by Moshe Krakowski
The benefits of frequent low-stakes assessments are well recognized in education research. Though high-stakes assessments have value, smaller, more frequent assessments have some important and unique benefits: they are formative, not just summative, and they provide real-time feedback to the teacher. Furthermore, they promote student learning by giving students many opportunities to retrieve information from memory.
In the course of my current Mandel Center-sponsored research project, Hasidic Learning, I have observed an assessment technique that takes the benefits of frequent low-stakes assessment and adds to it the benefits of cognitive clinical interviews. The clinical interview is a technique used by researchers to investigate what students understand about a given topic. It is typically semi-structured; that is, it has some anchor questions that are used in all interviews, but no fixed formula throughout. Unlike a standard psychology intervention that follows a set script, the clinical interview allows the researcher flexibility to pursue questions or problems that may arise as the interview unfolds. This lack of rigid structure is a powerful tool in the researcher’s arsenal, allowing him or her to get into the nitty-gritty of student knowledge.
In Hasidic schools (and indeed in most Haredi schools), assessment often takes place using something called an oral farher. Unlike a bechina (which usually refers to a written test), the farher is an oral exam built off of a student’s understanding of the course material, and usually involves a written text (the Humash or Talmud) as its base. The rebbe or menahel (principal) will typically use the text as the backbone of the “interview” in much the same way that a researcher would use a research protocol with investigative tasks as a launching pad for further questions to probe the limits of student understanding. In the schools I’ve observed, these farhers take place every week for every student. This means that every week the principal assesses every child in the school for understanding, and has the ability to dig deeply into the details of what they know.
In one school I recently observed, the weekly farher was conducted jointly by the menahel and his assistant. Each examined all students in one half of the school’s classes. In the younger grades the menahel (whom I observed farhering a first grade) alternated between asking questions of the whole class in unison and testing individual students. He asked questions about the content of the chumash students had learned both that week and earlier in the year, asked them to read and translate out loud, and, among other things, asked them to come to the board and identify the shoresh, or root, of the Hebrew words together with the various prefixes and suffixes that indicate word gender and tense. He marked each student for reading ability, comprehension, and grammar knowledge. When students did well, he had the whole class clap for them and announced yasher koach, or “well done!”
In the older grades the focus is on Talmud, and much less of the farher consists of whole-class responses. Instead the menhael asked individual students complex questions regarding the meaning of the talmudic text, turning to other students part-way through to explain the next step in the Talmud’s logic, e.g. the following question, answer, proof, or argument. Students were also asked to read and translate the text and to explain the arguments offered by medieval commentators such as Rashi and Tosfos. In the sixth grade that I observed, the menahel graded students primarily for reading ability and svara, comprehension.
In other schools I have observed slightly different models of the same educational practice. Variations include the primary teacher doing most of the farhering, with the menahel only going to a subset of the school in any given week, and the menahel pulling individual students out of class one at a time to farher them for a few minutes alone, before turning to the next child.
Regardless of the exact format used, the practice is one that I think could be adopted productively in many Jewish education contexts. Aside from the rich data provided to a teacher in the course of the clinical interview, this approach provides frequent opportunities for assessment, gives the students important time for review, and allows the principal to have his or her finger on the pulse of the school.
Moshe Krakowski is director of the Azrieli Master’s Program and an associate professor at Yeshiva University. He is an affiliated scholar at the Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education, where he directs the project on Hasidic Learning.