With the end of Daf Yomi cycle #13 upon us this January and cycle #14 beginning immediately thereafter, we will soon find ourselves awash with celebratory tributes and articles extolling the extraordinary growth of the program and Talmud Torah itself by proxy. We will surely hear again how an idea floated in 1923 by Rabbi Meir Shapiro has transformed the Jewish world, as the Daf Yomi itself has mushroomed over the past few cycles alone from a fledgling start-up to one in which hundreds of thousands participate every day. The purpose of this article is not to cast aspersions on any of these claims or to bolster them either. I would like to call attention not to whether people should participate in Daf Yomi but to how they should do so. And in this, I must admit that I am a victim of my training and my craft; you can take the middle school teacher out of the classroom, but you cannot take the classroom out of the middle school teacher.
I have observed and participated in several Daf Yomi shiurim over the years, in many different locations, but I use the word “participated” loosely. If I taught my middle school classes the way that most Daf Yomi shiurim are taught, I would be fired, and for good reason. Daf Yomi shiurim, by and large, are models of the poorest of pedagogy. They generally consist of one person reading the Daf to everyone else in attendance and accepting their questions if they have any. No one else reads. The teacher does not check for understanding, summarize the Daf orally or with a handout, or emphasize the most salient or important points along the way or at the end. There is no means of accountability on the part of the students, who mostly could not pass a quiz on the day’s Daf – to say nothing of yesterday’s – if they were given one. People can attend a Daf Yomi shiur for many years and, for all we know, not be able to translate the most basic Gemara terminology on their own. Is such a person a successful product of the Daf Yomi movement? I will leave it to others to determine if watching someone else learn counts as Talmud Torah, but it is far from clear what the majority of Daf Yomi attendees are accomplishing, despite their obviously good intentions and those of their teachers.
The good news is that we can do better. Just as ArtScroll is credited with enhancing Daf Yomi when they published their set serially two cycles ago, we can make cycle #14 one in which we begin to rethink what is going on pedagogically in Daf Yomi shiurim and begin to improve the learning experience for those in attendance. As we say in my field, it is time to “turn students into learners.” Here are some specific suggestions:
(1) Give ten minutes at the beginning for chevruta time on the beginning of what will be learned that day, or ten minutes at the end for chevruta time to review some of what was learned, or ten minutes at the beginning to review the end of yesterday’s Daf. Hearing oneself read enhances engagement and forces the learner to grapple honestly with whether he can credibly translate key terms and phrases that will invariably come up even in the first several lines of the Gemara. If he is slightly confused by what he reads, that frustration becomes the grist for what he is looking to sharpen as the public part of the shiur proceeds. The teacher (or perhaps we can begin to use the more in-vogue term “facilitator”) can supply a short glossary of key terms to keep the learners on track during this short chevruta exercise.
(2) Strategically, particularly after a short or easy sugya, have a member of the group re-read what was just learned to the group. Alternatively, if the next few lines are not as challenging, have an attendee (perhaps one with a bit more learning experience) read them for the group instead of the teacher reading them, or break up into chevrutot again for a few minutes before coming back together and reading the sugya to the group, or have a member of the group read after the chavruta time is finished. Pedagogically, these are suggestions which shift the balance of power from the teacher to the learners, and which change the mission of the shiur from supplying free information to crafting better and more independent learners. They are also examples of what we call “mixed modalities.” Mixing modalities – ten minutes of chevruta, fifteen minutes of frontal presentation, a one-minute discussion with someone near you about the Gemara’s question, back to frontal, back to chevruta, and so on – keeps the learner on his toes and stimulated, much like a basketball team keeps its opponents alert by running different plays. Finally, hearing different voices besides the teacher’s own helps maintain engagement.
(3) In the classroom, I do not wait for learners to ask me questions. I give what we in the biz call formative assessments in the form of occasional questions to check for understanding as I proceed. This prevents learners from losing their focus, as they may be called on at any time to answer a question. It also gives the teacher clarity on whether it is safe to continue because he knows if the learners are on track. If questions are generated entirely by the attendees, there is little to ensure that that learner understands at any other time than when he is asking the question, and the majority of the learners who do not ask questions haven given us no reason to believe they understand the material. The classic call-and-response of “Got it?” “Mmm-hmm” is another example of extremely poor pedagogy. No one is going to admit at that moment that they do not understand what was just taught. Replace “Got it?” with specific questions that can only be answered if the learner truly understands what was just learned. Even if you do not feel comfortable putting adult learners on the spot by addressing questions to them personally, you can at least throw such questions into the air and see who, if anyone, can answer them. If the answer is no one, you must reteach.
(4) Optional daily, weekly, or by-Perek quizzes would help learners to maintain their focus in class so that they perform well on the next quiz, giving them something to shoot for and some accountability. Even if you cannot require such summative assessments, you can offer them and encourage learners to take them as a means for them to check for their own understanding. A short three or five question quiz on the way out the door, what we in the biz call an “exit card,” can similarly give the learner and you feedback on whether they understood what was taught that day, and may perhaps serve to guide a learner through an independent review of the Daf later that day.
(5) Handouts can add a dimension to your Daf Yomi shiur. If a handout is to be learner-focused, it would include some of the key terms that you would like to draw attention to in that day’s Daf (think תא שמע, הכא במאי עסקינן), an outline to bring the often disparate organization into sharper relief, and perhaps a chart if one is necessary at some point in the Daf. A good handout can keep the learners focused while providing the means for them to grow as independent learners both during and after the shiur. If a particular Daf contains, say, four or five sugyot, the handout can correspond to that, allowing learners who may drift off occasionally to regroup when a new sugya begins while bringing the Daf’s organizational structure into focus. If the Daf contains something which can be the basis for further enrichment, such as a practical Halacha, the handout can contain the actual source reference or a guide to how the enterprising learner can find it themselves later in the day. Keep in mind that a very large segment of the Daf Yomi world are retired people who may not mind a little homework to keep them occupied during the rest of the day. For them, the Daf Yomi shiur can serve in part as an introduction to further learning, rather than as the entire learning experience in toto.
And now, an exit card for my readers: Have you seen any of these or other methods implemented in a Daf Yomi shiur somewhere? Did you find it helpful, or was it gratuitous and unnecessary? Tell us about it in the comments, and together we can upgrade the learning experience and help Daf Yomi facilitators shift the balance of power by turning their students into learners.