Aug 2020

Teaching Isn’t The Same Thing As Learning: How Judaism Reflects Fundamental Principles of Learning

On Saturday, August 22nd, I spoke at my Temple’s Shabbat services. The text of my remarks appear below.

In this week’s parsha, we read about Moses giving the Israelites, what is in essence, a constitution—or a set of laws to live by.

There are many noteworthy things in such a set of passages, but in reading it, I was taken by the fact that this is not the first time the Israelites—and thus we—read and learn of many of these laws and ideas.

There are numerous parallels and repetition with readings from earlier portions of the Torah. Today we read about God requiring fairness in administering justice. In Exodus, God instructed Moses that the people should likewise be fair in dealing with people accused of wrongdoing and not to follow the sentiments of an unruly mob or to favor a person based on their level of income.

We similarly read today that Jews are not to set up a baetyl—a sacred stone supposedly endowed with life. Exodus likewise informed the Israelites to break apart the sacred stones of Caananites, and Leviticus says Israelites shall not set them up.

As I thought about the repetition, my mind also harkened back to Exodus and the 10 Commandments. The story of how it took two times until the Jews were ready to receive the 10 commandments from Moses remains seared in my own mind from the dramatic rendition in the movie The 10 Commandments.

So why so much repetition for such fundamental teachings? After all, the Torah and today’s portion isn’t simply a story of how the Israelites learned of such laws, but it’s also designed to educate us now.

As I reflected, it occurred to me that what the Torah is doing is what, in education, we might call spiraling. Spiraling is the notion that a student learns more about a topic each time she revisits it and thus expands her knowledge or improves her skill level. When you spiral, you intentionally spread the learning out over time, rather than only concentrate it in certain periods.

Education is the field in which I’ve worked for the last 15 years. I’m a writer, speaker, researcher, consultant, innovator and entrepreneur in the world of education. And my mission is to transform learning worldwide so that all individuals can build their passions and fulfill their potential.

So perhaps it’s only natural that I would read a passage in the Torah and think about education. But wearing that set of education lenses and seeing the use of spiraling in action caused me to realize that the Torah—and Jewish tradition more broadly—has built into it a series of elements around education that are in harmony with our current understanding of the science of learning.

Perhaps that shouldn’t be surprising either—we are the people of the Book, after all. Studying the Torah—education, in other words—is the tree of life for our people.

Broadly speaking, what Judaism recognizes is a fundamental truth—that teaching is not the same thing as learning. We don’t learn when someone is ready to teach it to us, but when we as individuals are ready to learn. You can’t make someone learn who isn’t ready for it. That helps explain why Moses had to present the 10 Commandments to the Jewish people twice. The first time God was ready to teach, but the Israelites were not ready to learn. Moses could have tried of course, but rather than embark on a futile exercise, he recognized that the Israelites were not ready for it.

This fundamental insight—that teaching is not the same thing as learning—leads to three lessons on learning that I think elements of Jewish tradition have incorporated naturally.

The first is the importance of personalizing learning. Put succinctly, we all have different learning needs at different times. This should be intuitive to most. We learn at different speeds, through different pathways, and have different learning interests.

This is true for many reasons, but a major one is that we all have different levels of background knowledge on and exposure to different topics. An analogy that for one person might help explain a complicated concept in physics for another doesn’t land because the analogy alludes to something they’ve never heard of before—and is therefore more confusing than edifying.

famous experiment about baseball nicely illustrates the concept. Given a common passage about baseball, so-called “low-ability” readers who knew a lot about baseball significantly out-performed so-called “high-ability” readers who knew little. The reason is that the high-ability readers did not have the context—or background knowledge—to make sense of what they were reading. Imagine the bewilderment of someone who knew nothing about baseball trying to understand why the crowd cheered when a runner stole a base—an act that might sound criminal in another setting.

Now think about the Passover seder. Why does the Haggadah introduce the idea of the Four Children—Wise, Wicked, Simple, and one who cannot yet ask a question? Not just for the concept, but also to help those who teach about Passover understand that they must personalize how they teach about the enslavement and Exodus from Egypt.

The second concept is the importance of active learning. There’s a ton of research that shows that passive learning—learning through lectures—doesn’t work. The irony of me talking at you right now is duly noted.

In contrast, when students are learning actively, according to the book Building the Intentional University, they are engaging in activities, answering questions, or partaking in discussions as they learn 75 percent of the time while they are in class. The experience engages their skills of comprehension, reasoning, memory, and pattern perception.

The results of this type of learning versus passive learning are clear. In a meta-analysis of 225 studies of how well students learn from lectures versus active-learning seminars, the authors found that active learning would raise average grades by a half a letter and that failure rates under lecturing increase by 55% over the rates observed under active learning.

So how does Judaism reflect this? I think a key way is that we as Jews are a key participant in the rituals of our holidays, stories, and beliefs. We don’t just listen to a talk about freedom two millennium ago. We light the candles on the Chanukiah, make latkes and actively tell the story of the Macabees. We don’t just talk about the importance of helping those in need. We give tzedakah and perform mitzvot. We are a religion that ultimately values deed over creed. We participate in the Seder with empathy, as we are encouraged to imagine that we were slaves in Egypt and—through the course of reading the Haggadah—by the end of the evening now we are free. We don’t just read the stories of the Torah and accept them. We debate and discuss them to understand their deeper meaning.

At a time when so many Jewish events have been interrupted—celebrations and milestones are now livestreamed and travel to Israel has been put on hold—connecting online through education not in passive Zoom lectures but in active conversation is more critical than ever for Judaism.

Third, in my most recent book titled Choosing College, our research unearthed the causal reasons why people enroll not just in college, but any learning experience after high school—what we call lifelong learning, which is obviously a core part of the study of Torah.

This is obviously a topical conversation right now for so many in a time of Covid. As Rabbi Lerner shared recently with me, his daughter called him up in the last few weeks to inform him that he was spending thousands of dollars in tuition to send her to a jail room in essence right now.

But on a serious note, in Choosing College, we found that there are five core sets of reasons why people attend school. People enroll to extend themselves—a pursuit of lifelong learning in some cases. Or to step it up. Or to get away from something. Or to get into their best school.

You’ll have to read the book to dig deeper into what the reasons are and the advice we offer, but suffice to say that one big reason people attend college or learn more we found is to do what others expect of them. In other words, they go primarily to fulfill someone else’s desires for them—be that their parents, friends, teachers, society, employer, you name it. They go to check the box and because they figure it can’t be a bad thing to do, but they are fundamentally unexcited about the experience.

And it turns out that that is a terrible reason to commit to such an important experience in your life. 74 percent of our dataset dropped out or transferred when they enrolled to do what was expected of them. (Now you might be shocked by that statistic, but just to level set, over 40% of students don’t graduate from 4-year programs in our country within 6 years.)

Instead, it’s far wiser to do something because you are motivated intrinsically by the experience itself or by clarity around what’s on the other side.

And this gets back to what I started with in the beginning. Judaism recognizes that teaching and learning are not the same thing. We learn when we’re ready to learn, not when someone else is ready to teach. As parents, we must remember this for our children. As individuals, we must remember this for ourselves. And as we study the Torah to improve how we live and to live by laws of decency and respect for others, it’s worth remembering that the Torah seems to understand this notion as well.

Shabbat Shalom.


Leave a reply