Learning How To Learn
By Rabbi Yeshaya Weber

Thinking is a lost art. Children nowadays are hardly ever required to think. Itís all written in books, and they just have to learn and remember it. They need to listen to the teacher and accept what he says. Unwittingly, children are prevented and even discouraged from independent thinking. * How do you foster independent thinking in children? * What are the benefits of doing so?

Parents can and must be partners in developing the learning potential within every child. In order to do so, you must first understand what learning is, then you can know what tools to use in order to develop it.

With regards to their day-to-day role in their childrenís chinuch, parents mostly deal with the technicalities of learning. Is the child learning or not? Does he read properly? What grades is he getting? In order to develop the principles from which we will derive practical guidance, we must closely examine the topic of learning.

The Gemara in Bava Basra 21 says, "Rav said to Rav Shmuel bar Sheilas..." Rav was a great rosh yeshiva in Bavel, and this is what he said to Rav Shmuel bar Sheilas, who was a teacher of young children: "Donít accept them before age six." This is surprising because why would Rav, a rosh yeshiva, mix into the affairs of a primary school teacher, telling him whom to accept?

It is explained as follows: Rav noticed bachurim in his yeshiva who were having a difficult time with their studies. He understood that their problem was not due to a lack of talent but to something that had taken place previously that seemed to have stunted their development. Rav concluded that it had to do with a certain lack of inner peace. There was a certain stage in their educational maturation these students hadnít passed.

This is why Rav mixed into an area which apparently had nothing to do with him. He addressed bar Sheilas and said: Only accept six-year-olds so that when they eventually come to me, they will be mature and will succeed in their studies.

The proper educational approach when a child is young builds his future learning for years to come! The proper direction when a child is young results in the child adopting a positive approach to learning. In this way he develops the necessary motivation and self-confidence needed for success in learning.

Thereís no such thing as a child who doesnít learn. As human beings, Hashem endowed us all with intelligence. Our intellect is greatly involved in every stage of our lives and throughout the learning process.

A baby begins learning from birth. At first he learns to recognize his mother and his family and immediate surroundings. Little by little the learning process intensifies. The child acquires a vocabulary and constantly enriches his knowledge. Through his daily activities he develops the capacity for deductive reasoning.

The child learns the parts of his body, formulating an awareness of his existence as a unified whole comprised of various parts. In his first months of life he looks at his fingers, examines his hands, and lifts his legs. It appears to him as though each limb exists independently, but he quickly learns that theyíre all connected. He arrives at this conclusion through the sense of touch. He learns to differentiate between feelings and to associate them with the appropriate limbs. Through this learning process of trial and error, there are more than just a few errors! The child hurts himself, and falls down, etc. But he always gets up again and continues learning in an experimental way.

When it comes time to read, the learning process slows down significantly because the words are technical and dry, and donít convey any sensory experiences to the child that speak to him in his own language, the language he used until now.

For many children at this stage of reading, progress is slow. Attempts to speed things up cause the child to shun reading because he lacks comprehension. This lack causes him to forsake trying to make sense of things in general, since comprehension is connected with understanding what is read and he doesnít understand what is being read. Lack of comprehension makes it difficult for him to concentrate on writing, and he wonít want to sit and learn.

Not wanting to learn will put the child into an endless loop, which, if he doesnít get out of it, can lead to other problems. Intervention will then be necessary to ensure that he doesnít leave school and home altogether.

It is vital to closely follow a child in the early stages, to see what stage of development he is up to and how mature he is. Among other things, what needs to be checked is whether or not the child is even ready to read? Can he concentrate or is this still difficult for him?

Parents have to know what to do and how to expand their childís capacity for absorption, and they must help him in the learning process. Parents can do a lot to stimulate their childís thinking.

A child can be taught to think independently in all areas of life. For example, when a child asks a typical question like: Why do I have to, and not my brothers? There are two possible responses. One response is to answer him thoroughly so that it is understood clearly without any effort on his part. Another response is to say: Think it through for yourself. Whatís different about you in this case as opposed to your brothers which would explain why you and not them? This makes him think and come to the answer on his own. Itís important to acknowledge his efforts in this, to say, "Very good! You thought it through and figured it out for yourself."

Thinking is a neglected domain. Children nowadays are hardly ever required to think. Itís all written in a book and they just have to learn it and memorize it. They are required to listen to the teacher, to believe him (or her) and accept what he says. They are expected to listen to their parents and are not given the opportunity to express a different opinion. Unwittingly, we prevent and even discourage independent thinking in our children.

In higher education the problem is compounded, because the child has to know the question as well as the answer, and even then he generally does so through memorization, not because he thought it through. Why? Because he is not trained to think.

In their daily affairs, many adults who were not taught to think when they were young donít know how to manage. They make terrible mistakes that cause great heartache to them and those around them. They experience tremendous failure, not because they are good-for-nothings, but because they never learned how to think.

