Challenging our Assumptions about Learning and Liturgy – and What We Need to Help Us to Fly

A few years ago a team of psychologists set up an experiment with some pre-school children. They gave the children a toy made of lots of plastic tubes. Each tube had something different about it. One tube squeaked when you touched it. One lit up. One tube made music. One had a mirror hidden inside it. With half the children, one of the psychologists came into the room and – as if by accident – bumped into the tube that squeaked. “Oops!”, she said as the tube squeaked. The children were then left alone to play with the toy. The psychologist-team watched to see what happened next. What do you think they observed?

The other half of the children had a different experience. The psychologist came into the room and acted more like a teacher, picking up the toy and saying enthusiastically “Look at my great toy! Let me show you how it works” and then pressing the tube that squeaked, which of course it did. The children were then left alone to play with the toy, with the psychologist-team  watching to see what happened next in that group of children.

Although Rosh Hashanah is the time of the year when we are asking ourselves ‘what will happen next? how will our next year unfold?’, we don’t usually have any window, any vantage point, from which we can observe the action. We are in that sense like the children being tested to see how we respond to what life presents us with.  We are still as a people, the children of Israel, caught up in something bigger than we know, larger than we understand. Part of the religious work, the spiritual work, of this time of the year is to see if we can get a different vantage point onto our daily lives.

But back to the experiment. What do you think the psychologist team saw happening in the first group of children, the one where there’d been this ‘accidental’ bumping into the toy, which then squeaked?  That group, they found, began playing with the toy in all sorts of random ways, pulling, pushing, prodding, until  gradually they discovered all the functions of the tubes: the light, the music, the mirror. And the other group? Those children who’d been enthusiastically shown how the squeaking part of the tube worked – those who’d been deliberately taught, had their attention directed, by the experimenter – they played with the tube in a much more limited and repetitive way. ‘Squeak, squeak! Squeak, squeak!’ – they hardly ever discovered all the other things the toy could do.

When I came across this piece of research – it’s from Alison Gopnik’s  book The Gardener and the Carpenter, she’s a Jewish professor of both psychology and philosophy at Berkeley, California – I have to say that I found it quite unsettling, disquieting. It seemed at first quite counter-intuitive.

Surely if you are just left to find things out for yourself, randomly, you could end up lost, bored, frustrated, distressingly all-at-sea. And if you are directed in your learning, your discovery of what’s in the world, by an enthusiastic teacher – can’t they open up things for you that you might never find by yourself, hidden wonders you’d never otherwise come across on your own? So this research seemed to undermine some basic assumptions of mine.

It is quite destabilising to think: have I got something fundamentally  wrong? will I have to think again about how I see the world, build it up again with different foundations? These are High Holy Day questions, I suppose – certainly they are pertinent to the self-examination we are encouraged to undertake –  but they weren’t questions I welcomed when I came across this peer-reviewed research.

But the more I thought about this experiment, the more I realised the truth embedded within it, and the more significant, profound, I found it. And still find it.

I thought back to my own childhood and realised just how self-directing my learning had been. I’d go to the local library and just take out whatever books captured my imagination. There were lots of books at home too, but I never remember being told, by either of my parents, ‘you really must read that’. They just left me to it – a sort of blessing in disguise, I now realise.  At secondary school  there were some texts that were set – novels to read, poems to learn – and I am grateful for those because, perhaps fortunately, they didn’t narrow my focus but made me realise how much there was to discover. But on the whole I can now see how free I was both as a child and then an adolescent to find my own way – and not just in literature and poetry, but in music and art and films as well. Looking back, I can see that I was embarked on a lifetime of exploring what interested me, allowing  randomness and serendipity and chance to do its work.

That lack of external direction has, I think, allowed me to be relatively eclectic and wide-ranging in following my own enthusiasms and not anyone else’s. (It has also meant that I have vast areas of ignorance). But what about studying to become  a rabbi? Obviously at  Leo Baeck College there was a huge amount of directedness that went on; historically, traditionally, there’s a strong voice of authority that says, like the one directed to that second group of kids, ‘Look over there, those are the texts that matter: Torah, Talmud, commentaries, collections of midrash, liturgical texts’. In the past Jews – not just rabbis – were clearly directed where to go for wisdom. Certain texts were solid links in a chain of tradition stretching back millennia.

