Jewish Learning with Attitude

Artwork by Jess Benjamin
Artwork by Jess Benjamin

Yona and Leor were studying Sefer Shemot (the book of Exodus) together inchavruta__, arguing about an interpretation of a verse. When their learning came to a standstill, Yona said: “We are totally stuck. Should we just move on?” Leor responded, “We’re not stuck. We just don’t agree. Let’s try to restate each other’s ideas to make sure we understand each other.” With some effort, they each restated the other’s interpretation, including their supporting textual evidence. Through this process, Leor noticed something new in the text, and Yona pointed out new evidence in the text that supported Leor’s interpretation.

Chavruta learning is a process of building relationships, or partnerships, with one another and the texts we study. To learn in partnership with others and with texts requires not only developing new content knowledge but also intentionally cultivating relational skills and attitudes. This allows learners like Leor and Yona to reframe their disagreement and experience as “a reason to seek deeper understanding.” This attitude is the cornerstone of what we have termed a “partnership learning stance.”

Fundamental to partnership learning is a stance of openness toward ourselves, other people, and texts. This type of openness creates a space in which each partner — and the text is deemed one of the partners — is valued for what they can contribute while being fully present in their particularity.

Connected to openness is an attitude of empathy, a commitment to seeking to understand each partner’s point of view. Rather than rushing to judgment, we seek out our partners’ ideas and consider, with compassion, what our partners — a person or a text — are expressing.

The third element, listening, is both a skill and an attitude, and learners need both: the skill of listening closely, and the inclination to pay attention to what our partners have to offer whether or not we agree. Curiosity and wonder help fuel the inclination to listen, which in turn leads to new insights and helps us appreciate our partners.

Finally, an ethic of responsibility toward our learning partners and toward the learning endeavor as a whole undergirds the entire enterprise. The relationships between learners, their peers, and the texts are direct, without the fixed or constant mediation of a teacher. In this way, partners take responsibility for the experience of learning even when it’s hard.

Many of us come into learning with elements of an ingrained counter-stance. Perhaps we are not inclined to value our peers’ ideas and look only to the educator as expert; perhaps we are not open to listening to a text or another person, particularly when we disagree, or perhaps we believe that our job is to get the most out of the learning for ourselves and that it is the educator’s job to attend to everyone else.

Ben Azzai, a 2nd-century rabbinic sage, prioritizes the biblical teaching that “God created the human in the image of God.” This teaching highlights the integrity of each person created in God’s image and our responsibility for upholding that integrity. Through our research and practice in the Pedagogy of Partnership, we make this core Jewish principle come to life through cultivating partnership learning attitudes and skills that we enact and hone in our day-to-day learning and engagement with others. Partnership learning cultivates attitudes that not only influence how we learn together but can also guide our personal and public lives by nurturing openness, empathy, listening, wonder, and responsibility. These attitudes inculcate an understanding that our own integrity and fullness depend on our capacity for upholding that of others. In this way, learning in partnership provides a training ground for us to learn ways of talking and engaging in Jewish life and the larger world.

This story "Jewish Learning with Attitude" was written by Orit Kent and Allison Cook.

Author

Orit Kent and Allison Cook

Orit Kent and Allison Cook

Dr. Orit Kent and Allison Cook are the directors of the Pedagogy of Partnership, where they teach skills and attitudes for learning together, and provide professional development and educational design services.

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