Active Learning in the Halakha Class

by: Mark Smilowitz

Mark Smilowitz taught Jewish Studies in high school and middle school, both in the United States and in Israel. He currently works in teacher training, teaches in Midrasha, and produces a weekly podcast on teaching for the Lookstein Center www.lookstein.org/podcasts. In this article, he describes an approach to teaching halakha which enables the students as researchers. The approach opens new vistas for student exploration and can be easily adapted for almost any discipline.

The approach outlined here was developed in order to solve a problem facing the teacher of halakha. It is likely to be a good pedagogical approach to any discipline that involves study of primary texts, but it can be particularly useful in the halakha class, as I discovered when I used it while teaching in the Northwest Yeshiva High School in Seattle. The halakha program there is designed to teach, among other things, proficiency in reading and understanding the classic halakhic codes, primarily those of the Rambam and Shulhan Arukh. Those codes and the classic glosses on the latter, such as the Mishnah Berurah for Askenazim and the Kaf Hahayyim for Sephardim, are the books most commonly used in synagogues, homes, and yeshivas for the steady, ongoing study of halakha, or when looking up a particular halakha.

The problem is that the terseness of these codes tends to leave students and teachers under-stimulated by the material. The Shulchan Arukh, for example, makes practically no reference to issues that Twersky describes as, “exegesis, interpretation, derivation, awareness of controversy,” and its curt style reflects in part “the virtually complete elimination of ideology, theology, and teleology.” The halakhic code of the Rambam is a little better in this area, but not much. As result, the teaching of halakha is “reduced to an attempt to simply make students learn rules and regulations in such a way that students perceive that the same kinds of intellectual demands are not being made of them that other texts do.”

Students who aren’t immersed in the world of halakha study, and even some who are, remain unaware of the rich, conceptual framework that surrounds any given law. For example, when I was in yeshiva, we were taught that every law can be studied and understood by exploring three things: its source, its nature, and its scope. But our students tend not to know that or another conceptual map; and if they know it, they may not to be motivated to do that exploration; and if they are motivated, they likely don’t know how to do it.

The technique discussed here is designed to draw students into that halakhic world as active participants, not merely spectators who passively watch the teacher explain it. By active, I mean cognitively active, so that they are thinking creatively and critically. Using this technique, it is the very problem of the terseness of the text that becomes the motivator for students to do further research; a seemingly un-engaging passage becomes a cause of interest. Before outlining this method, it is worthwhile to re-orient ourselves to the nature of student questions in the classroom.

Two Kinds of Questions

Classically, teachers and students alike tend to view questions as stemming from problems; if nothing bothers you, you don’t ask. Even progressive methods devised to make students active learners through questioning seem to view questions as stemming from problems. For example, the “inquiry training” model relies on presenting students with puzzling events that will naturally arouse their curiosity and stimulate their questions. This approach “deliberately selects episodes that have sufficiently surprising outcomes to make it difficult for students to remain indifferent to the encounter.”

Perhaps you’ve seen a science exhibition where they put a blown up balloon into liquid nitrogen, and it comes out shrunk. The kids are naturally stimulated to ask why it does that, because the outcome is surprising. This is precisely the kind of curiosity-generating activity that would kick off a unit in the inquiry training approach.

But let’s consider another way to stimulate curiosity. Take a regular balloon, a normal object that doesn’t automatically generate questions, and hold it up in front of a classroom as is, and tell students they have two minutes to write down as many questions as they can think of that will help them understand the balloon better. Tell them not to hold back, but to let their imaginations go. When I do this experiment on myself, I find that I suddenly become interested in things I wasn’t interested in before – science questions such as why balloons lose their air after a while, manufacturing questions like how balloons are made, or maybe economic questions like how do they decide how much balloons cost. When one is prompted in this manner, instead of curiosity generating questions, it is the discipline of questioning that generates the curiosity. We might refer to this latter kind of question as a research-oriented question, as opposed to a problem-based question, because asking this kind of question is often the key to researching a topic.