Among other responsibilities, parents must direct their children to independent thinking. If at first they find it hard to come to conclusions on their own, they can be guided. They can be helped to find the answers themselves. This understanding is extremely important in order to prevent young children from reaching the wrong conclusions. From very young ages they should be guided so that their judgment is sound, realistic, and well founded.

Guiding and directing while implanting the importance of thinking for oneself is something that must be done wisely. Children have to learn not to simply accept the conclusions of adults, but to think and analyze it with their own logic, to use their own brains to draw conclusions about the matter at hand.

Parents can contribute a great deal so that their children develop socially, as well. Among other things, they should become aware of the qualities and talents of their friends, and should be ready to accept help from them when necessary. This is also something acquired with proper guidance.

Children who find learning difficult and get stuck, rendering them incapable of making progress, are generally embarrassed to share these problems with their friends. For some of them, the word "challenging" is synonymous with "failure," and naturally they donít want to share their failures with their friends. Other children are just too proud to be helped.

If parents and educators convey the importance of learning with someone and that learning by oneself is simply not possible, the children would acquire a valuable rule for life. The advantages and benefits of learning with others are numerous. It sometimes happens that a child is taught something but doesnít understand it. If he learns alone, unexposed to someone with a different approach who can help him, he loses out. Itís only when learning with someone else that itís possible to help and be helped.

Unwillingness to ask questions detracts from other areas of life. There are adults who will spend hours wandering a strange city, refusing to ask passersby for help. Why? Because they think that asking for help is a great embarrassment. Maybe they remember an unpleasant childhood experience in which they tried to ask a question and were rebuffed.

In order to prevent the child from being unwilling to ask questions in the future, we have to push the idea of learning with others from when they are young. There are children who, even when older, donít know what it means to learn bíchavrusa, and what benefit there is in it. A talented adolescent with social problems once described it this way: "I donít get it! Whatís the chavrusa for? If I know the material, what do I need him for? And if he knows it, how does that help me? So that he explains it to me?! I donít want that! Iíll figure it out for myself!"

We must make sure our children know that learning is acquired with dibuk chaveirim (the closeness of friends), as it says in Pirkei Avos. The benefit is double and contributes to greater socialization when through the learning, the two of them open up to each other. They discuss their feelings, their insights, their way of thinking and their approach to various topics. They give each other attention by listening, and show they appreciate a logical deduction, a good resolution to a question, or a sharp answer.

It is possible that a major cause of social problems is an incorrect approach to learning. Learning is an inseparable part of communication between an individual and his environment. You canít learn without including others. Learning becomes part of life, and itís important to include it in oneís daily life. You canít learn in isolation. You must see the reality and be a part of it. Joining oneís surroundings is also part of learning.

The willingness to listen and accept, to be helped, are also steps in learning. This openness also contributes to the childís being willing to accept guidance.

How will the child understand what a teacher or rebbi is and what their role is? We bring him to the classroom where there is a teacher, whose job is to teach, and we tell the child to listen to him. We donít give it much thought, so the child thinks: I hope I have a good teacher. If I have a good teacher, life will be good. If chalila I donít, oy vei...

This needs to be addressed in a structured way so that the child understands that his job is to learn. He is responsible to himself to succeed in this task. He has the potential and the tools he needs for the job, as well as the difficulties and limitations he has to contend with, and which the teacher is there to help him with.

The system the child enters is not a goal unto itself; it is a means to help him learn. If it seems to the child that he is not receiving the necessary or appropriate help, he needs to direct the teacher in how to help him. This is not only when it comes to learning, but also socially - which is connected with his learning.

When the child finds it hard to make friends, it directly affects his learning. When he feels good and comfortable among his friends, it helps him acquire self-esteem, which is expressed in his studies and provides him with the motivation to crack the books.

When parents guide their child into realizing that success in learning is closely connected with friendships - that it is impossible to learn without help from others, and in order to get that help he must guide those who need guidance in how to help him -the child relates to his learning in a much more positive manner. The results will be that he will put the tools available to him to better use, and will make the most of his potential.

The more successful parents are in providing their child with the proper tools, the more successful he will be connected to the learning he needs to do. If he does not provide the right tools, the child will seek tools on his own, and he may even find them, but they might very well be the wrong tools and will not lead him to the desired results.

If the parent doesnít acclimate him to his environment, the child will look for another environment. The child may come back but the parents will have to be mighty patient and wait years for that to happen, and will need help from professionals. We can prevent this by knowing what to do when the child is young.

This is all expected of parents, while simultaneously we must remember that we need tremendous siyata diíShmaya (help from Above). We must do our part and Hashem will do His. The more we ponder the significance of our roles as parents, the more we will find ourselves being helped in all sorts of ways we never dreamed of. When thereís siyata diíShmaya, the results are incomparable. But in order to recognize the siyata diíShmaya, we must be parents...


For some, the word "challenging" is synonymous with "failure," and naturally they donít want to share their failures with their friends.




Thinking is a neglected domain. Children nowadays are hardly ever required to think.


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