As the Assistant Principal at YDE, a Yeshiva High School in Brooklyn, one of my responsibilities is to try to implement new, exciting educational models in our school. Most recently, we have begun implementing inquiry-based learning, an educational structure wherein teachers guide students to create their own topic-related questions, obtain evidence to answer those questions, and then formulate explanations of their findings by evaluating and analyzing the evidence they obtain. The benefit of this approach is that students are not simply memorizing the material they study, but they actively engage with it. Unlike in frontal, or lecture-style instruction, the inquiry-based model challenges students to come up with both the questions and the answers. Rather than simply transmit information as he or she would in a teacher-centered model, a teacher practicing inquiry-based learning acts as a guide, steering students to conduct their own research and draw their own conclusions.
A key ingredient in inquiry-based learning is asking essential questions. Such questions frame a unit of study as a problem to be solved, connecting what students learn to what they experience in the real world. By asking open-ended, thought-provoking and intellectually engaging questions, we encourage analysis, raise additional questions and spark further inquiry.
On the seder night, each of us is an educator challenged with the task of not only transmitting information, but enticing the children among us to actively engage with the complex Pesach story. Though it technically means to “narrate,” the “Maggid” section of the haggadah opens with a series of questions designed to evoke interest and frame the story that is to come. The mah nishtana sets the tone for this inquiry-style dynamic, opening up an exchange between seder participants as opposed to a one-way retelling of events.
As we move along in the haggadah, we continue to prod the children to ask higher order questions and think about the material in greater depth. When our children ask mah ha’edot v’hachukim v’hamishptaim asher tziva Hashem Elokeinu etchem, or “What are the testimonies and the statutes and the ordinances that God has commanded you,” they are asking a simple, information seeking question. They are asking a “what” question. Through our response we elevate the discourse, adding the component of “why:” The Torah instructs us to tell the children that God took us out of Egypt l’maan havi otanu latet lanu et ha’aretz asher nishba la’avoteinu, or “so that He might bring us in to give us the land which He swore to our fathers.” We explain not merely what we are doing, but why we are doing it. Seen in this light, the goal of the seder is not just to retell a story as a lecturer would deliver an address to an audience, but to transform the retelling into a discussion of higher level thinking. We do not merely recite a historical narrative; we pose essential questions so that our children are engaged in the study of their heritage.
The seder night is the paradigm for Jewish education. The next generation of Jewish leaders and thinkers will be raised not by simply asking them “what” questions, but by fostering a curiosity for essential questions that are thought provoking and engaging. I would suggest that we hold our yeshivot and ourselves to this educational model as well. Let us not only ask our children for a recitation of facts on their parsha sheets; rather, let us elevate our Shabbat table discussions with questions that elicit depth and engagement. Let us ask our children, even our young children, not just facts about Avraham and Sarah and Yitzchak and Rivkah, such as when they lived, where they lived or how old they were. Let us ask our children essential questions, such as, What does it mean to be a descendant of Avraham and Sarah – how are we the same and how are we different? Let us utilize educational models that are cutting-edge and that date back to the Torah to inspire our children to be proud bearers of our mesorah.