My guess is that most students only know about problem-based questions and are never taught to ask research-oriented questions. Neil Postman expressed his “astonishment at the neglect shown in school toward” the art of formulating questions. “All our knowledge results from questions, which is another way of saying that question asking is our most important intellectual tool. I would go so far as to say that the answers we carry about in our heads are largely meaningless unless we know the questions which produced them.”

Using this method in Halakha Class

Because there exists a world of questions that experts in halakhic research habitually ask, not because they’re having difficulties but because they know that these questions will lead them to the richness, complexity and beauty of the halakha, our goal is to engage students with a passage in one of the codes by inviting them to discover these questions, and then giving them the tools to discover answers.

The technique I used involves six stages:

Stage One: The teacher presents the initial text. We begin a new unit of study by reading a new halakha from one of the codes. I would seek a relatively simple passage so that students could focus their questions more on issues about the halakha itself and less on technical, textual issues. On the other hand, it helps if the text has some elements of nuance or ambiguity in order to encourage student curiosity. I found Rambam’s Mishna Torah served these needs well. It is also desirable for the halakha to involve normative practices the students are likely to encounter (e.g., the requirement to pray three times a day, the prohibition of deception in business and social interaction (geneivat daat), the requirement to wait between meat and milk, how many shofar blasts we have to hear). Consideration also should be given to the subsequent halakhic works that the students will see at the research stage, so that these later, more explanatory halakhic works, such as the Mishnah Berurah, Arukh Hashulhan, or Kaf Hahayyim, will reveal elements of controversy or surprise about the law, or use it to illustrate some broader halakhic principle that is worthy of attention.

Stage Two: Students write their questions. After reading this new text the students have two minutes of quiet time during which they are to write down the questions about the halakha that, if explored, will lead them to a better understanding of it. Instructing the students to write their questions is much different from asking, “Are there any questions?” It teaches students to understand that they must have questions, and if they don’t have any, then they just have to think of some. That is how to create a researcher.

It is at this stage that the terse style of the halakhic codes are transformed from being a problem to being a stimulus to active student involvement. The missing ideas and references we mentioned above, the things we wish were included in the text, are the very things students should be asking about. At this stage students should be exploring questions such as: What is the source? What is its origin? Is it from the Torah? The Rabbis? How is it related to a similar concept we learned? Are there any exceptions? What are its parameters? Who’s obligated in it and when? Is it under dispute? What is its purpose? Do we practice this way today? These missing pieces are the stuff their questions should seek to discover.

Students should be encouraged to let their imaginations go so that their questions can include ideological issues or historical issues about the work and its author, including the question of why the book was written in such a terse style. For those challenged by this exercise, the teacher can gently prod. “Imagine you were observing this halakha and someone who doesn’t know anything about halakha saw you doing it and they wanted you to explain it to them. Would you feel comfortable doing that with your current knowledge level? What more do you need to know?”

It should be clear that while the questions we focus on in this discussion are endemic to all or most halakhot, they are not meant to be asked mindlessly without giving attention to the unique aspects of the halakha at hand. On the contrary, while there is certainly a common “question bank” for all halakhot, when students are given time to think about any given law and its particular formulation, it inspires its own special emphases and unique formulations, as well as completely unique questions.

Stage Three: Students share their questions. Each student shares with the class their one most important question, and the teacher records on the board a list of research questions. If there are additional after one circuit of the class, students will now have a chance to add them.

Stage Four: Consolidating the list. Listening to the student-generated questions, the teacher assesses where the students are in relation to this particular text, and the discipline in general Are they getting hung up on the language? Are they getting the idea? Are they concerned about philosophical or theological issues? Do they understand the technical nature of halakha as a legal system? Have the students had any personal experiences that affect the way they learn this halakha? Are they having emotional issues related to this halakha? If the teacher identifies issues that may hold up progress, it may be wise to address them before going further. There may be other questions raised that are important but not appropriate to be answered in the context of the current unit, and the teacher may choose to save such questions for a “rainy day” lesson at some future time. But most of the questions will become the agenda for the student research that comprises the next stage. The teacher can add some of his or her own questions, and explain to the students why this kind of question is important. This modeling helps the students move towards asking richer, more productive questions.

