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The Four Sons: An Individualized Learning Approach

April 1, 2015

 

The Seder is the most observed ritual in our generation in Jewish communities all around the world. According to the Pew Research Survey of Jewish Americans of 2013, over 70% of Jews get together with family and/or friends for some type of Seder, whether they follow the entire traditional ritual or not. Each element of the night is part of a whole which leads to many questions. On the Seder night, nothing is as on other nights!

While the traditional ritual has the youngest participant asking the Four Questions, the Seder experience generally leads to many more – Why do we break the middle matzah? Why do we eat charoset? Why do we recline? Why do we dip in salt water? Why do we hide the afikoman? And these are just a few of the questions which allow the leader to tell the story of our Redemption from Egypt.

The entire Seder is a brilliant pedagogical device to teach about the past of the Children of Israel and to transmit important values for the present and future. What is fascinating to me is that close to two thousand years ago, there was such a clear understanding about effective teaching. If we want students to develop the love of learning, we must engage them. We must listen to their questions and we must address their curiosity. So how do we do this? And here comes the most amazing aspect – the Rabbis were the first to understand the concept of Differentiated Instruction. While educators all around the world today promote teaching different students with different materials and methods, taking into consideration different learning styles, the Rabbis envisioned different answers to be given to different kinds of students.

Looking at the Four Sons of the Haggadah (or Four Children in some more modern haggadot), we see four kinds of students: the “wise”, the “wicked”, the “simple”, and the “one who does not know how to ask.” While the Seder ritual will encourage every child to ask questions, we are instructed to answer the questions in ways that each child can understand and relate to, using language they can comprehend, and understanding where they are coming from. It is only when we understand the needs of each of these children that we can offer effective answers, which will engage them in conversation and inspire them to want to learn more.

As an educator, I frequently encounter these four children. During the years, I have learned through experience the best ways of reaching each child where he/she is.

The “wise” son represents the child who is eager to learn. He has already understood the basics of the story and the rituals, but wants to engage in deeper conversations. He is not necessarily the most intelligent. What makes him “wise” is the fact that he wants to learn more. For this child, we must offer opportunities to expand on his/her learning. We must ask them challenging questions; offer them websites and printed resources where they can find more information; give them extra work, if they are up to it; promote their critical thinking skills.

The “wicked” son is the one who thinks he knows it all and has nothing to learn. He asks a question not really searching for an answer. He sounds angry and frustrated, he excludes himself from the community (“What is this that God did to you? Is his question). He wants attention and is aware that by rebelling he will probably get it by not following rules. In Hebrew School or at bar/Bat Mitzvah tutoring, this is typically the child that does not want to be there, but whose parents did not give them an option. This is not a “bad” child and if we label him as such, we will not be effective as educators. For this kind of child, we must find out what they are passionate about. If they love soccer, for example, we should teach using examples from soccer. We can offer them opportunities to tell us what they would be interested in learning, and begin from there. I had a student once who loved animals. We began our learning sessions by looking at what Judaism says about care for animals.

The “simple” son wants to learn as much as the wise one, but his questions are less complex and his understanding is less sophisticated. He is looking for concrete answers, not a philosophical treatise. He can grasp information but has a harder time with critical thinking. Giving positive reinforcement to this child goes a long way. Many times, especially if the class has some “wise” and “wicked” students, this child has a lack of self-esteem, feeling he or she is not as smart as the others. As educators, we can ask these children questions we know they can answer. While we should answer their questions in simple language, we should also encourage them to make connections between the different facts they are learning.

The “one who does not know how to ask” sits quietly in his desk and does not mind being unnoticed. If we leave him alone, he will be content. But if we find ways to inspire him, to bring him into the conversation, he will eventually learn how to ask. Many times, these are students with learning differences, and our job as educators is to find out how they learn best – do they need hands-on projects? Does music help them learn? By finding their strengths and teaching with them in mind, we are able to bring them into the fold, feeling safe to begin asking questions and participating in class discussions.

These Four Sons are very different one from another, but truthfully can be facets of a same person. Depending on the topic or the circumstances, a student will put himself in the position of one of those sons. Each of us has been in the shoes of each of the Four Sons, and what inspired us was the teacher who understood how to engage us at that specific moment.

Each and every child at the Seder table requires an answer that will bring them into the community of learners. So it should be with every Jew, regardless of age, previous knowledge, background or level of observance. In the last book of the Torah – Deuteronomy – we are told that the Torah is our inheritance; it belongs to each and every Jew, regardless of their intellectual capacity or their personal interests. Just the same, the Haggadah says that in every generation we must see ourselves as if we had personally left Egypt (b'chol dor vador chayav adam lir'ot et atzmo k'ilu hu yatza mi'Mitzrayim) – it does not differentiate between those who were excited to leave, those who would rather have stayed, or those who were too confused to understand what was going on.

So it is with Jewish education – it is our responsibility to inspire every kind of learner! For this upcoming Passover, it is my wish that at each and every Seder table a multitude of questions will be raised by the “wise”, the “wicked”, the “simple” and the “ones who do not know how to ask”. It is my dream that Seder leaders will inspire all participants to ask questions and to search for answers even long after the Seder is over.

Chag Pesach Kasher v’Sameach – May you have a Happy and Kosher Passover!

 

 

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