What do we mean by thinking, comprehension, and understanding?
Dr. Aharon Fried
What do we mean by thinking, comprehension, and understanding?
Chumash Comprehension Skills and Bloom’s Taxonomy
Aharon H. Fried Ph.D.
What do we mean by thinking?
How old was Avrohom Avinu (Abraham) when he did the Bris Milah (Circumcision)?
Why did Hashem listen to Yitzchak Avinu’s tefilah (Isaac’s prayer) more readily than he did to Rivka’s tefila (Rebecca’s prayer)?
What is Rashi’s question on the phrase "והבור ריק אין בו מים" – “and the pit was empty, there was no water in it?”
Why does the Torah say "בני אהרן הכהנים" “The son’s of Aharon , the Priests” Wouldn’t it be enough to say either בני אהרן - “the sons of Aharon”, or הכהנים - “the priests”?
Most people who read the above four questions would agree that the first two questions require only memory and not thinking. They would however allow themselves to believe that the child who can answer the last two questions is demonstrating comprehension and understanding of what he has learned. Hence these are questions which may be said to require thought.
But is this really so?
If the teacher told the children what Rashi’s question was regarding the words "וילכו שניהם יחדיו", how is the child’s ability to repeat that question evidence of comprehension? And what mental exercise, other than memory has the child been required to engage in?
Similarly, suppose the teacher in teaching the first commentary of Rashi in Parshat Emor, “put the class through their paces” countless times, (as is the practice in the Cheder) in the following manner,
Teacher: If the Torah would have said only “"בני אהרן – “the sons of Aharon”, what might we have thought?
Students: That all the children of Aharon, even the חללים (those who had been disqualified for the priesthood) were being included in this Parsha (Chapter). Therefore the Torah says הכהנים – “the priests” to emphasize that the Parsha Include only those who are כהנים כשרים – eligible Kohanim (priests).
Teacher: And if the Torah would have said only הכהנים – the “priests” what might we have thought?
Students: That the Parsha included all כהנים (priests), even girls and women, therefore it says בני אהרן – the prohibitions in the parsha (chapter) pertain to the men only.
Teacher: And what else do we learn from בני אהרן – “the sons of Aharon”?
Students: That the prohibitions of the Parsha include כהנים “priests” who
are בעלי מומין – maimed.
If somebody later tests this child by running the same questions by him, and the child answers the questions correctly has he demonstrated comprehension, or merely memory?
In the 1960’s Benjamin Bloom , an educational psychologist at the University of Chicago, studied the kinds of questions that teachers ask students to answer about what they have learned. He looked at worksheets, homework questions, and tests in the Chicago Public School system. He found that 90% or more of the questions that teachers asked, were tapping student’s abilities to repeat information which the teachers had taught. Rarely were students asked to do something with the information they had been taught, to go beyond what they had been taught. Rarely were they asked to apply it, to analyze it, or even to demonstrate comprehension of it.
Bloom defined comprehension very specifically, and he differentiated it from what he called “knowledge”. For Bloom, merely repeating what was stated demonstrates “knowledge”, but not yet, “comprehension”. The demonstration of comprehension requires going beyond what was stated. To demonstrate comprehension of the above Rashi, the child would have to at the very least be able to answer questions like:
Is the daughter of a priest permitted to help in a burial? (other than her parents or siblings).
Is a priest who has only one leg permitted to help in a burial? (other than his parents or siblings).
In other words, to demonstrate comprehension, the child must be able to answer a question which requires him to go beyond the information given, or at least to put together two pieces of information which he has been given, and which have not been connected for him by others. Without such evidence we cannot say that the child understands. We can say only that he/she is able to repeat what he/she was taught.
