Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Tzav 75 Encouragement vs Praise

The Parasha opens with God telling Moses –' Command -צו ' -  not say  or speak  to דבר  -   Aaron and his sons concerning the laws of the elevation offering, olah = העולה. The message behind the choice of the word ' command' to introduce the olah , is that the Kohanim- priests   in every generation need to be motivated and urged to be especially zealous in performing this service.  The kohanim had to volunteer to do the sacrificial temple service and give up their regular means of earning a livelihood to perform the temple service. Unlike other sacrifices where the Kohanim receive a portion, all the meat of the olah is burnt on the altar. Because the Kohanim suffer a further monetary loss in the case of a korban Olah, they need more motivation to perform this mitzvah.

Some mitzvoth like Sabbath meals, buying a lulav, or collecting the spoil from the Red Sea as opposed to the Olah sacrifice, giving charity or tending to the bones of Yosef are more intrinsically rewarding and enjoyable.  But these mitzvoth have their challenges as well.  The kohanim are supposed to eat the meat of the sacrifices for the sake of the Mitzvah לשם מצוה and not for sake of filling their stomachs – לשם אכילת גסה

The question is how do we motivate people and kids not just to do mitzvoth, but to do them focusing on what they give to the mitzvoth and not what they get?

The answer is given in verse 5: והאש על המזבח תוקד בו לא תכבה - and the fire on the altar shall remain burning on it,-it shall not be extinguished. The verse can be read as the fire on the altar – the passion and commitment to the values represented by the altar and its sacrifices shall remain burning  ' bo' = in him, in the Kohen and never be extinguished. Moses is  to promote the intrinsic motivation and  intrinsic reward for the mitzvah of the Olah   – elevation offering .Our goal is not to be motivated by some pay-off of the mitzvah, but to convert money and economic norms into spirituality. We don't see a monetary loss involved in doing a mitzvah but a worthwhile investment in spirituality and the reward of the mitzvah is the mitzvah itself.

So we certainly should not be using extrinsic motivation, if we want to inspire kids. Instead we can offer encouragement and informational feedback.  We should however not confuse encouragement with praise.  Kids who get a lot of criticism actually welcome praise, but praise like other extrinsic motivators has the following problems.  Praise or the' Good Job' devalues the activity the kid is involved in, as it becomes the means to an end, not valuable in their own right, the end being to receive that expression of approval . And so when that approval is not forthcoming the next time, the desire to read, draw, learn and help is likely to diminish. Generosity can become a means to an end. Our goal should not to use praise and make the kids dependent on our approval, and on our evaluations or decisions about what's good and bad, but rather they should be  learning to form their own judgments, getting pleasure in their own achievements and feeling a sense of competence and self-pride.
 Praise makes kids focus on superficial and extrinsic  ' performance goals', while encouragement and informational feedback meet intrinsic ' competence goals. Praise undermines self-esteem, makes kids less secure  because kids become  dependent on and addicted to  praise even as adult people  who continue to need someone else pat them on the head and tell them what they did was OK . Praise is also experienced as controlling because the words, even if positive are judgmental and evaluative.  All agree with Carol Dweck's work that praising ability is problematic, but praising effort still has a downside that it communicates to a kid that he is not very capable and therefore unlikely to succeed at future tasks – if you are complementing me for trying hard, it  must be because I'm a loser. Praise like rewards undermines interest, intrinsic motivation and impacts negatively on quality. 
   The biggest problem with praise is that it signals conditional acceptance of the kid, that attention, acknowledgment and approval must be earned by doing a job that adults decide is good. Unconditional acceptance and care, to be loved just for whom you are and not for what you do is a vital emotional and psychological need of a child that adult care givers must address and meet.

