From Engagement to Empowerment: The Challenge of Teaching Talmud and Technology

These past 3 days I have had the privilege to participate in The Core Standards for Teaching Torah SheBeal Peh Initiative in Jerusalem jointly sponsored by Gemara Berura and the Menachem Education Foundation. As indicated by its name, this initiative seeks to create Standards and Benchmarks for teaching Torah SheBeal Peh, Mishna and Gemara similar to the Common Core Standards that have been introduced by most states in the US for general studies subjects. There are a number of Jewish day schools ready to use these standards once created to implement consistent curriculum plans and utilize data driven instruction. One central goal of this initiative is to reach a consensus on the skills needed by our students in their first four years of Torah SheBeal Peh instruction to begin on the path to becoming independent learners.

One question that was raised as we began this intense seminar is why we should devote so much time and effort to teaching skills in Gemara. In an age of the Artscroll Talmud which has become universally accepted in our community and the soon to be released Artscroll and Koren Steinsaltz Talmud Apps, why do our students need to learn how to learn. Teaching skills is a tedious and sometimes unsuccessful process. Why can't our students just be inspired and engaged by these new apps without the hard work and frustration of teaching skills? Furthermore, in the spirit of Stephen Covey's Begin With the End in Mind, if our end goal is to create learned Baalei Batim, community members who learn Daf Yomi, won't virtually all of them be using the Artscroll for this purpose in their adult lives?

These are difficult questions but I believe that my recent experiences at ISTE and now in Jerusalem can provide an answer. At the ISTE Conference, I attended an awesome presentation by Chris Lehman, Founding Head of School at the Science Leadership Academy entitled Beyond Googling: Using Technology to Create a Culture of Inquiry. You can read my notes on this session here.

One of the many excellent points that Chris Lehman made is that as teachers engagement is not enough. We can engage our students by being interesting, funny, or oft beat. We can show them exciting technology tools and apps as well. In this way, they will enjoy our class in the same way they enjoy a television program or a YouTube video.

But this is not enough. Firstly, we will never be as engaging as the fare Hollywood has to offer. Secondly and more importantly, then what? Where do our students go once we engage them? If we merely engage them with content that they can recite back to us what long term benefit will there be? Chris Lehman pointed out that we  need to not only engage our students but empower them. When students are empowered to pursue their own learning then they can begin to on the path to becoming lifelong learners.

This is a very important point when developing standards and curriculum for Gemara. Yes, we want to choose topics and tools that are engaging for our students. But we also want to empower them to learn on their own so they can become a part of the halachic process. This can only be done through a serious focus on skills so our students learn to "make a laining on the Gemara", eventually becoming independent learners.

The dichotomy between engagement and empowerment is one of the challenges not just of Talmud instruction but of today's wired generation. We live in a time when everyone wants to be engaged. Most people, especially our teenagers, are vast consumers of entertainment; gaining tremendous vicarious pleasure by watching others. This is illustrated by the great popularity of Reality TV and YouTube. But how many of us are not just content consumers but creators? Not just observers but participants? Even when we have a chance to experience and participate many of us choose rather to observe from a distance.

I can illustrate this with a story that I experienced three nights ago when I went to the Kotel. I noticed a father helping his young three year old son wash his hands at the washing station on the way to the Kotel. What a touching moment. A father introducing his young son to our tradition at the holiest place a Jew can enter today. But when I looked further, I realized that neither the father nor the son were sharing in the pleasure of the moment. Rather, the father was trying to get his unhappy and unwilling son to pose at the washing station so he could take a picture. For the father, documenting this event with a photo was more important than actually participating and sharing in this moment with his son.

This is one of the great challenges of technology which I must admit I often fall prey to as well. One can be so engaged by the constant stimulation of instant messages, email, Facebook and Twitter that one focuses more on observing others in this technological world than participating with others who are right in front of you. I could be home with my family but if my BlackBerry is turned on and strapped to my belt and I am responding to emails then I am not with them. I am in my own virtual world.

This can be a good metaphor for the issue at hand. As teachers, we can entertain our students and engage them by learning the Gemara for them (or having the Artscroll app do the learning). Or we can help our students become participants in this process. Our students can then be transformed from Talmud consumers to Talmud creators. Obviously, teaching skills is not the only way to accomplish this. We can also empower our students by facilitating open ended class discussions where we truly value our student's opinions and involve them in the Mesorah community, the Unity of the Generations as the Rav called it, dating from Chazal to the Rishonim, to the Acharonim, and to today. We can assign student-driven project based learning for Gemara. We can provide genuine opportunities for our students to engage in chavruta and cooperative learning creating a "beit midrash" atmosphere when learning Gemara.

However, teaching our students skills in Gemara is an important prerequisite to much of this. It is my strong opinion, and the opinion of the other much more experienced and knowledgable participants in this initiative, that creating clear skill standards and developing curriculum to teach and consistently assess these skill standards in order to redirect our students when necessary is a compelling method to empower our students to become independent learners. The pleasure and satisfaction they will gain when they realize that they can learn Gemara on their own and actively participate in the halachic process is one sure way to lead them to a lifelong love of Jewish learning.