Challenges in Teaching Torah She-ba’al Peh to Junior High School Students

Dorona Reingold

Torah She-ba’al Peh taught in the classroom poses great challenges on the teacher and student, alike. On a daily basis, the teacher faces the challenge of instructing a relatively abstract and “dry” subject. The author instructs a low level, grade 7 class in Mishnah. Her aim is to understand thought processes of her students and develop teaching methods that will aid in their understanding of the material.

Two major types of processing information (coding) have been recognized: simultaneous and successive/ sequential.

The sequential process involves step-by-step problem solving, analyzing the textual structure. Most material taught in the classroom setting is taught in this manner. A child possessing strong sequential skills will more easily remember these lists of spelling words, historical events and rules of grammar. Class-work, homework and exams usually follow this same pattern.

“Simultaneous,” or “holistic” problem solving involves the processing of many stimuli at once including spatial, analogic and organizational processes. Children with well-developed simultaneous problem solving skills have an advantage in rapidly learning the shapes of letters and spatial configurations of words during the early stages of reading and possess an enhanced processing ability necessary for understanding the main themes of stories.

Unfortunately, children with a tendency toward simultaneous learning skills lose their advantage early on in their education and are often lost in the typical classroom. Lessons are usually not designed to cater to students with these skills and therefore, these students often present with difficulties in the classroom.

Pask & Scott (1972) investigated the efficacy of employing either a serial or holistic approach to teaching new material to students. Students were categorized as “serialists” or “holists” and then taught using a predominantly serial or holistic approach. When students’ problem-solving processing strengths were matched to their treatment approach, nearly perfect performance resulted. Students mismatched between processing strength and treatment scored much lower on the criterion measure.

Based on the learning process principles stated above, the author developed different teaching methods for her 7th grade Torah She-be’al Peh class. Her efforts significantly included steering from “typical” sequential methods to a combined approach, incorporating a fair amount of simultaneous teaching, as well. The aim was to ease the students’ understanding of the material by presenting the mishnayot in a fashion familiar to their learning processes. Some methods were specifically geared to students, who would be categorized as primarily “simultaneous processors,” while other methods combined the two cognitive processes.

With the purpose of testing different learning methods in the classroom, the author created a series of 4 classes in Mishnah, in which each student had the opportunity to learn from different teaching methods. This tested which methods students most benefited from and determined whether any correlation exists between the type of teaching method used by the teacher and the degree of success in understanding the Mishnah by the students.

Four methods of teaching these mishnayot were used: 1. Pictorial - Pictures were drawn for each Mishnah. These pictures explained the Mishnah through a pictorial display of its content. The text of the Mishnah was written beneath its corresponding portion of the picture, connecting the text to the picture. 2. Cards - The text of each Mishnah was written on colored cards. A phrase of the Mishnah was written on each card and an explanation of that phrase was written on the reverse side of the card. 3. Skit - A short skit was written for each Mishnah. The skits were prepared before the lesson and presented to the students to use for their “performance.” The script incorporated the content of the Mishnah and enabled the Mishnah to be brought to life and to greater relevance for today’s world. 4. Cassette - An explanation of each Mishnah was recorded onto audiocassette before class. This “taped lesson” was played for the students and contained a typical classroom instruction of the Mishnah.

These four modalities tapped the different systems with which students process their information: pictorial for the simultaneous-dominant student, cards and cassette for the sequential-dominant student, and skits for those students who like to be active in the classroom and who concentrate better while “acting out” the material.

The class was divided into four scholastically heterogeneous groups. Each group consisted of 4-5 students and the experiment took place for 4 consecutive classes. In each class, each group was instructed using one modality and rotated to other modalities during subsequent classes. Therefore, over the four classes each group experienced each of the four modalities. During each class, each group received the text of the Mishnah and the activity by which they would learn the Mishnah. The students were provided with 30-45 minutes in which to prepare the material. Afterward, the mishnayot were collected and the class was given a short quiz on that day’s material. Test scores of the students were evaluated complemented by answers to the feedback questions. Conclusions regarding the students enhanced or reduced learning abilities with these modalities were formed.

The students clearly benefited from the varied learning modalities used in these classes. Grades for certain weak students significantly improved and the teacher noted improved classroom participation, behavior and learning efforts among many students. Only one or two students (out of 19) may not have benefited from this exercise. Students volunteered positive feedback and described the improved learning atmosphere created by teaching modalities that matched their cognitive patterns.

Conclusion: Whereas Torah She-ba’al Peh instruction primarily and perhaps almost exclusively utilizes sequential patterns, students are varied in their cognitive ability. Teaching patterns that utilize varied methods of instructing the subject material will achieve greater success. Continued investigation is necessary to ascertain which methods are most successful and how best to structure the classroom, accordingly. However, relating to varied cognitive patterns in teaching Torah She-ba’al Peh is beneficial at least and necessary at most to achieve success in the classroom.

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