Literacy in the Garden of Eden

Jun 25, 2003

Published in the Times Educational Supplement November 2002

The Garden of Eden, the ultimate paradise as described in the Bible, is hardly the place that, on first glance, would seem to satisfy the demands of the Government’s Literacy strategy.
But Eden, or paradise, is exactly where young people can find inspiration to enhance their learning and education!
For generations, perhaps for 3,000 years, Jewish learning has been predicated on a deep appreciation of the written word. The delving into text, navigating the depths of understanding, and teasing out the inferences, has led to text being elevated to a spiritual level.
Traditionally biblical text-based study has been likened to paradise, (pardes in Hebrew) Pardes is an acronym made up by:
P            P’shat                        literal meaning
R            Remez                        hints to a deeper understanding
D            D’rash                        legend and myth
S            Sod                        the hidden, mystical element
The Torah is the base text for the Jewish community. It contains stories relating to the ancestors of humanity, there are laws, customs, values and traditions that today govern a Jewish way of life, yet at the same time provide clues as to how global society can become more enriched.
The Torah, despite being a text that has its origins in a time some 3 millennia ago, still retains its daily relevance through Pardes. It gives the Torah a sense of dynamic equilibrium, whereby Halacha – the everyday enactment of Torah law, can become enriched and enhanced through the application of modern technology and current wisdom.
Every verse of the Torah, the first Five Books of the Hebrew Bible together with the oral tradition only codified in the 1st millennium, has been pored over by generations of scholars, usually in pairs, and using the apparently simple Pardes formula.
So enough of the theology, already! What’s all this to do with Literacy in primary schools?
Children need to understand text as a means of expanding their curiosity. It goes far beyond the didacticism of the literacy “hour”, and the dogged adherence to a taxonomic approach through the schemes – and the monochromatic SAT scores.
If Literacy is to enhance and develop children’s minds, then they need to be taught to question and challenge the texts placed before them. To work in pairs, to move beyond the word and the sentence, into the story and to predict the end of the story!
I am proposing that Pardes, the Garden of Eden, could provide a simple – yet elaborate framework that could enable all children to dive into text and delve into its deeper meanings, relevances, symbolism and metaphorical inferences.
Through Pardes, children would be encouraged to explore dialectical dimensions, and immerse themselves in the kaleidoscopic nature of stories, texts, poetry and prose – and drive the whole curriculum.
So how can we move into the Garden of Eden from the classroom on a miserable Wednesday in mid November, following a third day of wet playtimes?
I have adapted Pardes in the following way as a table that could be used in order to negotiate a range of texts, and in a variety of ways:

R HINTS What could the text mean? What clues are there to a deeper understanding? INFERENTIAL
D STORY AND LEGEND Are there any stories that could be made up or used to explain the text? Or could you use a metaphor or represent it in a pictorial format? REFLECTIVE
S HIDDEN The intertextual element, what has not been said, or doesn’t need to be written: the implicit. IMPLICIT-CONTEMPLATIVE

