These pieces originally appeared as a weekly column entitled “Lessons” in The New York Times between 1999 and 2003.
[ THIS ARTICLE FIRST APPEARED IN THE NEW YORK TIMES ON APRIL 4, 2001 ]
A Passover Way to Teach
This Saturday, Jews will celebrate Passover with a ceremonial dinner called a Seder. Guided by a 2,000-year-old booklet, the Haggadah, participants tell the story of Moses and his followers’ escape from Egyptian slavery.
The Seder suggests that today’s educational debates are not new. Its account of ancient history begins only after the youngest participant poses four ritual questions. Answers contain yet more questions, describing four children who ask about the tradition in different ways.
Teachers have long debated if dialogue or lecture is more effective and how children with varied abilities and learning styles should be taught. The Haggadah includes a balance of approaches, in contrast to all-or- nothing stances common in education today.
As the Book of Proverbs suggests (22:6, “Train a child according to his way”), the Haggadah states and answers questions differently for children with different knowledge or attitudes. Each alternative refers to a separate Biblical mandate to teach children about the Israelites’ ancient liberation. Jewish tradition says that because God would not needlessly repeat it, the instruction recurs so that the story can be retold for each way of learning.
Today, similar concerns about standardized instruction take many forms. Advocates of smaller classes say they permit teachers to adapt strategies to individual needs. Proponents of higher standards say tracking systems undercut students’ potential by placing the less able in easier courses. And special educators debate whether pupils with disabilities benefit from inclusion in regular classes.
E. D. Hirsch, a professor at the University of Virginia, suggests that a standard curriculum for all children should be organized around the same core knowledge needed for citizenship. Some educators say, however, that there is too much in this corpus for children to absorb, so learning should be guided instead by pupils’ own questions.
Howard Gardner, a professor at Harvard, defines seven types of intelligence. Some students, Dr. Gardner says, are more skilled with language. Others are more logical or spatially perceptive. Some learn by physically acting out new skills. Others are better listeners. Some learn better in groups. Others are more introspective.
Controversies about teaching history now pit those who want students to develop extensive factual knowledge against those who think history can be better understood if students experience a few events in depth, imagining they themselves were making historic decisions. The Haggadah balances these views.
Like Professor Hirsch, the Passover pedagogy emphasizes a common tradition. But it also insists that it be taught in response to questions. Like Dr. Gardner, the Haggadah prescribes different teaching for those with different abilities. But it does not predict whether this assures that all participants gain comparable understanding or if, at the end of the process, differences will be as great as before.
And because ancient rabbis worried about holding children’s interest, the Seder’s lectures are interspersed with songs and games.
The Haggadah invokes a first child who asks for detailed descriptions of laws Israelites must obey. The child is termed wise not only because he seeks detail, but also because he talks as if he himself had been liberated from slavery thousands of years before.
Then, the question is restated by a second child, one with an “attitude” who is defensive about being taught. The Haggadah calls this child wicked because he cannot picture himself as part of the Exodus. But he might better be described as self-centered and thus hard to educate. The Haggadah asks all participants to have historical imagination, pretending they themselves also wandered the desert.
This passage is particularly suggestive for Americans. Can an immigrant nation forge a definition of common citizenship without each participant coming to feel that “we” fought the Revolutionary War, “we” participated in the struggle to end slavery, or “we” liberated Europe from Nazism?
The Haggadah describes a third child who is simple and a fourth who does not even know how to ask. The simple child gets an answer without much detail. The last child is not ignored. Though no question was posed, instruction is still tried.
Secular educators today face issues of inquiry learning and curricular standardization that also concerned the ancients. The Talmud, a collection of Jewish laws developed more than 1,500 years ago, says the Seder cannot succeed unless children become curious enough to question it. And it adds, as in Proverbs, teaching should take place “in a manner appropriate to the understanding of the child.”
After so many years, educators still have not quite figured out how to do this.