Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Challenge of "Unteaching"

Every year around this time, I teach my students the laws of Purim. Inevitably, someone tells me that the mitzva of mishloach manot is fulfilled by providing two foods that require two different brachot rishonot. When asked where they learned this law, the students either do not know or credit their teachers in the younger grades.

Examples of such misinformation abound. My son in kindergarten actually objected to a book about tashlich that showed people throwing bread into the water (the teacher found me and asked if she should stop using the book - I politely referred her to her immediate supervisor); Countless people believe that we do not eat giraffe because we do not know where to shecht them (a myth debunked here); and don't get me started on when we take three steps back and forward at the beginning of Shemoneh Esrei (correct answer: before saying ה' שפתי תפתח - there is no connection between the number of steps and the number of words in that pasuk).

So how do these and countless other misconceptions come to be? Let me point out that some of these myths are fairly widespread, and thus there are teachers at higher levels of education who predictably reteach, or perhaps unteach, our students on these points (one high school teacher friend actually complained to me that I was taking away his fun by taking care of the unteaching before my students reached his class. Tough on him.).

The simple answer is that these misconceptions are taught in the early years of a child's education. And here I come to a bit of a minefield, so let me begin with the qualifiers. As a veteran Middle School teacher, I am constantly in awe of the work done by teachers in the younger grades, and more in awe as the kids get younger. I have the option of coming into class moderately prepared and putting material out for my students' consumption. I can have my students do a writing assignment to chew up half of a period. I can give tests or essays or projects or anyone of a million other things which take a middling amount of effort to compose and even less effort to execute (although a decent amount of effort to mark). Teachers of early childhood and the early grades are hands-on all the time. They have to constantly be reacting to the changing moods of their young charges, and they cannot simply give an assignment and hope for the best - they have to be always vigilantly looking out for myriads of nuances and eventualities until the last child goes home at the end of the day.

Those teachers are also charged with another awesome responsibility. They are the first teachers of halacha that children have. While they may not say that they are teaching halacha (they use more age-appropriate terms such as "teaching Pesach"), that is, in fact, what they are doing when they prepare children for each holiday with a collection of elaborate and colorful projects, songs, and worksheets.

And here is where things get tricky, and let me reiterate that I am in no way intending to offend. It is expected that someone hired as a Rebbe has spent a certain amount of time learning in a formal setting and has a certain level of comfort, familiarity, and facility with the standard volumes of halacha. While we would forgive a Middle School Rebbe who cannot cite every teshuva of the Chida, we want him to at least have reviewed the Mishna Berura before teaching halacha to his students.

To my knowledge, there is no such requirement or expectation of first grade teachers (to pick a grade at random). It is certainly far more important that they be experts of pedagogy and child psychology than of Shas and poskim. For many of them, their knowledge of halacha may be more mimetic than text-based (see Dr. Haym Soloveitchik's classic article for more on this topic). However, the fact remains that they are the first ones to introduce a wide variety of halachot to our children, and the fact is as well that it is very difficult to unteach ideas learned at a young age. We are often unduly influenced by our first impressions, and it can be a struggle to convince a child that what he or she has learned in the past is simply not so.

There is a further issue, and that is one of basic middot and respect. If I teach my students something contrary to what they learned in 3rd or 4th grade, ineveitably someone asks, "Does that mean that Mrs. So-and-so was wrong?" The correct answer to that question is often "yes", and yet simply giving that as an answer can be fraught with dangers, from leading students to doubt that which they have been taught, to leading them to look askance at the fine individuals who taught them in previous years.

So what is a teacher to do? On one level, one can appeal to the authority of the sources. Rather than say "I am right and your other teachers were all wrong", make use of original texts in class and inform students that there may be other opinions, but you have not seen them quoted in the classical sources. While this effectively is the same as saying that what they learned in the past was incorrect, it does so while encouraging a healthy sense of respect for tradition and authority, rather than focusing on the errors made by others (and thus encouraging a sense of lack of respect for tradition and authority).

It is also possible to work to prevent incorrect teaching. As my own children have come home over the years with the occasional erroneous information, I have relayed that fact to our school's Lower School Assistant Principal, who has taken the opportunity to work with the teachers going forward to correct any such mistakes. Rather than be a self-righteous parent calling up a successful teacher and saying "I know better", this allows the error to be corrected in a respectful fashion, as the AP generally either has or can create contexts wherein he learns with or reviews specific material with the teachers, and thus can come around to discussing the point of contention. We all make mistakes in our teaching, and most teachers are themselves students at heart and thus are open to hear how they can learn more and how they can then share that learning with their students.

I will end on a positive note. A vast majority of what our students are learning is correct, and the errors that I am focusing on are probably minor details that will not make a major difference in one's performance of mitzvot (it does not really matter why we do not shecht giraffes - the fact is that we are not shechting them one way or the other). As I said above, I am in awe of the work done by teachers of young children, and in particular of the teachers of my own children. May they continue their labors of love for many more years to come.

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