A Theory of Havruta Learning

Jul. 06, 2010

Source: Journal of Jewish Education, Volume 76, Issue 3, pages 215 – 245 


Modern educational scholarship has not substantially investigated the learning practice of havruta, paired study and focused conversation around classical Jewish texts. In this article ,the author analyzes videotapes and transcripts of real-life havruta interactions and proposes a theory of havruta learning as composed of three pairs of core practices: listening and articulating; wondering and focusing; and supporting and challenging. Through a close analysis of one particular havruta session, the author illustrates and probes the havruta practices and the ways in which they can give rise to generative, textually grounded interpretive discussions of classical Jewish texts. This theory may also be a helpful lens for both studying and elucidating text-based discussions of other kinds of texts in small and large group settings.




The author's research takes place in the DeLeT (Day School Leadership Through Teaching) Beit Midrash for Teachers, a modern beit midrash for teacher candidates enrolled in the MAT/DeLeT program at Brandeis, and is part of the Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education's Beit Midrash Research Project, founded in 2003 by the author and Elie Holzer. The Research Project - of which the author is currently the director - investigates text study, meaning making through discussion and havruta and group learning.


The Beit Midrash for Teachers is part of DeLeT's summer program and includes women and men studying a range of Jewish texts in havruta over a five week period. For four summers, the author collected audio and videotapes of nine havruta pairs in 51 havruta sessions in order to analyze how they make meaning of Jewish texts while working together.


A Theory of Havruta Learning: Overview of Six Practices


When using the term havruta, the author is talking about more than a simple strategy for students to brainstorm together for a few minutes, or what is known in language arts classrooms as “pair and share”. She uses the term havruta to refer to two people working together for some period of time to together make sense of a text. This requires drawing on skills for how to interpret a text and how to work with someone else independent of a teacher's direct guidance. In this kind of havruta, effort is directed at constructing ideas and also relationships, and the ways in which ideas are constructed affect the working relationship and vice versa. Ideally, the two people involved in the havruta are responsible for their own learning and for each other's learning. Their success is viewed as interdependent. Furthermore, since there are not only two partners but three—the two people and the text—for meaning-making to occur, there must be interaction not only between the people but also between each and both of them and the text.


During a havruta discussion, participants construct and reconstruct the meaning of the text through their moment-to-moment interactions. While these interactions are highly complex and, in their particularity, may be highly varied, there are key elements to these interactions. Through analysis of her data (audio and video recordings of havruta sessions) and informed by an understanding of good havruta, she has identified three pairs of core practices in which havruta learners engage: (a) listening and articulating; (b) wondering and focusing; and (c) supporting and challenging.


From the author's conclusion:


"It's important to learn with and from others so as to widen your perspective and think about things in new ways … It's also good to be able to ask questions of another person and also to be able to voice your ideas out loud in order to clarify them for yourself." (Laurie's reflections).


In Laurie's words, we hear some of the potential benefits of havruta learning: working with a partner can expand one's perspective. One can learn new ideas and strategies from one's partner. One is helped by the questions that one's partner asks. Simply articulating ideas out loud to someone else provides an opportunity for clarifying one's thinking. Reading her remarks leaves the impression not only that she had a productive havruta, that learning with another positively affected her learning experience and the ideas she and her partner produced, but also that she had a sense of how and why she learned in a way that could continue to buttress her future learning.


Obviously, it is important for every teacher to consider her learning goals and whether or not havruta is an appropriate way to help meet them. Havruta is not a panacea for teaching challenges or the right strategy to be used in every learning situation. Havruta is being used more frequently in a variety of contexts, but often without a plan to assure that students learn and without pedagogic attention to its use. Too often, teachers implicitly assume that if we simply put two people together, they will have a generative discussion centered on the text. Even when learners do have productive havruta interactions, there is still a great deal of room for teachers to consider the greater learning potentials offered by well-framed havruta study. For the most part, teachers and students alike do not stop to wonder: “Why study in havruta?”; or, “What must I know or be able to do to make havruta an 'educative' learning experience?”. To utilize havruta's potential, we must step back to consider what things people do when they study in havruta that create the opportunity for generative learning, what can keep this from happening, and—most significantly—what teachers can do to maximize the learning potential in havruta.

Updated: Dec. 22, 2010