Divergent Minds, Convergent Molds: Creative Students in Religious Education

ML Gamliel

Following the Torah maxim to teach a student ke-darko, according to the way he or she learns best, many Jewish day schools today feature programs for differentiated learning and implement best practices in progressive education. No matter how much time a teacher spends differentiating lessons, however, an outlier student with an assortment of unusual talents offset by daydreaming or intense emotionality may stubbornly elude understanding even from the most caring teacher or administrator. Such students may catch lessons quickly but ask offbeat questions or deviate from school norms. At times their insights seem “genius,” but it would certainly ease teaching if they could march to the beat of the standardized drum occasionally.

Research identifies creatively gifted students as possessing cognitive and emotional assets that may prove particularly challenging in their encounter with religious education. As a result, these students may even face greater risks for depression and defection. Understanding and helping them can improve the wellbeing not only of these unique gifted individuals, but also of the entire community.

The “Rule” of Nonconformity

Research has demonstrated that those with “creative” personalities and cognitive dispositions possess a drive for nonconformity, expression of individualism and openness to change. Creative students do not aim to deviate from group norms; their brains are simply wired to think “outside the box,” whether interacting with a lesson or assignment, and sometimes even in social situations. According to founding fathers of creativity research J.P. Guilford, Frank Barron, Mark Runco and others, the heightened skill of creative people in divergent thinking makes them “consistently original.”

By nature they are curious and inquisitive; they crave and resonate with learning that is hidden at first glance, tolerating the mystery of ambiguity to gain the joy of discovery. To others they may be “interesting,” “daring” or “opinionated,” and may even display skill in the arts or science. They are disposed to search, explore and accept the unknown, and stay open to multiple outcomes until they personally feel satisfied—often longer than others can tolerate. Once satisfied, however, they are even willing to stand alone in a crowd to express their truth.

In settings that value innovation and progress, these students are often identified as “most likely to succeed” in cultural, scientific and business endeavors. But in a religious school, they may be kicked out of class. If we are looking for one specific right answer, how can their novel suggestions be reconciled with Jewish tradition? If “innovation” triggers a red flag, how can their assets be appreciated, if not leveraged to help them grow and thrive?

Sensitive Souls

Creative students also reveal strength in emotional connectedness, which translates into a “spiritual” orientation when it comes to prayer and mitzvah observance. According to most research on spirituality, this construct can be distinguished as the desire for a personal connection to God, a connectedness to one’s self through the search for meaning, and connectedness to others, including those outside one’s immediate faith group. Authentic emotional connection signals the satisfying experience they seek, whereas cognitive dissonance can arise from perceived disconnect between words and action, actions and meaning, or lack of respect to those who follow different beliefs or customs.

In some Jewish schools, emphasis may be placed more on behavioral outcomes than on the affective dimension of religious expression. It is arguably harder to teach and assess feelings of connection than external displays of religiosity such as attendance, recitation of words and ritual performance. Jewish law and philosophy seem to assert the importance of behavior over emotional connection, with the Shulchan Arukh (Orah Chaim 98:2) and Mishnah Brurah (101:1) rendering kavvanah as optional, and Rav Chaim of Volozhin’s insistence that “man’s actions, not the spiritual zeal that may underlie and animate them, are the sine qua non for his ability to draw close to God” (Nefesh HaChaim, ch. 4).

Neglecting spiritual zeal may ease educational needs, fulfill the mitzvah and even work well for the communal majority. But, for individuals particularly disposed to emotionality and spiritual connectedness, minimizing the value of kavvanah can leave these students feeling alienated rather than respected for their innate strength in these areas. Ironically, if those same students persist through years of struggle to a rabbinate position, they are often praised for their profound insights or ability to deeply connect to others. In school they may be penalized for their drive for self-expression or self-understanding, but only until they succeed in graphic design or a career helping others. Increased emphasis on the values of kavvanah or mindfulness, self-understanding and respect for differences may be important for everyone, but a lack of these values can alienate some students from Judaism entirely.

Can Autonomy, Freedom and Flexibility be Jewish Values?

According to researchers such as Teresa Amabile, Mark Runco and Gerard Saucier, creative and sensitive students have a heightened need for independence of thought, exploration and choice. If these basic needs are not met sufficiently, even in public schools creative students can experience depression and drop out. One quarter of divergently gifted students can be misunderstood or go unrecognized, leading to higher levels of stress and even suicide. Can this also happen in our religious communities? While every student may not experience unmanageable pain in situations lacking autonomy and flexibility, for individuals hard-wired to need this freedom, can we risk losing them?

Differentiation for students gifted with creative and spiritual strengths may not come in the form of a classroom lesson, but can at least be considered. While they may appear to be deviant, these students seek to learn deeply and have the potential to be inspirational leaders. If gifted in the arts, they may be able to create powerful works impacting change in the hearts of others, works of beauty providing enjoyment and carrying the values of Judaism. Can simchah and nondidactic learning, as well as preserving the wellbeing of talented, sensitive students be offered places of importance in Jewish education on par with knowledge of Halakhah and Gemara or attendance in services?

Differentiation for “Creatives”

Artist and educational theorist Elliot Eisner offers some interesting suggestions for addressing creative students. He proposes ideas such as teaching “multiple literacies,” whereby all students learn to compose or meditate and students gifted in these areas can be rewarded. He suggests intentionally leaving space in any classroom lesson for the possibility of off-track questions that can lead to unanticipated, or what he calls “expressive,” outcomes.

Just as we prioritize learning support for struggling students, we may need to also consider support for students who require accelerated or independent learning and exploration. Divergent thinking and emotional sensitivity are strengths of these students; thinking broadly and abstractly comes naturally to them. Limiting their education to “one right answer” can actually cause them angst. These students are not aiming to challenge teachers or the Torah system—unless, of course, they see something that warrants change. They can be our visionaries and innovators in Torah if these values can be embraced rather than resisted. We can offer these students esteem and personal growth if we create programs designed for their unique “special needs” within a Torah framework.

Some Tips for Teachers and Administrators

Below are some practical suggestions for helping creative students thrive.

Teaching kavannah as a skill or “literacy.” Some teachers may also have natural gifts in spirituality or creativity. Allow these teachers to run short programs in mindfulness. Some kids will struggle, but those with the “knack” can excel and even tutor others. Intrapersonal skills may not be easy to learn, but not everyone thinks math is easy either!

Respect questions or creative interpretations of a pasuk. While unusual questions can seem like a distraction, they may emerge from authentic curiosity. A novel insight can sound presumptuous, but may be the result of a mind able to juxtapose multiple existing ideas to form a completely new one.

Respect the questioner. The notion that adults know best in all situations may not be appreciated by students, least of all gifted ones. Modeling authenticity, humility and sincerity in seeking truth can inspire anyone, but most importantly connect those who are particularly repelled by hypocrisy.

Don’t say “special.” No one likes to feel like an alien. Not even a good alien. Many gifted students hide their gifts because they fear social marginalization or bullying. They can recognize their differences and may become a target for them.

Accept blue shirts. It may be entirely possible that caring, loving, intelligent human beings who strive to be close to God and others, to understand themselves and their unique purpose in the world, also want to dress with flair, or express themselves uniquely. They don’t want to violate rules or show off; they simply find joy in expressing their thoughts and desires in their own voice. Allowing small deviations from a norm will not necessarily lead to breaking Shabbat. Black and white, both physically and philosophically, may work perfectly for most people. But in the end, do we really know what color shirt God wants us to wear?

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HaYidion Differentiation Fall 2017
Fall 2017