But again, I was fortunate – another blessing in disguise – in that the teachers that I had at and around the College were not quite like that. Or it may be the other way round – that the teachers I found were not like that. The rabbis and teachers I gravitated towards seemed to have been the ones who, each in their own way, represented that first kind of psychologist-experimenter.

I am thinking of Rabbi Lionel Blue and Rabbi Jonathan Magonet and Rabbi Jeffrey Newman, each in their own very different-from-each-other idiosyncratic ways teaching how Jewish religious life is, in essence, about exploration, about a journey of discovery in which the answers aren’t always given by the past; where in fact the asking of a good question, and the exploration of where it takes you, intellectually, emotionally, spiritually, is central what it means to be Jewishly religious.

I had other teachers at rabbinical college, but they didn’t enthuse me in the same way. In retrospect I can see that perhaps  my mind-set had already been formed – a pre-disposition towards a certain stance in relation to learning, how we learn, where we learn, who we can learn from. Where you bump into things – “oops!” – and learn from that, rather than have your learning focused by someone else.

So I leant that wisdom could be found in engaging with Christian pastors and Scottish shepherds, Dominican fathers and atheist artists, displaced poets and Sufi mystics; and that the traditional advice given at the beginning of Pirke Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers, asay l’cha rav – ‘Get yourself a rav, a teacher’ (1:6), was fine – and maybe important – as long as you didn’t restrict yourself to a too-narrow definition of who a teacher might be, or where new insights might come from.

All of which is to say that by looking back at my own journey I can now see that Alison Gopnik’s research experiment – and there’s a lot of other work that she and her colleagues have done that confirm her conclusions – seems to me to be on to something extremely significant about how learning takes place, what kind of direction is needed, and what gets in the way and limits a person’s development. But I still find her conclusions unsettling. Because I think the implications are far-reaching. I want to speak about two very different areas where the implications challenge, very directly, how we do things, how we think about things.

The first is parenting – which is a large part of the focus of her book ‘The Gardener and the Carpenter’. Gopnik puts it very clearly – in a sentence that might make many middle-class parents apoplectic with rage, and maybe fear : “Our job [as parents] is not to shape our children’s minds; it’s to let those minds explore all the possibilities that the world allows.”

Explore all the possibilities – what, go to the local park unsupervised? choose for themselves what school they go to? what subjects to study? decide for themselves whether they do really want extra music lessons, or ballet, or to complete their Duke of Edinburgh awards? “A parent’s job is to help youngsters explore all the possibilities that the world allows”?!  What about exploring drugs? exploring sex? exploring the vast regions of the internet?  This woman needs to be locked up, we might be thinking, encouraging us to think about our parenting in the affluent West as too restrictive, as not conducive to our children’s well-being.

But if we can resist giving in to our knee-jerk reactions, we might create some space to think about the deep wisdom of what she is saying: that we might be getting in the way of our children’s overall well-being by eliminating the random, the serendipitous, by not letting them discover things for themselves – through their mistakes, and what hurts them, as well as what they might thrill to by being allowed to follow their own desires and passions.

You can see all around us the results of the way children are often now being parented, and it is very painful.  I see it and hear about it every day in my therapy consulting room: an epidemic of self-harm, eating disorders, mental health problems, in girls especially; but boys too are much more fragile than their bravado would let us know about. All that educational emphasis on outcomes and test scores and all that parental emphasis on achievement and success – along with peer pressures and the relentless presence of social media sites – has created a perfect storm of un-wellness, of dis-ease.

As parents we might want to protect our youngsters from dangers, of various kinds, but what Alison Gopnik’s book does is provoke us into thinking about the ways in which unknowingly we become collusive with and part of the problem – rather than offering a viable alternative to it. Parenting should be more like gardening than carpentry, Gopnik argues – it is about creating the best conditions for what is there to be allowed to grow, rather than hammering away at our children to shape them into what we think they need to be.

