Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Questioning The Educational Paradigm In Chinuch

As many of you know, I have three children -- Walter, George and Wilma. Walter is finishing up his junior year in high school and will be starting his senior year in the fall.

Walter is a highly intelligent teen. He analyzes situations, asks penetrating questions and is fully capable of thinking matters through on his own. He has the uncanny ability to tell when people are giving him sincere answers to his questions and when people are just "blowing smoke" at him to shut him up.

However, for all that, he is still a teenager, with the maturity of a teenager. Like many teens, he does not always understand the long-range implications of things. He does not always see how life experience gives his parents and elders an advantage* in life with regard to the grander picture. And he does not always understand why he needs to study things that aren't immediately relevant to his life.

One particular area of angst for him is Gemara. Walter is a "cut to the chase" kind of person. If you can give him a good reason for something, he can understand it and accept it (even if he doesn't particularly agree with it). He can understand, for example, the need to learn halacha, since it's relevant to him in that it informs him of the laws that govern his life as a Jew. But Gemara, on the other hand, doesn't interest him all that much. At this point in his life, it doesn't really matter all that much to him how Rava and Abaye argue out what the final law is going to be. Just tell him what the final answer is and leave it at that. The fact that the Gemara is in a foreign language written and paginated in a format that makes it very difficult for beginners to master doesn't help matters.

Truth to tell, I can understand his frustration because I felt the same way at his age. At his age, I too often complained that the Gemara wasn't organized more like the Shulchan Aruch, with chapters and law numbers that are very easy to find and tell you, in a very practical and final way, what the halacha is. I, too, was confounded by the language, the arcane rules (what's a binyan av again?) and the maddening lack of any indication on the page when a new topic begins or picks up on a topic that was dropped from the discussion three pages ago. The fact that not one of the rabbeim in my high school made any effort to engage me in Gemara didn't help matters**.

Of course, I'm much older now. I like to think that I'm a bit wiser as well. I have a better appreciation for Gemara than I did when I was sixteen and seventeen. But that's probably of little comfort to Walter at this stage of his life. In addition, I have to wonder how many other kids there are out there like Walter (and myself when I was that age) who wouldn't mind learning halacha but just aren't all that gung-ho about Gemara. I would guess (based on purely anecdotal evidence from other kids Walter's age) that the answer is quite a few.

In most Yeshivos, Gemara is taught beginning in the fifth grade, when a boy is about ten years old. By sixth grade, it is the major Judaic course of study, with students spending hours per day on the topic. This is usually done without any sort of "Introduction to Talmud" mini-course where the structure and methodology of the Gemara is explained. Usually it's taught by simply "jumping right in" to the first line.

Sometimes I wonder (and, admittedly I have no way to prove this) if things would be better if the system were changed. The Mishna in Avos gives us guidelines about when to introduce new topics in chinuch. The Mishna there says that at age five children should begin learning to read Tanach, at ten learn Mishna and at fifteen learn Gemara. The point that's being made, I believe, is that children should not be rushed into topics ahead of time. Perhaps we should have our kids spend five years learning Tanach primarily before advancing to Mishna. Perhaps it wouldn't hurt to spend five years learning Mishna before jumping in Gemara. There are probably several advantages to this approach:

  • Our kids would probably have a better understanding of Tanach. Heck, they might even finish most of it in the five years.
  • Our kids would have a better understanding of Mishna.
  • When our kids finally do advance on to Gemara, they will be a bit older, wiser and more intellectually and emotionally capable of handling Gemara.

Of course, if a student is showing exceptional ability and is able to handle more advanced forms of study (for his age) he should be encouraged to do so. But that's not everyone. Not every 10 year old is an illuy (genius). The vast majority would stick to the 5-10-15 model (which is roughly equivalent in the United States to first, sixth and tenth grades).

But that's not quite what's happening. Nowadays, our boys start learning Chumash in first grade (some schools even start in preschool!). By third grade they're starting Mishna. They start Gemara during the fifth grade and, from the sixth grade onward, spend upwards of 60% of the Limudei Kodesh (Judaic Studies) portion of the day on it. The result is that kids come away with a substandard knowledge of Chumash and Mishna.