Try it yourself with a range of simple proverbs, or a set of school rules. Extend into more complex texts. Use it in art with images, or art pieces. Explore the web. Evaluate dance, song and musical scores. Apply it to the media, to games and play. Explain experiments.
I have used Pardes successfully, over many years in a range of settings, from INSET with argumentative RE teachers, via New Zealand and now Stoke Newington!
Just this week I have been working on the story of creation with a group of mixed ability Year 3 and Year 4 children together.
We began our work together in the carpeted area, in a plenary setting. I gave them a very simplistic form of the text, initially reading and noting the main points on a white board.
I’ll give you the entire text that I shared with the children:
“In the beginning God created the Heaven and the earth.
On the first day God created light.
On the second heaven.
On the third day he created the land, seas, trees and fruits.
On the fourth day the sun, moon and stars.
On the fifth day fish, birds and sea monsters.
On the sixth day land animals, man and woman.
And on the seventh day he created rest – Shabbat!”
Our first discussion was to consider what is meant by “create”! I put them in pairs and asked them to ask each other whether they have ever created something. I asked the pairs what they have found out. It was quite eye opening, since they nearly all latched on to the difference between man-made and natural objects; whilst one pair used the example of imagination!
This led on to a lively discussion about nothing! If there was a beginning what came before, and more intriguingly what was the light that was created on the first day? I challenged them to tell me the difference between darkness and nothing.
One child noticed that it wasn’t until the 4th day that God created the sun and the moon, so what was the light He created on the first day?
Another child through perhaps that it was the Big Bang! Could this be the meeting of science and religion – a perfect time to engage in some philosophical theology!
This then led on to another discussion about science. Could the sea monsters be the dinosaurs? What about time? Seasons? Was the sequence the same as scientists have since discovered. Many of the children had watched the dinosaur programmes on TV, or had seen Jurassic Park, and they were absolutely intrigued.
In this free ranging discussion session I was trying to push the children into using the text to infer what was taking place – move from P’shat into Remez.
The next phase of the work was to put the children into groups of 4 or 5. The challenge I set them was to use the text to make up a mime about the 7 days of creation. This relates to D’rash – explaining text using story, drama.
The children clumped together into earnest groups, chattering and using the text. Some children became natural leaders, pushing others into positions. It also gave me an opportunity to move around each of the 6 groups – listening and helping.
Soon the session was due to close, so we re-convened. We went over some of the points raised in discussion, and told them that we would act out our mimes in the Jewish Studies lesson next week!
Pardes is adaptable and infinite.
By moving children from the explicit-didactic through to the implicit-contemplative, and equipping them with the skills to be able to reflect and infer, then we are really moving them into a different realm – away from the material world into a more spiritual context.
Children can begin this process in the Foundation phase. As children grow through the school, then they ought to be able to move along an educational continuum from explicit-didacticism to implicit-contemplation – providing them with more questions then answers, and encouraging them to be intellectually curious, becoming questioning and challenging young people, but within a framework that values the process more than simple solutions. And those whose opinions may well differ from their own: the rationale for paired working.
Pardes provides a model and framework that can enter into, and enhance every facet of the school, from literacy through to citizenship, through science, music and PE. And it works on two levels with teaching and leadership styles revealing themselves, in what I call the psycho-pedagogic dimension.
Lately much has been written on enchanted leadership, the leader as a visionary. The Pardes model describes the enchanted leader as one who is implicit-contemplative; the implicit elements of the vision being ingrained in the very fabric of the school, and understood by all. Leaders residing purely in the explicit-didactic may be wonderful organisers, but of a process that would go nowhere.
My staff would probably disagree!
Explore Pardes throughout the school, with Governors, Parents and the LEA. Use it to make decisions with the staff. Encourage teachers to leave behind the didactic crutch that is so easy to depend on, and dive into the misty waters of curiosity.
Take risks!
Until recently the curriculum had become a sterile desert. The compartmentalisation of subjects compromised the notion of children learning through the application of wisdom across subjects, stifling creativity, curiosity and the imagination.
Now OFSTED, QCA and the DfES are recognising that children need broad experiences of how bespoke curriculum skills can impact on their real understanding and solution to issues, situations and challenges. Not the meandering project work that I once enthused over in the mid 70s, but a more rigorous approach to integrating areas of skill, knowledge and subject based expertise to help solve problems through creativity and the use of metacognitive and lateral thinking approaches. It is this psycho-pedagogic dimension of Pardes that is so compelling.
The Torah opens with creation, and human beings, created in the image of the Almighty, have been given a creative imperative: imagination. We all have a responsibility to enhance our children’s learning, to move beyond the bland, paper thin and monochromatic SAT scores into a more realistic and descriptive levels of achieving (LAs) that have colour, dimensions, and is grounded in wisdom and understanding, LAs could be provided to a child, or indeed a school, that has proven its ability to apply skills, knowledge and wisdom to issues, concerns and problems, an holistic level.
And LAs could still be mindful of the need to be numerate, literate and application of scientific enquiry.
I’ll leave this as a challenge – it could be the forbidden fruit that I describe below!
The Garden of Eden was a place of indescribable beauty, literally paradise, but it also contained the fruit of knowledge and free will. It is strange that in the Biblical story this fruit was forbidden. Perhaps it was forbidden because God foresaw how free will should never be entrusted to mankind – He may have seen wars, the Holocaust, the evil of terrorism – the suffering of innocents. But He also gave us all the ability to do good, and to have wisdom,
As teachers we have an awesome responsibility to encourage all our young people to become interdependent, reflective and responsible life-long learners, able to contribute to a future assured. Our responsibility is to provide the tools to be able to make the Garden of Eden bloom in all of our children’s hearts, minds and souls!