Constructing a Love of Learning: Constructivism in a Torah Classroom

In Bereishit, after the first murder took place, God asked Cain, “Where is Abel, your brother?” Rashi explains that while God knew exactly what had happened between Cain and Abel, the purpose of engaging the murderer in conversation was to open a channel of communication. The goal of such an exchange was to have Cain, by his own volition, regret and repent his horrible actions. While this may seem like a basic understanding of an exchange between God and the first person to have committed murder, it is also an important lesson about how to communicate with those we want to teach and ultimately a Tanakh pedagogy that can be utilized in our classrooms. In Bereishit we find the first lesson plan containing constructivism, attempting to educate someone to learn something new.

“Constructivism” refers to the idea that learners construct knowledge and meaning as they obtain information. Constructing meaning is learning, and learning is internalizing information that has significance to the learner. Instead of God directly telling Cain that he should regret his actions and repent, God constructed a line of dialogue the purpose of which was to lead Cain to that knowledge on his own, thus generating a higher level of meaning.

Constructivist theory proposes to alter learning from a passive experience to an active experience. A constructivist syllabus creates learning exercises that require the learner to do more than simple information replication. Hands-on experience is necessary for learning, especially for children. Ideas can be transmitted through theory but have a greater impact when the learner is actively involved and is able to see the results of their labor. As the old proverb states, “Tell me and I will forget, show me and I may remember, involve me and I will understand.”

How does one go about increasing the level of active learning and involvement for Tanakh skills? In my fourth-grade Chumash curriculum a majority of the time is designated for the learners to discover the translation of verses on their own. These students already have a healthy knowledge of prefixes and suffixes and, on average, have a vocabulary of 200-300 classical Hebrew words. By giving them a list of the difficult words or WYRMs (Words You Rarely Mention, my students appreciate funny acronyms), the students can approach new, uncharted territory and discover the joy of translating verses independently.

My role changes from being a “sage on the stage” to being a “guide on the side.” The students connect words together with the prefixes and suffixes that are present and then construct the translation. As a class, we review the verses together and find what translations are closest to the actual translation. Through trial and error students are exposed to what is considered proper translation and what isn’t.

How can such a model be applied to students who may not possess the prerequisite skill and knowledge? Modification and accommodation are the answers. If a learner has a less than average amount of root-word mastery, list the necessary nouns and verbs for that learner prior to the lesson. With the information readily available for them to use, such learners will be able to participate with learning exercises and internalize the root words they may not be familiar with through active learning.

A great exercise that demonstrates strong constructivist elements would be having students translate and explain verses in the Chumash that they have not learned yet but contain vocabulary that they are familiar with. Another great exercise would be to send your students on a scavenger hunt in the perek that you are learning to find how many times a certain root word appears and seeing how the context changes the definition. With older students have them connect similar events or ideas that are expressed by commentators and compare and contrast them. The ultimate goal of this pedagogical strategy is to have the students increase their involvement, critical thinking and application.

People learn how to learn as they learn: learning consists both of constructing meaning and constructing systems of meaning. Another example is that if we know that a letter “vav” means “and” in the word Vayomeir / and he said, than we know that that same vav has the same meaning in the word “Vayeilech / and he went.” Each meaning we construct makes us better able to give meaning to other areas and by which can fit a similar pattern. Therefore, by allowing students to independently explore uncharted territory within the Parashah that they are learning you are giving them an opportunity to “construct” their own definitions and meaning. Creating these opportunities for self-exploration within the Tanakh period will have a greater chance of teaching skills and develop longer lasting knowledge.

Another aspect that requires attention is who is doing the majority of the talking in the class. On the empirical level researchers have noted that people talk to themselves as they learn. The more that students have the opportunity to share thoughts and conduct a healthy dialogue the greater the chances for more meaningful learning. Classes that implement constructivism are more student centered and interactive as opposed to teacher-centered and passive.

We can see this most prominently in traditional centers of high-level Judaic studies. Learning partners are conducting lively discourses in their study of the Talmud and practical law and such exchanges are the basis for the models of higher learning. We are more likely to be successful in our efforts to educate if we recognize this principle rather than try to avoid it.

Much of Western education is directed towards isolating the learner from all social interaction and towards seeing education as a one-on-one relationship between the learner and the objective material to be learned. In contrast, progressive education recognizes the social aspect of learning and uses conversation, interaction with others, and the application of knowledge and skill sets as an integral aspect of learning. This form of learning has been used since the reception of the Torah. The Talmud is replete with the retelling of incidents between the students and their rabbis and the exchanges that they had with each other. The lessons of our Tannaim and Amoraim were not merely disseminated, but observed, discussed and debated.

Learning is contextual. We do not learn isolated facts and theories in some abstract ethereal land of the mind separate from the rest of our lives; we learn in relationship to what else we know. A great learning opportunity for Judaic instructors to use is to have their students “flex their muscles” by applying a skill set to unchartered territory. By finding verses in not yet learned areas that contain the same root words, prefixes and suffixes students can experience a sense of independence in discovering for themselves what a verse is saying. Learning is active and not passive, and a curriculum that focuses on the construction of new knowledge built upon a set of previous knowledge ensures a greater level of motivation and enthusiasm for growth in Torah. Motivation is a key component in learning.

The balance between skill development and content mastery in Torah is incredibly challenging to maintain. While deep and meaningful understanding is important, exposure to broader and larger areas of information is viewed as crucial in building a “database” for the learner to refer to. How does a Judaic studies teacher generate equilibrium between reaching the content benchmarks established by your administration and setting aside enough class time for the students to be exposed to learning exercises where they can apply a set of translation and comprehension skills? Constructivism may be the answer.

We need to ask ourselves what are our valued outcomes within the development of our Chumash or Navi curriculum. What is being gauged in your assessments and homework? Is there a set of defined skills that your students will be able to demonstrate at the end of the year? By analyzing the answers to these questions you can determine the presence of constructivist elements in your curriculum development.

So in preparing your curricula for next year keep the following suggestions in mind:

  1. Experiments: Take the predetermined vocabulary that your students have mastered and allow them to learn with a chavruta to try and translate and explain areas within your parsha or perek independently.
  2. Research: Ask the students a series of questions that can only be answered by their own research. Provide information for them to use, whether it is a translated Rashi or any number of other commentators and allow your students to flex their “muscles” in answering your query.
  3. Class discussions: Have your students voice their opinions and thoughts about certain situations that occurred within the context of an area of Tanakh and see where the conversation leads to.

Ultimately, one must concede that the goal of any Tanakh curriculum is to generate a learning environment that presents the learning as an enjoyable and fulfilling practice, something that the learners will want to pursue outside of the classroom and of their own volition. Through generating lesson plans in Tanakh that keeps the students knowledge and skill in mind, one can develop a learning environment where the learning is more participative, and thus more satisfying. &daims;

Dr. Benjamin Czeladnicki has over 11 years of classroom experience and lives in Far Rockaway, New York . He can be reached at

Benjamin Czeladnicki
Teaching Tanakh
Knowledge Topics
Teaching and Learning
Published: Summer 2012