Grade Expectations Or Why Do Our Children Learn So Much and Know So Little?

We are all familiar with the Chazal that tells of the angel who touches each child on the lip just prior to birth, causing him to forget all the Torah taught in the womb. As many teachers will attest, that malach seems to reappear and touch the child again and again. How else could we explain the fact that the average day school student has spent hundreds, if not thousands, of hours learning Torah, being exposed to the words of Chazal, building textual skills and a significant knowledge base, and yet has very little to show for it? Most of the ideas students have learned are either totally forgotten or hazily recalled. Textual skills improve little as students move from grade to grade. In many cases, third- or fourth-grade students can translate pesukim with similar or even better accuracy than middle school students. We wonder, why?

While, unfortunately, no hard data exists to assess the true extent of this problem, it is widely acknowledged by parents and educators alike. A few months ago, during a meeting with a group of seminary heads in Israel, I was confronted with the following charge: “What’s going on in your schools? These girls barely know anything!” This complaint is echoed by rabbanim in post high school yeshivot who bemoan the students’ high school education, and by high school rabbanim and morot who criticize the elementary schools.

To be sure, there are students who do retain superior skill levels, and display both depth and breadth of knowledge. However, reports from the field seem to indicate that these are “islands of excellence” in a “sea of ignorance.” How do we explain this phenomenon?

I would like to respond by presenting a simple and all-inclusive rule of all education, which we will call the Rule of Great Expectations. It states: “Students will rise or fall tothe level of communicated (appropriate) expectations.”

When we clearly communicate to students what we want them to remember, and what we want them to know how to do, they will rise to the level of that expectation. Conversely, when we clearly communicate to students that they may forget a body of knowledge or a specific skill, they will meet that expectation as well.

This theory asserts that precisely because we present all things taught as being of equal importance, our students, realizing they cannot remember everything, forget almost all they learn. In effect, by not communicating what we do want them to know, we are communicating that they need not remember almost anything, because, after all, they cannot remember everything.

When a second-grade teacher asks for the Chumash curriculum and is told, “Lech Lecha through Toldot,”we have a problem. Until we clarify for ourselves what precisely children should know at every grade level in every subject, we are ensuring that they know almost nothing.

But how do we choose? Which concepts are more important than others?

When trying to explain a similar phenomenon in general studies education, Wiggins and McTighe (Understanding by Design [Alexandria, VA, 1998]) claim true understanding is lost due to the fact that educators do not clearly differentiate between various forms of knowledge. Rarely do educators define for students that certain parts of the curriculum are simply worth being familiar with, while others are important to know and do, and yet others supply enduring understanding.

We must remember that not all that we teach carries the same curricular weight. There are facts or ideas that are simply worth being exposed to. That exposure might be useful for its power of impression, the “wow factor,” or for its ability to engage students and initiate them into a specific thinking process associated with a specific discipline. However, there are portions of knowledge that sit at the very heart of the discipline, in that they help lay the very foundation for all consequent learning and understanding.

To illustrate, consider a lesson regarding the beginning of Vayera, where the angels come to Avraham. The teacher might expect students to know how many angels came, what each one’s mission was, et cetera. In addition, the teacher, in order to deepen the ideal of welcoming guests, would add that Avraham was recovering from his brit milah, and also teach the concept of “Gedolah hachnasat orchim m’kabbalat pnei Shechinah,” welcoming guests is a greater mitzvah than greeting Hashem. The details of the visit are pieces of knowledge certainly worth being exposed to; however, the latter lesson teaches a fundamental hashkafic concept central to the very core of Jewish thought. It is precisely these types of concepts that we would like students to retain long after other facts are forgotten. However, how has the teacher communicated this expectation to the students? Have the students been made aware that the knowledge of the former is not on the same epistemological level as the latter?

Photo: Ariel Jerozolimski


I frequently urge teachers to ask themselves the following four questions, the arba kushiyot, when preparing a test.

1. Do I truthfully feel that the students will be able to answer these questions in two years? If the answer is in the negative, the teachers must then ask themselves,

2. If the students will not remember this in two years, why bother asking them now?

3. Are there any pieces of information  that I would like them to remember in two years?

4. Have I successfully communicated this expectation to the students?

The above illustration highlights the fact that the first step on the road to enduring knowledge is in identifying fundamental knowledge concepts. Afterwards, we must clarify to students exactly what we expect them to remember, and, finally, we must create a school-wide system that reinforces this philosophy.

Identifying and Clarifying Knowledge Concepts
In general, we can divide that which we consider important to remember into two categories: fundamental skill acquisition and fundamental concepts. In a Chumash class, the first will include identifying prefixes, suffixes and shorashim, all of which serve to build the student’s textual skill. Lists of the shorashim learned in each parashah, which can be reduced to those occurring more frequently, should be given to students at each grade level. In addition, students should be exposed to lists of the variations of each shoresh, to focus review of prefixes, suffixes and the fashion in which words are built.

Most of the ideas students have learned are either totally forgotten or hazily recalled.

The second, which we will term musagim, can be characterized as crystallizations of the halachic or philosophical ideas that form the basis of future learning and understanding. In a Chumash class, scores of such musagim are imbedded in the pesukim we teach in the form of divrei Chazal, most of which are quoted by Rashi. These musagim will focus the students’ (and teachers’) attention on the central message or messages of each unit, the fundamental ideas that teachers feel should be committed to long-term memory. Teachers must provide students with lists of these musagim, at each grade level, created with an eye for age appropriateness. In addition, teachers must clarify for students how they want the musagim to be remembered. Depending on the age or aptitude of the students, the teacher can decide whether to hold the students accountable for the entire musag or only certain parts; whether the student must know the musag in Lashon Hakodesh or only the translation.

Building a School-wide System
While these concepts are certainly to be a central aspect of the lesson, the teacher must clarify that these concepts must be remembered well beyond that specific perek or parashah test. Thus, tests should reflect this expectation. Information that will only be asked for the test alone should be separated from information that must be remembered throughout the year (and beyond). The teacher must communicate to students that these concepts might well appear on any or every test until the end of the year. Constant review will reinforce this expectation.

Photo: Ariel Jerozolimski


The most effective way to accomplish this task is to create a school-wide assessment system that reflects these expectations. At the end of each year, students should be tested, schoolwide, on these concepts, possibly as a prerequisite for promotion to the next grade. Since many concepts repeat themselves, consistent assessment will ensure repeated review.

Students do rise to meet communicated expectations. The fault of our educational system is not found in the methodologies being used, but rather in the lack of clarity and hierarchal organization of the content being taught Our mission as educators is to rethink our curriculums to enable this worthy goal. Identifying and clarifying the fundamental concepts in each and every area of the Judaic curriculum (and indeed the secular as well) should be the focus of curriculum development. We can reduce the malach’s visit to once in a lifetime if we pay attention to what it is we teach our talmidim.

Rabbi Karmi Gross has worked in the field of Jewish education for the past thirty-two years. He currently lives in Ramat Beit Shemesh and is active as an educational consultant and curriculum coordinator for schools in Israel, the US and South Africa.

This article was featured in the Spring 2010 issue of Jewish Action.