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


Rabbi Shmuel Feld said...

Shalom Aleichem.
As Managing Director of the Jewish Education Innovation Challenge, I come in contact with several blogs that advocate deep thought, rededication to Torah values in chinuch, and challenging the status quo. As one of those sources of information, I would like to share with you the press release we sent out concerning Rabbi Dr. Berel Wein, our keynote speaker. His keynote address that will be live streamed on May 22nd from our Innovators Retreat is titled “Jews, Education, and the Way Forward.” The release can be downloaded from our website here:

We hope you will share this press release with your audience since, from your blog’s content, it seems we have common values about Jewish education.

Shmuel Feld

Mr. Cohen said...

Overlooked Psychology of the Arab-Israeli Peace Process
by Mr. Cohen of the Derech Emet yahoo group 2014/4/27

In a very famous Bible story, King Solomon threatened to cut a baby in half to satisfy the claims of two women who claimed possession of the same baby (Melachim Aleph, chapter 3, verses 16 to 28).

The fake mother did not object to cutting the baby in half, but the real mother begged King Solomon to not do it because the real mother did not want to see her baby die.

Arabs are very familiar with this Bible story and they apply it to the conflict over possessing “Palestine.” Arabs believe that just as the fake mother in the court of King Solomon was willing to divide the baby, the Israelis are fake owners of “Palestine” because they are willing to divide it.

According to this logic, Arabs can never agree to less than 100% of “Palestine” because doing so would make them like the fake mother in the court of King Solomon who was willing to divide the baby.

Mr. Cohen said...

Refuting the Jew Haters
by Mr. Cohen of the Derech Emet yahoo group, 2014/4/27

I do NOT suggest that any Jew waste his or her time arguing with Jew haters, for many reasons.

First, our obligation as Jews is to serve G_d, not argue with Jew hating lunatics.

Second, they can be dangerous, and even if you think you are anonymous on the internet,
you are not as anonymous as you think you are, and they may find you, G_d forbid.

Third, many Jew haters are fanatics and/or lunatics, who will never listen to anything you say, or even use your words against Jews in ways you did not anticipate.

Still, there are rare situations when it helps to know how to refute their accusations against Jews; for example, when a sincere Gentile co-worker or neighbor is influenced by the accusations of the Jew haters.

One favorite accusation of the Jew haters is that Jews have been expelled from many countries and cities. Jew haters use this to imply that Jews are bad people.

This accusation can be countered.

When a Medieval king expelled Jews from his country, Jews were usually not able to take their possessions with them, so all the possessions of the Jews became the property of the king, including: land, houses, furniture, gold, silver, jewels, farm animals, etc.

Even if the Jews had some way to take their money with them, which was far from guaranteed, they could not take their larger possessions with them. This permitted the kings to increase their wealth quickly with little risk.

So kings had big financial incentives to expel their Jews, as did lords and dukes.

Another reason why Jews were expelled many times from Christian countries was that Medieval Christians did not tolerate people whose beliefs disagreed with their own.

Medieval European Christians also persecuted other Christians whose beliefs disagreed with their own. For example:

In October 1536 CE, William Tyndale was publicly executed because he translated the Bible into English, even though he was Christian.

Most Christians alive today tolerate people with different beliefs, but this tolerance is around one or two centuries old.

We Jews should THANK G_D that we live in an era when most Christians no longer believe their religion wants them to persecute Jews.