Wednesday, February 5, 2014

P'tach: Finding the Missing Instruction Manual by Mordechai Schiller

Chinuch Innovators:  Finding The Missing Instruction Manual  by Mordechai Schiller

Wouldn't it be great if children came with instructions?

Shlomo Hamelech said "Chanoch lanaar al pi darko--Educate the child according to his way." But sometimes it seems you need the wisdom of Shlomo to do that!

Like new concepts in Torah Sheb'al Peh, cryptic instructions for chinuch were left for each generation to discover for itself. Dor ledor yeshabach maasecha. Every generation has its own chinuch innovators who rediscover the message of "Chanoch lanaar al pi darko" for the needs of the time.

Before the time of the Mishna, there were no "yeshivas" as we know them. Reb Yehoshua ben Gamla, "should be blessed," says the Gemara (Baba Basra 21a),  "for without him the Torah would have been forgotten in Israel." Yehoshua ben Gamla initiated the first system of public education for children. Before his time (a decade before the destruction of the second Beis Hamikdash), parents taught their own children. Orphans were left with no schooling.

A century later, Reb Yehuda Hanasi broke new ground when he lifted the ban against writing down the Oral Torah and transcribed the Mishna to prevent it from being forgotten. Three centuries later, Ravina and Rav Ashi did the same for the Gemara.

No "Typical" Child

In later generations, we saw such innovations as the Shulchan Aruch, the Yeshiva of Volozhin, Bais Yaakov schools, Daf Yomi, Torah summer camps, day schools and the teshuva movement. Each generation according to its needs.

As secular education became more of a science, Torah leaders and educators learned to adapt its findings to the concept of al pi darko. We became more aware that there is no such thing as a "typical" child.

All children are unique, with their own strengths and weaknesses in learning. In the past teachers gave children who were "different" labels like "lazy," "dreamy," "ADD," or worse. But, says Dr. Judah Weller, Educational Director of P'tach, such labels are not only misleading, they are damaging. And they can be self-fulfilling prophecies, with children living up to their labels, true or not.

They are misleading because they oversimplify a complex range of behaviors. Labels like "ADD" are also harmful because they focus on weaknesses, not strengths. And they often doom children to a life of being classified as "abnormal." Labelers fail to recognize the ability of  the human mind to adapt and cope, using "bypass strategies" or "accommodations."

Opening the Door to Learning

In 1978, a group of concerned parents and educators--pioneers and innovators for discovering the potentials of a child's mind--joined together to create Parents for Torah for All Children. "P'tach," as the name implies, opened the door to learning for children who had once been closed out. And they insisted that every child can succeed.

"Rochel" (we'll call her) came from a P'tach elementary school program to a high school where she was placed in a special education program--with "mainstreaming" for several of her classes. During one class, Rochel raised her hand and explained to the teacher that she has a language processing and organization problem: "I need you to repeat some of the information for me so I can understand it."

The teacher was stunned by Rochel's grasp of her own weakness, and even more so by her ability to break down and specify exactly what she needed in  order to succeed. If another child had the same difficulties--but not the same training--she might have just thrown up her hands and said "I don't understand!" Today, the teacher uses Rochel's well-organized notes to show other girls how to break down and organize the information.

All Education Should Be Special

Rochel's success was a delight--but no surprise--to Dr. Weller, who insists that there is nothing "special" about special education. "It is simply superior education!" And once you make a child aware of her strengths and weaknesses, she has the tools to cope and succeed.

A P'tach-trained student who is now married, took the adapting skills she learned in school and applied them to her home life. Her mother recently called to thank P'tach for turning her daughter into a "real balabusta!" Her secret? She plans out everything in her home on index cards--a skill she was taught to help her accommodate a weakness in organization!

Rochel and the balabusta are what Dr. Mel Levine would call "self-attuned." Dr. Levine is professor of pediatrics at the University of North Carolina Medical School and director of the university's Clinical Center for the Study of Development and Learning. Levine, author of A Mind at a Time and The Myth of Laziness, is cofounder of All Kinds of Minds, a movement to train educators to recognize and address learning differences--and help every child succeed.

