Friday, September 15, 2006

throughts on yeshiva education

I was going to gripe some more about parent orientation, but I will cut to the chase and get to education itself. Someone named Benjamin Bloom 50 years ago came up with a hierarchy of cognitive skills and corresponding questions an strategies a teacher can use to elicit use of those skills – here is a quick summary. A question like “Which general led the British during the Battle of Brooklyn Heights” demands simple recall of facts; a question like “What lessons of Teddy Roosevelt’s foreign policy might be relevant to current US policy” is a much more cognitively demanding (see the hierarchy). More important than letting parents know what is being covered, e.g. “we will cover US history from 1776-WWI”, is telling parents (and teachers themselves knowing!) how the information will be presented, what skills the teacher will focus on, and what strategies will be used to elicit thinking skills from students with different learning styles and personalities. I have yet to hear a teacher devote time to this at orientation; what I usually here is the # of pages that will be covered. Bloom’s taxonomy also goes for teaching chumash, gemara, or anything else. The problem is most of the yeshiva curriculum is dedicated to rote recall in the attempt to impress people with the quantity of knowledge amassed without ever developing thinking or analytical skills. The better students eventually get it on their own, the worse students waste years dreaming through shiurim that they cannot relate to because they have never been explicitly taught the skills to do so.
By way of example: my son’s Rebbe plans (we are dealing with 7th graders who spend the great majority of their day learning gemara) to “teach” the boys parshas hashavua “inside” the chumash, about 35 pesukim a week, and he will occasionally “speak out” some important detail. The process of teaching chumash is simple mimicry: Rebbe reads and teitches, boys repeat, boys copy to notebook point “spoken out” and repeat for test. To me, this is a complete waste –aside from learning to mimic, nothing is accomplished. The work is inherently boring and not challenging, so all kinds of external stratagems are devised to give a “geshmack” to learning. The best Rebbeim are the one’s who are most entertaining or strictest disciplinarians who can hold order in the classroom in lieu of the work itself actually being stimulating. Following Bloom’s taxonomy, chumash demands a whole host of skills be mastered, some of which are: 1) Decoding – kids need to read the pesukim correctly (and for those of you who think every 7th grade yeshiva kid can read, listen to a few bar mitzvah kids lein and you inevitably hear the mil’el turned into milra, no idea of sheva nach vs/ sheva na, and a host of other simple blunders; this is not dikduk, it’s keri’ah). 2) Understanding what each word means. 3) Identifying the shorashim and what they mean, otiyot shimuch, conjugations of po’alom, etc. (Many kids memorize “teitch” and never learn to associate the same shoresh elsewhere with what they already know; they can never learn without an english crutch.) 4) Analysis: your classic “mi amar el mi” or “al mi ne’emar” questions to identify characters, dialogue, places, events, objects. 5) Synthesis: are there extra words in the pasuk that you could leave out – why are they included? Why does the Torah tell us the location of this event? Can you explain why this parsha comes after/before the next or previous one? etc. At first the teacher raises the questions and students try to answer, but with enough practice kids start asking these questions themselves and develop a "feel" for text. Most classrooms reward good answers; teachers should also reward good questions. 6) Eventually, kids “discover” that the questions by now they might be asking on their own are asked by Rashi, Ramban, Ibn Ezra, etc. and then the whole whole process of decoding, comprehension, analysis, etc. repeats as they learn to master meforshim “inside”. The meforshim are not independent limudim (i.e. we learn chumash and Rashi), but become integrated with thinking about the text. Rashi is not something you have to learn because the teacher said so (as my daugher thinks), but someone who is worth learning because he had really smart things to say. 7) Evaluation – questions like, “Does Rashi or Ramban better fit the words of the pasuk?” - this is beyond an elementary school level. I am not a teacher and am out of practice, so this is just a rough overview, but I think it is good enough to illustrate the point. By the time a kid is in eighth grade, after years of doing this, it seems reasonable to expect that any yeshiva kid can read a text, explain it, break down and analyze the pesukim into parts of speech and clauses, find discrepancies, unnecessary words, and other difficulties, suggest answers or ideas, and appreciate and explore basic meforshim who ask and answer their questions (foremost being Rashi), etc. Not just a few bright kids, but most kids. So why do I have little confidence that my son will be able to do this based on his schooling? Simple: his day is spent mostly doing rote work and whatever skills he is getting come inductively instead of being fed a curriculum designed explicitly to develop those skills. Even if a teacher breaks down the information in a way that touches all these bases, it still is not enough. Most schools pay lip service to the idea of “multiple intelligences” (it is worth reading every book Howard Gardner has ever written even if you disagree with some of his stuff) but do not
implement it at all. All work is visual – read, repeat, write answers. A kid who can’t sit and do that is labeled a “problem child” and send out for testing or resource room. You do see in the younger grades some variation, but it gets lost by about 4th grade. No more chumash play, no more Torah fair projects, etc.- now we are really learning, meaning now we are depriving kids of other ways of experiencing Torah and forcing them to a single method that caters to a specific type of intelligence. This makes no sense to me. I am not saying you have to go wild, but even a simple question – compare and contrast the hachnasas orchim of Avraham with that of Lot - can be answered in an essay format, using a Venn diagram, using a chart, doing an oral report, or even acting out the two different episodes. Preparation for lessons like this takes time and you cannot cover 35 pesukim a week. You have to also be open to kids working independently in small groups, encouraging creativity, and spending a lot of time thinking about what you want to accomplish and how each child’s needs can be met. Wow, that is a big job! If that were being done is my child’s classroom, I can’t swear to it, but I would actually understand why my tuition bill is so high. That is a full day of work, planning, thinking about kids, working with kids, and helping children develop. Running through “teitch” of a bunch of pesukim and having kids spit it back and memorize a "vort" the Rebbe "spoke out" to say at the Shabbos table does not impress me and is not worth the money charged. What I do not understand is why I am a shitas yachid in this area? Why is there not a demand for schools that actually teach skills? Where are the creative projects, new ways of approaching material, and dynamic teaching models that yeshvos, as private schools, can more easily implement than public schools? I think most people's views have been shaped by having gone through the system themselves and thinking there is no other way to do things. I wish more people were willing to rethink that assumption - our yeshivos would be better for it, and our children better educated.

1 comment:

  1. jeffrey smith9:45 PM

    I think you may be overestimating what kids that age can do, and also overestimating the need for formal training in thinking necessary. I figured out everything you are saying about how to approach the Torah from inside from one thing my grandfather taught me when I was ten years old; and in figuring out the why of what he said I stumbled on the "method", so to speak. But it took more several years to figure out to apply it more generally, and it was by exposure to the texts themselves that I learned what I learned. The Talmud taught itself to me, so to speak, and not a teacher in the classroom. It was almost by osmosis that I learned, nothing formal: and even for a hyperintelligent kid like me, it wasn't easy.

    So the reason that schools don't really pay attention to this is because they feel it's expecting too much of the students. OTOH, the problems you note under points 1 and 2 should have been overcome by now with all kids that age, except those that have true learning disabilities. If my classmates and I could do it--from a Conservative synagogue with lessons on Sunday mornings and one afternoon after public school--then certainly your son's schoolmates should be able to do it.

    As to why you seem a "lone voice"--how many of your son's classmates have the level of training and education you have? You know what is possible, and what is necessary, and what part of the necessary isn't being taught to him. Do they?

    Your only real choice, I suspect, is to teach your son yourself.