Differentiation: A Moral and Fundamental Imperative for Jewish Educators

Noa Daniel

Differentiation is the opposite of standardization. It relies on the teacher to plan lessons and learning experiences with the diverse needs of the learners in mind. Whether it’s about modes of delivery, flexible use of time or space, student groupings or materials used, the goal of differentiation is to meet the
ever-more varied needs of the students in our care.

Teaching is no longer about imparting knowledge or skills; it’s about learning. Through the methodologies of differentiation, all students should have access to learning content and skills regardless of “ability.” The aphorism in Proverbs 22:6, “Teach a child according to his own way,” implies that learning is personal and requires differentiation. While it can seem overwhelming to conceptualize doing something different for each student, that is not really what differentiation is about. According to Carol Ann Tomlinson, a thought leader on differentiation, it is a way of thinking about teaching and learning. Differentiation is a form of responsive practice that involves seeing, reaching and teaching every student.

Differentiation is not just an idea in education, but a belief that everyone can learn given the right conditions and connections. In Solomon Schechter’s famous essay “The Dogmas of Judaism,” he wrote, “We usually urge that in Judaism religion means life; but we forget that a life without guiding principles and thoughts is a life not worth living.” Isn’t learning for all a guiding principle of a Jewish education? If we hold that idea to be true, then differentiation is a moral and fundamental imperative for Jewish educators.

Because learners bring more to the classroom than their brains, differentiation must go beyond sechel, intellect. Children are whole people with interests and experiences, fears and hopes, skills and abilities. To teach the whole child, we must see the whole child. The Talmud says that the highest form of wisdom is kindness. If we are Jewish educators in name and value, then differentiation is an act of kindness because it involves understanding and caring about who our students are so that we can help them learn. Kindness involves the ingredients of rachmanut, ahavah and kavod.

Differentiation requires a partnership between the teacher and student as the gateway to learning. This exchange, then, requires connection. Differentiation in about knowing who is in the room and feeling rachmanut for those individuals. Rabbi David Wolpe wrote, “The Hebrew rachmanut (meaning mercy and compassion) comes from rechem, womb. Compassion is feeling, almost physically, the reality of the other.” In the classroom, that is hard to do. We don’t know how children feel about themselves, what is going on at home, or what lies behind the external presentation. All people are icebergs; we have to care enough to get to know more than we see on the surface. In order to have rachmanut, we have to find ways to see more than the “abilities” of the learner. We must tap into our students by providing different entry points to assignments and creating invitations for students to bring their whole selves to their learning.

We can’t reach and teach every child until we really know our learners. Besides being personable and developing relationships with each student, implementing an approach that uses personalizing projects to help students learn and develop skills is a powerful way to differentiate. Tasks that reflect children’s lives and interests engage them and help them learn. This information can be useful when planning differentiated lessons or assignments, because the teacher has become apprised of more than a laundry list of descriptive adjectives provided by the learners. By seeing our students as whole people, we can better prepare for and respond to their learning needs.

The classroom can also become a supportive learning community where students have a platform and a safety net for risk taking. When students are involved in personalized work that they share with the class, the teacher is not the only one privy to the insights of the individual. Instead, each member of the class gets to know other students in a meaningful way, and the class becomes a supportive learning community. Compassion is easier when students are allowed to see and be themselves in their learning. This goes beyond choice and voice. You can’t personalize until you see the world through a person’s eyes. Rachmanut requires empathy, and empathy requires knowing who your students really are, including their lives and interests outside of school. Rachmanut is a key ingredient in promoting differentiation.

While teaching is both art and science, it also involves ahavah. One of the root meanings of ahavah is “to give,” so the word doesn’t just mean the act of love, but to give love. In order for ahavah to be given, there must be a receiver. That goes back to the essential exchange between teacher and student in the learning equation. Teaching is as much a process as learning, and it involves great efforts from both the students and the educators. In order to do this well, with all of its challenges, there has to be some level of ahavah for this sacred work and for the learners themselves.

Most people who choose teaching as a profession do so out of ahavah. Some teachers love the content that they teach. Some teachers love creating learning opportunities. Other teachers love working with students and seeing them move forward on their learning continuum. The power of synthesizing all of those loves is a contagious experience that leads to deep connections and learning for all. Differentiated learning can be cultivated through a relationship built on ahavah because it has the power to reveal the hidden spark inside each student. That makes differentiation an essential individual experience because everyone is made to feel visible and valuable.

Love and respect go hand-in-hand. The word for respect is kavod, which comes from the word kaved, meaning heavy. Differentiation is not an easy task. Respecting our learners and their work can require a lot of effort, but it’s worth it when you see struggling students’ light bulbs flash or celebrate student achievement in areas they never imagined.

Rabbi Hillel said, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to others” (Shabbat 31a). This is about respect, one of the key elements to the Jewish worldview, and should be noticeable in all aspects of a Jewish day school. It is an integral component of almost everything that Judaism teaches, from how one is to approach our relationship with God to how we interact with our parents. The value of respect must extend beyond the individual or family to the community, which includes the school. To live a life respecting others means to realize that everyone is significant and should be valued for who they are as individuals. Differentiation is an act of kavod.

Differentiation is not just an idea in education, but a fundamental guiding principle that everyone can learn. We have a tradition of equating learning and honey. Kindness is also compared to honey, as healthy for the body and sweet to the soul (Proverbs). If we show compassion, love and respect to all of our students, it will help them persevere through difficult challenges because the kindness is encouraging.

If being at Jewish day school is only “Jewish” when the students are learning Torah or holidays or how to speak Hebrew, then we are denying our students their inherent rights and we are doing an injustice to our faith. Differentiation is one of the most Jewish things we can do. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote, “One of the most stunning gestures of Judaism was to overturn the whole idea of a hierarchy of knowledge, for if there are inequalities of learning, they will be replicated through all other social structures, giving some people unwarranted power over others. This is the great insight of the Jewish vision, from which all else followed: A free society must be an educated society, and a society of equal dignity must be one in which education is universal” (Radical Then, Radical Now).

This universal education is dignified only if learning is a universal right and inequalities are minimized. When we treat others with compassion, love and respect, we are embodying Torah. It is through the values of rachmanut, ahavah and kavod that we can understand why differentiation, the key in making education universal, is a guiding principle in Judaism and a moral imperative for all Jewish educators.

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HaYidion Differentiation Fall 2017
Fall 2017