Must Thinking Be Taught?
By Rabbi Aharon Hersh Fried
Must Thinking be taught?
Why teachers do not teach children to think, and why they must!
Aharon H. Fried Ph.D.
I have previously written (Fried 2000a) on my belief that teachers of Judaic studies subjects, no less than teachers in any other subjects must make it their primary goal to teach children how to think; in Chumash (Bible and commentaries), in Gemoro (Talmud), and in Halacha (Jewish custom, law, and practice). In that article I referred to research by Benjamin Bloom who found that, for the most part, teachers fail to ask children to think. Instead they ask them only to remember what they had taught them, and to regurgitate it. I referred also to Bloom’s analyses of thinking skills. I suggested, and demonstrated by way of examples, that teachers of Judaic studies could and would do well to incorporate his analyses into their own thoughts about teaching, and into the preparation of exercises for their students.
However even as I was writing those lines, I could hear the voices raised in protest saying,
.“Is it not sufficient for our students to assimilate the Divrei Torah (words of Torah) we are teaching them? And yes, to just know what the Torah says? Who says they have to go beyond the Knowledge level, at least in elementary school?“
.“So Benjamin Bloom did this interesting analysis. But how does that obligate us as teacher’s of Torah? When did Benjamin Bloom’s word become a מחייב? (obligatory for us to follow?) Is what he is saying really necessary? Does our teaching really have to follow this kind of breakdown?
And they are right, Benjamin Bloom’s word does not obligate us in any authoritative way. But still, Benjamin Bloom aside, the question of whether Torah needs to be understood, seems to me to be a strange question to be asked in a Jewish setting. Our sources are replete with the idea that Torah must be understood, and that mere repetition of Torah, i.e. mere knowledge of Torah without comprehension is not sufficient.
To cite just one very basic commentator, the great medieval Biblical and Talmudic commentator, Rashi in Parshas Mishpatim (Exodus 21, 1) paraphrases G-d’s instruction to Moshe (Moses) when commanding him to transmit his teachings, thus: “It should not enter your mind to say, I will teach them chapter and verse of the law until they can repeat it in the form in which it was taught, but I will not trouble myself to teach them to understand the reasons for things and their explanation. [See Table 1 in the Appendix for the original Hebrew source with translation]. Clearly then our tradition teaches us that children must be taught to understand!
And yet whether understanding, comprehension, and thinking should be emphasized and taught is still an open and unresolved question! And it is a question especially in the Judaic Studies departments of our schools. Why is this so?
In this article I would like to explore what I see as some of the mistaken beliefs and ideas that Judaic Studies teachers hold, which cause our teachers to refrain from teaching or even encouraging children to think. I hope that articulating the reasons that keep our teachers from teaching children to think, and pointing out some of the errors in their reasoning will serve as a first step to their overcoming their hesitation to teaching thinking. These beliefs include
1.How teachers perceive their own role as well as the present and future roles of their students and, as a result, what goals they set for their students.
2.What priorities Judaic Studies teachers have for the use of time, and how the priorities which are set by teachers preclude the teaching of thinking.
3.Where in the curriculum or school day, do Judaic Studies teachers believe thinking should be taught.
4.What misconceptions teachers hold about the development of thinking.
5.Perceived dangers and fears of teaching children to think.
6.Failure to understand and to appreciate the nature of real learning.
The Teachers role.
How teachers teach will depend on how they perceive their own roles. A teacher who sees his/her role in transmitting the Mesorah (Tradition) as involving only the transmission of the knowledge of previous generations and the thinking of previous generations, will not necessarily see the teaching of thinking as part of his/her mission. In this teacher’s view, the mission after all, is the transmission of what came before us, the wisdom of previous generations. Teaching thinking, reflection, analysis, judgement, and especially critical thinking, on the other hand, has as its focus – the future (the new thinking to be arrived at).
This attitude towards the teaching of thinking often causes those teachers to either ignore the teaching of thinking or even to oppose it.
At best thinking is seen as a nonessential use of time. The prevalent attitude is, “If there’s time we’ll get to it.” They feel that the time given to teaching children to think and reflect could better be used to learn more of what went before us, to learn content, and to master facts.
