One student, one teacher, at a time, Rabbi Yoni Fein is spearheading a change in how Talmud is being taught in Jewish day schools.
Rabbi Yoni Fein, middle school assistant principal of Judaic Studies & Jewish Life at The Moriah School in Englewood, seems an unlikely revolutionary. Meeting him for dinner at Mocha Bleu in Teaneck, he comes across as quiet, thoughtful and earnest.
But make no mistake, Rabbi Fein is spearheading a revolution in how Talmud is studied and taught.
Fundamental is data.
“In God we trust; all others must bring data” is a famous quote attributed to W. Edwards Deming (1900-1993), the statistician and management scientist, and the father of modern quality management. Management guru Peter Drucker (1909-2005), known as the father of modern management, is often quoted as saying that “you can’t manage what you can’t measure.”
It’s data that lies at the heart of Personalized Talmud Learning, invented by Rabbi Fein. He was recently recognized for his invention by being awarded the prestigious Kohelet Prize, given annually to six educators or teams of educators who demonstrate extraordinary accomplishment in one of the six core elements of progressive Jewish education. It carries a $36,000 unrestricted cash prize. The Kohelet Foundation is led by president and founder David Magerman, a research scientist at Renaissance Technologies, a famed hedge fund management firm. Kohelet’s mission is to transform what is possible for Jewish day schools and their communities nationwide. The prize is likely the most prestigious award offered for Jewish educators.
What got this distinguished foundation so excited?
In an earlier three-part series, “Studying Talmud: The Good, the Not-So-Good and How to Make Talmud More Accessible,” (see Part I, Part II and Part III) I explored the enormous growth in Talmud study in the last 50 years, the barriers to learning and what’s been done to make the Talmud more accessible to all. But for all the growth, it’s a sad fact—and we have to recognize it—that many day school students hate Talmud study, graduate with weak Talmud skills, lack understanding of the purpose of Talmud and have no appreciation for its central role in Jewish life.
The opportunity to change that is what has sparked all the interest.
Rabbi Fein described to me how his invention is based on a firm tripod of data, individualized learning pathways that measurably remedy many of the problems associated with traditional Talmud study, and the emphasis on active versus passive learning.
Rabbi Fein’s invention works, and that’s the basis for all the excitement.
Innovative as it is, it’s also firmly grounded in rabbinic ideas.
The Talmud (Sanhedrin 38a) recognized that we are all different. “For if a man strikes many coins from a die, they all resemble one another, but the Supreme King of Kings, the Holy One, Blessed be He, fashioned every man in the stamp of the First Man [Adam], and yet not one of them resembles his fellow.”
The wisest of all men, King Solomon counseled, “Chanoch lanaar al pi darko; Train the child according to his way.” (Proverbs 22:6).
Today, we call this “individualized learning,” a method of teaching a concept that started evolving in the 1960s, in which content, instructional technology and pace of learning are based upon the abilities and interest of each learner. Goals, based on curriculum design and standards, may be the same for all students, but the individual learning profile and plan for each student may vary. This is because each learner progresses through the material at a different speed, based on his or her own learning needs and abilities.
Rabbi Fein has worked to establish a successful growth mindset and collaborative culture around the transition to personalized learning in Talmud. His unique data-driven model is used to create personalized learning pathways that allow students to progress based on proficiency and mastery in eight specific domains that provide a comprehensive understanding of Talmud—including content, vocabulary, functional structures and real-life application.
The impressive part is how these lofty goals were made to work in real life, despite many competing demands for the limited number of available instruction hours and resources, and traditional (read scared and conservative) teachers.
Beyond measurement, a key to the new methodology is based on a “new time-allocation design called ‘50-35-15,’” Rabbi Fein explained.
This provides a framework for students to spend 50 percent of their weekly class time in whole-class instruction, 35 percent of their time on personalized learning pathways and differentiated learning activities to reach greater levels of proficiency and 15 percent of their time working with their peers in collaborative learning, what we call the chavruta or buddy system combined with small group instruction, which provides incredibly valuable, one-on-a few time with a rebbe to foster a meaningful, substantive and personalized relationship with students.
It’s all accomplished without increasing the number of classroom hours devoted to Talmud study.
Peer learning plays an important role. In an earlier article, “Medical Discovery: Talmudic Study Methods Work Best,” I noted that modern medicine discovered that medical students who team up have a better chance of making the right diagnosis and that medical students who worked in pairs to solve diagnostic problems were more likely to arrive at the correct diagnosis than those who worked alone. Chavruta learning works.
Two other innovations that Rabbi Fein introduced to Talmud study are:
Alternative assessment models such as multiple intelligence choice boards and game-based learning activities. These provide students with the opportunity to demonstrate mastery of concepts and skills in an active, creative, meaningful and fun way.
Cultivating a team culture amongst the faculty in the Talmud department to share assessments, lesson plans and materials with one another, soliciting constructive feedback and sharing of best practices.
Among the many fans of Rabbi Fein’s work is the highly regarded AVI CHAI Foundation, an innovative private foundation that sponsors projects that rely on teaching and enlightenment. It was endowed by Zalman C. Bernstein, z”l, (1926-1999) and is committed to the perpetuation of the Jewish people, Judaism and the centrality of the State of Israel to the Jewish people. Among their projects is BOLD, providing differentiated, blended learning environments—thereby meeting the individual learning needs of students. It continues to stand out as the most common perceived benefit in utilizing blended/online modes of instruction.
“AVI CHAI is pleased to see that educators like Rabbi Fein, and the Kohelet Foundation, are giving attention to the area of personalized learning across the curriculum. Students need to be able to work at varied paces and on different levels in Judaic studies just like they are doing in general studies,” said Rachel Mohl Abrahams, senior program officer of AVI CHAI, who has developed and managed an array of Jewish day school-related projects for the foundation.
Since at least the second century, the “Sea of Talmud” has occupied the preeminent place in Jewish life. As Ben Bag-Bag, a disciple of Hillel said, “Turn it, and turn it, for everything is in it. Reflect on it and grow old and gray with it. Don’t turn from it, for nothing is better than it (Avot 5:22). One of the most fascinating aspects of Torah study is that it is never “complete” but we return to it our entire lives, as we pray in the hadran, every time we complete a tractate. “We won’t leave you, tractate—and may you not leave us.” R. Berel Wein observed that in general studies a student will typically complete a course of study and progress to the next level. Once a student passes Calculus I, he puts it behind him (presumably having gained something in the process) and moves on to Calc. II. Not so with Torah. Year after year we study it—each year understanding just a little bit more than we did in the past. It’s an ongoing process. The Talmud (Chagiga 9b) reminds us that one can’t begin to compare the understanding achieved by one who studied his chapter (only) 100 times to one who reviewed it 101. The wonderful thing that Rabbi Fein is doing by inculcating a love of Talmud, along with the skill set to study it already in Middle School, is that it becomes a life-long habit and way of life.
By David E. Y. Sarna
David E. Y. Sarna is a writer and retired entrepreneur. He has eight published books, including “Evernote for Dummies” and hundreds of articles, and has nearly completed his first novel about the Jewish treasures in the Vatican’s secret archive. He is hard at work on a book about the Internet of Things, and also on a book on the Talmud for general readers. He and his wife, Dr. Rachel Sarna, are longtime Teaneck residents.