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December 2, 2016 3:20 am

Don’t Lower Expectations for Children

avatar by Pini Dunner

Email a copy of "Don’t Lower Expectations for Children" to a friend
Esau and Jacob reconcile. Photo: Francesco Hayez.

Esau and Jacob reconcile. Photo: Francesco Hayez.

I have always been fascinated by the idea of a handicap in golf. It allows novices to get into the game on an equal footing with more experienced golfers by establishing a numerical measurement that calculates the ability or limitations of anyone who picks up a golf club. Better golfers with a low handicap might find themselves losing a game to a beginner with a higher handicap; it’s all in the spirit of gentlemanly sportsmanship. Of course, the handicap system is never used in professional golf, otherwise I would have beat Tiger Woods.

The golf handicap brings to mind an important point regarding modern education, and a particular educational technique that has become increasingly popular over the past 15 years, called Differentiated Instruction (DI).

Also known as Differentiated Learning, this technique requires teachers to provide different students in the same classroom with lessons tailored to their individual skills or weaknesses. Each student’s results and grades reflect his own ability and effort, rather than those based on a standardized curriculum, enabling every child to be successful. Using this method, an “A” grade for one student in a particular project or subject might be a “C” grade for another, and vice-versa. Everyone participates on “equal” terms.

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The logic behind DI sounds remarkably similar to an idea expressed by Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888) in his commentary on this week’s Torah portion.

No two brothers were ever more dissimilar than Jacob and Esau, the twins born to Isaac and Rebecca at the beginning of Toldot: “Esau grew up to be a hunter, a man of the field, while Jacob was a quiet man, a tent dweller.” Although they were treated alike and given identical educations, Jacob developed into the perfect child, while Esau went in a wayward direction, eventually becoming a completely depraved degenerate.

One might think, says Rabbi Hirsch, that Esau had no reason to rebel. After all, his parents had handled him in exactly the same way as they had his twin brother. So why did he act up? Rabbi Hirsch suggests that it was precisely the evenhandedness that caused the problem. Esau had a very different temperament from that of his brother. He was not studious, or eager to be educated. He was an outdoor, sporty type. But if only he had been offered the opportunity to shine in areas where he could excel, perhaps he would not have ended up as the black sheep of his family.

Rabbi Hirsch’s proposition is thought-provoking, and very much in tune with the theory behind DI. Nevertheless, and without wishing to sound disrespectful or dismissive, I must vehemently disagree with him. His suggestion lays the blame for Esau’s adult wickedness squarely at Isaac and Rebecca’s door, as if they were ultimately responsible for their son’s later debauchery. That is entirely unfair. While no parent is perfect, and this even includes our biblical patriarchs and matriarchs, ultimate responsibility for an adult’s actions must always lie with that adult, whose challenge it is to overcome impediments to his or her success — whether these impediments are environmental, familial or personality-based.

Lowering standards might be a gracious way to be as inclusive as possible in a game of amateur golf, but just as in professional golf, no handicap concessions are made for the players in real life. There comes a point when pretending everyone is equal is not a secret weapon to achieve world peace, but becomes a tyranny of mediocrity.

Interestingly, in the past few years, a range of professional educators have begun to question the efficacy of Differentiated Instruction. One highly respected educational expert, Mike Schmoker, has described DI as a method that was conceived based “largely on enthusiasm and a certain superficial logic,” but instead of having improved overall education, it has, in his words, “corrupted both curriculum and effective instruction.”

But perhaps Rabbi Hirsch’s point is slightly different. Not every child can meet the highest expectations of his parents and of society, but this doesn’t mean that he cannot be encouraged to excel to the maximum of his own ability. Perhaps Esau need not have developed into the antihero he became, if only his parents had not insisted that he be just like Jacob. But this approach can never be allowed to develop into an abandonment of all expectations. Surely we can let someone know that he is wrong or heading in the wrong direction without it being the cause of his lifelong downfall and failure. After all, no golfer who is told that he’s not quite as good as Tiger Woods is going to give up golfing for the rest of his life.

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