These teachers are of course overlooking the importance of teaching children how to use the Mesorah (Tradition). Can a Tradition remain useful and vibrant if those who receive it do not learn how to think about it?
The present and future roles of our students.
There is another sense in which our self-perception as teachers determines how we teach. It determines the roles we see for our students, and the goals we set for them.
As Talmidim, our relationship to our Rabbeyim is different from the relationship which students in the secular world have to their teachers.
I remember at a gathering celebrating my graduation I was introduced to somebody as a student of Professor X. My Professor who had overheard the introduction, interjected “former student”, meaning to emphasize my new status as a professional in my own right.
In our tradition, one is never a “former Talmid”. We believe that “Once a Talmid - forever a Talmid”. The name we give our most accomplished thinkers is that of “Talmid Chochom” – literally , a wise student. In our tradition we never cease to be Talmidim, and our Rabbeyim/teachers never to cease to be venerated as “Rebbe”. We forever continue to look to them for guidance and for teachings. We forever seek to drink from the fountains of their wisdom. In fact “Teacher-Student” does not really capture this relationship. The “Master-Disciple” model is closer to it. And that is as it should be.
Having said that, one should point out that such a perspective, when carried to an extreme, often results in the student’s refraining from attempting, and the teacher’s forgetting to encourage independent thinking. Now while it is true that the “once a disciple always a disciple” is a perspective which should be taken by the disciple. It is not necessarily the perspective which should be taken by his Master. The Rebbe’s (Master’s) approach needs to be different. The Rebbe’s (Master’s) job is not to see to it that his Talmidim (Disciples) remain constantly and continuously dependent upon him. The job of the Rebbe is to create independent thinkers.” Reb Shamshon Refael Hirsh writes (following the teaching of the Talmud), that it is a teacher’s responsibility to “light the student’s flame so that it then burns independently”. He further states that it is thus “the teachers duty to make himself superfluous”. [See Table 3 in Appendix for original source with translation]
In a similar vein, the Gemoro (Talmud) in Tractate Avoda Zara relates how the sage Rav Chisda took pains to make sure that his Talmidim reap the blessings of Torah learning, even if it meant their leaving him. Thus he told them that “students who learn from only one teacher, being exposed to only one thinking style, cannot ever reap the full blessings of their studies” [See Table 4 in Appendix for original Hebrew source with translation].
Once again we see how strongly our sages believed that teachers ought to teach and guide their students to become creative, original and independent thinkers.
The proper use of Time
Thinking takes up valuable time:
The concern of conscientious Judaic Studies teachers for covering ground and studying content and text, is heightened by their perception that many schools that do give primacy to the teaching of thinking in Judaic studies, fail to teach children much of the content of Chumash (Bible), Mishna, and Gemoro (Talmud). The children of these schools end up thinking in a vacuum, (at least in a “Judaic Studies” vacuum).
The students in this school were thus “thinking about Judaic Studies”, without knowing the Judaic Studies content that that they were meant to be thinking about. Teachers thus feel that its an either-or situation. One can either teach content, or teach thinking. Teachers need to be reassured and shown that it is actually possible to do both. It is possible to teach the content of an area and to teach people to think about that content in a disciplined manner.
That issue aside teachers sle 10hould understand that just as it is true that one cannot teach thinking without content, it is equally true that one cannot teach content without thinking about it. When a teacher “covers ground” which his students have not really understood, he has done little of value.
But this is an old problem, and was already expressed and was in fact lamented in the Midrash Rabbah in Vayikra (circa 2000 years ago), where the Midrash says that “although it is better to have studied less material but to know it fluently than to have studied much but to fail to gain fluency, still people prefer to know much and without fluency”. (See Table 5 in Appendix for original Hebrew source with translation).
Thinking requires slower, more clearly presented and organized teaching:
Where in the curriculum should thinking be taught?
Isn’t thinking taught in Secular Studies?
