Learning by Choice ­ Article ­ BINA

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Learning by Choice

by Rabbi Michoel Gourarie

Yesterday I came across a podcast in which Alan Jones (a Sydney radio host) discusses the value of daily homework, with a school principal. The interview focused on the classic prescriptive activities like spelling word lists, endless maths exercises or comprehension activities.  The suggestion was that at least at primary level, homework was ineffective and had no or very little impact on academic excellence (supported by significant research).
To be clear, I would never recommend noncompliance of students to the instructions and tasks given to them by their teachers. So, if they get homework they need to do it. But, I must agree that endless homework for primary children is not beneficial, lessens family time and perhaps most importantly, kills the opportunity for the child's creativity which could be achieved by either spending time thinking or reading and exploring other topics of interest.
This leads me to a fascinating comment in the Talmud (from the 3rd or 4th century). In one of the many places where the Talmud emphasises the importance of Jewish learning, it states:
A person can learn Torah (successfully) only from an area (topic) that his heart currently desires.
Rashi, the famous 11th century commentator explains:
A teacher should teach his students the topic they request. If he compels the student to study a different topic, the student will not retain the material, as his heart will be in his preferred subject.
We all appreciate that to facilitate successful education, there are basic skills and building blocks of information that everyone must have. Hence, a generic school curriculum for any body of knowledge has its place. However, the message in the Talmud is clear - real successful and effective learning comes from pursuing topics of choice, developing a sense of connection and engagement with the material and nurturing creativity to develop the interest in the topic.
School might be the place for the basics (and even then, there is more room for personalisation), whereas home time can be used for pursuing areas of specific interest. Perhaps instead of prescribed homework much more can be achieved by asking students to spend time on a subject of choice and to report back using a medium of choice (eg. written project, PowerPoint, video etc.)
Adult learning is no different. In the mitzvah of Torah Learning we find two important details.
1.    There is a broad range of subject areas available for the student - Tanach, Jewish history, Jewish learning, Mysticism, Personal Growth are just a few examples. (I can't resist the opportunity for a commercial - the smorgasbord of topics at BINA is huge -  choose a topic of your liking).
2.    Innovation - within the parameters of basic knowledge and axiomatic truths we are instructed to explore creative ideas.
If we give children more opportunities to nurture their creativity and pursue subjects of choice, they will be better learners when they enter adulthood.

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