Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

20 Kislev 5762 - December 5, 2001 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly









Produced and housed by
Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Shema Yisrael Torah Network











Home and Family
Teaching Versus Learning

by R' Zvi Zobin

Rabbi Reuven looked at the page again. He still could not understand what was printed there. Or course, he could understand the plain meaning of the words, but he could not understand what he was supposed to do.

Rabbi Reuven is a remedial reading teacher working with young children at a Torani school. Though his specialty is reading remediation, the principal had asked him to spend some time with a seven-year-old pupil who was having trouble with math. The little boy came with his exercise book and textbook and opened it at the page where he needed help.

Rabbi Reuven looked at the page -- and he also needed help.

Rabbi Reuven is not badly educated. He had attended college, majoring in physics and chemistry, and was adept at arithmetic, algebra and geometry -- but he could not follow the reasoning of the textbook.

Eventually, he gave up and proceeded to tutor the boy using the techniques he had used when he was at school -- and the boy learned the material he needed.

Later that day, Rabbi Reuven met the teacher of the boy and told him how baffled he had been with the way the material was presented by the textbook.

The teacher gave a sigh of relief. "I thought I was the only one who could not understand that book!" he admitted.

The next day, Rabbi Reuven wandered into an empty classroom and picked up and leafed through another textbook which was lying on a shelf. The textbook was on reading and comprehension, but he could hardly look at the pages because they were so boldly illustrated with large areas of dazzling colors.

Again, Rabbi Reuven shared his feelings with the teacher and again, the teacher admitted that he, too, disliked the way the textbook was designed.

Without realizing it, Rabbi Reuven had landed in the middle of two major conflicts now facing the education system in the U.S.

Until the beginning of the 1900s, the usual way of teaching was by a teacher teaching basic skills to his pupils. In the 1920s, John Dewey, basing himself on the Darwinian approach to life, felt that children should learn through a natural process which was an extension of the way they normally learn to stand, walk and talk.

He consequently proposed that teaching become a process of discovery in which the role of the teacher became that of a guide, harnassing the natural curiosity of the child to lead him to learn all the skills he needed to become educated.

In a way, this approach was also a reaction against the stick- wielding oppression of many schools in those days.

The concept was eagerly espoused by the liberal and left- wing elements of the universities and since then, has become the accepted approach to teaching, as promoted by the teaching colleges. Since then, research by the education system has been directed to developing fun ways to get children to learn by discovery.

One result of this constant search for the "ideal" method is the continual production of new textbooks. Fifty years ago, the school bought the textbooks and used them for each class, year after year. A child might have found his father's name in the textbook he was given. Nowadays, parents need to spend hundreds of dollars per year for each child on new textbooks, knowing that the books will be obsolete by the end of the year!

However, the ever-falling standards of public education in the U.S. is creating a crack in the facade built up by the "enlightened" heads of educational establishments. Business and industry are finding that each generation of high school graduates is less prepared for the `real world' than its predecessor.

One fallacy behind the concept of "Learning through Discovery" is that a child will voluntarily submit himself to the rigors required for developing many basic learning skills. This is not true. He does not have the maturity or experience to enable him to understand that many important stages of learning are not fun.

Furthermore, continuing their theme of evolutionary development, `Learning through Discovery' teaches the child to reject authority and rely on his own judgment instead. It teaches the child that he is in control of his own destiny and that the world needs to be tailor-made to fit his desires.

Some years ago, I gave a workshop to teachers in New York under the auspices of the J.B.E. When I made the point that the child needs to view the teacher as a superior, many of the teachers protested strongly.

Another fallacy is that the educator is able to evoke in every child the desire and ability to acquire all the skills he needs for his future success and happiness. As a result, the reaction of such educators had been to label a child who does not respond in the desired way as being "learning disabled." The experience of teachers using the "old- fashioned" Direct Instruction system is that of every seven children labelled as being `learning disabled' by the "Learning through Discovery" system, only one is found to be L.D. when taught by Direct Instruction.

Between 1968-1976, a government sponsored, billion dollar study was made by the Stanford Research Institute to compare the effectiveness of nine different teaching approaches. The study, covering 51 school districts and nearly 10,000 children per year, was analyzed by Abt Associates and verified by three reliable, independent sources.

