or do they try to ignore that because it’s controversial and problematic? How do they deal with the bagrut, or high stakes tests? How do they prepare their teachers for that? It’s research to map the field. How civics teachers are being trained.
When we met with you in 2011, you were a doctoral student in Social Studies. You mentioned you wanted to change civics education, do you still feel that way?
Unfortunately, the situation of civics, and the general civic conversation in Israel, I feel, and other people feel as well, is getting more polarized, more tense. The basic democratic values and democratic ideas are being challenged, which is very disturbing for me. It makes me feel even stronger about my role preparing teachers to teach civics and what that means.
There is a general tension between the left and right wing in Israel. The Arab and Palestinian minorities in Israel, which is about 20 percent of the population, are also becoming less legitimate and are not getting their voices heard. They are being asked questions about their loyalty to the country. It’s very disturbing to me.
The whole idea of civil rights, of rights in general, and the liberal kind of thought is questioned. People say, “OK, so you teach civics, so that means that you belong to the left wing of the political party.” And some teachers say, “No, I don’t belong to the left wing.” But people automatically make that connection — that if you talk about rights, if you talk about diversity, that automatically puts you on a certain side of the political map, which is disturbing because those kinds of ideas should belong to all parts of the political map and political parties and not just one side or another.
In general, the nationalistic voice and the patriotic voice is getting stronger, while pushing aside people who don’t align with the patriotic view, which is also disturbing. It’s not that bad, but we’re getting to a place where it could become dangerous.
What concerns you about education today?
A majority of new teachers will leave after five years, if I’m not mistaken. I don’t remember the percentage exactly. That’s one thing that I’m concerned about — teachers are getting older and new teachers aren’t entering the system. I think there’s something about the system that’s a bit old globally. Old in the meaning that it’s a bit conservative. I think they’re not willing to accept change. I think that’s something that’s a problem.
Another thing we have in Israel, that I mentioned before, is we have that high stakes nationwide tests. A lot of the teaching is aimed toward that test. You have tests in these different subject matters — we have a Maths test, and English test, and you also have a Civics test. A lot of teaching is framed based on that final test. In many cases, teaching becomes more memorization of facts, transmission of knowledge, and is limited to that. I think that would be the main problem that I see.
What I try to do in my research and the courses I teach, is to try to move student teachers beyond that and think about the larger ideas behind teaching. I try to make it value based and moral based and focus on what they want to achieve out of being teachers, and expand the whole way they look at their profession, not just preparing for the test.
What excites you about your job and education in general?
What excites me? It’s dealing with people! That’s always interesting. I like the idea of conducting research in the classroom. Just going and seeing the students and seeing the dynamics in the classroom. There’s a kind of energy to it. You see the spark in students’ eyes. People becoming new teachers. Some of them are very much idealistic, in that they want to change the world, and they want to have influence.
Specifically in civics, a lot of people have law degrees and they could have been lawyers and earned more money, but they decided something was wrong with that and they wanted to have some kind of influence on the world, so they decided to become teachers. They’re very idealistic in that sense. It’s challenging to teach them because they’re very smart and like to argue because they’re lawyers. I also enjoy that very much — shifting the way they think from a lawyer’s perspective to an educational one. When they accept that and see the complexity of it, it’s very enjoyable.
Thank you, Aviv, for your insight into education and your research in teacher training and Civics Education!
Nori Kato is a Staff Writer and Office Assistant for the Department of Arts and Humanities. She is also a graduate of the International Educational Development program at Teachers College.