Other topics barely make it to the radar screen at all. Halacha is often taught on an ad-hoc basis. Navi is barely taught and, when it is, it is often limited to the early "historical" books -- Joshua and Samuel. Kings is barely taught. I have yet to hear of a right-wing yeshiva high school that teaches any of the true "prophetical" books -- Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel or the Twelve "Minor" Prophets. I'd be willing to bet dollars to donuts that outside of their Bar Mitzvah Haftorah or following the weekly haftorah in shul (do teens do that?), well over 90% of yeshiva high school graduates have never even cracked open a copy of Isaiah or an Ezekiel. Jewish Philosiphy? Forget about it. History? Maybe in some more left-leaning schools, but certainly not amongst the yeshivish. Hebrew language? Puh-leeeeez.

To be honest, I wonder if we're doing our sons a disservice with the existing educational model. They may (not will -- may) come away from high school knowing a fair amount of Gemara and Rishonim, but how much Judaism do they know? Does your average high schooler understand who Isaiah was and what he was prophesying about? They all know that Elijah was a great prophet, but do they understand why? Do they know anything about him other than the fact that he's still alive and something about a confrontation on Mt. Carmel?

Or, an even better question -- does the average high schooler even come away knowing how to learn Gemara well?

I'm curious why we have abandoned the educational paradigm as outlined in the Mishna. I've heard people say that it's a matter of "one-upmanship" among the schools to be "more frum" by starting Gemara earlier than the other schools. I'm not convinced that that's entirely true. Were it completely true, I'm sure we'd be hearing of yeshivos that claim to be teaching*** Gemara in the third grade. But if that's not the reason, there must be another -- and I'm very curious as to why those who put great stock in the words of Chazal chose to abandon their model of chinuch.

The Wolf


* Although, of course, by no means does that make us *always* right -- just more likely to be so.

** That's not to say it's all their fault, of course. A good share of the blame does lie with me -- but they have their share as well.

*** But not actually teaching, of course, since your average eight year old is not really capable of learning Gemara.

43 comments:

micha said...

Because without the quick road to intellectual stimulation (lomdus, pilpul) offered by gemara, the boys would have gone to university instead of Volozhin.

That's anachronistic, but I can't think of the name of a yeshiva from the period of the Tosafists, when this shift occurred in Ashkenazi lands.

As for Sepharadim, the switch happened within my lifetime or at most slightly before, due to Ashkenazi cultural dominance.

-micha

-micha

ProfK said...

I'm not saying it's the only reason or perhaps not even the major reason but it could be that the push for studying gemorah is because it is one area NOT taught in the girls yeshivas. Having both daughters and a son I saw firsthand the difference in what was studied. The girls learned chumash for far longer and in more depth than my son's yeshiva taught it. The girls learned all of neviim. They studied historia and safah. Nor was their school all that different from most girls schools. Again, not saying that this is the only reason (or even one that any of the melamdim in the boys yeshivas will admit to) but if it is appropriate to teach chumash and navi to the girls, to go over each week's parsha in depth, then how could it possibly be considered as overly suitable for the boys (yes, sarcasm intended).

The push towards gemorah is of fairly recent origin. My husband first got formal gemorah studies in high school. When my son, attending the same yeshiva,started first grade we were told that gemorah studies began in seventh grade, around the time that many of the boys were becoming bar mitzvah. However, by the time he got to fifth grade the school had fallen in line with the new paradigm of starting in fifth grade, which would make it 1986.

G*3 said...

The yeshivish answer is that tanach, mishnah, and even hashkafa is all contained within the gemara, so why bother learning anything else.

History, real philosophy, and similar subjects have no real value, and anyway that’s what limudei chol are for.

Realistically, it’s done the way it is because that’s the way it’s done, and who do you think you are to question the roshei yeshiva?

> could be that the push for studying gemorah is because it is one area NOT taught in the girls yeshivas.

I would guess that it’s the other way around – that is, it’s considered ok for girls to learn tanach in depth because that’s not really learning.

BrooklynWolf said...

The yeshivish answer is that tanach, mishnah, and even hashkafa is all contained within the gemara, so why bother learning anything else.

Except that the lie is given to this because 99.9% of yeshiva high school graduates do not know Navi.

