Tuesday, May 29, 2007

should teachers emphasize process or facts?

Let’s say you wanted to teach a student about the history of music – clearly, a large # of dates, places, and names must be absorbed to have any knowledge of the subject matter. On the other hand, if you wanted to teach a student to play music, having his/her memorize facts about the instrument is not going to do anything – the way to go about it is to practice playing. Obviously, studying history also involves the process of placing ideas into a conceptual framework, and playing music needs knowledge of facts like how to read notes, but I think it is fair to say there is a difference in emphasis, in defining the means vs. ends in achieving these different goals. When elementary school age kids are taught gemara, is the goal to impart facts, or to impart the process of gemara thinking and study? When students are given tests, homework, etc., does the work ask them to simply spit back vocabulary words or facts from the page, or does it call upon the use of process-skills? When a teacher speaks with parents, is the emphasis on how many pages of material are covered, or what new skills he/she has practiced with students? What do you look for in your kids' school?


  1. You are posing a very good question and I had to confront it when my kids were planning high school. I believe that it is important for kids to accumulate basic information and at the same time learn how to read critically. Just to be able to ask why does a tanna, amora or rashi say what they are saying and not otherwise. Unfortunately that is not taught in yeshivot. I did not see it with my kids nor do I see it with my grandchildren.

    Re accumulating information, Mishna and Tanach are relegated to a secondary place as is Chumash. That is very wrong too. There too critical reading can be taught and it can be an excellent tool for that.

  2. Is there not a third thing: knowledge? Memorization of facts is a step toward knowledge of fundamental concepts (vakama"l what a fundamental concept is). Even when teaching history the focus should be concepts. For example, when I taught my history class about Moses Mendelssohn I focused them on the concept of Torah U'Mada (i.e. what it is, what it should or shouldn't be, is it good or bad, etc.). Of course, they needed to know enough facts to be able to discuss the concept intelligently. The study of gemara is no different. Of course every subject has its special skill that must be mastered - but the skills are useful in so far as they enable one to derive ideas.

    Additionally, the distinction should be made between subjects where the goal is the ability to do some activity excellently (like playing a musical instrument) and one where the goal is knowledge per se. The first is practical the second is theoretical. The study of Talmud is: practical - la'asot haMitzvot and theoretical - leyda haTorah v'haMitzva.

  3. Yehudah, you are correct that concepts is the tachlit of learning. However for concepts to be grounded in reality and not be imaginary, one needs first to have information and a minmum breadth of it. To do that reading and understanding what one reads is important. A child that was taught how to read will continue reading and eventually develop concepts if taught to do so. One who cannot understand what he reads will develop concepts that are 'Porchot Be'avir".

  4. David, I agree with you. That is why I said, "Of course, they needed to know enough facts to be able to discuss the concept intelligently." I just do not have as much faith that a student will move toward the true purpose of learning without their teachers leading the way while they are still in high school. Of course, a teacher must be careful to prevent the student from being "poreiach b'avir'. It is not an easy balance. Sadly, most schools teach a lot of fact gathering and never show the student that there is anything more. This generally causes people to lose interest in learning altogether. By the time most people are done with H.S. they have little to no interest in revisiting what they "learned" or pursuing any kind of theoretical discipline. Gifted people have a hard time seeing this common truth about our school system.

  5. >>>Memorization of facts is a step toward knowledge of fundamental concepts

    I would reformulate this as 'memorization is necessary to engage in the process of conceptualizing', so your focus is on the process and the facts are just a means to that end. As I wrote in the post, process/facts are not mutually exclusive, but the question is one of emphasis and means vs. ends.

  6. There is some tension between what's easy for the teacher and what's right for the student.

  7. Anonymous2:01 PM

    I would like to see a post showing what was emphasize during the time of the Talmud, Geonim, up until Rambam published his Mishneh Torah. Which obviously caused a double emphasize.

    Maybe, David, you could do a post on this.

    I don't know how to ping David back to this thread. If anyone reading this knows how to please do so.