We never think about it as hammering away of course, we think it’s ‘being sensible’, ‘getting ahead’, ‘getting the most out of the opportunities you’ve been given’ – all sorts of rationalisations which our youngsters buy into, or react against, to their own detriment. Sometimes their problems appear at the time as they are growing up, sometimes it take years and then breaks out at college or university: counselling services in tertiary education are being overwhelmed with young people unable to cope.

We could widen this a bit. Beyond the current debates in the UK about grammar schools or the merits of faith schools there is a more fundamental malaise within the educational system in this country. Did you know that in Finland, which leads the world in terms of both academic achievements and reported well-being amongst school-leavers, they don’t begin to teach maths, reading and spelling until the children are seven years old?  Prior to that classes are structured around creative play, storytelling, interpersonal and social skills and the role of the imagination in personal development. The UK has a lot to learn: to unlearn and to learn. (Gopnik’s work is a good example of the historical role of Jews in society – to offer a critique of the status quo, to challenge the prevailing idolatry in a culture).

But I want to finish by bringing this back to ourselves as Jews on the High Holy Days. Because the other thing that unsettled me about Gopnik’s fascinating and passionate arguments is the implications for what we do in our synagogue services. She doesn’t talk in her book about the implications of her ideas for religious belief or practice, but it led me to think about it. That’s an example of her philosophy at work. I bumped into her work and then, in exploring it, I was  led to into quite other areas.

Because the model we have, in our liturgy and our services, is definitely the second route the experimenters took: ‘Look at this, children, see how interesting it is’ – that’s in effect what we who lead the services are saying to you. ‘Turn to page 31’, we say, ‘and we’ll sing this, or read that’. And you probably dutifully follow where you are directed. (Maybe I’m wrong and you are all secret explorers and drifters off. I really hope you are – and I am sure you’ll have heard me encouraging you to use this time to wander through the book, or follow where your mind takes you . But now I have Gopnik’s research to back up my intuitions!).

But if you do just feel an obligation to dutifully follow along, then  – if we think about that through the lens of Alison Gopnik’s work – what we are in effect doing is narrowing your choices and potential adventures during these services, rather than expanding the possibilities of what you could find out and discover for yourselves if we took that different, first-experimenter approach. I think this is one of the underlying reasons why so many people are put off my formal religious services – and this may be true of Christianity as well as Judaism.

So the question I want to leave with you with is this: how would Jews do services differently if we took a ‘Oops!’ approach to the liturgy? If we used the time to bump into things rather than be directed towards them? I’m sure our services would look very different and feel very different. Could we bear a service which wasn’t guided so rigidly from on high – and I’m not speaking about from heaven? A service where we left gaps of time for congregants to wander through the liturgy until they found something that caught their eye?  and then maybe, if they wanted to , have a conversation with their neighbour about what they had found significant in it? A service where we did just a fraction of the liturgy and then used it to see where our own thoughts, our own psyche, took us next?

Services like that might take us out of our comfort zone – but they would allow space for the unconscious to work, allow space for the ruach hakodesh, the spirit of divine energy within us, to breathe in us and enlighten us.  These would be services in the spirit of Shakespeare’s ‘By indirections find directions out ‘ (Hamlet, Act 2, scene1). They would be services where kavannah – inner attentiveness to what unfolds within us moment by moment – was given more space than keva, what is fixed and determined by tradition. They would be services that would – to use traditional language – allow God in.

Why don’t we try to wander, to digress, to use the words in our prayer books as springboards into deeper regions of our own soul and heart and mind. Can we make space for chance things to arise in our mind – random thoughts and associations – and follow them, see where they lead. See what can be discovered by bumping into words and images from these texts – allow oneself to be surprised , embarrassed, moved, gratified, ashamed, excited, whatever comes up. See what hurts, see what gives pleasure. Think of our services as an adventure playground and not a place where we have to dutifully tick the boxes of prayers read, songs sung, pages covered.

What kind of adventure playground do we want our services to be? At the moment we are too often like a butterfly pinned to a wheel: we are not only being cruel to ourselves, but we are stopping ourselves flying spiritually, religiously. I can’t believe that in our hearts we want that. But what do we want? What do our souls really need? I leave you with that question.

[based on a sermon given at Finchley Reform Synagogue on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, October 4th, 2016]

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