Funnels and Strainers

ארבע מדות ביושבים לפני חכמים. ספוג, ומשפך, משמרת, ונפה. ספוג, שהוא סופג את הכל. משפך, שמכניס בזו ומוציא בזו. משמרת, שמוציאה את היין וקולטת את השמרים. ונפה, שמוציאה את הקמח וקולטת את הסלת:

There are four temperaments among those who sit before the sages: the sponge, the funnel, the strainer, and the sieve. The sponge — because it absorbs everything. The funnel — because it lets in at [one end] and lets out at [the other]. The strainer — because it lets the wine out and retains the sediment. The sieve — because it lets out the [inferior] flour and retains the fine flour.

Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) 5:15

Education is notorious for buzzwords and fads, and veteran educators talk about watching a pendulum swing back and forth over years and decades between different ends of various spectra: constructivism vs. behaviorism, formal vs. informal, essentialism vs. progressivism. Before any of these buzzwords and movements, Rabbis of the Mishnaic era laid out their own philosophies regarding wisdom and education.

In the quote above we read about four different kinds of learners in what appears to be an ancient acknowledgement

of the modern idea of differentiation — learners differ in their tendencies and strengths, and so teachers need to keep that in mind and plan accordingly. What is conspicuously absent from the quote is any type of judgement about the merits of any of these types. In fact, this quote is situated in a set of quotes that each lay out temperaments labeled as pious, wicked, etc., so it is kind of unusual that there are no labels here. I like to read that (perhaps with a modern lens) as an understanding that one learning isn’t inherently superior or inferior, but that different approaches serve different times and purposes. Let’s take a quick look at them:

The sponge simply absorbs everything. This could be useful if you need to memorize a list of facts in math or spelling, for example. The funnel seems not to retain anything – that could actually be useful if you only need the learning for a very short time. We can’t possibly retain everything we learn, so it is actually useful sometimes to acquire information temporarily and then let it go when it is no longer needed. The strainer seems to be able to take messy information and “clean” it, in much the same way that is required when a large amount of data is collected and analysis is only possible once it has been formatted appropriately. Finally, the sieve activates the “21st century skill” known as critical thinking – looking at material and determining what is salient.

One of the ways in which we help children become lifelong learners at Gesher is to help them understand their own tendencies as learners. As they begin to understand natural strengths and challenges, they can begin to choose strategies and tools that are appropriate for them as they work to master skills and materials, and that is a fairly personalized process. Sometimes we help them by playing to strengths, and sometimes we push them to work on areas that are much more challenging for them. The work of a master teacher is to understand each child in real time, and help them move through these processes effectively. It is sometimes hard work for teachers and learners, but it is growth, and ultimately fulfilling and joyful for both.

This Shabbat, I encourage you to talk with your child about how you like to learn, and how you handle it when you encounter something that is challenging or doesn’t play to your strengths. Do you engage? avoid? joyfully struggle through? get upset? Ask them what happens for them in those moments, and maybe even talk about some strategies that you both find helpful.

Shabbat Shalom,