By Rabbi Yossi Rosenblum
If you’re a parent, then chances are you’ve recently asked your child, or their teacher, what was covered in class.
But is that the most important thing to know about our children’s education? Perhaps, to use a play on words, we should rather ask about what was uncovered.
Imagine that you are a parent or teacher of a fifth grader who is 10-years-old. 20 years from now, at the age of 30, that child may remember that he learned Bava Metzia in fifth grade, or that she learned five Parshyos over the course of the year in Chumash class. But if, instead, he would remember that in 5th grade he learned how to follow to the intricate structure of a Sugya in Gemara, and she recalls learning how to identify what’s bothering Rashi, wouldn’t that be so much more valuable?
The litmus test might be that the child who only remembers what he covered during the years of his schooling may graduate without the tools to increase his knowledge, while the student who learned less Rashis but gained an understanding of how Rashi works can learn Chitas with a chayus for the rest of her life.
This brings us to a question that lies close to the heart of education: Is our goal to teach students a lot of information, topics and texts, or is more less, and less more? The answer hinges upon what the ultimate goal of education is.
A delegation from the Board of Jewish Education (BJE) once came to the Rebbe and asked for guidance on Chinuch. The Rebbe responded with an analogy: When you go hunting, you don’t shoot your arrow at where you see the animal now. Rather, you aim for where it will be by the time the arrow gets there. The nimshal as it applies to education is clear.
We would all like our children to graduate school with the skills and ability to be ehrliche and knowledgeable Jews – a big portion of which is the ability and inclination to pick up a sefer and learn. It is indisputable that exposure to a large quantity and variety of texts can build a student’s knowledge base and proficiency in Torah concepts. Covering a wide range of texts can even have the advantage of exposing students to a variety of skills. But the goals related to coverage cannot eclipse the need to build independent learners, particularly since a skill-based approach to Chinuch will ultimately enable much more learning and “coverage” than eight or twelve years of schooling can possibly allow for.
The key, then, is to approach Chinuch with its intended outcomes in mind. In Igros Kodesh, Chelek Daled, the Rebbe articulates the goal of Chinuch, quoting the Frierdiker Rebbe: “A good teacher is one who teaches his student in such a way that ultimately, the student can learn on his own, without needing the teacher.” In other words, an educator has succeeded when he has made himself unnecessary, and empowered the child to continue educating himself for a lifetime.
A final narrative from the Gemara in Bava Basra illustrates the need for an education to take responsibility for its outcomes. When Shaul failed to wipe out Amalek, only killing its male population, Dovid Hamelech confronted him. Shaul answered, “But isn’t that what it says in the Torah – Timche es z’char Amalek, you should wipe out the males of Amalek?” Dovid corrected Shaul’s pronunciation, from “z’char” to “zecher” (from a shva to a tzeireh), changing the meaning of the Posuk to “You should wipe out the memory of Amalek.” But Shaul defended himself, saying, “That’s how my teacher taught it to me.”
The Gemara continues to tell the story, referring to that teacher as עושה מלאכת ה’ ברמי-ה – doing Hashem’s work dishonestly. Tosfos asks why he earned such an epithet. Was it for teaching Shaul the wrong pronunciation?
No, answers Tosfos. This teacher certainly taught the Posuk with the correct nikud. His fault was that he never bothered to find out what Shaul heard and retained. This teacher may have taught the material correctly, but failed to take responsibility for what his pupil actually learned.
If our goal in education is coverage, than the focus is still on what the teacher is doing, instead of on the pupil. Next time your child comes home from school, ask what was “uncovered” in school that day. The kind of answer we can hope for is not only how many pesukim or pages Rebbe or Morah taught, but that I know how to learn a possuk in Chumash or a blatt Gemara so much better.
–Rabbi Yossi Rosenblum is the principal of the award-winning Yeshiva Schools in Pittsburgh, PA. He is also on the faculty of the Menachem Education Foundation (MEF), directing the Zekelman Standards Project. To find out more about what MEF does to shift the focus in schools from teaching to learning and from coverage to skills, visit MyMEF.org