Realistically, it’s done the way it is because that’s the way it’s done, and who do you think you are to question the roshei yeshiva?

The parent of a child who does not do well in Gemara. In other words, a customer.

The Wolf

BrooklynWolf said...

Because without the quick road to intellectual stimulation (lomdus, pilpul) offered by gemara, the boys would have gone to university instead of Volozhin.

Really? That was the reason it started?

Well, in today's day and age, the kids aren't going to run off to college because they weren't intellectually stimulated at fifteen.

The Wolf

BrooklynWolf said...

However, by the time he got to fifth grade the school had fallen in line with the new paradigm of starting in fifth grade, which would make it 1986.

I started fifth grade in 1980 in a school that catered largely to Russians who were not frum -- and even they started Gemara that year!

The Wolf

micha said...

BrooklynWolf: That "lie" is a statement by Tosafos. So, toning it down might be appropriate.

Tosafos appear to be giving post hoc justification to already extant Jewish practice, although the Talmud Bavli didn't become the center of the halachic process until 950 CE at the earliest, a couple of centuries before them.

But in any case, the original abandonment was a little under a millenium ago. Don't rile against it like it's some new turn off the straight-and-narrow. It's as old as Ashkenaz, pretty much.

I think the problem is that you're assuming the identity of the obligation to learn all three with knowing all three.

You might be interested in the recent Jewish Action article on the Zilberman Method of education -- which not only follows the thirds principle, it doesn't seem to reduce their graduate's ability at gemara either!

-micha

BrooklynWolf said...

BrooklynWolf: That "lie" is a statement by Tosafos. So, toning it down might be appropriate.

Fair enough. Poor choice of words. But to apply it to today's situation may still very well be wrong.

But in any case, the original abandonment was a little under a millenium ago. Don't rile against it like it's some new turn off the straight-and-narrow. It's as old as Ashkenaz, pretty much.

I was not aware that the practice was that old. In any event, I'm glad to see that the "one upmanship" theory is wrong.

Nonetheless, I think we may need to rethink it. As it is, I'm fairly certain that the chinuch realities of a millenium ago are not the same as they are now. For starters, I'd be willing to bet that not everyone went to school, as they do now. I'd be willing to bet that a significant number of students went to work -- even in their teen and preteen years. In addition, the ones more likely to opt out of school were more likely to be the ones who would not succeed. As a result, the students who remained in school were likely to be better-than-average students who might be able to handle Gemara earlier.

Today, however, where everyone goes to school, perhaps we should not be using the same standard.

I think the problem is that you're assuming the identity of the obligation to learn all three with knowing all three.

I'm not sure I understand what you're saying here. Can you please elaborate?

You might be interested in the recent Jewish Action article on the Zilberman Method of education -- which not only follows the thirds principle, it doesn't seem to reduce their graduate's ability at gemara either!

I will have to look into that. Thank you for the link.

The Wolf

G*3 said...

> Realistically, it’s done the way it is because that’s the way it’s done, and who do you think you are to question the roshei yeshiva?

> The parent of a child who does not do well in Gemara. In other words, a customer.

That’s far too practical an answer to influence a system run in deference to magical daas torah.

micha said...

I also agree we have to rethink things.

Not only are we neglecting Tanakh and practical halakhah, but also (?) aggadita. We have people who think (at least, much of the time) that finding G-d and self-refinement means finding more issurim or chiyuvim.

My question mark after "also" is that much of Tanakh IS aggadita. Can someone who took Yeshaiah seriously, or Mislei, not take an interest in practical ethics and refinement? And would any real study of Tehillim or Shir haShirim not be about seeking G-d?

-micha

Nice Jewish Guy (signed out) said...

I heartily agree. And ProfK, I was in fifth grade in 1978 or 79, in a (hardcore!) Chassidishe Yeshiva, and we started second perek Bava Metzia in 5th.

Shilton HaSechel said...

What bothers me is there is no diversity in Yeshiva learning. Why can't Yeshivot accept that people who don't particularly like Gemara might prefer learning more Tanach or more Hashkafa? Instead everyone is forced to learn Gemara Gemara Gemara. Offering different tracks in learning would be a great way for people to find their particular niche in Torah learning and might make Yeshiva a little more meaningful for those who don't fit the Gemara mold.