The alternative to praise is encouragement and informational feedback -  a conversation between the adult and child where the adult uses responses that describe rather than judge and asks questions about the process – why the child decided to act or write in a certain way. The adult will help the child reflect on how his behavior or learning – (socio-moral and academic) may intrinsically please the child or how it can be functionally useful to the self or others, self – assess and give support for improvement in learning, self – assess and give support for improvement in learning, self – assess and give support for improvement in learning. Praise ends learning, encouragement and informational feedback is a conversation in learning. When we are less judgmental and controlling and use encouragement and informational feedback instead of praise we promote self-determination, intrinsic motivation and commitment to values. Any monetary loss  becomes  an investment.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Vayikrah 75 - Helping Kids develop Da'at - intuitive thinking

The Medrash says that any Torah sage that does not have דעת Da'at = intuitive and discerning intelligence, an animal carcass = neveilah is better than him. The Medrash bases this on the fact that Moses waited to be called and summoned by God before he entered the tent of meeting-Ohel Moed and thus displayed  manners  and courtesy = derech eretz. Rav Wolbe in his book Alei Shur 1:192 says that Da'at can be from something simple as what the Vilna Ga'on calls  ' Muscalot Ha'rishonim – basic intuitive perception. Da'at  includes  basic common sense, common courtesy - derech eretz ,a sense of right, a natural feel for what is moral and straight, understanding of the heart, a sensitivity that allows people to act and speak in an appropriate way depending on the situation, to what Rashi describes Da'at in Ki Tissah, as Ruach Hakodesh - prophecy or the divine spirit. Rav Wolbe says that what is common to all these definitions is Rabbeinu Yona's definition of Da'at. דעת- משהוא משיג מדעתו  - perceptions that a person acquires by himself by using his thinking and connecting to his inner being. A person's frame of reference is within himself.  And by connecting to his inner intelligence he can acquire prophecy and learn by himself the whole Torah like Abraham.  Accessing one's natural intelligence and understanding through his own perception – מבין מדעתו   is the criterion for a person to be taught about the Merkavah.  He needs this ability as he is only taught a broad outline and he has to comprehend and figure out the rest on his own. 

This reminds me about a Rov who shared a chidush – a novel thought with a colleague who said it was not true to Torah. The Colleague then  came back and after scanning with his photographic memory all Talmudic and Torah sources with  about 5 proofs supporting the Rov's chidush. The colleague was amazed that the Rov came up with that novel thought. Apparently his photographic memory and having so many Torah sources at his finger- tips  got in the way of his appreciation of the power of Da'at.

The first thing we request from God in our prayers is to be given Da'at, a discerning intelligence that will help us to differentiate – lehavdil, and act appropriately. The questions are  - why aren't educators concerned with children developing Da'at ,  and  how can we as parents and educators promote the acquisition of Da'at.

In a nutshell  parents and teachers can help kids develop Da'at using Rabeinu Yona's principle -     that Da'at is something that one acquires from his own personal intellect - דעת- משהוא משיג מדעתו  . It means when we are learning together with kids , whether it is academic learning or socio-moral learning we need to first challenge their thinking and let them share their own personal perceptions and perspectives . We have to imbue in them that their voice , opinions, ideas , perceptions, explanations  etc  are very important and the path for each of them  to acquire their share in God's Torah.

Educators see their role as molding kids into Torah people and scholars, rather than developing the whole child and his Da'at and building on this Torah thinking and knowledge. The result is that kid's  emotional, moral  and intuitive thinking – da'at gets stunted as shown with Hamish kids. In an experiment they were asked why don't you steal or why should Sunday be a day of rest. They answered because God said so. Then they were asked if God did not say so, what do  you think?. The kids had difficulty in presenting a moral argument and lacked Da'at.

The problem is that educators see children as basically passive receptacles into which knowledge is poured.  When it comes to socio- moral learning, children need to learn what to do, follow instructions and be obedient. Emotions and feelings are ignored. At most emotions and feelings only follow the intellectual understanding and acceptance of what has been taught. And the way these goals are attained is to use extrinsic motivation in the form of grades, prizes, honor rolls etc so the kids focus on how well they are doing and not on what they are doing.  Discipline using rewards, punishments and consequences are used to deal with behavior and get compliance. These approaches just get kids to ask what's in it for me, rather than focusing on the process of learning and how their behavior impacts on others and these stunt the development of Da'at.

To help kids develop Da'at , we have to deal with the whole child, including his feeling and understand the motives and values underlying his behavior. If we want to help them be ethical people as opposed to people who do what they are told, we have to support their autonomy and also  help them construct moral meaning and figure out for themselves and with each other –how to act. Kids are active meaning making, testing theories and trying to make sense of themselves and the world around them. Problems are solved in a collaborative way taking into account the child's perspective and concerns as well and giving him the opportunity to come up with a better plan and engage in an autonomous way in the moral act of restitution. Most schools talk about middos and character but it is top-down and kids don't participate in constructing a pro-social agenda or building a caring  community so kids have an opportunity of doing things together. Instead of top-down rules, we should bring children in on the process of devising and justifying ethical principles. Only when kids have the opportunity to voice their opinions, share their perspectives, feelings, thinking , construct and make real choices in the context of community, will kids develop Da'at. 