To be fair, the Judaic studies teacher does not devalue the importance of thinking. He/she just doesn’t see it as his major responsibility. In fact, he feels, this is the kind of activity that can and should be done in secular studies. After speaking to Judaic studies teachers about the importance of teaching children to think, I’ve often been asked: “But isn’t that kind of thing done in ‘English’ in any case?” Thus the Judaic studies teacher assumes that the thinking learned in English will be applied to Judaic Studies – Unfortunately, this just isn’t so. Thinking tends to be compartmentalized – people think in fields in which they have learned to think. They do not necessarily apply this thinking to other areas ( ).
A number of years ago I was in a 2nd grade classroom. I put a posuk on the board and asked the children a question about the posuk. When the children could not answer the question, I tried to help them. I said to them, “Think, what is the verb in this posuk. What word tells us what Yaakov Ovinu (Jacob) is doing? At that point one little girl got up, and with no small measure of indignation proclaimed, “There’s no verbs in Chumash, verbs are only in English!”
And it is not just children who compartmentalize their thinking. Adults do so as well. A supervisor of teachers told me the following anecdote about herself.
Upon graduation from college with a teaching diploma and certificate she began a job as a teacher in a local Hebrew School. Because she could, she taught in both the Secular and Hebrew departments of her school. Thus she taught Judaic studies in the morning and Secular studies in the afternoon.
One day an educational supervisor came to observe her teach. He sat in on both her morning and afternoon classes. At the end of the day they met so he could give her his evaluation and feedback. “Do you realize”, he told her, “that you are two different kind of teachers? In the afternoon, in your secular classes, you use all of the exciting and challenging methods you learned in school. You challenge your students to think and to solve problems. But in the morning, when you are teaching Judaic studies, you teach in a dry rote manner – pretty much in the way you were probably taught in Hebrew school when you were a child!
Misconceptions about the development of thinking.
Thinking comes by itself:
Some teachers do not feel its important or even possible to teach thinking, because they see thinking as a skill which “Comes by itself”. They feel that, essentially, thinking is a skill or aptitude about which we might say, “You either have it or you don’t.” These teachers feel that if thinking can be learned it is only by the assimilation of lots of material. “Learn a lot of material and it will come”, they believe. There is some research in the area of expertise which suggests that this may be at least partially true. However I believe that this is at best true for only a few, perhaps the top third of the class. And even for them I believe that the mere assimilation of material will discipline their thinking abilities only “up to a point”. Advanced thinking abilities will come only with disciplined teaching of thinking. ( ) Many other children, if not taught to think, no, if not forced to think, will continue to automatically mouth and repeat what they are hearing in school without any attempt to think about what they are saying.
Years ago as a menahel (principal) in a cheder, I listened to a child recite and translate the posuk (phrase):
לא תבערו אש בכל מושבותיכם ביום השבת
You shall not light a fire in any of your dwellings on the Shabbath day.
I then asked the 8-year-old who had recited the posuk,
“May one light a fire on Shabbos?”,
“No!” He replied immediately.
“How do you know?”, I asked.
“My father told me”, he replied.
“And how does your father know?”, I asked.
He shrugged his shoulders, “I don’t know.”
“Do me a favor,” I then suggested, “Say the posuk again”.
He did, I asked the same questions, and still got the same responses.
I then said to him, “You said the posuk very well, but do me a favor and say it one more time!”
He began saying the posuk: He said and translated the words:
לא תבערו אש בכל מושבותיכם and then suddenly stopped and exclaimed in surprise: “s’shteit du!” – “It says so here!”
Yes, if not asked to think, many children will continue to recite and to repeat without thinking. There is a danger that they will acquire the habit of repeating things without thinking. A habit that is later difficult to break.
An acquaintance of mine took his son for a bechina (an entrance examination) for entrance to a Yeshiva. The Rosh Yeshiva (Dean) asked the child to recite some Gemoro (Talmud) This he did well. He then asked him some questions to examine his comprehension of the Gemoro. The boy could not even relate to the questions. He obviously wasn’t used to that kind of questioning. The embarrassed father, tried to explain the child’s predicament to the Rosh Yeshiva by saying, “In cheder (elementary school) they don’t teach them to think.” “They don’t teach them to think?” responded the Rosh Yeshiva, “They teach them not to think!”
