July 25, 2024
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Questions have played an important role in Jewish education for centuries. Educators work on crafting the perfect question to assess students’ knowledge and understanding of material. And parents rely on their children’s parsha sheets to ask questions at the Shabbos table. It would seem that the mark of a good Jewish education is how quickly students can correctly answer those questions. While it doesn’t hurt to ask those types of questions, we have observed at Bruriah that there are far more powerful questions that can engage students to discover, make meaning, reflect and ultimately chart the course of their own destiny.

Hashem Himself demonstrates the unique potential of a good question in the very beginning of the Torah. After Adam and Chava ate from the forbidden fruit, Adam tried to hide in the Garden of Eden. Hashem asked Adam, “Ayeka — Where are you?” The Ibn Ezra and Rashi explain that this was not a literal inquiry regarding Adam’s location. Of course, Hashem knew where Adam was! Rather, Hashem was asking Adam a straightforward question in an attempt to enter into a conversation with him. At its most basic level, Hashem wanted to engage with Adam — to reach him, in order to redirect him.

In a recent speed-dating experiment conducted at Harvard University, researchers found that participants who asked their dates good questions were more likely to go on second dates with them. As Dale Carnegie advised in “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” “Everyone wants to feel that their existence is recognized and valued by others. It turns out to be remarkably easy to give this gift to others by asking them great questions.” Asking questions fosters rapport and improves relationships.

I once knew a student who was consistently violating his school’s dress code requirement to wear tzitzis. Numerous reminders and reprimands went unheeded, and positive incentive charts were tried to no avail. The staff was starting to wonder if the student’s disrespect indicated that this wasn’t the right school for him. Finally, a very wise administrator decided to really engage the student in conversation to find out what was going on. The administrator gently asked the student, “What bothers you about wearing tzitzis every day?” And the student responded that he found the wool garment to be itchy and uncomfortable, and when he wore it, he couldn’t concentrate in class. The administrator suggested a softer, cotton blend garment, and the student immediately agreed. All it took was asking the right question to unravel assumptions, build a connection and encourage personal growth.

But not all questions are created equal … The best type of questions are open-ended and have more than one correct answer. Open-ended questions are optimal, because they support the natural way children learn by enabling them to think for themselves and develop a sense of autonomy, competence and self-worth. Practicing curiosity is key with open-ended questions, so that children feel comfortable answering them. It is also important to avoid asking questions that start with “why,” because it can undermine the collaborative process and sound antagonistic. We can get better answers by asking better questions like: “What do you mean when you say …? How does this connect to …? What if …? What are some ways we can show …? Can you tell me more about what you are worried about? What did you learn from …? What might be another possibility? What are some pros and cons of …?”

Why don’t we tend to ask good open-ended questions? The research suggests various possibilities. We may exhibit egocentric thinking, eager to impress upon our children that singular message, value or idea that will shape them into caring and responsible adults. We may not have the time for a long back-and-forth with our children. We may think we already know what they are going to say. Or, we may not yet realize the power of a good question.

In contrast to Rashi and the Ibn Ezra, the Malbim understands Hashem’s question as one that is intended for deeper inquiry: “Adam, Ayeka? Where are you in accomplishing your mission in life? How are you defining yourself by this moment? Is this who you want to be?” Hashem was asking Adam to self-reflect on the choices he had made, thus far. When we take the time to ask our children curious and reflective questions, we enable them to think for themselves in order to make better choices.

In the same vein, we need to encourage our children to ask their own questions. As Albert Einstein said, “It’s not that I am so smart. But I stay with the questions much longer.” And Voltaire quipped, “He must be very ignorant for he answers every question he is asked.” The Socratic method — in which the teacher engages with students in a dialogue of thought-provoking questions — forces students to do just that. Rather than the teacher simply asking questions and students answering them, it puts students in the driver’s seat of education so that they can play an active role in the learning process. The Socratic method encourages students to challenge their assumptions, strengthen critical thinking and explore complex concepts by wrestling with the discomfort of not having all the answers. This is what was, perhaps, behind Hillel’s famous dictum, “A shy person cannot learn.” Building this sense of inquiry and wonder enables our children to develop curiosity, creativity and resilience. In his New York Times bestseller, “Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know,” Adam Grant writes, “Great discoveries often begin not with ‘eureka!’ but with ‘that’s funny …’”

In that space between the powerful question and its answer lies connection — meaning self-discovery and growth. This speaks to the primary goal of Jewish education: namely to inculcate within our children that they — themselves — are their own best teachers. According to Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira in Chovas Hatalmidim, the child is “the sprout of Hashem’s planting in the garden of Israel. And Hashem has placed the responsibility to nurture and educate this sprout upon him, himself — to be a great tree of life and to make himself into a servant of Hashem, a tzaddik and a Torah giant… a tree in Hashem’s garden in Eden.” By prioritizing questions, we pave the way for our children to find the answers for themselves. Whether it is a question we ask of them in order to engage them, or a question they ask of themselves in order to self-reflect; it is good questions that lie at the heart of Jewish education.


Dr. Bethany Strulowitz is the principal of Bruriah High School and Middle School.

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