Gen Ed Torah is a blog series by Rabbi Lee Buckman, in which he reviews current literature in education and applies it to the world of Jewish education.

Learning from the Essential Questions of the Haggadah

by | Mar 24, 2020 | Blog, Gen Ed Torah | 0 comments

This Pesach, it will not be difficult to answer the question: “How will our s’darim this year be different from all other years?” My guess is they will be smaller, possibly shorter, requiring more distance between participants. However, one thing is a fixture of the seder whether you’re on your own or with family — the centrality of questions.

The Pesach seder is designed to elicit deep, fundamental and often not easy-to answer questions that are meant to stimulate our learning and explore our place in the narrative of the exodus from Egypt.  

Some of these questions are scripted, like the Ma Nishtana.  Others are meant to emerge from participants’ own curiosity about the text, such as: “Why are the four children listed in the order presented?” Some questions emerge from things that are missing, such as “Why is there no blessing before washing for Karpas, or before we start Maggid, or before Hallel?”

Other questions derive from seeking contemporary meaning in the seder: “What were the Israelites supposed to learn from the bondage in Egypt and what do we think we’re going to learn from what’s happening to us now with the Coronavirus?” or “To what extent are we enslaved today — what enslaves us — and how do we free ourselves?”

The genius of the seder is that the questions that it generates aren’t yes or no questions. They spark discussion and debate. They demand evidence and reasoning because there is no right answer. They stimulate ongoing thinking and inquiry. They suggest multiple, arguable answers.  They recur year after year and point to big ideas.

The questions in the haggadah are what Grant Wiggins would call essential questions. 

How do we translate the good pedagogy of the Pesach seder and the insights of Grant Wiggins and create powerful questions for all Jewish Studies subject areas? What’s the Pesachdik “secret sauce” behind questions that captivate learners’ imaginations and inspire curiosity and ongoing deliberation? 

Grant Wiggins and Denise Wilbur provide a few tips in their article “How to Make Your Questions Essential,” which is summarized in issue 601 of the Marshall Memo. Here is their advice:

Rephrase convergent or factual questions to invite inquiry and argument. For example, the question, “What were the three major causes of World War I?” could be tweaked to read, “How important was World War I in shaping the modern world?” Other helpful stems:

  • To what extent… ?
  • In what contexts… ?
  • How important was… ?
  • What’s the value of… ?
  • When should we… ?
  • When shouldn’t we… ?

Another first attempt, “What is proper punctuation, and why is it important?” could be improved to read, “When is proper punctuation mandatory, and when is it optional?”

Shape questions that lead to big ideas. “The best essential questions are, literally, of the essence,” say Wiggins and Wilbur. They aren’t just intriguing — they lead to core understanding. For example, “Where in the world do we find examples of similar triangles?” could be revised to read, “How much and in what ways would we most miss similar figures if they didn’t exist?”

Stretch questions beyond the curriculum unit. For example, “How do Frog and Toad act like friends? could become, “Who is a true friend?” “We want a question that rewards us for revisiting it,” say Wiggins and Wilbur. Another example: “Why did we fight in Vietnam, and was it worth it?” could be stretched to, “Why have we gone to war? When was it wise, and when was it foolish?”

Avoid leading students to predictable, mundane, superficial answers. Explore likely misconceptions. Some first-draft questions could be: “What’s the difference between fiction and nonfiction?” or “What can numbers help us do?” Some examples of better questions include: “When is fiction revealing, and when is it a lie?” or “What can’t the language of numbers communicate?” or “Why does a thrown ball move the way it does?”

Jot and then polish. “Don’t try to write and edit simultaneously,” advise Wiggins and Wilbur. “Draft a bunch of questions first, then edit. The more versions you draft, the easier the editing will be.” 

Keep your eye on the broader goals of instruction. “Essential questions aren’t a teaching move,” say the authors. “Rather, they’re a design move intended to make it more likely that the work and talk get beyond low-level coverage.” For example, the following question is too content-focused: “When do we use mean, median, and mode?” Better formulations of the question would be: “What’s the fairest way to calculate grades?” or “What are the strengths and weaknesses of each measure of tendency?” or “When are measures of central tendency most abused, and how can we defend against such abuses?”

To read the original article, “How to Make Your Questions Essential” by Grant Wiggins and Denise Wilbur in Educational Leadership, September 2015 (Vol. 73, #1, p. 10-15),  see http://bit.ly/1Jx67SJ.  

Chag Sameach!

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Rabbi Lee Buckman

Rabbi Lee Buckman

Rabbi Lee Buckman lives and works in Jerusalem. He is the Executive Director of JEDvision, which provides educational services, consulting, and executive coaching to Jewish organizations and institutions globally. Prior to making aliyah, he served as Head of School at three institutions: TanenbaumCHAT, the Greenfield Hebrew Academy, and the Frankel Jewish Academy. Lee has been a Lookstein Center contributor for more than 10 years. He can be reached at lee@jedvision.com.

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