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Neuroscience + Rabbinic Wisdom = Better Jewish Education

Neuroscience + Rabbinic Wisdom = Better Jewish Education

"Most educators spend very little time getting to know the primary organ of their life’s purpose: the brain." -Tracey Tokuhama-Espinosa

Would we tolerate a college football coach who did not understand how the circulatory system and lungs work? Or a voice teacher who did not understand how the voicebox and ears work? 

Similarly, how can Jewish educators be effective teachers without understanding the primary organ of learning – the human brain? As neuroscientist David Sousa says, “Teachers are…the ultimate ‘brain changers.’ They are in a profession of changing the human brain every day.”

Rabbi Geoffrey Mitelman's cover story in Reform Judaism magazine, "Science + Religion = Better World," explains that when religion and science come into healthy contact, great things can happen in the fields of memory, compassion, and self-control. Here’s an example I call "Neuroscience + Rabbinic Wisdom = Better Jewish Education."

Working together over the last decade, a group of neuroscientists, psychologists, and educators, launched the field of neuroeducation, which explores interactions between biological processes and education. As I delved into the field through a Jewish lens (see "Neuro-Jewish Education: An Introduction"), I discovered that the teachings of our rabbinic sages have much in common with those of today’s neuroeducators! Here are four examples:

Improving Memory

Neuroscience identifies many stages of memory creation. Immediate memory holds incoming information for a few seconds. Working memory holds information while it is consciously processed, for up to several weeks. Unused information is then discarded (perhaps after a test). Sense, meaning, and relevancy are emerging as major criteria that the brain uses in deciding what to encode to long-term memory.

A Jewish example: Elisha ben Avuya used to say that a man may study Torah for 20 years and forget it in two. How? If he sits idly for six months without reviewing, he will find himself declaring that which is unclean clean and vice versa. If he is idle for 12 months, he will find himself confusing the names of the sages. If he is idle for 18 months, he will forget the substance of whole tractates. If he is idle for 24 months, he will forget the substance of individual chapters. (Avot D’Rabbi Natan 24)

Role of Motivation

Neuroscience shows that the motivation for the topic of new learning greatly impacts learning. Imaging studies have revealed areas of the brain dedicated to appraising the meaning of an event and deciding what emotional response to use in a social context.

A Jewish example: Levi and R. Simeon Berabbi were seated before Rabbi, expounding verses of scripture. When they finished book they were reading, Levi said, “Let the book of Proverbs be brought.” R. Simeon Berabbi said, “Let the book of Psalms be brought.” Levi was overruled, and the book of Psalms was brought. When they reached the verse, “His delight is in the Torah of the Lord” (Psalms 1:2), Rabbi, expounding it, said, “A man learns well only that part of the Torah which delights him.” At that, Levi said, “Master, you have just now given me permission to get up and leave.” (BT Avodah Zarah 19a)

Role of Emotions and Stress

Neuroscience shows that stress and emotions have a major impact on learning and are critical to decision-making. “Good” stress heightens attention and helps learning; “bad” stress detracts from learning potential. Educators should understand the biology of emotions, especially stress, and recognize that students cannot focus on the curriculum unless they feel physically safe and emotionally secure.

A Jewish example: R. Hiyya bar Adda was seated before Rav, who was explaining a matter to him, but he could not comprehend it. Finally, Rav asked him, “Why can’t you grasp the matter?” The disciple replied, “Because my she-ass is about to foal, and I am afraid that she may catch cold and die.” (B’reishit Rabbah 20:6)

Role of Support

Neuroscience shows that support matters. Academic, moral, and other support from teachers, peers, or parents are critical for optimal academic performance.

A Jewish example: Eleazar ben Arakh lived in a beautiful area, but he had no colleagues around to learn with. He thought about going out to them, but decided that his colleagues needed his great wisdom more than he needed theirs, so he never went. After a while, he forgot all of his learning. Years later, when disciples came to ask a question, he was unable to answer. (Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:7; Avot D’Rabbi Natan 14)

There are many other ways we might apply the teachings of neuroeducators to Jewish education. Consider, for one, Hebrew language acquisition. Neuroeducators know that when we learn to read and write a language, the brain maps the symbols of the letters onto the sounds of the words that the brain already knows. When we read C-A-T and say "cat!" we already know what the word sounds like and what a cat is. But in most American supplementary Jewish education programs, when we try to teach young Jews to read a language they have never heard, we derail this natural learning process. Because they don't have many Hebrew sounds from which to map the letter-symbols onto, the result is very poor Hebrew language skills. A possible solution is to implement early childhood spoken Hebrew programs from which students can build upon in supplementary school.

Jewish educators and neuroeducators have much to learn from each other. A partnership between our religious community and this scientific community could bring about more effective approaches to education. Indeed, together we can realize the formula: Religion + Science = Better World.

Do you agree that science and religion can work together to better our world? Join the conversation on Facebook!

Rabbi Justus N. Baird has served as the director of the Center for Multifaith Education at Auburn Theological Seminary in New York City since 2007. He oversees the seminary's multifaith programming, which strives to prepare religious leaders for a religiously diverse world. Rabbi Baird was ordained at Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion, where he studied as a Wexner Graduate Fellow. He brings an entrepreneurial approach to his work; before entering rabbinical school he co-founded, a successful and far-reaching academic online library, and in 2009 he founded Yerusha, an alternative Hebrew school.

Rabbi Justus N. Baird
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