Two heads are better for learning than one

Children in the general school system could gain from traditional methods of studying Torah

By Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, May 10, 2012
Studying in pairs at the Lubavitch Yeshivah, Manchester

Studying in pairs at the Lubavitch Yeshivah, Manchester

An ancient Jewish system of learning is being suggested as the way forward for schools in the UK.

Professor Peter Tymms, Head of Durham University's School of Education, recently published his groundbreaking findings on effective pedagogic methodology. His research in 129 primary schools in Scotland, the largest ever trial of peer tutoring, showed that children from as young as seven or eight years old benefit most from a one-to-one tutoring session.

Tymms now wants to see this method being introduced throughout the UK. "The trial shows that a tutoring scheme could be implemented across educational areas nationwide," he said. "Older pupils boosted their knowledge and skills by becoming tutors and the younger tutees benefited greatly from one-to-one learning with older children."

Another leading academic, Professor Keith Topping, from Dundee University, reported on excellent feedback received from teachers about the project: 92 per cent thought that the project worked well. Children enjoyed taking on the mantle of being a tutor and responded positively to the responsibility.

The results of this innovative project have been long known to us in the form of the chavruta (one-to-one) system, which is the key element of the educational programme of the newly opened Kinloss Community Kollel at Finchley, a first for the United Synagogue. In extolling the virtues of the chavruta concept, the talmudic sage Rabbi Chanina remarked, "I have learned much from my teachers, more from my colleagues, and most from my students" (Ta'anit 7a).

The one-to-one learning model, which has been operating for more than two millennia, continues to be the hallmark of Torah study within yeshivot, seminaries and Jewish religious schools around the world.

Tymms's findings confirm our own experiences. Students respond well to a formal learning session with a fellow. The weaker student is taught, guided and inspired by a more knowledgeable student, while the senior partner's knowledge is honed and enhanced through the shared learning experience.

Furthermore, the chavruta arrangement encourages both participants to have added commitment to their learning task as they do not wish to let the other party down.

Senior partners often find that revising material they have previously mastered, through teaching it to someone else, enables them to reach new, exciting depths of understanding. The comments and questions of the junior partner, however innocent or ignorant, can lead one to explore and discover information and understanding that were otherwise out of one's grasp.

Furthermore, the challenge of developing, articulating and defending one's ideas to a study partner deepens one's understanding and enables one to remember the material better. Two minds applied to a problem are almost always better than one. Indeed, the Talmud goes so far as to say that one who learns Torah alone becomes foolish (Berachot 63a).

The chavruta system often helps participants to forge life-long social connections. The term chavruta comes from the Aramaic meaning "friendship". In addition, the respect and dignity that the students show each other prompted our sages to say, "When two scholars of Torah listen to one another, God hears their voices" (Shabbat 63a).

Many communities across the UK are finding that professionally presented, quality Jewish learning attracts high numbers of participants. Over 400 people attended the opening spring-term event of KLC (Kinloss Learning Centre), Finchley Synagogue's spectacularly successful adult education facility. Now in its tenth year, KLC's success is shared by many communities through learning programmes for adults.

Whereas, previously, synagogues have lived up to their names, beit haknesset (house of gathering) and beit tefillah (house of prayer), most synagogues today are also a genuine shul (from the German meaning "school") with outstanding programmes of education for all ages.

In this context, the Kinloss Community Kollel has been established. This innovative, wide-ranging programme catering for men and women of all backgrounds and levels of learning is now in its third, highly successful, term of operation.

Chavruta learning is at the heart of the daily kollel experience, through which participants have an opportunity to sit down with a partner to study a text of their choice. Whether it is a brushing-up session on the aleph-bet or a page of Gemara, the chavruta experience enhances levels of Jewish knowledge and strengthens commitment to Jewish values. The thrill of participating in a beit midrash environment with other motivated individuals provides an uplifting and inspirational hour's experience.

Further to the success of SEED programmes in many synagogues, the chavruta system has recently been extended to telephone, internet and video-conferencing study partnerships. Our ancient, tried and tested one-to-one system is breaking new ground in the Jewish world, and now, further to Tymms's research, could become a regular feature of tuition in all UK schools.

Ephraim Mirvis is senior rabbi of Finchley United Synagogue

Last updated: 2:27pm, May 17 2012