Neuroscience + Rabbinic Wisdom = Better Jewish Education

October 21, 2013

Source: Reform Judaism Blog 


Working together over the last decade, a group of neuroscientists, psychologists, and educators, launched the field of neuroeducation, which explores interactions between biological processes and education. As I delved into the field through a Jewish lens, I discovered that the teachings of our rabbinic sages have much in common with those of today’s neuroeducators! Here are some examples.


Role of Emotions and Stress

Neuroscience shows that stress and emotions have a major impact on learning and are critical to decision-making. “Good” stress heightens attention and helps learning; “bad” stress detracts from learning potential. Educators should understand the biology of emotions, especially stress, and recognize that students cannot focus on the curriculum unless they feel physically safe and emotionally secure.


A Jewish example: R. Hiyya bar Adda was seated before Rav, who was explaining a matter to him, but he could not comprehend it. Finally, Rav asked him, “Why can’t you grasp the matter?” The disciple replied, “Because my she-ass is about to foal, and I am afraid that she may catch cold and die.” (B’reishit Rabbah 20:6)


There are many other ways we might apply the teachings of neuroeducators to Jewish education. Consider, for one, Hebrew language acquisition. Neuroeducators know that when we learn to read and write a language, the brain maps the symbols of the letters onto the sounds of the words that the brain already knows. When we read C-A-T and say "cat!" we already know what the word sounds like and what a cat is. But in most American supplementary Jewish education programs, when we try to teach young Jews to read a language they have never heard, we derail this natural learning process. Because they don't have many Hebrew sounds from which to map the letter-symbols onto, the result is very poor Hebrew language skills. A possible solution is to implement early childhood spoken Hebrew programs from which students can build upon in supplementary school.


Jewish educators and neuroeducators have much to learn from each other. A partnership between our religious community and this scientific community could bring about more effective approaches to education. Indeed, together we can realize the formula: Religion + Science = Better World.


Read more at the Reform Judaism Blog.

Updated: Oct. 30, 2013