BrooklynWolf said...

Shilton,

I agree with you, although I think that all high schoolers should learn *some* gemara. But you're otherwise right in that there should be more diversity.

The Wolf

Ben Torah said...

I believe the Chasidishe Yeshivos do start Gemorah later.

tesyaa said...

The parent of a child who does not do well in Gemara. In other words, a customer.

In yeshiva, it doesn't matter what the customer wants. Yeshivas are extremely unresponsive to the concerns of customers (even full paying customers). The only thing that will change a yeshiva's approach is the mass defection of a majority of its student body - an extremely unlikely event. Even a threat to leave is meaningless. Yeshivas know that their customers mostly have nowhere to go. (For example, how many yeshiva parents will consider public school or a modern Orthodox high school?)

Sure, kids may switch from school to school, but the pool of applicants is endless.

Rebbetzin Hockstein said...

Wolf, I always wondered about this, too. As the mother of 2 sons, I wondered why gemorrah was started at about age 10, 5th grade, when clearly, gemorrah requires the ability to think abstractly. According to Piaget, abstract thinking does not kick in until around age 14 or 15 (approximately around the time that kids are tackling algebra). To my way of thinking, if a kid does not/cannot understand the concept of x plus y = z, what is the value of x, then he is not yet ready for gemorrah. But then again, what do I know, I'm just a mommy (and a Bais Yaakov educated mommy at that!)

micha said...

I think Rn Hockstein has a good point. And that's why the old repetition of phrases with their translation method of beginning gemara is superior to modern teaching methodologies at these ages.

Mod-O schools and to a lesser extent many yeshivish ones did away with the classic teaching style, saying that it didn't teach the gemara as much as train the child in rote repetition. So, they introduced flowcharts, tables and other tools to teach the boys the logic of the gemara, its meaning. But as Rn Hockstein pointed out, that skill has just started developing at age 10, and really isn't up to the task yet.

What the child does have skills in, and is actually already losing them, is picking up a new language. And that the old memorization methodology did quite well -- the child is immersed in the language and grammar of Aramaic far more than if time were spent on making sure the child understood what he was repeating.

And I think this actually gives a motivation for starting at 10. If you don't pick up the language as a child, you are far less likely to ever do so. (Unless you're dealing with a native speaker of Judeo-Aramaic. :-) )

-micha

KandaBer said...

If you want a child to pick up the language of the Gemara, start with a number of years of Mishna with Bartenura. The Rav uses all of the important words and expressions from the Gemara in a more succinct and easy-to-follow format.

When I was in elementary school, we did not touch Gemara (except in excerpts, as needed) until 8th grade. Before that, it was Chumash, Navi, Mishna (lots of it).

efrex said...

Micha: even granted that the Ashkenazi yeshiva world has focused nearly exclusively on gemara for centuries, this was not the focus of chinuch. Yeshiva education was an elite one, and lay education was based on non-talmudic studies. The universalization of yeshiva lomdus is something that needs to be dismantled.

I've long had a significant issue with this. When I meet a college student, I ask "what major are you in," not "what math class are you taking?" When I meet a secular high school student, I ask "what's your favorite subject," not "how do you like algebra?" When I meet a yeshiva bochur, however, the only question I can ask is "what messechet are you learning?" The idea that torah chinuch begins and ends with about 10 mesechtot in Talmud Bavli is a horrifying distortion of our mesorah.

Even the gemara taught is horrible. Imagine your average yeshiva teen shlepping a 1,000+ page Oz Vahador Bava Metzia to school every day. At the end of a year of dedicated study, he will have maybe covered 20-30 pages in that tome. How is anyone ever going to believe that he can learn all of shas in his lifetime? When we (lehavdil) teach Hamlet, the students don't bring in a complete Riverside Shakespeare, they use a battered paperback Penguin volume. If you want to teach gemara, then teach gemara. Pilpul and lomdus are wonderful, but they're not universally applicable.

There's so much in our mesorah: tanach, philosophy, language, poetry, history, tefilla - how many bochurim can translate Ashrei? How dare we allow our bochurim to not experience the beauty of Yishayahu or the later nevi'im, the brilliance of our poets, the wit and brilliance of an Ibn Ezra, Ramban, or Rashbam?