In his introduction to A Mind at a Time, Levine writes: "This could not have been written decades ago. It is only in recent years that, fortified with a wealth of research into learning, brain function and school failure, we have been able to develop approaches to the understanding of children's minds"

One of the building blocks of All Kinds of Minds is Levine's emphasis on what he calls "Demystification": getting rid of the labels and gobbledygook that confuse children and make them feel bad about themselves. Instead, Levine teaches teachers and parents how to explain to children precisely what problems they are experiencing... and what techniques they can use to overcome those problems.

The goal is to make a child realize he isn't "bad" or defective. (How many of our children were taught that they were "bad"... then wound up believing it and became "children at risk"?!)

Everybody has different strengths and weaknesses. And everybody can learn, al pi darko. Demystified students become optimistic about their future instead of giving up. Like Rochel, who learned to take break down information and take detailed notes, instead of getting labeled "disorganized."

A teacher attuned to a child's kind of mind might say specifically "Look right at me while I explain this," instead of an ill-defined and unhelpful demand to "pay attention."

Following Levine's approach, Dr. Weller insists that there are "no learning disabilities... only differences." And  he has made it P'tach's mission to give all Jewish students the benefit of "a superior education."

According to Dr. Weller, All Kinds of Minds is a program that puts Chanoch lanaar al pi darko into action. To that end, Dr. Weller introduced the All Kinds of Minds "Schools Attuned"© to Jewish educators from New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. The Schools Attuned program teaches teachers, training them to meet the diverse needs of all students in their schools. Classroom teachers are on the front line to observe the different ways children learn. Schools Attuned training sensitizes teachers and helps them help their students to learn. It also makes teachers tuned in to who needs special help.

The day schools program teaches the All Kinds of Minds philosophy through an intensive 35-hour staff development program for Rabbeim and teachers. Since 2002 P'tach has been instrumental in training over 500 Jewish educators from the New York area in a custom tailored Jewish Schools Attuned program.

What are the results?

Possibly the main result is that teachers are trained never to give up on a child or let the child give up on himself. Every child has strengths that can be harnessed for learning. And they no longer expect children to all learn using the same method. What's more, one of the key messages is "Help one... Help many!" Contrary to popular belief, a teacher helping one child learn isn't detracting from the class. Helping one child "get it" helps others get it too.

Teachers report back that Schools Attuned has changed their whole view of thinking. One rebbi said "I used to think that teaching for 15 years,  I knew it all...." Anticipating eventual burnout, the teacher added frustration over "never getting to some kids... I couldn't understand them. What a waste!"

But after the Schools Attuned program, the same rebbi said "I've been rejuiced up. Now I have new ammunition to get to everyone. Maybe I'm not stale after all. I will make a big difference! Even in my personal life, I now evaluate my own children with deeper insight and knowledge!... Thank you so much for the opportunity. I hope I have the time to constantly use the skill and management to help for many years."

Another said "There were students who were falling through the cracks, but I was powerless to help them.... many of them would not be able to function in a classroom. We just needed to keep them floating." But the program taught him "There is a way to get to all of them. There is a way to convince other teachers, the administration and the students themselves that they can be successful! We can pinpoint their problems and help them overcome those problems."

One rebbi summed it up saying, now he felt "empowered to do so  much more than just teach information. I have a tremendous ability to help my students in so many ways... Chanoch lanaar al pi darko!"

Some educators comment that there's nothing new under the sun, but Dr. Weller responds, "Schools Attuned organizes and structures what we know in a user-friendly way and helps teachers bring out the best in our children."

You might say it's the missing instruction manual for chinuch.


  1. The information in this essay is quite valuable but probably written before the discovery that Mel Levine was a pedophile who used his unique education methods to lure young children into his dark world.

