Asking Good Questions in Jewish Education: Thoughts on @chrislehmann's session for #Iste2015

I once asked an esteemed colleague of mine whose classes were known for their rich, deep discussions how she encouraged such discussions with her students. She responded that she accomplished this by asking questions that she did not know the answer to. I thought of this while participating in Chris Lehmann's excellent interactive lecture today on Transforming Schools: Building Conditions for Modern Learning.

Chris Lehmann presented a "modern" approach in which teachers plan classes not based on discrete knowledge areas students should learn but on inquiries students should engage with. This can be scary for teachers at first as they might think this class will become a bit chaotic with its lack of clear teacher driven structure and will not cover as much content knowledge. As Chris Lehmann quipped, "An inquiry classroom is far more a jazz competition than it is a classical piece".

For Jewish educators, this inquiry driven model is really not that scary at all since it is the way many of us were brought up. As Nobel Laurette, Isidor I. Rabi, puts it:
''My mother made me a scientist without ever intending it. Every other Jewish mother in Brooklyn would ask her child after school: 'So? Did you learn anything today?' But not my mother. She always asked me a different question. 'Izzy,' she would say, 'did you ask a good question today?' That difference - asking good questions -made me become a scientist!''
Asking good questions has always been a Jewish value. The seminal document in Judaism is not the Bible or Tanach as it known in Hebrew but the Talmud. The backbone of the Talmud is not stories or even statements of Jewish law, rather it is Socratic dialogue, a question/answer format called the shakla vertarya of the Talmud.

The Talmud is full of questions. It makes fine distinctions between different types of questions based on keywords. As the Gemara Berura curriculum defines it, there is the SHEYLAT BERUR or Inquiry which is introduced with words like IBAYA LHU in which a question is posed with two different possible answers, it is like this way or maybe it is like that way? The second type of question is the KUSHYA or Objection based on logic or a source of higher authority. Words like MEITIVEY indicate an objection. The third and final Gemara question is the SETIRA or Contradiction with a source of equal authority. This would be typified by a word like VRAMINHU.

Why am I sharing all of this? To emphasize the nuanced approach the Gemara takes in making fine distinctions between different types of questions. This "modern learning" approach actually dates back some 2000 years. Technology can be leveraged in a "modern" version of this approach through online research, flipped videos and the like, to make the inquiry driven model deeper and more profound as students have so many more sources at their fingertips as I mentioned yesterday. However, the fundamental value of this approach has been confirmed through centuries of CHAVRUTA or cooperative style learning where students working in pairs or small groups inquire, analyze, and engage in a "War of Torah" which has always been the hallmark of the BEIT MIDRASH.

Inquiry is such a natural fit in Jewish education and yet many of us will readily admit that we find it hard to teach in an inquiry-driven classroom. When I teach a chapter in Tanach, I prepare the verses I wish to focus on, the difficulties in these verses, and the major approaches from various commentators to these difficulties. I try to encourage inquiry in which my students discover these key questions and explore various approaches on their own. But am I really giving them an inquiry-driven model? Am I asking questions that I myself do not know the answer to? Am I entertaining the possibility that my students could come up with a legitimate and sometimes profound question or answer on their own which I had not thought of and cannot find in classical commentaries? Open-ended inquiry is tough. But it pays dividends in terms of student engagement and deep learning by transforming one's classroom into a BEIT MIDRASH, a genuine quest for knowledge.

I think back to my days in Yeshiva. I had the privilege to learn in Rav Yehuda Parnes' shiur for three years. Many others were drawn to Rav Hershel Schachter with his tremendous breadth of knowledge and his uncanny ability to present all of it like a song in the simplest way possible. And yet I chose Rav Parnes because he was NOT presenting his knowledge in such a format. He was carrying on a conversation with us and the text, letting us into the Halachic universe as he liked to call it. We were each equal participants in our travels through this vast domain. This is inquiry driven learning at the highest level, a uniquely Jewish approach.