Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Boys and Gemara continued

In my last post on this topic I asked if any high school or day school administrator could put forth a sound rationale for why they make Gemara the primary subject in their school day. I would like to ask that in a slightly different way - does any school have clearly stated goals as to what they are trying to accomplish in teaching Gemara?

By goals I do not mean that they write the usual pablum about "developing lifelong learners" or "teaching Gemara skills" or whatever tired and trite phrase gets used on the website of any high school that bothers to even put something together. Those phrases are meaningless insofar as they tell the reader absolutely nothing about what the school is doing. Does any school try to not teach skills or want its students to stop learning after graduation?

Meaningful goals, on the other hand, would present a clear vision as to why the school is teaching Gemara and what it hopes to accomplish by doing so. Those goals would ideally be measurable (whether or not any measures actually exist), and would ideally drive what is going on in the classroom. The current approach seems to be to make broad statements that amount to "we love Gemara" and then let every Rebbe do his own thing. I am not so sure that this is not often the case on the Middle School level as well. How many 7th graders "learn" Tosafot, even though they can barely find the daf or translate the basic words? What well-organized curriculum has the students doing advanced level work before they can manage the simpler levels?

[I will admit that this issue may really be part of a larger issue - the issue of school-to-school disconnect. Certainly in the greater NY/NJ region, where many day schools feed into each high schools, the high schools decide on their own where to start in terms of what they expect the students to know and be able to do, and then, four years later, the Yeshivot in Israel do the same thing. How many boys get to Israel and get told to prepare mekorot for shiur when they are still not sure whether Nedarim is in Nashim or Nezikin? While it may be practical to simply decide what you are going to teach - after all, it is pretty hard to be beholden to the curricula of 5 or 10 or 25 feeder schools - no one is served well by a system that picks an arbitrary starting point regardless of the actual ability level of the students.]

Back to goals. Imagine if we could cobble together at least a rudimentary menu of goals that we would like to achieve in the teaching and learning of Gemara. Working with the understanding that not everyone is going to be a Rosh Yeshiva, but that we nevertheless feel that it is important, for one reason or another, for everyone to receive significant exposure on some level to Gemara, we devise a range of curricular goals and expectations that our schools will work to teach. Within such a framework, we can set minimal expectations, after which point students could opt to spend more time on different approaches or perhaps different areas of learning. Yeshivot in Israel can better choose their clientele - not just the "nice" guys or the "intellectual" guys, but the guys who are at a certain range on the skills and ability spectrum, and then can tailor their program accordingly. Yes, this would mean more skills-based classes and less intensive lomdus at some of the higher levels, but ultimately that would go further in producing students who can actually learn on their own - which, if we are to believe all of those statements about "lifelong learners", is exactly the point.

But, I hear you cry, how do we teach skills to 18 year olds without boring them to death? Stay tuned for my next post.

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