Essential Ingredients in Education: Skills, Content, and Values

February 4, 2004
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by Judd Kruger Levingston

WHAT IF TIME were so compressed that a teacher had only two hours to teach about Shabbat? What should she or he emphasize: skills, content, or values? Should the teacher focus on the skills required to make Shabbat — how to know when candle lighting takes place, how to sing kiddush, and how to participate in synagogue services? Or should the teacher emphasize content: the 39 forms of prohibited work and the biblical, rabbinic, and mystical elements of the Shabbat service? Or, should the teacher kindle the imagination and encourage the students to appreciate the value of a day of divinely inspired rest through readings and discussion?

Fortunately, Jewish after-school programs and full-time day schools are able to devote more than just two hours to teaching Shabbat. The pressure of time, however, affects every school, and choices have to be made about which topics to teach and whether to assign priority to skills, content, or values.

In the Talmud (Kidushin 29a), we see elements of an ancient curriculum when the rabbis describe the obligations of a father (and, as some commentaries hasten to add, a mother as well) to teach a child Talmud Torah (the study of Torah) and a trade. Maimonides, writing almost a millennium later in the Mishneh Torah, prescribes in his Laws for the Study of Torah (1:11) that a child’s education should be divided into three areas: Torah, Mishnah (which Maimonides understands as the study of rabbinic law and discussion), and philosophical reflection. Thus, both in the Talmud and in Maimonides’ writings, the child’s education emphasizes skills and content. Implicit in both is the value of a parent’s obligation to teach, to fulfill a relationship, and to awaken a young mind. Today, we understand that the educational process involves not only the transfer of information in the form of content and skills but also the acculturation of a young mind into a community. In his work Sources of the Self, Charles Taylor casts this same value in a modern light, referring to this process of initiation as an entry into a “web of interlocutors.”

As Philip Jackson and his co-authors write in The Moral Life of Schools, schools are inherently moral places because they purport not only to offer instruction in skill and content areas but also to care about the well-being and development of their students. This means that it may not be enough just to teach skills and content: schools have an obligation to teach values as well. Attention to moral education is not new to Jewish society. From the pages in the Talmud about how to resolve a dispute to the moral epigrams in Pirkei Avot, it is clear that one’s education as a Jew is incomplete if it doesn’t include Torah (skills, content) along with derekh eretz (values, integrity, and decent behavior in the world).

Some of the liveliest debates in Jewish school board and trustee meetings center on the articulation of a school mission statement: is the mission to ensure that every graduate knows biblical and talmudic literature (content), how to lead a religious service (skill), and how to converse in Hebrew (content and skill)? Or, is the mission more broadly defined: to encourage deeds of loving kindness and an affinity for Jewish cultural life; to foster a covenantal relationship with God, and to develop a commitment to the welfare of Jews everywhere from the Diaspora to Israel? If Jewish education only transmits skills and content, then board members and parents may find the education lacking in spirit; conversely, an emphasis on Jewish moral character at the expense of content may seem to lack a strong foundation.

The study of Talmud could easily introduce skills, content, and values. A text, like Bava Metzia, allows values such as the peaceful resolution of disputes to emerge while students are learning talmudic argument and exchange, as well as the skill of decoding the terse language of text. Alternatively, in a values-oriented course, students could explore a concept such as the resolution of disputes, attend courtroom trials, and read texts that would deepen students’ understandings of the concept. A values-oriented course, for example, might wrestle with the textual bases for the “Ten Sensibilities” articulated in these pages by Vanessa Ochs (Sh’ma, December 2003). And Michael Rosenak’s Commandments and Concerns identifies certain “commonplaces” — broad concepts such as Jewish peoplehood and the God of Israel that Jews have shared in different eras and in different places. A curriculum rich with content, skills, and values could be framed around any of these “commonplaces.”

Jewish education takes place, as the sh’ma reminds us, at home, when we walk on the way, when we awaken, and when we go to sleep. It also takes place in schools, synagogues, camps, outdoor programs, university courses, and campus Hillel centers. Whether our point of departure is a content area or a value concept, we reinforce continuity with Jewish education 2,000 years ago when our curiosity leads us to master content, to acquire, to use, and to master new skills, and when we incorporate the values we have learned into our worldview and behavior.

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Rabbi Judd Kruger Levingston is Head of Upper School at Chestnut Hill Academy in Philadelphia. He recently received his doctorate in Jewish education with a focus on moral education from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America

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