SCHOLAR. HERO. BENEFACTOR.

My Personal Educational Philosophy

As parents, we have hopes and aspirations for our children.  We want them to be happy, to be successful, to live meaningful and fulfilling lives

As educators, we share these same hopes and aspirations for our students.  We want to partner with the parents and families who entrust their children into our care, to give those children the tools to live just such a life.

The great question is: how do we do that?

HaShem (God) challenges people to contemplate a meaningful life.  If one lives a life of purpose one can look at it with a sense of pride and accomplishment.  The navi Yirmiyahu (Jeremiah, the prophet), asks us to examine what exactly we are being prideful of:

כֹּה אָמַר ה’, אַל-יִתְהַלֵּל חָכָם בְּחָכְמָתוֹ, וְאַל-יִתְהַלֵּל הַגִּבּוֹר, בִּגְבוּרָתוֹ; אַל-יִתְהַלֵּל עָשִׁיר, בְּעָשְׁרוֹ.

So said HaShem: Let not a wise man glory in his wisdom, neither let the mighty man glory in his might, let not a rich man glory in his riches.

At first glance, this admonition seems to argue that wisdom, strength and wealth are unimportant.  While wealth for the sake of amassing fortune might not be an admirable life ambition, and strength for its own sake also does not lead to meaningfulness, why is wisdom lumped together with these other traits?  Do we not, as the “People of the Book,” laud wisdom.

The Mishna picks up on this conundrum.  In the fourth perek (chapter) of Pirkei Avot (Ethics of Our Fathers), Ben Zoma ponders: “איזהו חכם?Who is wise?  הלומד מכל אדם The one who learns from everyone.”  The person who constantly sees the opportunity to increase understanding of him or herself, of the broader world, of the greater universe; that is the scholar.  The one who understands that the opportunity to expand oneself exists in every interaction we have.  We can learn from anyone and everyone.  From instruction or observation.  From following, and even from rejecting.  Exploration and discovery abound.  The wise person has his or her eyes open at all times.

But merely observing and gathering information are insufficient.  As Confucius wrote, “I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.”  Inquiry is not enough.  Active involvement, physical and intellectual as appropriate to the endeavor, are necessary components of understanding.

What sets this learner, the לומד, apart from others who gain knowledge over the course of their lives?

Fierce curiosity.  Not in the sense of anger or ferocity.  Rather in a sense of powerful intensity.  A hunger.  A ravenous quest for understanding.  An enduring curiosity about the world, about how things work, about how people think and act.  The one who sees learning opportunities wherever he or she turns.  That is the person who learns from everyone.  The לומד מכל אדם.

School must be a place that fuels that zeal, fans the flames of inquiry, and transforms the nascent search for understanding in each student into the realized, lifelong passion to know more and better understand.

Confucius wrote about learning and understanding from the perspective of an individual.  Benjamin Franklin wrote about a more formal, structured educational relationship.  Riffing on Confucius, Franklin sums up the educational challenge that faces schools:  “Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.”

Until the advent of the internet and the explosion of information that followed, schools were the primary intersection of learner and teacher.  The faculty of the school had the information that the students needed to know and they faithfully transmitted that knowledge to successive generations of pupils.

Today, students have more information at their fingertips, via computers and smart phones, than educators could ever hope to convey.  The school’s function, while still having a strong component of teaching, has to be focused on guiding the learning of its students.  Reasoning and knowing how to critically assess information are vital skills.

“Learning is not the product of teaching. Learning is the product of the activity of learners.” While John Holt is perhaps best known as an outspoken proponent of home schooling, his understanding of learning applies to all learning models.

Sitting passively while a teacher lectures certainly transmits information.  It can transmit huge amounts of information.  Important information.  And much of that information can be, and is, retained by the student and presented back to the teacher at a later date.

But that is remembering.  And while we have to remember a great deal of information, no one can really function without arithmetic facts and a functional vocabulary, along with so much more, that is not the learning of which Confucius, Franklin or Holt wrote.

The learning we desire for our children and students is a deep understanding of why and how.  Not just who, what, where or when.  And to truly attain that comprehension requires the active intellectual involvement of the learners.  They have to be challenged to figure out the answers on their own, to explain those hypotheses to others and to defend them from probing questions.  It is not sufficient for the teacher to explain the why and how.  Because then it just becomes more what.  It only becomes the why and how when the student has a “Eureka!” moment.

Reasoning.  Critical analysis.  Why.  And how.  These are the hallmarks of the true לומד מכל אדם, the scholar who sees opportunities to increase understanding wherever he is, from whomever and whatever he encounters.

A school must not simply accept this understanding of learning, it must fully embrace and champion the process.  Students must be at the center of the conversation, not only spectators to a monologue.  Discussions should not only be engaging, they must be stimulating, thought provoking, challenging.  Faculty should facilitate the conversation, asking probing questions and refocusing the discussion when necessary.

This vision will require a re-engineering of our entire educational mindset.  Teaching and instruction are crucial elements of how people learn, but we have to focus more on how to kindle and facilitate student centered learning.

This task is formidable.  We will be challenging many cherished and long held beliefs.  The process of change will not be completed in short order.  Evolution, rather than revolution, has to be the path we take.  But it will be a steady movement forward to the new paradigm.  Our professional development across all divisions will be integrated so that the shift propagates smoothly across all grades.

But wisdom does not live in a vacuum.  Understanding alone, no matter how deep, without being put into action, withers.  As Chazal, our rabbis, tell us in פרקי אבות (Ethics of Our Fathers): “Torah that does not have work with it will cease and instead lead to sin.”  Once we decide that knowledge and understanding are important, and that learning opportunities surround us, we must figure out how to use that knowledge.

The answer to this question will appear in the next segment of SCHOLAR. HERO. BENEFACTOR.

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