Thursday, November 8, 2007

Building a Havrutot in the Classroom

I received this by email from Vance Ricks at Guilford College. A colleague of his, Jonathan Malino, had an idea about a possible classroom tool for group work/understanding learning through a group experience, and Vance suggested that he try to get it up here for some comments on how to develop the idea. So I'm functioning as the messenger here. I think the idea is an interesting one, and because I'm such a dreadful failure at getting this kind of collaborative learning to happen in my own classrooms, I'm curious to hear what people have to say about it too. Here's the original email, with a few changes to translate from email to blog-ese:

In Introduction to Philosophy, I broke the class into groups of two. Generally when I break the class up, the groups have 3-4, but I wanted to be sure no one could be passive. I also picked the groups, so that students who don't sit near each other or appear to know each other well would work together.

As I watched them, before I started to float, I recalled that the typical format for Jewish text study in a yeshiva is called "havrutot," or study partners/partnerships. I've always found this format a terrific experience when we do it my Israeli philosophy conference, although there groups tend to be more than two. But in a yeshiva setting, each partner has a palpable responsibility for the learning the pair accomplishes. Plato is aware of one aspect of this kind of study, when he quotes the
Illiad in the Protagoras (and in the Symposium) "When two walk together, one sees before the other" (rough quote). In the Protagoras, Socrates also talks about how, when we discover something, we are eager to share it and check it with others. In short, there is a social aspect to learning and discovery that includes, but goes beyond, the inherent social character of the elenchos.

I mention all this because as I watched the students on Friday, I thought that it would be interesting to find a way to build havrutot into my Intro. class in a systematic way. I don't know how to do this, but I'm going to give it some thought.

Any suggestions here for our colleague at Guilford?


  1. While I can't comment specifically on the idea of two-person study groups, I do know that the social component of learning in Philosophy has the potential for amazing results. I have just finished teaching an intense Philosophy class for adult learners in a liberal-arts, degree-completion cohort situation. This was the first class they took, and they were all horrified at having to learn Philosophy. By the end, the group dynamics of the class meant I had no failures; they pulled each other along, engaging the material in new and fresh ways that I would not have even thought of.

  2. Perhaps the issue can be split in two: first, the question of group work in general, and second, the idea of two-person partnerships as opposed to larger groups.

    On the first question, there's plenty of educational research to suggest that group work can be an effective learning tool. It promotes active learning, involves students who might not participate in a larger classroom setting, etc. Adam posted on this question recently (see "Please God, no group work!"), so you can check out the discussion there. To summarize what was said there, group work needs structure and forethought from instructors and students need to be trained regarding the expectations for group work, lest "social loafing" break out. I'd also second David Morrow's recommendation of the book Collaborative Learning Techniques.

    As to the more specific question of pairs vs. larger groups: I've found that it works best not to let students form the same groups over and over again. Students naturally form groups with friends or familiars, which is understandable but tends after a while to stifle discussion of the material. Furthermore, it's an important skill to be able to work with a diversity of different people. That would be one reason I'd have reservations about a two-person partnership. Once formed, students would have to figure out to make the partnership work, but there's merit in changing partners as well.


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