The study tested for achievement in basic academic skills, general problem-solving skills and the development of self- concept.

The conclusion was that Direct Instruction outperformed all other methods in all areas, not only in basic skills (word knowledge, spelling, language, and math computation), and in cognitive-conceptual skills (reading comprehension, math concepts and problem solving), but also in self- concept, which the "progressives" felt was their strong point.

Sadly, not only were the results ignored by educators, but the results were used to justify pouring more money into the methods which performed worst "because they needed the most help."

The reason for the topsy-turvy reaction is understandable. Direct Instruction sets up the instructor as the `superior' whose job it is to tell children what to do. It obliges the student to strive to attain a pre-set standard instead of having a standard which is supposedly set by the child. To the educators, it represents a return to the Dark Ages and conjures up pictures of the `big stick' and child abuse.

However, one major problem remains, which is the center of the second controversy. Parents are also dismayed by the lowering of standards and increase in "learning problems." If Direct Instruction is more effective, surely teachers should acquiesce to pressure from parents to do everything possible to stem the degeneration of the education process.

Professor J.E. Stone of the School of Education, East Tennessee State University, summed up the situation with the statement that the schools of education are not really interested in [a style of] teaching that is primarily intended to improve achievement. In fact, he said, they disapprove of such teaching. In their view, schooling that fails to produce achievement is not necessarily failed schooling.

In our own sphere, that would be like saying that rebbeim who do not produce students who know halochos and have a love for learning do not feel that they have necessarily failed in their job.

Professor Stone relates that he first came face-to-face with the problem when the school which his own children attended announced that they were going to introduce a new system. He and many other parents disagreed with the idea, but the school overrode the parents' objections and proceeded with their plan. The result was a dismal failure, yet the school expressed no misgivings.

This behavior is consistent with the attitudes of the Darwinian "liberal" and "left wing" elements in society. They tend to maintain what might most charitably be described as a benevolent despotic attitude in which they believe that their mission in life is to lead the world out of the bad, old Dark Ages into the new, enlightened world which they believe that they represent. Though they claim that their new world is collaborative and democratic, they feel empowered to force their opinion on the majority, and even though they claim their new world is based on love and tolerance, they seek to mercilessly wipe out all traces of the `old world' and its beliefs.

Professor Stone comments, "Unlike training in law and medicine, teacher education has never had to respect consumer priorities because its graduates have never had to survive in a marketplace." Educators don a mantle of infallability and do not permit themselves to be challenged.

As a result of his experience as a parent, Professor Stone introduced a concept which is normal in most areas but strange when applied to education. He suggests regarding parents as consumers and schools as providers. And he promotes a system for logging the effectiveness of individual teachers, year by year.

Teacher licensing tests test only that the candidate has sufficient knowledge to teach. They do not test whether he can actually teach. A 1999 U.S. Department of Education report concluded, "...indicators of teacher preparation and qualifications do not directly address the actual quality of instructional practice."

The logging system records the performance of each child under each teacher. If, in one subject, a child does well under one teacher, but the next year does badly under another teacher for the same subject, it suggests that the second teacher is not as effective as the first. Of course, the reaction of one child does not show much, but by keeping records of entire classes, a picture can be built up of the effectiveness of individual teachers over the years.

At present, teachers' wages are fixed by qualification, years of experience and points culled by attending courses. Professor Stone explains that if wages were based also on a log of teaching effectiveness, the general standard of teaching would rise, good teachers would be recognized and bad teachers would be encouraged to look for a more suitable profession.

Of course, there is no conflict between the aims of parents and chadorim and yeshivos. We all want our children and talmidim to grow in Torah and yiras shomayim and develop into true bnei Torah with a love for learning and for keeping the mitzvos. At present, there is no way to judge if these are being achieved. Setting nation-wide examinations might encourage intensive learning just to satisfy requirements of the tests, to be forgotten after the pupil walks out of the test room [where he might have been prompted with the correct results for the prestige of the school?]. And the purpose of learning in yeshiva goes beyond mastering gemora.

One contemporary Chassidishe Rebbe is quoted as saying that he feels that as the head of an educational system, he needs to be sure that he is doing a good job. But how does one apply concepts of "quality control" to instilling a love for Torah and mitzvos?


All material on this site is copyrighted and its use is restricted.
Click here for conditions of use.