Friday, August 19, 2016

Va'etchanan 76 - Education - For what ?

The parasha talks about education in the section of the She'ma  - שמע ישראל   and the exodus –יציאת מצרים. The purpose of education may be to help a child serve God and be of service of man, and developing and refining his character. It also focuses on acquiring a profession or a trade.  Today, the notion is that the schools' first priority should be intellectual development. Prof. Nel Noddings argues that the main aim of education should be to produce competent, caring, loving and lovable people. Seymour Sarason speaks about inculcating in the child a desire to learn, to become a life-long learner. John Dewey, the father of constructivist education talks about education not being a preparation for life, but life itself. His colleague William Killpatrick talks about both goals – education prepares best for life when at the same time it constitutes the present worthy life itself. Judith Shapiro said - You want the inside of your head to be an interesting place to spend the rest of your life. There are those who focus on what everyone their age is supposed to know – E.D Hirsch , as opposed to others who believe that the  purpose of education is not primarily to help children know more , rather , it is to help them become better to be able to think , be reflective ,  care , imagine, understand and adapt – to become autonomous learners. While most parents will agree that education should focus on the whole child and making him a better person, they and government officials are more concerned about the economic benefits – being more competitive in the job market or providing skilled workers to enhance corporate profits and global competitiveness. The result is that learning for its own sake and the material learned has little value and what counts is the graduation certificate or degree. Governments also see education as a means of fighting poverty and encourage everyone to go to college.  The result has been that getting a college degree can lift one out of poverty and make one financially successful is now considered a myth- there has been widening gap between rich and poor despite there being more college graduates ,  one out of six college graduates earns less than the average wage of high school graduates. A college degree, especially a general or an Arts degree helps if you are born to a rich family, have privilege and connections. A white school leaver will be more successful than a black college graduate in the USA. Discrimination, the 'poverty trap' and other structural features of the USA society are obstacles to the upward mobility of poorer people with education. The focus should be more on providing jobs with decent salaries. There is also a call for more ' vocational training.' Vocational training however should also focus on personal fulfillment, empowerment and promoting all the thinking skills that come with a good academic education. Otherwise, John Dewey says -there is a danger that vocational education will be interpreted in theory and practice as trade education: as a means of securing technical efficiency in specialized future pursuits. Education would then become an instrument of perpetuating unchanged the existing industrial order of society, instead of operating as a means of its transformation. The desired transformation is not difficult to define in a formal way. It signifies a society in which every person shall be occupied in something which makes the lives of others better worth living, and which accordingly makes the ties which bind persons together more perceptible—which breaks down the barriers of distance between them. (Dewey, 1916/2001, p. 325)

The parasha on the She'ma says that we should teach our children diligently– ושננתם לבנך  - Rashi explains that a person should repeat and review his learning so that if he is asked a question about Torah, he will not be embarrassed and will respond immediately. This implies that one should have knowledge of Torah and learn to know the Torah. וְהָיוּ הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה, אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ הַיּוֹם--עַל-לְבָבֶךָ.  And these words that I command you this day should be on your heart – this day – we should look at the words of Torah, not as an old text which we have heard and reviewed many times, but something new, that generates curiosity and interest so we will be able to discover new insights and depths of understanding and make meaning of our learning. The learning should not be academic but touch our hearts and becomes part of us, internalized and integrated. We should speak in Torah with our children and pupils – ודברת בם  . The way we learn is collaboratively, discussing ideas with others and being challenged by their thinking.  In a later chapter the Torah then tells us how to respond to a question of one's children about God's commandments כִּי-יִשְׁאָלְךָ בִנְךָ מָחָר, לֵאמֹר:  מָה הָעֵדֹת, וְהַחֻקִּים וְהַמִּשְׁפָּטִים – that the purpose of the Exodus was to become God's people in the land of Israel. This alludes to  the importance of stimulating children's interest, curiosity and questions that  will drive learning. In our prayers we ask – והערב נא ה' ..את דברי תורתך בפינו...ונהיה לומדי תורתך לשמה That God sweeten the words of his Torah in our mouths and … we should be intrinsically motivated and  study Torah for its own sake. We ask for understanding that will enable us to ' learn, teach and to do' all the teachings of the Torah – להבין ולהשכיל ללמוד וללמד ..ולעשות

We seem to have 2 goals – knowledge of the Torah and being involved in the learning process, deepening our understanding and connection with God. The question is how we reconcile the 2 goals. This reminds of the 2 approaches to education – the Old School transmission model where kids are seen as empty pales in which knowledge has to be poured in. Hirsh E.D speaks of a Core Curriculum for each grade dictating what kids should at the end of each year. While he acknowledges that thinking is the goal of education one needs a body of facts to think about. The constructivist approach acknowledges that knowledge is important, but when the focus is on quantity, the learning is shallow and the goal is to memorize what has been taught. Not only don't we get to thinking, but after the ' test' everything is forgotten. Facts should be taught not in a vacuum , but  given a ' context' by questions, problems and projects .Instead of a Core Curriculum built on different and fragmented subjects and focused on acquiring knowledge , constructivist education focuses on helping students understand ideas from the inside out, to learn how to think creatively and critically, and they involve students in designing a curriculum that’s organized around problems, projects and questions, trying to integrate skills, topics and disciplines in a meaningful context and in a multi-disciplinary way  rather than one based on feeding them lists of facts. What drives the acquisition of knowledge are interest, curiosity and making meaning of the world. It encourages children to be active learners, have the desire to keep learning, reflecting on and internalizing their learning. They do not absorb knowledge but ' construct knowledge'. Montaigne wrote that without a the appetite and affection for learning, children will become little more than ' asses loaded with books' -  חמור נושא כלים . The kind of knowledge that children most need is the knowledge that will help them get more knowledge. Children are taken seriously. We start trying to find out what they know, what they notice and encourage their questions. The teacher throws in her questions and complicates matters, challenging their thinking. It is conflict, whether stimulated by the teacher or peers that challenges thinking, that gets kids to reflect on their thinking and grow. Learning takes place through speaking and discussing. Deborah Meier says that teaching is essentially listening and learning is essentially speaking. In a traditional classroom it is only the teacher who is doing the learning. In a classroom where the focus is on learning in pairs or groups, real learning and deep thinking takes place. When we have children's interest and they find learning relevant, the stage is set for  teaching  the thinking skills. Deborah Meier says we should encourage the 5 habits of the Mind – asking about evidence  - how do we know what we know, whose point of view and perspective , connecting and associating learning, supposition – how might things have been otherwise, and relevance , why is the learning important , something to care about. In the classroom kids not only are given a choice but can generate choices regarding social and learning issues.

With Talmudic study, we can resolve the conflict by learning focusing on covering ground and intense deep learning by not answering all our questions Both types of learning we focus on understanding and asking questions, we just don't answer all our questions. The Yeshivah and Talmudic environment preceded the ' constructivist movement ' many centuries. The focus is on collaborative learning in pairs and groups dealing with questions, problems and case studies. It is the questions that drive the acquisition of knowledge and deriving the underlying principles of Talmudic reasoning.

In the modern world education that focuses on personal development rather than a trade and profession has value also in terms of employment. People who might not have specific training are employed because they have critical thinking and analytical skills and can be trained. Professionals and others in the work force testify how they Talmudic studies have given those thinking skills, thinking in a multidisciplinary way and ability to work in teams and collaborate. The Talmud at the end of Kidushin quotes R' Nehorrai –' I will not teach my son a profession only Torah'. Today, teaching Torah is not only important for acquiring an education, personal development and ones relationship with God and the community but also contributes to critical thinking skills needed in the work place.

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