My grandfather z"l, who left cheder before his bar mitzvah never learned a blatt gemara be'iyun, but he could quote whole sections of Nach by heart. His grandchildren, with 13+ years each of yeshiva education, can't come close.

Puzzled said...

Don't be ridiculous, boys can't be allowed to learn Tanakh. They'd notice that it doesn't say what you claim it says.

LW2 said...

Micha,

Whether or not Tanach is contained in the Gemara, the fact remains that yeshiva boys only know a fraction of the Talmud, hence they cannot claim to be "incorporating" Navi in their studies.

Wolf,

AFAIK the push to 100% gemara and 0% Torah Shebiktav (i.e. chumash, navi, kesuvim) had to do with the Haskala (Enlightenment). Scholars of the haskala were extremely well-versed in tanach and the subject of Bible criticism was at the forefront. Ergo, no study of Written Law except in the context of Oral Law studies.

As a result, Haskala scholars could create the most lavish arguments and discussions, but it would go right over the heads of yeshiva students, hence they are not affected. The same thing happens when Missionaries try to prove to yeshiva kids that Jesus was the Christ by quoting from "our prophets" Ezekiel and Jeremiah. The common response is "never heard of those guys" (and the few that recognize the Anglicized version of Yechezkel and Yirmiyah have no idea what they actually wrote).

micha said...

LW2,

I apparently wasn't clear. As I wrote in my third comment, I don't think this plan is the most effective. OTOH, it's nearly as old as Ashkenaz, backed by Tosafos, and disagreement should be respectful. (And probably premised on why today's reality is different, or that
they advocated settling for status quo rather than the ideal for a reason that no longer holds.)

-micha

Shira Salamone said...

Been there, blogged that. What's the rush in education in general? Why are they teaching algebra to kids who've barely mastered basic arithmetic? And how can you teach *anything* in a language that your students don't understand--why don't you teach the language first and the subject later?

Anonymous in Teaneck said...

While I was taking a Talmud class at JTS, I met a friend's son who was in SAR high school. Upon hearing that I was studying Talmud, he asked me to translate something for him. I suggested that he look it up in the dictionary, to which he replied "there is no Aramaic-English dictionary." When I asked how his teacher taught vocabulary, he told me that they got vocabulary sheets.

Granted, Jastrow is not the easiest dictionary to use, but there are newer, better dictionaries out there. My children, who did not go to day school, studied Spanish, Latin, Greek, and French (only 1 studied all 4). But they all learned using dictionaries. I don't understand not giving someone the tools to learn independently.

Lion of Zion said...

WOLF:


"The result is that kids come away with a substandard knowledge of Chumash and Mishna."

substandard? i think you're being might generous.

MICHA:

"Because without the quick road to intellectual stimulation (lomdus, pilpul) offered by gemara, the boys would have gone to university instead of Volozhin."

99.9% of jewish kids were headed neither for university nor for "volozhin"

how many jews in europe ever learned gemara. (who even owned one?)

but you are correct that among the intellectual elite, mishna (and all else) was pushed aside in favor of gemara, as opposed to sephardim who treated mishnah as independent body of study. (some in ashkenaz, most notably the maharal, tried to correct this, but failed.)

Lion of Zion said...

WOLF:

my son is going into first grade in the fall. this and other issues make me wonder why i am keeping him in yeshivah. based on my own experiences and from what i see from my friends (who have kids that are older than my own), day school education is a terrible waste of money and at least academically (limude kodesh as well as secular) has little to show for the investment.

i was told that there was an attempt to start a zilberman school in brooklyn, but it didn't get too far because of $.

there is a syrian school (barkai?) that does focus on chumash for grades 1-5. the entire chumash is completed with peshat only. ivrit be-ivrit. with trop. in 6th grade they start over again in depth. but i don't know how or when mishna/gemara is taught.

micha said...

I think the main point of school is socialization and peer issues. You could hire someone to teach your kids one on one for two hours a day and relay the same academic information.

-micha

Lion of Zion said...

