A Retrospective on My First Four Decades of Meaning-Making
Growing up in the late sixties and early seventies, the world in which I lived was suffused with the search for meaning. An entire generation refused to accept that things were right because they had always been done a certain way, insisting instead that things be done because they were the right things to do. Rabbis and Jewish educators who couldn’t shift from the language of obligation to the language of meaning found themselves facing a generation of young Jews fleeing from religion or flocking to alternate ones. In my immediate family there were debates around the Shabbat table about what did or did not “make sense,” and my extended family included those who had opted out Jewishly because the religion they had learned was incompatible with the world in which they lived.
When I chose to follow the path of Jewish education (abandoning a family business and a job offer as a programmer), it was because I sensed the need for educators who could make Jewish life and learning meaningful for youth. Rabbi David Eliach, at Azrieli Graduate School, gave me language to describe what I was trying to accomplish. He called it motivation—every unit, and perhaps even every lesson, had to be built around an idea that would be relevant to the student’s life, and if I couldn’t find that relevance then I either had to dig deeper or forego teaching that particular text. The simple challenge energized my personal learning, teaching, and educational endeavors. As a young teacher trying to impact my students’ lives it forced me to continually evaluate what I was teaching and why I thought it would be meaningful for my students. And that was good.
With experience, my own learning deepened, my understanding of my students became more nuanced, and my understanding of education forced me to recognize that the approach I was using invited superficial meaning-making on a micro-scale which ran the risk of being inauthentic and artificially imposed on the texts I was teaching. Further, it was not anchored in a broad understanding of the content, overarching goals, or core themes. In addition, it ignored the critical role of skills in the process of making the learning meaningful. Finally, it placed the weight of meaning-making on my shoulders and did not allow enough room for students to explore how the texts they were learning could be meaningful for themselves.
What is Meaningful Learning?
I’d like to share an anecdote about meaningful learning.
I was sitting shiva and had an open Zoom session. In the early afternoon, I saw someone come on to the Zoom whom I did not recognize. He introduced himself briefly—it was a student I had taught nearly thirty years ago. This is what he said:
I was your student, and I wasn’t a good one. I doubt if you remember me (he was wrong about that). We had a class on the megillot. I don’t remember much but this much I can tell you: I learned that learning Tanakh could be interesting, relevant to my life, and meaningful. I just called to say, “thank you.”
What is meaningful learning? It is learning in which students understand what they are learning, why it is important that they learn it, and why it could be important for them. That importance could take any one of several forms. The learning could touch them on issues they are dealing with in their personal lives, in their family lives, or as they navigate relationships. It could touch their individual identity, their communal-national identity, or their religious identity. It could help them understand themselves and their experiences or offer opportunities to explore their spiritual or ethical lives. In short, meaningful learning is learning in which students walk away—either in the short term or the long term, with a thankfulness for having had the learning experience. It is learning which seeks to go beyond relevance to the students’ lives; learning which the students find so compelling that they want to come back for more.
How do we Make Learning Meaningful?
There is no single formula for making learning meaningful but it starts with the teacher being in a mindset that this must happen and with deep understanding of who the students are. It cannot be an add-on to existing lessons but needs to be the driver of the core learning taking place. It affects what is learned, how it is learned, and even how the teacher interacts with students. It needs to be both explicit and implicit so that the students know that it is important, and it demands that the students be involved in the process of making it meaningful.
Let me offer a few examples of how content can be shaped as meaningful. Studying Genesis, a deep reading of the story of the Garden of Eden yields an understanding of what it means to be human; Isaac mimics much of what his father does and is an extraordinary example of the struggle to define an identity independent of our parents; the complex struggles of Jacob and Joseph become lenses through which students gain insight into dealing with their own demons and learning to overcome them. While the teacher identifies the themes and draws attention to them, the actual content of that meaning can be generated by either the student or the teacher, or both. These theological and human questions are essential to the learning and demand a lot of hard work but will help the students see the text as a mirror with which they can reflect on their own lives and struggles.