For decades, if not centuries, millions of little boys and girls while skipping rope or playing games like hopscotch have been chanting all sorts of rhymes and ditties without once having given a second thought to what they were mouthing! Is Torah teaching not to be elevated to a level higher than that?!!?
You either have it or you don’t:
As to those who feel that thinking cannot be taught, “You either have it or you don’t”; Why then did Rava in the Talmudic segment cited above, send his students to other teachers so that they may be exposed to different thinking styles? Was it not so that they would learn how to think from those other teachers?
And why, to this day, do our young (post high-school) yeshiva students migrate to various centers of Torah learning to pick up a “Derech halimud”, (an “approach to learning)? Are they not going to “learn how to think?” Why deprive our younger students of this opportunity?
Dangers and Fears of Thinking
Is thinking permitted? Is too much thinking dangerous?
Some of our teachers in fact consider thinking to be actually dangerous; possibly leading to Apikorsus (heresy).
At a workshop, at which I had demonstrated how to teach a biblical commentator (Rashi) so that children would really understand it, an educator in the audience commented:
“That was an excellent demonstration. However, If you explain this Rashi that well, won’t children come to expect to understand every Rashi that way? And since we cannot always understand and explain all of Rashi’s commentaries, won’t that cause that child to refuse to accept any Rashi he cannot understand? And won’t that lead to Apikorsus?”
In fact, the opposite is true. It is not understanding and comprehension which drive people away from Torah, it is the lack of understanding and comprehension that does so. As Reb Yisroel Salanter says: “The reason that many are attracted away from the study of Torah is because when learning Torah they learned only to repeat the questions and answers of the commentaries, without grasping the logic of the question and the novelty of the answer. Thus they have not tasted the sweetness of Torah and are easily attracted away from it.” [See Table 6 in the Appendix for original Hebrew source with translation]
We must bear in mind that when we do not teach children to think about Torah, those children will not cease to think. They will only cease to think about Torah. As Reb Yisroel Salanter points out, they will think of things other than Torah. An active mind will seek stimulation elsewhere.
Children who are not given the opportunity to think about Torah will never experience the pleasurable energy or “rush” which we feel when we figure-it-out on our own. It is this pleasure which makes us feel “ownership” of our learning. It is the inference or deduction at which arrive on our own that allows us to feel that the knowledge is ours. Is this not what our sages mean when they tell us that “At the start the Torah is called by the name of God. But in the end it is called by his (the student’s) name.” (Rava in Tractate Avoda Zara 19a) Should we not be helping our students to experience the pleasure of learning? [See Table 7 in the Appendix for entire original Hebrew source with translation]
An added danger in not teaching children how to think about Torah, is that they will not know how to think about Torah. When faced with Torah and /or Halachik issues they will use faulty logic and faulty thinking. Not having been disciplined in how to learn and in how to study Torah, their thinking will be undisciplined, perforce warped, and will often lead them astray from Torah.
Fear of Thinking:
When it comes to Torah, some of us are actually taught to be afraid to think. Thus we are paralyzed by the thought, “What if I say, or think, the wrong p’shat? (explanation)”
This is an understandable and even admirable sentiment. After all when we study torah we are studying the D’var Hashem (the Word of G-d). One should of course always take great care in how one learns Torah. One should be concerned with learning Toras Emes (the True Torah), with arriving at a P’shat (an explanation and comprehension of the material) which is true. And one should fear and be cautious about arriving at the wrong P’shat (explanation and understanding). However, if this fear stops us from learning independently; when caution turns to anxiety, and when anxiety becomes debilitating, this fear is wrong and misapplied. As the MaHaRal says: “A person should not say, ‘The Torah is only given to the great scholars who are far from erring…. Nor should he say, perhaps I will err in my study of Torah, for we are enjoined to be engaged in Torah, not necessarily to always discover the truth, but to be engaged in seeking it in Torah”. [See Table 8 in the Appendix for the original Hebrew source with translation]
To think, to struggle with comprehension of Torah, is the very essence of Torah learning. It is on this activity that we make the daily blessing of “Laasok bedivrei Torah,” (to be engaged in Torah). And it applies even when we say the wrong p’shat or Halacha (Teaching an interpretation of Torah to others as the “Truth” is something else again, as the MaHaRal says further on in the aforementioned citation).