MICHA:

"I think the main point of school is socialization and peer issues."

this can mean lots of things. i'm not sure what you mean. but most of what i think it means is overrated. especially in the lower grades.

"You could hire someone to teach your kids one on one for two hours a day and relay the same academic information."

same? i think more.

name said...

Does the Your sons Yeshiva have Iyun And Bekios?

When I was in Yeshiva Some boys were better at Iyun and some at Bekios.

Modeh B'Miktsas said...

As a victim of the yeshiva system who is shomer torah umitzvos anyway, let me shed some light on it.

Gemara, like philosophy, sociology and lehavdil gender studies, is what one may term a 'bull-friendly discipline.' That is to say, it is different than history or algebra, where you have to either be well prepared or know the subject backwards in your sleep to teach it.

With gemara, all you need are rudimentary reading skills and a very fast voice to give shiur. In fact, the more rudimentary your reading skills, the more 'yeshivish' you sound. Note that I am NOT saying that gemara is bull chas veshalom. I am saying that it is easier for an unqualified teacher to fake a gemara shiur than a halacha shiur.

efrex said...

Modeh B'Miktsas: would you swear to that? :) (bava metzia joke, sorry...)

Modeh B'Miktsas said...

While you're at it, why not be migalgel all the other tenets of the ex-yeshivish faith, most of which I don't believe.

BrooklynWolf said...

"my son is going into first grade in the fall. this and other issues make me wonder why i am keeping him in yeshivah. based on my own experiences and from what i see from my friends (who have kids that are older than my own), day school education is a terrible waste of money and at least academically (limude kodesh as well as secular) has little to show for the investment."

I sometimes think the same thing myself.

The Wolf

name said...

now at age 28 when I learn gemarah with much more depth to understand pushut pshat I wonder how 10 year olds can learm gemarah and really understand it. But otoh it prapared me to be familiar with the whole way the gemarah works so when i am older i can really go in to the havana part.

G*3 said...

name said...
> Does the Your sons Yeshiva have Iyun And Bekios?
> When I was in Yeshiva Some boys were better at Iyun and some at Bekios.

You can learn Gemara fast or you can learn Gemara in depth.

It’s great having choices.

Modeh B'Miktsas said...

That's not as snarky as it sounds. Depending on the school or teacher, iyun and bekius are sometimes the same thing.

Lion of Zion said...

WOLF:

"I sometimes think the same thing myself."

i'm really sorry that you say that.

OTD said...

B'kitzur, public school is the way to go.

shmoyger said...

I agree with OTD
summary:
Yeshiva sucks and rabbanim have no clue how to educate children. Public schools are waaay better.

miriamp said...

OOT Yeshivish Day School. K-8. The only Orthodox school available without an hour or more commute, so more or less a captive audience. Everything from black hat to short sleeves and shorts.

Mixed classes, but starting in 4th grade they do some mixed grade stuff instead, especially PE, computers (because it's opposite PE), Mishnah for 4th and 5th grade boys, Tefilah for 4th and 5th grade girls. Gemara starts in 6th grade for the boys, girls take Tefilah, Taryag and Jewish history with the 7th and 8th grade girls. There are also 2 or 3 levels of Gemora, and the boys are split by ability, not grade. By 7th grade, all secular classes are still mixed gender (except PE/computers) but all Judaic classes are mixed grade instead. This includes a Navi class and a Halacha (Dinim) class.

Seems to work for us.

miriamp said...

Oh, and a Chumash class. that doesn't stop just because they add Mishna and Gemara

Lion of Zion said...

MIRIAMP:

"Mishnah for 4th and 5th grade boys, Tefilah for 4th and 5th grade girls."

i went to an open house for a school where this is what happens. i personally really don't understand why girls can't learn gemara, but i guess that's the way it's done in most local schools here. but on the other hand, it just sounded so silly to me that only girls learn tefillah. boy's don't know need to learn tefillah? (and afterall, men have more a a chiyyuv so it really is silly that the boys don't have the tefillah class.)

Modeh B'Miktsas said...

Tefilla is about God. I've noticed that boys schools are very uncomfortable teaching about a personal relationship with God as if they view it as "girl stuff." Some rebbeim even pussyfoot around saying Hashem in favor of terms like ribbono shel olam.