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Replacing The Classroom-As-Factory With Collaborative Learning

For centuries, Jewish students have studied the Talmud by learning through discussion and argument. Can U.S. education take anything from this ancient tradition that puts debate, not lecture, at the center of learning?

I grew up going to Jewish Day schools. My day was essentially the same as every other high school student in America. Though we had the added rigor of a double curriculum—religious instruction in the morning and secular studies in the afternoon—we largely sat in classes, heard lectures, did homework, and took tests.

This piece is part of a Collaborative Fund-curated series on creativity and values written by thought leaders in the for-profit, for-good business space.

That model is a seemingly logical outgrowth of the needs demanded of modern education. The system is both a response to the sheer number of students who require education, and of the solidification of a common set of skills and knowledge recognized necessary to build a constructive society.

When you need to educate 55 million students spread out over 132,000 schools, as the U.S. did in 2010, the school-as-factory model becomes an apt idea. You put a teacher in front of two-dozen students, work off an approved curriculum, and test at different stages to make sure the quality is high. You can repeat it, repeat it, and repeat it. Certainly it seemed to be the most efficient model. But is it the best?

Thinking that question through is what brings me back to the highlight of my Jewish school experience: Talmud class. In high school, Talmud was a double period: One-and-a-half hours wherein we sometimes only made it through a few lines of text because of the intricate material and layered commentary we built upon it.

While the instruction provided by our rabbi was important, the true value of our studies came from the time we spent learning with one another. Conveniently, there’s a name for that time: chevruta study, from the root chaver ("friend" in Hebrew). This style of intellectual engagement has been a staple of learning the Talmud for thousands of years, originated by the first Talmud academies. There, scholars would congregate and engage one another in Socratic dialogue over the true meaning of the Mosaic law, improving, through each point and counter point, their own understanding of the law.

To me, this method of learning always felt natural in the context of the Talmud, but rarely have I seen it applied in other contexts. That seems strange. I’d expect a system of learning that had proven effective over thousands of years of intricate study would be replicated far and wide. When held up against the size of the needs in the current system, though, it makes sense that this more personalized approach would lose ground to the factory model.

Over the last few years, though, technology has begun to change the playing field. I’ve seen a rise in companies and communities devoted to the ideas of collaborative learning: people teaching other people skills, thoughts, ideas, techniques, etc. Whatever can be learned, the theme goes, can be taught. Whatever someone knows, can be instructed—and often for a fee.
Whether you call it collaborative education, distributed learning, or peer-to-peer learning, these emerging forms democratize the factory model. It isn’t so much a move toward the future, as a rediscovery of past methods. The game changing aspect of the new models, then, isn’t the type of education that they champion, but the methods they use to distribute.
While chevruta works in small scenarios, writ large, the ability to make connections between students using traditional methods constricted by geography seems impossible. But that’s the beauty of technology and social engineering: We face a set of challenges, and then we solve:
Discovery: Even in a place like New York City, where the chances of finding a learning partner for any subject is high, it is only with the advent of discovery mechanisms that your chances of finding that partner approach anything near likelihood. Entire engaged communities have coalesced around websites, discussion boards, and social networks. Those communities may be scattered across the globe, but they can, critically, be found and contacted.

Verification: One of the critical flaws in any too-loose education construct is the risk of the "teacher" not knowing enough about a topic to be an effective pedagogue. Just as large a risk is the incredible difficulty of being a truly good teacher. To succeed in the long term, verifying these qualities has to be a central focus of any system focused on a chevruta-like dynamic.

Consistency/Continuity: In order to go beyond some kind of "Learning Annex 2.0," communities of learning have to guarantee their members will continue to learn regularly with the right partner. Lessons taught too infrequently, or incompletely, would ultimately fail to do anything other than create short-term buzz. If our goal is to make sure that people truly learn, then the right environment has to be maintained for as long as necessary, which could be years.

Schools evolved to resemble factories in part because of the difficulties presented by these three factors when applied across millions of students. But now we have the types of technology needed to flip preconceptions of how classrooms should work on their heads, and we have entrepreneurs, educators, and policy makers focused on figuring out ways to use it to solve the problems presented. While the chevruta model may never completely replace teacher/class instructional methods, it stands a serious chance of moving beyond the confines of Talmud classes and into the mainstream.