The Nature of Learning:
While all of the above quoted sources certainly underscore the importance of thinking, we need to take our argument one step further. It is not enough to see thinking as an important part of the learning process. If we do just that we have missed the point. It is important to understand that “thinking” is not an addendum to learning – it is learning itself! The mastery of a body of facts is not really learning unless those facts have been thought about and related to knowledge which previously existed in the student’s mind. The mere rote repetition of words or ideas without any comprehension of them cannot be considered learning!
To be sure, one can certainly accumulate knowledge, in the form of facts without having thought about them. However, this is not the same as comprehension or understanding. Knowledge without comprehension remains lifeless or inert. It remains disconnected from anything else in the person’s knowledge base. It does not affect one’s overall understanding of things. It does not change one’s way of thinking. Let’s look at a (fictional, I hope) example which may illustrate our point.
It is related that a teacher asked the class, “If 2k = 10 what is K?” and a child eagerly raised his hand and answered “Potassium”.
That child had learned in Chemistry class the fact that k = potassium, but had he understood it? Did he understand it was only a symbol, a symbol only in the context of chemistry class? No! He had acquired only inert lifeless (and therefore useless) knowledge.
Similarly, while testing a little boy recently, I asked him the meaning of the word “Ohel” (Hebrew for tent). He said, “There’s no Ohel in Chumash (Bible). There’s only Ohel Moed (The tent of the Covenant)!”
Thus although he “knew” the translation of Ohel Moed, he knew it only as part of a chant. He did not understand that Ohel is a word in its own right, a word which can be used in many contexts. He knew the translation but he had no comprehension of it.
This kind of accumulation of facts cannot be considered learning. The Maharal in Tiferes Yisroel compares it to “the singing of a bird.” [Please see Table 9 in the Appendix for the entire original Hebrew source with translation]
This is also what Reb Yisroel Salanter (cited earlier) was referring to when he spoke of those who “had learned only to repeat the questions and answers of the commentaries, without grasping the logic of the question and the novelty of the answer”. Such learning is hardly worthy of the name.
The Gemoro (Talmud) tells us that “There is no study without some novel insight” i.e. if one has truly studied, one has had some creative original thought. And if there has been no such novel insight there could not have been true engagement in Torah study! For study without new insight is not study! [Please see Table 10 in the Appendix for the entire original Hebrew source with translation]
Rabbi Aharon Kotler Ztz”l pointed out that it would be wrong to say that if a Yeshiva student would learn one blat (folio) of Gemoro each day for 30 days, then in 30 days time he’ll be a greater Talmid Chochom (Scholar) by 30 blatt Gemoro. The greatness of that student as a Talmid Chochom (scholar) would be increased by much more. As Reb Aharon put it, the mind which sits down to learn the second blat of Gemoro is not the same mind which learned the first blat Gemoro. That mind has been transformed and enriched by the first blat. And the mind which approaches the learning of the 3rd blat has in turn been enriched by the second blat (which having been better understood than the first blat, enriches the learning of the 3rd blat even more than the 1st blat enhanced the comprehension of the second blat). In other words, when one learns one also learns how to learn. Thus learning does not grow in a fashion of 1 blat + 1 blat + 1 blat + blat = 4 blat. But rather, it grows in the fashion of 1 blat x 1 blat x 2 blat x 3 blat = 6 blat. In the parlance of Psychologists learning follows not an additive function, but rather – a multiplicative function. This is however true only if the mind is changed and transformed by learning.
Thus, according to Reb Aharon Zt”l, learning expands and changes the mind. But this can only happen if the mind has been engaged in the learning. If new insights into old issues have been gained. Without this we may not say that learning has occurred.
To fully explicate the nature of true learning would be beyond the scope of this article and will require separate treatment (Fried 2000c). Suffice it to say here, that learning requires being engaged with the material, grappling with it, questioning it, turning it over in our minds and considering it from various angles, asking how it relates to other knowledge, and how it changes and informs our understanding. In short, it requires thinking.