Bloom’s analysis of the questions teachers give their students was based on an analysis of thinking skills he had written. (Bloom et al 1954) That analysis resulted in what came to be known as Bloom’s Taxonomy of Cognitive Skills – a listing of the different kinds of thinking we engage in, and ask our students to engage in when learning something. This taxonomy of thinking skills has enjoyed wide dissemination and has found application in various fields, both in the teaching of academic curricula and in the analysis of behavior in the field of Adaptive Behavior Analysis. It has made teachers aware of what they should be aiming toward; namely that children should not be taught only to repeat and regurgitate what their teacher has said, but also to understand and apply what they have learned. I believe it would do us well to apply Bloom’s analysis to the teaching of Chumash (Bible) and its commentaries as well as to many other areas in the Judaic studies curriculum.
An added advantage of applying Bloom’s Taxonomy to Judaic Studies would be gained by teachers in Judaic Studies Special Education classes. A complaint that is often heard from directors of programs in which children with special needs are exposed to both a secular and Judaic curriculum, is that they find it almost impossible to get a clear statement of what children can or cannot do from their Judaic teachers. This makes it very difficult, if not impossible, to create a valid I.E.P. (Individual Education Plan) as required by law, for any student. Applying Bloom’s taxonomy to Chumash, would make it easier for teachers in Jewish Special Education classes to write proper I.E.P.’s with objective statements about what a child is and is not yet able to do, as well as to clearly express goals for the student’s progress.
Bloom’s Taxonomy of educational Objectives includes the six major categories or levels of thought. I have listed these in the table below. To make the levels better understood to the teacher of Chumash, I have included an illustrative example of a question at each level which the teacher may ask of a child studying Chumash.
Bloom’s Taxonomy applied to Chumash
A listing and with illustrative examples using the phrase from Genesis 29,18
ויאהב יעקב את רחל ויאמר אעבדך שש שנים ברחל בתך הקטנה (בראשית כט יח)
And Jacob loved Rachel and he said, I will serve you seven years for your younger daughter Rachel
Memorization behaviors: Specifically the recall or recognition of previously encountered information.
Q. What words did Yakov Avinu (Jacob) use to describe Rachel when he made his deal with Lavan (Laban)?
Behaviors which show understanding, not just memorization, such as being able to explain or interpret as an indication of understanding.
Q. How did Yaakov (Jacob) say, “Let’s be very clear about whom we are talking about in this deal we are making?”
Being able to use or apply an abstract concept in a specific situation.
Q. Can you use this technique in a different context? i.e Can the child use a series of adjectives to specifically describe some person or object?
Ability to break down a communication into its component parts and to identify the relationships that exist between them.
Q. Analyze this phrase. How does each term add another way of making sure that all concerned are clear about whom the deal is being made. How does each narrow it down more?
Ability to combine elements and parts to form a unique whole, in the shape of a new communication.
Q. How do all of these references refer to and come together in the same person? (Possibly give an example of a number of references and have kids figure out the referent.)
Making judgements bout the value of some communication-a piece of work, a solution, a method – for a given purpose.
Q.Did Jacob need all 3 descriptors? Why would it not have been enough to say only בבתך הקטנה – Your little daughter? Q. Could he have been any clearer clearer?
In a previous article (Fried 1997) I described a list of suggested exercises for teachers to use to develop textual comprehension and thinking skills in Chumash and Rashi. These included exercises for building word comprehension, exercises for building sentence comprehension, as well as exercises for building meta-linguistic skills (see Fried 1995 on the importance of meta -linguistic skills in Judaic Studies).
The list of exercises mentioned in that article follows below:
Give student exercises to do for each of the following areas of WORD knowledge
a. Mastering the translations
b. Discovering and learning the structure of words in Hebrew:
roots, prefixes and suffixes.
c. Noticing and becoming aware of synonyms and antonyms
d. Classifying words
e. Noticing and becoming aware of parts of speech;
Verbs, Nouns, adjectives etc.
Give students exercises, which help them remember and understand important
PHRASES in the text.
Give students exercises which will help them better organize and remember the
CONTENT of the text (i.e. the story and/or the Halachik facts).
