After two lectures that never deviated from their PowerPoints, a presenter in my gender roles class introduced the process of Chevruta to engage us with her topic. We were asked to form pairs and examine a brief text, first by reading it to ourselves, then by sharing our impressions and generating questions. If we had time, we could propose answers to those questions before sharing with the larger group. This was the most interesting class in the series. My learning partner and others in the class shared interpretations that never would have occurred to me and that I can recall more easily than any of the slides from the previous sessions.
The following week we used Chevruta in a Torah study session at my temple. While familiar with the concept of studying in groups, I had never heard this word or realized its centrality in the study of Jewish text.
Chevruta refers to studying in pairs. A Hebrew word, it comes from the same root as friends, or society. My Rabbi shared several texts that explain the power of studying with another person, building a human connection while engaging deeply with the content.
“Iron sharpens iron, so too does a man sharpen the countenance of his friend.” (Proverbs 27:17).
“…just as a small tree may set a bigger tree on fire, so do lesser scholars sharpen greater scholars.”
“Make groups and busy [yourself] with Torah, for Torah can only be acquired in chaburah [community, fellowship, association with others]” (BT Berachot 63B).
We are urged to study the holiest of texts, on which all Jewish law and learning is based, with another person. The value of this methodology can be applied to secular learning as well. It takes work to facilitate but improves retention and may lead to learning that even the instructor did not anticipate.
Lectures have endured for hundreds of years because they still have a role in transmitting knowledge, especially when paired with current technology. TED talks enrich and enliven with a broad spectrum of content available to anyone with access to a computer or mobile device.
Unfortunately, some lectures feel like they endure for hundreds of years. They lack creativity, fail to communicate more than can be found in the text, and assume a passive audience. I vividly remember attending an adult learning seminar that was conducted in a lecture hall where the swivel seats were bolted to the floor and protected by modesty panels. From my seat in the last row I observed the participants sitting straight from the waist up – perhaps giving the lecturer the appearance of attentiveness - but in constant rotation from the waist down. The methodology for teaching how adults learn was the antithesis of the content being delivered, and it showed in our restless body language. One of the celebrated experts lectured on an article that mentioned some of the work I was doing on my campus. After class, participants were eager to learn from my experiences, but he never mentioned it.
Asking faculty to give up teaching that is comfortable for new, or in this case ancient modes of learning is a higher education leadership challenge.