Monday, June 16, 2014

Korach 74 - Competition or Cooperative Learning ?

The rebellion against the leadership of Moses and  Aaron his brother – the high priest-  by Korach and his followers raises the following question. How could such people of great stature steep so low and act out of jealousy and the pursuit of honor.?
Rabeinu Yerucham, R' Leib Chasman, R' Isaac Sher etc explain that the concerns of Korach were actually legitimate and praiseworthy.  Korach saw Aaron's and his younger cousin – Elizaphan the son of Uziel positions in the community as making them closer to God. Korach was not jealous because Aaron was closer to God, but rather he saw and felt pained at how far HE was from God. This was a legitimate and holy type of jealousy. In fact when God denies Moshe's request to enter the land of Israel so he could grow in spirituality and become even more closer to God, God criticizes Moshe's response to Korach. When Moshe said to Korach and his followers – That their request -' It is too much for you, the sons of Levi' רב לכם בני לוי, he implied that they should be satisfied with their present levels, and not aspire to greater levels. God uses the same language and says to Moshe '- It is too much for you'. Korach's initial intentions were pure and his jealousy was not a personal one, but what the sages call קנאת סופרים תרבה חכמה -the envy of teachers promotes knowledge.
 Unfortunately, like with the pursuit of wealth which may begin with pure motives –' lishmah and then become driven by the wrong reasons – lo lishmah, the same happens with spiritual growth. People  initially make  money to support the family and give charity ,and   then they  become focused on status, being number one and having more than others in the community. In spiritual matters we may be inspired to emulate and learn from great people, but as we grow there is the danger of being self-righteous, becoming ' competitive', seeking honor and trying to outdo others. Korach's dispute was no longer the for the sake of heaven, but ' lekanter' in order  to provoke others and to replace the leadership. In the time of the Beit Ha'mikdash = temple there was a 'race to the top' of the ramp leading to the altar to earn the privilege of removing the ashes – terumat ha'deshen – from the altar. This competition was soon stopped as one runner pushed another and he broke his leg and another pulled out a knife.
But competition in schools still persists because educators interpret wrongly the saying – that envy of teachers will promote wisdom - קנאת סופרים תרבה חכמה applies  also to school children. The problem with competition and awards is that it makes the reward scarce. Not only are we using extrinsic motivation, but competition teaches kids to view other kids as potential obstacles to one's success.  Learning in order to win a competition is not only learning for the wrong  reason -lo lishmah , but according to R' isaac Sher it is learning in order to לקנטר , to provoke and do harm even if this is not the kid's intention. Setting kids against one another reduces trust, generosity, empathy and sensitivity to other's needs and so kids are unlikely to help each other. Kids begin to focus just on achievement and impressing others. The winners develop superiority complexes but their self-esteem becomes precarious and conditional on how many people they have beaten. Winning, like receiving a prize feels good only for a while, so there is a need to compete again and again to reclaim that good feeling.  Also there is the internal pressure to stay the top of his class. This need to keep on winning creates a lot of destructive stress and tension for these kids.  Competition obviously undermines the self-esteem of weaker students. Instead we want to help the weaker student maintain that core of acceptance even when they fail. Giving everybody a prize that meets a certain standard does not eliminate the problem of giving rewards for learning.
For excellence in learning we need cooperation and the absence of competition.  Competing reduces the probability that cooperation, which does promote learning, will take place; it generates anxiety; it leads children to attribute their victory or loss to factors beyond their control, such as innate ability or luck, thereby reducing the likelihood that they will try harder next time; and it functions as an extrinsic motivator, reducing interest in the task and creative performance just as other artificial inducements have been repeatedly shown to do.
Instead of a competition we can focus on building a cooperative classroom where students are connected to their peers within a safe and supportive community of learners and see their peers as learning resources. Each child finds his place in the Beit Hamedrash =study hall and is connected to the learning.  The tradition of learning in pairs – chavrusa or a kid sharing his learning with a group – chabura- is the foundation of cooperative learning.  And of course according to the Mishnah in Pirkei Avot 3:7, when people learn Torah together, the Divine Presence rests upon them, so why would we ever think of a competitive environment.

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