Teaching Sacred Texts in the Classroom: The Pedagogy of Transmission and the Pedagogy of Interpretive Facilitation


Source: Journal of Jewish Education Volume 83, 2017 Issue 4, pages 339-366


Empirical research in Jewish education has found almost exclusive use of transmission pedagogy among Jewish studies teachers. This study hoped to fill out the empirical landscape by studying Jewish studies teachers who prioritize student-driven interpretation. It followed six Jewish studies teachers in four different Jewish elementary schools who all professed a commitment to student-driven textual interpretation. It found that in such classrooms there was a clear pattern of teaching moves. This article offers a detailed portrait of the previously undocumented Jewish studies pedagogy, interpretive facilitation.

This small collection of empirical research has consistently found that Jewish studies teachers focus on transmitting to students Jewish knowledge to the exclusion of cultivating students’ capacities to interpret classical Jewish texts on their own and make their own meaning. And yet, the pedagogical landscape depicted by the current empirical research seems somehow limited. As invested scholars, consumers, and producers of Jewish education, we know that there are Jewish studies teachers who prioritize developing their students’capacity for independent interpretation and meaning making. This study hoped to study such teachers, exploring the pedagogies they use. Specifically, it asked:

  • What text pedagogies do Jewish studies teachers committed to developing students’capacity for independent interpretation and meaning making use when teaching classical Jewish texts?

This study set out to explore the pedagogies adopted by Jewish studies teachers committed to cultivating students’ independent interpretation and meaning making of classical Jewish texts. It hoped to help fill out a more complete empirical landscape of how Jewish studies teachers teach Jewish texts. In the end, despite its intention to create an exclusive sample of teachers teaching toward student interpretation and meaning making, only two of the six teachers actually fit this description. Remarkably, though, these two teachers adopted an almost identical pedagogy. Moreover, the four teachers who taught in a more traditional manner, transmitting Jewish knowledge and ideas, also adopted a uniform pedagogy. In this way, this study offers not only a detailed portrait of the previously undocumented Jewish studies pedagogy, interpretive facilitation, but also a detailed portrait of the better known Jewish studies pedagogy, transmission. While the latter has been discussed in other empirical research, it has never before been operationalized into five identifiable teacher moves.

The question remains though, as to the significance of these two pedagogies. This article opened with a discussion of two widely shared priorities for Jewish education. First, students should emerge from their Jewish education literate in Jewish knowledge and ideas. Second, students should emerge feeling like they can access Jewish texts on their own, adding their own voices and novel interpretations. One would assume that transmission pedagogy works to accomplish the first priority and interpretive facilitation pedagogy works to accomplish the second priority. But I would like to suggest that Jewish day schools may reap greater gains by focusing on the second priority and helping Jewish studies teachers develop their facility with interpretive facilitation pedagogy when teaching classical Jewish texts. Of course, I am not the first to advocate for a student-centered, text pedagogy in Jewish studies classrooms. Shargel (2013), for example, argues in favor of what she calls “dialogical education in the Jewish classroom.” She suggests that this sort of text pedagogy provides students the important opportunity to flesh out their Jewish values, explore theological and philosophical questions, and develop their Jewish identity. But I would go one step further. I would suggest that the pedagogy of interpretive facilitation may even be the most effective pedagogy for developing students who are literate in Jewish knowledge and ideas.

Despite the move in American Jewry to place the responsibly of transmitting Jewish values and ways of life on Jewish schools, and by extension the responsibility of Jewish continuity (Ackerman,1969; Pomson,2008;Wertheimer,1999), day schools may not be up to the task. If there is not a holistic home-school environment that regularly reinforces what is being transmitted in those classrooms, the impact of that Jewish knowledge maybe encapsulated in the classroom (Engeström,1991). This means that despite teachers’ best efforts to fill “the empty vessels” in their classroom, students will not be able to activate that knowledge anywhere outside of the class-room. This raises the question about the long-term effects of these two pedagogies. Might it be that even the most faithful implementation of transmission pedagogy will fail to create literate, knowledgeable Jewish students? Perhaps the structural limitations of school make “exporting Jewish literacy” an impossibility.

Learning to approach classical Jewish texts with a stance of interpretation and meaning making, on the other hand, is much more likely to facilitate a transfer of study to settings outside of the classroom. Once divorced from a dependence on authoritative experts, in this case, the teacher, classical Jewish texts become another canvass for students to engage in the lifelong activity of meaning making. In arguing for classrooms that prioritize student-centered pedagogies like the pedagogy o finterpretive facilitation, education theorist Gorden Wells (1999) explains that the “issue is not whether students should engage with ‘what is known,’ but the manner and time of the encounter” (p.90). When students are given the opportunity “to formulate their own theories, to test them in various ways, and to submit them to critical evaluation by their peers, then they can most fully appreciate the contributions that have been made [before them]”(p. 90). In other words, it may be that both priorities of Jewish education, Jewish literacy and independent interpretation, are ultimately achievable when teachers start with the pedagogy of interpretive facilitation. If schools can develop independent text learners, then Jewish literacy follows as a necessary partner in the life long endeavor of text study.

Updated: Nov. 15, 2017