When all the questions are up on the board, they are categorized. Together with the class, the teacher groups the questions. Which are about the text (e.g., why did the text use these words in such and such order) and which are about the topic (what is the source of this law)? While the former may or may not give new insights into the law, the latter usually leads to broader and deeper ideas. Some questions are more generally about halakha. Other questions are unique to the case at hand and require students to think about the special and unique issues raised by this particular halakha. Different texts lend themselves to different categories of questions, and choosing a variety of texts over the year exposes students to an array of question types. As the students practice asking their questions, they become better at asking the ones that will be most effective in producing deeper and more meaningful knowledge, a skill that is reinforced with the study of subsequent units.

These four stages would typically take one class period. After the class I would type up the questions and distribute them the next day – that list would become the student-generated agenda for the rest of the unit of study.

Stage Five: Students consider possible answers. Now it’s time for students to find answers to their questions, based on their pre-knowledge and their own analytical skills. It’s a good idea to have them do this in small groups, after which the groups share the answers they generated with the entire class. This exercise is a good preparation for finding answers through research – when students subsequently see their own answers (or variations on them) in later commentaries, they will recognize them and understand them more deeply than if they had never considered them before.

Stage Six: Students seek answers in additional sources. The final step is the research, where the teacher helps the students find answers to their questions in subsequent source material. Students may be able to learn some of the resources on their own, in class or for homework, while other, more challenging resources need teacher guidance, but teacher guidance should be limited to explaining the direct meaning of the text. It remains the job of the students, not the teacher, to discover which of their original questions had been answered, and how.

The particular resources that students should turn to will vary with the teacher, the class, the skills that the curriculum seeks to impart, the students’ current reading abilities, and on the resources available to students and the teacher. I would start the unit with a law from the Rambam, and then we would study the parallel presentation of that same law in the Shulhan Arukh, the Mishnah Berurah, the Arukh Hashulhan, and sometimes the Kaf Hahayyim, all along prompting the students to decide if their questions were being satisfactorily answered.

Generally, by the time we were through, most of their questions were addressed. Beyond having their questions answered, students exploring these additional works often discovered new ideas and directions of thought inviting further exploration. If there are questions that the usual line up of books does not sufficiently address, the teacher can then choose to either present an additional source to the students that does address it, or to tell the students an answer, or to leave it open as a question, all depending on time, resource, and curriculum considerations.

Benefits and drawback to this approach

In general, the active learning movement as a whole has been critiqued as creating students who may enjoy the learning process but don’t learn very much (Kirschner, Sweller & Clark). While this is a legitimate (and not a new) concern it can be alleviated with good curriculum planning. We used a variety of methods for increasing student exposure to more knowledge, including extensive (rather than intensive) reading that students had to do on their own, mini-units (quick paced, frontal presentation of the process of researching a law through the different books in the course of one period). , and studying the introductions to the various halakhic codes in order to understand more about their history, their composition, and their unique purpose and contribution.

On the other hand, I believe that the benefits far outweigh the drawbacks. First, this approach helps the teacher to assess the students’ readiness for learning the unit by giving the teacher a window into the students’ initial thinking about the Law being studied. The lessons can thus be modified to maximally satisfy the particular learning needs of the individual students.

Second, it gives the students a motivation and purpose to want to see more information. Without this method, students in a halakha class may wonder, if we’ve already learned the Rambam, why do we need to go to the Shulchan Aruch? The study of the Rambam sparked their curiosity and left them with questions; they turn to additional sources to resolve them.