The same goes for academics - cooperative learning and kids making sense of what they  are learning.We need a learning environment where kids are challenged to do the learning and thinking and not just repeat what others have said. How times are kids asked to share their own  thinking and explanations? Deborah Meier says – that teaching is essentially listening and learning is essentially about speaking.

While God's commandments add an element of Divine intelligence we need to help kids engage their own da'at, intellects, moral reasoning and connect to their inner souls.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Vayakhel 75 - School as a community

The word for community – ke'hilah comes from the word vayakhel- ויקהל , the opening word of our parasha. There are different types of communities , some positive and some negative depending on their goals and common purpose.  And Moses assembled – vayakhel = ויקהל the people  so he could share with the community God's commandments to observe the Sabbath and build a mishkan – a tabernacle which would come from the contributions offered by the people. The Sabbath had to observed especially by being careful to focus on bonding through learning and not kindling a fire -  including the fire of argument and conflict in the community.  The Midrash explains that while community is very important, Moses is setting a precedent, that  community   life  must be based on  learning. People should gather on the Sabbath and Moses would teach them about the Sabbath and other laws of the Torah. Houses of prayer, like the study halls should be places of learning as well as for  prayer. Community projects like the building of the mishkan- the tabernacle or any other projects that serve the community  must be  seen in the context of spiritual development and commitment to the Torah. This context is created by communal learning and observing the Torah laws. So community must be based on cooperative learning and projects  and be    guided by spiritual beliefs. The ideal situation is that people are drawn to a Rabbi and his place of learning and because they learn together, they pray together and participate in communal projects.

Schools are the perfect setting for building a community based on cooperative learning and social projects. Unfortunately many schools are more about instilling obedience and having control .It is for sure not a place that gives kids a voice and tries to  inspire them  to make their school a better and nurturing place for all. Teachers will use extrinsic motivation like prizes, grades and competition to motivate kids to behave and learn. Kids learn to ask themselves what will I get or what will be done to me. Kids are ranked according to their test scores and how well they behave ,  and the competitive ones see others as obstacles to their success. It does not help to talk about good character and caring , if the environment is competitive and problems are solved using punishment or bribes. The school has to create an environment which promotes cooperation between kids and pro-social behavior. If we go beyond discipline and grades and focus on community  and cooperative learning, kids will learn to  ask how do my actions impact on others , how can I make a contribution, what type of school or classroom would I like?  Kids will be intrinsically more motivated and develop a love for learning when they can participate in deciding on the curriculum. As one student remarked, my teachers always had the ability to give us the feeling that we decided on what we were going to study and learn.   Excellence is not measured by test scores but by taking responsibility for other kids and sharing your learning. Kids see each other as learning resources and look to each for support and friendship. There is the understanding that only a unity of purpose , cooperation and a caring atmosphere where every child is needed and valued,  can a community  and individuals meet  their goals.

Progressive schools see the importance of creating a community of caring learners and the best way children learn is when they are engaged in real-life situations that are important to them. Schools can implement a Jobs Program which allows kids to learn by doing.

Each School Group has a specific job to perform that helps the school community function smoothly. Some groups will tutor and become buddies for younger kids, other groups can run the school newspaper, the school store which supplies stationary and text books , the school garden , be involved in  sign making and running the  print shop. The children have ample opportunity to practice and expand their academic skills, including mathematics, reading and writing, while further developing leadership, critical thinking and problem-solving tools. Because they are performing real jobs that meet real needs, the children also develop a genuine sense of ownership and pride in their school community.
Anyone working with or watching these children soon realizes the deeper psychological aspect of this type of program. It gives a child a sense of dignity and responsibility to be entrusted with a job whose importance he fully recognizes...All his abilities are called into play. He learns self-control, patience, self-discipline. He accepts the need for drill and for special work in areas where he is weak, so he will be better able to serve his customers and his community.” 
—Jean Murray, former principal of City &Country

When community is based on communal and cooperative learning, there is more growth, bonding and commitment to values and to be of service to other kids.