  2. Leaving aside the controversy surrounding the late Dr Mel Levine , the learning disability kids benefited from him a lot. Labels in the most are descriptive and don't tell us the why or what are the kids lagging skills . All kids need a more individualized education rather than the factory style settings in place

  3. Regarding pious preamble to article, is there anything Jewish about modern Jewish education? Are the instructions chazal tell beyond obvious and/or vague? Just curious.

  4. "As secular education became more of a science, Torah leaders and educators learned to adapt its findings to the concept of al pi darko. We became more aware that there is no such thing as a "typical" child."

    We don't need to adapt secular sciences findings to know that there is no such thing as a typical child.

    Rabeinu Yonah said so many hundreds of years ago:

    רבינו יונה, משלי כ"ב-ו: "חנוך לנער על פי דרכו גם כי יזקין לא יסור ממנה", יחל ללמדו ולהרגילו ... על פי אשר תשיג יד שכלו לקבל ... כי אין מגיעין אל שלמות המדות בפעם אחת כי אם .. (ו)על יד שכלו ומן הקרוב לתודלתו אל הרחוק ממנה, וזה כִוֵּן ענין על פי דרכו...

    Unfortunately, too often "learning styles" theory is used as an excuse NOT to take care of issues in a timely fashion. This is one area where Torah Haskafa is different. Parents are obligated to "fill in the gaps" where the child doesn't understand on his own, or doesn't care to act on his own, BEFORE bad habits get ingrained:

    רבינו יונה משלי, כ"ב-ו: "גם כי יזקין לא יסור ממנה", בימי הנערות הדבר קרוב לישר הטבע ולתקן המדות ויקבל ההרגל וגם כי יזקין לא יסור ממנה כאשר אמרו במוסרים ההרגל על כל דבר שלטון, אבל בימי הזקנה רחוק הדבר להחליף הטבע ולהעתיקו אחרי שהרגילו בפעל ויצטרך טרח גדול ועמל עצום להפכו משרשו ... ואם ירגיל טבעו בפעל ובהנהגה כאשר יגיע לזמן שלמות שכלו ילאה להשיב ההרגל אחור ולתקן טבעו על כן נתחיבו האב והאם לעזרו בשכלם ולתקן טבעו בימי הנערות קדם שישלט עליו ההרגל.

  5. Another problem with learning styles is that the tools used to measure them are of questionable validity. For details, please see:

    Mel Levine's AKOM (All Kinds Of Minds) model isn't mentioned by name, but from my experiences it shares many of the same issues.

  6. Finally, learning style theory doesn't take into consideration the unique characteristics of specific subjects, For example,the Visual, Auditory and Kinesthetic (VAK) learning style model, tests for one of the three mentioned learning styles.

    Let's say the VAK shows that I'm a strong auditory learner and weak Kinesthetic learner, and I want to learn carpentry. Should I be taught carpentry using sounds? Of course not!

    Too often have I seen the advice given by some professionals on how to teach certain subjects that actually make things WORSE because the advsor knows nothing about teaching the actual subject - only the student's learning style!

    Even when the model is more on target, there's the problem of העיקר חסור מן הספר - the teachers have a dearth of strategies in their arsenal to begin with, so that they actually have little knowledge of what and how tweak their teaching based on learning styles. More useful - grow the arsenal of proven teaching strategies FIRST!

    Also, classroom teachers need to be whizzes to be able tp tailor their presentation to different individuals in the class. The doubt that the R"Y mentioned earlier would rely on on a test - but rather on the dynamic feedback WHILE teaching.

    לפענ"ד Bottom line - the article has a kernel of truth, but a lot is missing.

    to learn carpentry - is I might be an auditory learner, but I'll never learn

  7. The instruction manual is something every Jew has. It is the Torah.

    1. My question is gufa whether al pi darko is a Jewish chiddush. It seems obvious that everyone has their own strengths and weaknesses. Did non-Jews ignore the fact until the 20th century?


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