Third, this learning helps to shift the students’ relationship to the halakhic books themselves. Mishnah Berurah, Arukh Hashulhan and Kaf Hahayyim now become tools to solve student-generated problems. There is a very powerful transformation in the students’ minds when these works begin to serve as the students’ partners in the shared endeavor of finding answers. This paradigm shift is even more pronounced if the students were given the chance to devise their own answers to their questions before seeing how the classic works do so, because now these classic books are doing the same work the students did. The students are brought into the intergenerational study of halakha.

Fourth, students acquire research skills. Empowered by the expert’s tool chest of questions, as well as their learning through hands on they are closer to becoming independent learners.

Fifth, research-oriented questioning helps to defuse emotional tensions and confrontational attitudes some students might harbor toward halakha and halakhic authority. This method defuses the power struggle between our students and rabbinic authority by transforming the students’ job in class from mere acceptance of the halakha to investigating and understanding it. The mood and tone established by practicing the discipline of constructive questioning can change the attitude of even the most skeptical student toward the text by shifting their stance from that of critic to inquisitive explorer. In one class, a student challenged a perplexing derashat Hazal with the objection, “That’s a stretch!” The class was then challenged to reformulate that objection as a question. Initial silence was followed by various attempts, until one student finally asked, “How do Hazal see that from the pasuk?” That research question drove the ensuing discussion, in which students tried to provide a plausible explanation.

Consider the words of one student writing in response to the prompt, “How has this course changed you?”

The most important way this class changed me is it has made me a much more patient learner. I hesitate to question the entire system of Halakha or Judaism as a whole. Rather, I attack the problem at hand. I have found that questions are only relevant if one hopes to find an answer. I am slower to judge an answer because many times my questions or answers themselves can be answered…I think of a killer question and before I have time to blurt it out I have come up with a quite simple answer.

It is perhaps ironic that this student seems more willing to accept rabbinic authority precisely because he was given autonomy. That is to say, he does not claim to “hesitate to question the system” because the teacher discouraged him from questioning it; rather, it is because the teacher gave him a language and a framework to question it in a way that would invite more questions and yield answers. Giving the students the freedom to explore their questions by helping them to restructure their objections, which stop thinking, into inquiries, which promote thinking, paradoxically allows them to feel more comfortable submitting their freedom to the authority of the system.

In sum, by re-orienting students to the nature and purpose of question asking, we allow them to become active participants in awakening the dormant world of deep and complex thinking that lies within apparently simple Halakhic texts. By letting the students transform a law into a doorway to understanding we turn the classroom from a place to listen into a place to wonder.

Note: My thanks to Rabbi Benjy Owen for his help devising the curriculum, as well as the guidance of principal Rabbi Bernie Fox in alerting me to the importance of questions.

References

Goldmintz, Jay, Ten Da’at , 9:1, pp. 55-62. Reprinted on the website of The Lookstein Center, www.lookstein.org/articles/teaching_halakha.htm

Joyce, Bruce, Weil, Marsha, with Calhoun, Emily, Models of Teaching, Allyn & Bacon, MA, pp. 175-189

Kirschner, Paul A., Sweller, John, and Clark, Richard E., ” Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work: An Analysis of the Failure of Constructivist, Discovery, Problem-Based,Experiential, and Inquiry-Based Teaching,” Educational Psychologist, 41(2), 75-86, 2006, also available online at http://www.cogtech.usc.edu/publications/kirschner_Sweller_Clark.pdf

Postman, Neil, Teaching as a Conserving Activity, Delacorte Press, New York, 1979, p. 154

Twersky, Isadore, “The Shulhan Arukh; Enduring Code of Jewish Law,” Judaism 16:2 (1967), pp. 152,153, as cited in Goldmintz, Jay, “On Teaching Halakha,” Ten Da’at , 9:1, pp. 55-62. Reprinted on the website of the Lookstein Center, www.lookstein.org/articles/teaching_halakha.htm.

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