What's Jewish About Differentiation?

There have been over a dozen studies over the last 20 years that have resulted in the groundbreaking discovery that when students are engaged, they learn more. There have been even more studies that have shown that different students learn in different ways, and they achieve higher academic growth when taught in the ways they learn best. And there was a study that I read just this week that found that if students truly learn material and skills, they are more likely to still have that content knowledge and skills later in their lives.

I, personally, would like to know who is funding these studies as I have a few ideas I’d like for them to fund...the effect of eating ice cream for dinner every night on how well my pants fit, the impact constantly streaming Netflix has on my productivity level, and what happens to my budget when I buy a car I cannot afford.

Because really, all of these studies result in the same finding that Judaism has known forever — students are unique, amazing individuals who learn best when treated that way.

The book of Proverbs, which was compiled in roughly 700 BCE, tells us, “Teach a child according to his way, and even when he grows old, he will not turn away from it.” This statement is so simple and, yet, so powerful. If we teach children in the way they each need to be taught, according to his way, it will mean more and stick with them, and he will not turn away from it.

The Haggadah, the book that is traditionally used during the Seder or ritual dinner during Passover, illustrates this through its narrative of four children: the wise child, the evil child, the simple child, and the child who doesn’t know to ask.

Over the course of the section, each child asks his question and is responded to in a different way, depending on the question.

  • The wise child asks details about the specific meaning of the laws of Passover observance: “What are the testimonies, the statutes, and laws which our God has commanded you?” to which we respond with one of the very specific laws of the Passover seder.

  • The evil child asks, “Whatever does this mean to you?” The authors admonish this child as one who is not concerned about the laws personally, but only for others, reminding him about the power and importance of community.

  • The simple child asks, “What does this mean?” to which a straightforward summary of the story is given, directly from the Torah: “It was with a mighty hand that God brought us out from Egypt, the house of bondage.” (Exodus 13:14).

  • In response to the child who does not know how to ask, we are instructed to “open it up” and explain, “It is because of what God did for me when I went free from Egypt” (Exodus 13:8).

Yes, this is a powerful example of differentiation in that each child gets a different answer based on his question, but the power of this story lies not only in the children and their questions and how the parent responds to those questions, but also in how the parent (or educator) acts, encouraging questions even if they won’t yield the “right” answers in a way that keeps the kids coming back time and time again.

This isn’t to say anything goes, however. Treating kids like individuals doesn’t mean that kids get to do whatever they want however they want. The parent makes it clear in this story, for example, that the evil child’s path is dangerous, and he offers him the guidance needed to change course.

The four children narrative in the Haggadah remind us of our obligation to teach our children and to teach them in the way that it best for them, not what is best for us. It reminds us to invite our children to be a part of the conversation, encouraging their questions, meeting them where they are, and respecting the way each one learns.

As a bit of a cautionary example of what happens when we don’t do this, we can look at Isaac’s sons, Jacob and Esau. Jacob is often thought of as the righteous child, and Esau as the one who never got it right and went off the proper path. And the question is why? Both sons had the same genes. Both sons were raised in the home of Jacob and Rebecca. Both sons had the same opportunities. The 19th century German commentator Samson Raphael Hirsch posits that it is exactly because of all of this sameness that Esau wasn’t successful.

Hirsch believes that a clue is provided by the verse in Genesis that says that the brothers Esau and Jacob grew up, and only then it indicates that Esau was a hunter while Jacob dwelt in the tent of study. Based on this verse, Hirsch believes it is clear that both Esau and Jacob, born as twins, were raised in precisely the same environment and with the same methodology.

Rebecca and Isaac raised both of their children identically, and that was their mistake. They did not take into account that Esau possessed a different personality from Jacob and needed his own special environment in order to be raised to become a righteous human being. Esau rebelled against this upbringing, which did not fit his personality and temperament and turned to the evil path. Had Isaac and Rebecca realized Esau’s unique personality traits early on, they could have raised him differently and he could also have become righteous like Jacob.

So the question has to be raised...if Judaism has known for thousands of years, and studies have been proving for decades, and we, just based on common sense, all agree that students are individuals and should be treated and taught as such, why isn’t more happening? And the answer is that it’s hard. It takes more time. And it’s not what everyone else is doing.

In conceptualizing Einstein Academy, we have kept one principle at the heart of all that we do - always do what is best for students. It might be hard. It might take more time. It might not be what others are doing, but we are deeply committed to always doing what is best for students, and for us, that starts with the recognition that students are each unique, amazing individuals. We knew, before reading any of the studies, that students learn more when they are engaged, that they all learn in different ways, and that by engaging them and reaching them where they are, we can ensure they are truly learning and will be equipped with the skills they need to be successful at every stage of their lives.

The introduction to the four children narrative in the Haggadah says, “k’neged arba banim dibra,” which can be translated as “The Torah alludes to four children,” but it can also be interpreted as, “the Torah speaks against the notion that there are four children.” There are not only four kinds of kids. They cannot be labeled as gifted or athletic or funny or sensitive or introverted. All children are a combination of these dispositions and countless others, making each of them beautiful. We aren’t creating this school for one child...or for four children, but for every child.

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