Friday, April 11, 2014

There's Learning and Then There's Learning

Time for a quick survey. How many of you have ever had a teacher that was basically the human embodiment of a textbook? You know the type, standing (or sitting) at the front of the room and just listing off facts for you to write down and memorize for the test. The best type of this teacher at least puts notes on the board or projects a powerpoint onto a screen (or the wall if you are less lucky). The worst type of this teacher actually reads the textbook aloud and you are expected to follow along. Does this sound familiar? Okay, You can all put your hands down.

Now a follow-up question: what is the worst part of teaching this way? If you said the biggest issue is that it makes learning boring, you are wrong. Boring is definitely not good, but truthfully, a teacher can teach in this manner and be very exciting. A history teacher might present the subject as an epic tale, captivating the audience from beginning to end. But even the most engaging “textbook teacher” is holding something back from his or her students.

Before directly discussing this manner of teaching, let’s ponder what learning truly means. According to educational psychologist Benjamin Bloom, there is an entire hierarchy of skills and accomplishments that  constitute learning. Known as (the updated) Bloom’s Taxonomy, it begins with the lowest level of “knowledge” and peaks with “creating.” The philosophy behind Bloom’s Taxonomy is not complicated. It simply argues that true learning involves understanding every idea or set of facts with a depth that enables the learner to utilizing knowledge to “apply,” “analyze,” “evaluate,” and “create” (the top four tiers of the Taxonomy).  

Thinking about the ultimate goals of learning has impact here as well. What do we want our children to able to do with what they learn? Get on Jeopardy? Impress people at shul dinners with interesting facts? Maybe. But this is not the vision of success for most parents. We want our children to understand life in a profound way, appreciate G-d’s universe, succeed at their jobs, and make their mark on the world. These goals require the skills and creativity that transcend simple knowledge of facts.

(To be fair, knowledge is the essential element for all learning, and teaching information is therefore essential. Knowledge itself is also empowering and ennobling. Not all information can be gleaned by simply reading books, and many concepts available in books need experts to explain and clarify them. A teacher who does none of this is hurting his or her students as well. Additionally, for many students, the lower levels in Bloom’s Taxonomy might be exactly what they need at this point in their learning.)

Getting back to our “textbook teachers,” the biggest disservice they do their classes is to restrict their ability to partake in higher-level learning. Their students can become conditioned to think learning is rote, static, and yes, boring. These children then miss opportunities to acquire and sharpen the skills needed to make meaning out of knowledge. But don’t jump to blame the teacher. It has taken time for new models of learning to take hold, and many teachers are simply following in the footsteps of their own teachers or mentors.

So, if want to know why your daughter has to memorize Civil War battles for a test, you aren’t crazy. And if it bothers you that your son’s Chumash notes consist solely of questions and answers of commentators, you have a point. Knowing history is great, as is memorizing comments from Rashi and Ramban, but this information should be seen as a means and not an end. Plenty of avenues exist to bring more profound learning experiences to the classroom (maybe we can discuss a few in future articles). With openness  a new definition of learning, our children can benefit from opportunities that many of us never had.

(Originally Published in the Jewish Link of Bergen County

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

The Seder Night: Teaching by Example

Originally Posted on the SAR High School Faculty Blog

While learning the laws of Shabbat with one of my classes, I encountered the following challenge: As important as it is to discuss the values behind and purposes of certain mitzvot, what happens when many details of a mitzvah don’t support its purpose (or at least not in an obvious manner)?  I didn’t want my students to get the impression that halacha is disconnected from and ignorant of the purpose of each mitzvah.

For example, we learned in class that an essential part of Shabbat is shifting our focus from what we create to focusing on simply being. This accounts for the definition of melacha (literally: “work” - the word used by the Torah for the actions prohibited on Shabbat) as being creative activity, and not simply hard work. However, refraining from ripping toilet paper doesn’t exactly scream “existential awareness,” and sorting a pile of socks does not exactly come across as creative. To many students, this might mean that Hilchot Shabbat are as “out of touch,” and “outdated” as the Rabbis who initiated them. Although we might intuit that this critique is unfair and untrue, how do we properly defend the detail-oriented practice of Halacha?

I presented two solutions to my students. I would like to share one of the answers here, as it is intimately connected with the chag of Pesach.

An intriguing aspect of the Pesach Seder is the encouraging of kushyot. As opposed to presenting questions asked out of curiosity, the required reading of the night challenges the practices of the seder. When we ask why this is night different, we are actually asking “why would we act this way if it’s out of the norm and seemingly senseless?” The four questions challenge us to defend the mitzvot of the night and explain the purpose of our aberrant behavior. Is this really a prudent approach to promote among our youth?

Going back to our first example, imagine if I were to walk into class, hand out slips of paper, and tell my class the following: “Today we will begin our study of Hilchot Shabbat, but we cannot begin until you all read aloud from the paper in front of you.” Then, the class announces with perfect unity and clarity, “why do we need to learn the laws of Shabbat? They don’t make sense!” I’m not sure how long I would keep my job if I taught this way. So why is this the plan at the Seder?

The solution to this problem provides us with an critical aspect of chinuch. Namely, if we teach by example, we need not fear challenges to faith; if such is the case, we can actually encourage kushyot.  

To me, teaching by example is the number one pedagogical lesson of the Seder. The Haggadah is replete with examples. We eat marror to teach about the bitterness and we recline with wine to demonstrate freedom. Our actions represent both slavery and freedom because the transition from one to another is the story. These represent just a few instances; viewing the rituals of the night through this lens helps us appreciate the meaning behind a number of the parts of the Seder.

If we teach our students and children by showing them the beauty of a life of Torah and Mitzvot, the positive effects should be numerous. We will not only demonstrate how to act, but we engender positive feelings. A deep sense of respect and appreciation for Judaism is essential to remaining a committed Jew. Additionally, a cycle of positive outcomes is at play here; when we set the right example, it strengthens our own commitment and creates an even more powerful example. This is exactly why the knowledge of the participants is irrelevant at the Seder. The Haggadah is about strengthening our own appreciation for becoming God’s faithful people; the goal is not to simply learn what happened.

Now we can solve our original problem. How do we expect our children and students to appreciate intricate halachot with such a wide gap between each detail and the overall mitzvah? One solution is to help them develop a general sense of appreciation. Understanding the meaning behind each detail should then become irrelevant, or at least less essential. When you know that something works, you don’t need to concern yourself with asking “why.” Or, if you do feel the need to ask, not finding the answer shouldn’t derail your faith.

So, before discussing Hilchot Shabbat, I asked my student to raise their hands if they were happy to have Shabbat in their lives. Every single student in the class concurred and provided reasons other than not having school. If their appreciation for Shabbat is a given, they should have a resulting respect for all the laws that make Shabbat what it is. Moreover, whether or not someone living in a halacha-oriented community keeps all the laws of Shabbat is not essential to appreciate these laws. The conscious and unconscious impact the laws of Shabbat have on each individual and the community as a whole is immeasurable. We may not understand how it all works, but we can still trust that a certain seder exists.

At this point, the lesson is clear. For our children and students to appreciate the rituals and beliefs of a Torah lifestyle, we must first demonstrate to them the beauty of such a life. Understanding this principle can help us turn contentious discussions into edifying experiences.  A life full of faith-challenges can become a nuanced and meaningful existence. As success in this endeavor is crucial, we all - parent and teacher alike - should feel responsible to set the right example.