What does this say to us about teaching?
The foregoing discussion has many implications for teaching. In this very brief summary, let us point to only the most obvious.
.There is no question that children must be taught the content matter of Judaic Studies (Girsa). And in point of fact, the content must come first as thinking cannot be done in a vacuum. However, that content material must be taught, clearly, in a well-organized presentation, and to mastery.
. If we don’t also teach children to think about what they are learning (S’vara), we have failed in our mission to interest our children in Torah, to excite their minds, to help them become life-long learners of Torah, and to allow their minds to be shaped by Torah. Thus not only should thinking be taught – it Must be taught.
.Teachers must encourage students to raise questions about what they are learning. A major role of the teacher is to present material in a way which will raise, no, ignite a question in the child’s mind.
1 Tradition teaches that every member of the Jewish people has his unique part in Torah, i.e. the unique contribution which is his alone to make.
2 A goal which, sad to say, does not remain uninfluenced by how much ground the school across town is covering.
3 I later met with the teacher to discuss his class. I opened our meeting by saying that “There is a difference between learning Chumash and learning about Chumash, and in elementary school the focus should be on ...”
I didn’t get any further. The teacher completed my sentence with “about Chumash”. I had hoped that he would tell me that the open ended discussion that I had heard that morning, would, on a different day, be brought back and connected to the text. Sadly, I was wrong.
4 Sir Alfred Huxley, the British playwright arrived on a delayed flight in a town in which he was to deliver a lecture. Huxley jumped into a taxi, told the driver, “Drive fast, I’m late!” and began to think about his lecture. After about 5 minutes, Huxley suddenly picked up his head and asked, “Driver, do you know where we’re going?” To which the driver answered, “No sir, but we are making good time!” I ask the same question. I know we’re making good time. But do we know where we are going?
5 I cannot fathom why anybody who holds Judaic Studies dear would want to leave the “thinking” to be taught in the secular studies department, even if that would work. How can we fail to realize the dire potential of this practice for detracting from the respect our students have for Judaic Studies? A friend of mine once asked his 10 year old son to describe the difference between his Judaic Studies and Secular Studies in school. “Oh that’s easy”, said the boy, “In the morning (Judaic) I use the remembering part of my brain, in the afternoon (Secular Studies), I use the thinking part of my brain”.
6 My discussions with many youngsters leads me to believe that this is one of the contributing reasons for the youngsters who are turned-off to Torah (of whom we are unfortunately seeing more and more). These children, whom we have not only allowed to, but also encouraged to question and to think about secular ideas, and to comprehend and analyze secular texts, find that thinking about what they are expected to love and to live by, i.e. Judaic studies is discouraged, and sometimes even forbidden! If they have the ability, they will continue to think, but unfortunately, not about Torah.
7 This is true even for infants. Infants have a capacity to be bored. If you show them a picture, they stare at it with interest (usually for about 9 seconds). If you show it to them repeatedly, they look at it for less and less time, until they look at it for a brief second or not at all. This is called habituation. If a day later you show the infant the picture together with a novel picture, the infant will show a preference for the new picture. Infants have a preference for novelty.
In a fascinating study infants were repeatedly shown a distorted familiar figure (e.g. a distorted triangle) until they habituated to it. A day later the infant was shown two figures, the familiar distorted triangle they had seen the day before, and an undistorted triangle. The expectation was that the infant should show a preference for the figure it had not seen before (i.e. the undistorted triangle). Surprisingly, this is not what happened. The infants preferred the distorted triangle, the figure they had seen the day before! This ran counter to the oft demonstrated preference of infants for that which is novel. How can we understand this? It seemed like, in the infant’s memory, the undistorted figure (which it had not yet seen) was nevertheless more familiar! How would this come about? The interpretation given to this phenomenon (Siegler ) is that when the infant is shown the distorted triangle, she encodes it as an undistorted triangle, smoothing out the distortions. Subsequently, it is the distorted figure that (again) seems new. Thus, the mind is not a passive recipient of information. The mind receives information and encodes and interprets it according to what it already knows.