Years ago, I was exposed to Cooperative Learning, an approach to structuring instruction such that students learn with and from one another. The students need one another to complete their tasks and they share in the challenge and the success of the endeavor.
I had the opportunity to study Cooperative Learning under the masters, David and Roger Johnson at the University of Minnesota, and I went on to train many teachers in the approach. I was thrilled with the power of cooperation, and I sensed the similarity of Cooperative Learning to learning with a Chavrusa. Here was a training approach to help students learn with a Chavrusa from an early age.
I had an occasion to discuss my excitement with the great Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Henoch Leibowitz זצ”ל, and to mention my desire to complete and disseminate an article that I had begun writing, “Cooperative Learning and the Torah.”
The Rosh Yeshiva זצ”ל took an interest in the title of my article, something that gave me a very brief but intense rush – the Rosh Yeshiva was interested in my article!
The Rosh Yeshiva proceeded to suggest a slight change in the title of the article. Yes, I thought, his edit is going to take this article from mediocre to great.
“What does the Rosh Yeshiva think I should title the article?”
“Why not entitle it, ‘The Torah Looks at Cooperative Learning’?”
I was struck by the penetrating insight implied by that slight change.
The article I had begun to write started from the assumption that Cooperative Learning has great merit and proceeded to find many Torah supports for the benefits of Cooperative Learning. The Rosh Yeshiva’s article would start from the Torah and would highlight the strengths and weaknesses of Cooperative Learning through that lens.
The Rosh Yeshiva זצ”ל had caught the assumption in my thinking and was trying to steer me back to look through the lens of the Torah without the bias that I was going to find corroboration for Cooperative Learning in the Torah.
I also realized that I was not qualified to write the article that the Rosh Yeshiva זצ”ל was recommending. I did not have enough breadth in the perspective of the Torah to be able to render a qualified critique of the strengths and weaknesses of Cooperative Learning.
Such an article would have to wait for a person who could address the title he suggested.
There is nothing wrong with advocating a good idea. There is something very wrong with attributing that idea to the Torah without first asking the Torah.
I would like to add a postscript to the Cooperative Learning article.
Many years have passed and I have been blessed to spend time with the insights of the Chasam Sofer on the Torah. Listen to his words:
עשר תעשר וגו’. בשביל שתתעשר, למען תלמד ליראה את ה’ אלהיך כל הימים. כי הכופרים בהשגחה עליונה אומרים העולם צריך ישוב והשגחת אנשים ואיש את רעהו יעזורו, והם מטיבים זה עם זה ביתר שאת בלי חק וגבול, כי זה כל האדם, ואינם מצפים לתשלום שכר, כי כופרים בהשגחה ושכר ועונש אלא כך מנהגו של עולם איש את רעהו יעזורו. ע”כ אמר במצות מעשר וצדקה עשר בשביל שתתעשר למען תלמד וכי בגלל הדבר הזה יברכך, לומר מצוה שתתן בשביל שתתעשר, שלא יהי’ כונתך ח”ו כאותם הכופרים הנ”ל, אלא האמן שעי”ז תתעשר ע”י המשגיח ית”ש הנאמן לשלם שכר (תורת משה פ’ ראה דברים יד:כב)
To paraphrase the Chasam Sofer: Helping others can conceal a rejection of השגחה:
‘A person must internalize the fact that Hashem is the One Who provides wealth. Wealth is part of the complex system of reward and punishment through which Hashem both tests and encourages us.’
‘Helping another person is wonderful; it is an emulation of the Divine attribute of compassion. But the same helping can imply that the only way to move forward is by looking out for one another.’
‘There is a subtle but deep rejection of השגחה when a person helps another with an assumption that such cooperation is the only way to success. People who reject השגחה are willing to go to great lengths for another person, without any compensation, based on their understanding that cooperation is the only way to achieve our goals.’
‘Avoiding such a כפירה is why the Torah reminds us about יראת שמים after telling us that giving מעשר will lead to wealth.’
When I came across this comment of the Chasam Sofer I was struck by the memory of my conversation with the Rosh HaYeshiva זצ”ל. Here is an example of what the Rosh HaYeshiva זצ”ל was referring to when he suggested an edit to my title.
Cooperative Learning is a wonderful tool. Helping one another in the classroom improves cognitive skills for both students. It sets a tone of caring for one another. It is Divine.
But it can play a subtle role in promoting a terrible message that success depends on looking out for one another and it is not entirely under the guidance of Providence. It is a great idea, but it is subject to Torah-scrutiny and must be implemented with care and caution.
When we think that we have found a great idea we must check in with the Torah. What does the Torah think about the great idea?
How many ‘great ideas’ have been promoted by well-intending people who discovered great but partial truths and set those great ideas as ideals without checking in with the master plan.
(It is intriguing to note that the Chasam Sofer passed away in 1839. He wrote these words in prophetic anticipation of what was to become Communism, based precisely on the כפירה that the Chasam Sofer described in helping one another. Karl Marx was born in 1818…)
The Torah looks at Cooperative Learning, not Cooperative Learning and the Torah.