At P’tach Lo: Putting Essential Questions at the Center of Experiential Jewish Education

by Rabbi Zac Johnson

As a practitioner of experiential Jewish education (EJE) with a background in formal classroom instruction, I was elated to read Yeshiva University’s recent report “Mapping Goals in Experiential Jewish Education.” The report indicates that while goal-setting has not yet been universally adopted by EJE agencies, its growing prevalence signals an informal field’s integration of a proven approach from formal education.

Outcomes-based planning, most successfully demonstrated by the indispensable guide Understanding By Design (UBD), assists teachers in becoming “coaches of understanding,” helping students uncover and “make meaning” of big ideas and learning to transfer such skills as interpretation, application and empathy.[i ]Like UBD, the three core outcomes of BBYO‘s Educational Framework – IDENTIFY, CONNECT and IMPROVE, help staff, advisors and teen leaders create purpose-driven, creative, and fun programs throughout our vast network. Over time, these outcomes will lead to Jewish habits of mind for everyone involved in BBYO’s programming.

While the rise of outcomes-based planning in EJE is encouraging, teaching toward concrete pedagogical outcomes must be animated by the use of essential questions (EQs) to be truly effective. EQs are fundamental planning tools because “the key long-term goal of education is for students to become better questioners in the end … the ability to question is central to meaningful learning and intellectual achievement at high levels.”[ii] Whether our intended outcomes are that participants see Judaism as personally relevant, engage in Jewish life, develop interpersonal skills, or learn Jewish content, we must unremittingly signal to them that the most important skill in achieving these goals, independently and communally, is to be inquisitive.

Identifying the difference between essential and non-essential questions, however, is not a simple task. Professional staff and participant-leaders might already be in the habit of asking questions – most likely during ice-breakers, small-group discussions or framing and concluding conversations. While questions such as “What did you think about X?” or “What does Y mean to you?” (wherein X and Y are any given topic, ritual, moment in history) may yield deep sharing, they do not do not require nor foster deep thinking. Rather, an essential question is a question which:

  • is open-ended
  • is thought-provoking
  • calls for higher-order thinking, requiring some analysis and evaluation
  • raises additional questions
  • requires support and justification, not just answers; and
  • recurs over time[iii]

Questions with these qualities can be asked and answered by anyone, and will matter to everyone, making the ensuing lesson or activity an exercise in collaborative discovery between staff and participants.[iv] We should not mistake these questions for the content itself, but use them to help students “discern the questionability” of the content, Jewish or otherwise, which we expect them to learn.[v]

Adopting EQs as an educational strategy addresses other ongoing apprehensions in the world of EJE. Many staff working in informal settings struggle with a prohibitive lack of confidence or sophisticated background in Jewish content to make the modality a successful educational experience. Putting EQs in the center of programming allows staff to drop the flawed expectation that they be content masters and rather to see themselves as co-conspirators with participants in the process of inquiry and discovery.

Similarly, the concern that EJE is ‘content-lite’ is rendered irrelevant through employing EQs. When goals are set for educators and essential questions are posed to participants, the natural next step is to find the most relevant sources in Jewish and Western civilization to seek complex and compelling answers. Thus the question moves from “What does Shabbat mean to me?” to “How do we know when we are at rest?” When young Jews are provided with the opportunity to explore the opinions, challenges, and choices of their ancestors, their moral development becomes the content of our programs right alongside their ability to braid challah or feel pride for the State of Israel.

As best practices in the field of experiential Jewish education continue to be refined, the role of EQs must receive the serious attention of researchers and field professionals, not solely because questions are an effective teaching strategy, but because they are at the unique heart of the Jewish experience. If the value proposition of EJE is to teach Judaism as an authentic, living tradition and to strengthen Jewish identity, what could be more authentic than for a Jew to learn to ask a great question?

[i] Wiggins, Grant P., and Jay McTighe. The Understanding by Design Guide to Creating High-Quality Units. Alexandria, VA: ASCD, 2011. 4.
[ii] Wiggins and McTighe. Essential Questions: Opening Doors to Student Understanding. Alexandria, VA: ASCD, 2013.
[iii] ibid, 17.
[iv] My thanks to Rabbi Josh Feigelson of Hillel’s Ask Big Questions for this helpful language.
[v]  Holzer, Elie with Orit Kent. A Philosophy of Havruta: Understanding and Teaching the Art of Text Study in Pairs. Brighton, MA: Academic Studies Press, 2014. 94.

Rabbi Zac Johnson is the Director of Jewish Enrichment for the Western States Hub of BBYO International.