Similarly, studying Exodus provides opportunities to explore our contemporary place in the covenant, leadership and followership, chosenness, and relationship with God on personal, communal, and national levels. These are not afterthoughts or “one-off” lessons but are integral to the learning—the product of building a thematic program designed to touch upon these issues repeatedly and from multiple angles.
The search to make content meaningful becomes more challenging when engaging in certain kinds of Rabbinic texts, specifically Talmud. I would argue that the choice of which sections to be studied and the focus of that study should be guided by the same questions:
Why should the students care about this?
How can I shape the learning so that I/they can make it meaningful, or even compelling?
What values are embedded in the texts we are studying, how can I help to draw those out with the students, and are those values relevant to the students I am teaching?
Meaningful pedagogy is one in which students feel that they are integral to the process of creating knowledge, not simply consumers of knowledge. There are multiple ways that this can be accomplished.
Here is one example. The teacher is exploring a text of Humash in which there is a question discussed by many of the commentaries. The teacher wants to present the question to the class. This is not an inherently bad idea but the teacher needs to consider what is motivating that choice. Is it because the teacher once found it meaningful or because the teacher has carefully considered it and concludes that the students may find the content meaningful? Assuming that the teacher has considered the students and chooses to present it to the class, choosing this approach certainly focuses the lesson but potentially limits student voice. How do we transform students into knowledge-generators? It is certainly not by presenting them with three alternative answers which they must commit to memory.
What would happen if the teacher asks the students to generate their own answers? This empowers students to be fully engaged with the text. Pursue that a step further—there is a good likelihood that at least one student will come up with an answer that was offered by one of the commentaries. This opens the possibilities for students to personally identify with a great Torah scholar and feel a deep sense of ownership of the text. I once had a student who came up with an answer offered by Abarbanel—for the next year and a half this student spent his lunchtime reading through Abarbanel’s commentary (no mean feat!) in advance of class. The teacher could also compare and contrast the relative merits of different commentaries and have the students draw inferences from those to issues not directly addressed by the text. Suddenly the commentaries are not the end of the discussion, shutting the students down, but the beginning of it, empowering them to analyze the different commentaries. This process could be driven further as students try to understand the underlying messages or assumptions often hidden in the commentaries and evaluate the relevance of those ideas to their own lives.
A different approach would be to actually teach students to examine and interrogate the texts themselves. Suddenly, the questions being explored are not necessarily those which occupied the minds of scholar hundreds of years ago but those engaging the current generation of learners. This does not guarantee meaningfulness, particularly if the questions are generated but not addressed. But when the questions are addressed and the students then become part of the give-and-take involved in generating, clarifying, challenging, revising, and reformulating answers, suddenly students become profoundly invested in the radiation which they are creating dynamically as part of their learning.
A third approach invokes not student voice but student choice. What if students were presented with options of which approach to take and different groups of students explored different approaches and questions which were later shared with the rest of the class (or with a wider forum)? True, this demands extra work for the teacher up front, but shifts the nature of the learning, as the teacher becomes a valuable resource aiding the students to progress in their own investigations. And the net result is increased student engagement, student ownership of their learning, and enhanced opportunities for the learning to become meaningful to students.
Reflectivity and Assessment
Finally, each of the above approaches can be enhanced by guiding the students to become explicitly reflective learners. Students can be encouraged to regularly consider questions such as what they personally gained from their learning of X or which part of their learning of subject X touched on an area of their life. Building those questions in may not always yield the desired results, but puts the issue of reflective learning on the table so that students know that this is important to the teacher but, more importantly, that this could be important to their lives as individuals, as Jews, as brothers and sisters and sons and daughters, as members of a community, as members of the Jewish people, as citizens of the world, and more.
When I first began considering teaching, a well-intentioned relative tried to dissuade me, claiming (apparently based on his own experience) that I would never see positive fruits for my efforts. At the time I believed that he was wrong; looking back at my first forty years of meaning-making, I can assert with confidence that teaching for meaningfulness can be accomplished. It requires intentionality, thoughtfulness in content and pedagogy, and consistency. It demands caring about our students and being aware of where they are. Teaching for meaningfulness is not only possible; it is a necessity.