Give students exercises which will help them focus on areas of TEXTUAL
a. Getting the facts
b. Finding the quote
d. Getting the Main idea
e. Noticing anomalies and deviations in the text
I have often been asked four basic and interrelated questions regarding the TEXTUAL COMPREHENSION exercises suggested in that article. (Fried 1997)
For what ages are the exercises intended?
Are the textual comprehension questions listed sequenced by progressive levels of difficulty or complexity?
What is the buildup of cognitive skills in the above exercises?
How do these exercises relate to the Taxonomy of Cognitive skills described by Benjamin Bloom?
It is to answer these questions and to clarify them that I am presenting this article to teachers of Judaic studies.
The exercises as such are intended for all ages. However, each type of exercise can and needs to be constructed at an age appropriate level.
At a global level, the exercises listed above may be thought of as proceeding from the easiest to the more difficult, i.e. from “getting the facts” to “noticing anomalies” (from the more concrete to the most abstract). However, in reality each of these exercises can be constructed at either simple and concrete levels, or at more complex and abstract levels. Thus it is possible to construct an exercise requiring “getting the facts” from Psukim which is more complex than an exercise requiring the child to do something which sounds more complex or abstract like “getting the main idea” or “noticing anomalies in the text”.
In a subsequent article (in preparation) I will illustrate the different levels of difficulty (in answer to questions . However to illustrate my point, I will cite just one example:
I can present the child with a “Getting the facts” task which is more difficult than a “Finding anomalies in the text task, as follows:
Getting the facts
Finding Anomalies in the text
And Adam knew his wife again and she bore a son and she called his name Seth, for God has given me seed in place of Hevel, for Kain has killed him.
Who are the people actually taking part in the events which are told us in this phrase?
And Noah bore three sons, Shem, Ham, and Yafeth.
What words in this Phrase could the Torah have left out without any loss of information?
In this case, young children will find the basic exercise of “Getting the facts” more difficult than the more “advanced” exercise of “Finding Anomalies in the text.”
The buildup of cognitive skills does not necessarily occur across the exercises, but rather within each exercise. Each exercise can be made progressively more complex (including more and more details), or more abstract. The exercises can also vary according to the format in which the question is presented and the form of response required of the student.
Questions can probe simple phrases
or complex phrases.
Questions can probe single phrases or many phrases.
Questions can probe for items or ideas explicitly stated in the Pasuk
or for items or ideas not directly stated.
Questions can be asking for general/global answers or more specific answers.
Questions can be asking the student to recognize the right answer
or to provide the answer.
Questions can require the student for a one-word response or for the formulation of a more elaborated response.
Questions can be asking for a definite correct answer or for a range of possible answers (requiring the student to be more creative).
Questions can be probing for concrete objective answers or for more abstract answers.
The exercises can also be arranged in a sequence which follows the levels of cognition of Bloom’s Taxonomy.
Thus, in conclusion, the exercises I suggested for use in teaching textual comprehension in Chumash are intended for all ages. However they need to be constructed at age appropriate levels. The exercises can also differ in difficulty along a number of dimensions, and can also be presented so that, in addition to tapping knowledge, they tap also comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation; the cognitive skills described by Benjamin Bloom.
In the following pages I provide illustrations of how each of the Textual Comprehension exercises (listed above) can be presented at different levels of Bloom’s taxonomy. Because teachers of Chumash are dealing with Hebrew text, I have chosen to illustrate these exercises in Hebrew.
Bloom, B.S., Englehart, M.B., Furst, E.J., Hill, W.H., and Krathwohi, O.R. Taxonomy of educational objectives: The Classification of educational goals. Book 1, The Cognitive Domain, New York, Longman (1954, 1956)
Fried Aharon H. Linguistic Demands of the Judaic Studies Curriculum and Approaches to Remediation, Presentation at the International Conference for Jewish Special Education, Tel Aviv University, 1995
Fried, Aharon H. On the Remediation and Teaching of Chumash, The Jewish Special Educator, Vol. 4, 1997, 9-20