Questions that Flow: Eliezer on Pedagogy

Mihály Csíkszentmihályi described “Flow” as the optimal place where we are behaving within our abilities while also being challenging enough to maintain our interest (See below graph). When people are in flow, they are completely immersed and engaged in one task, enjoying it to the point that they lose track of time. In other words, when people are in flow they do not realize that they are learning because they are having fun. Engaging Jewish educational settings are first and foremost safe spaces, and therefore they are the ideal places to encourage the sort of “productive discomfort” that emerges from feeling appropriately
challenged. For most teachers the default form of challenging the student is a question, quiz, test, paper, or project. It is aspirational these activities push the student to grow.

While many of these activities are used as evaluation, in the regular run of a class teachers often use questions to engage and involve students. This seems pretty obvious, but I have to admit it often misses the mark. One of my pet peeves is when a teacher asks a question under the guise of an invitation to participate, but the question is a closed question. It is some sort of trivia question because the educator only has one answer in mine. They will either guest it right and support the teacher’s arguement or present them an awkward response. If the answer is “Well that is an approach” or “that is not what I was looking for” why did the teacher ask the question. While someone might get the question right and feels good, others will get it wrong and feel anxious, worried, bored, or apathetic. Regardless, education that is solely driven toward data acquisition often misses getting or keeping students in flow.

If we are going to ask questions to engage them in class they need to be open questions that challenge their skill and get the students and the teacher in flow. I know for myself one of the best metrics of success in my teaching is that I learned something new in the lesson. That means I need to ask questions that evoke flow and do not trivialize the lesson.

I was thinking of this dynamic when reading Chayei Sarah, this week’s Torah portion. There we see Eliezer testing potential mates for his master’s son Yitzhak. There we read:

And he said, “O Lord, God of my master Abraham’s house, grant me good fortune this day, and deal graciously with my master Abraham. Here I stand by the spring as the daughters of the townspeople come out to draw water; let the maiden to whom I say, ‘Please, lower your jar that I may drink,’ and who replies, ‘Drink, and I will also water your camels’—let her be the one whom You have decreed for Your servant Isaac. Thereby shall I know that You have dealt graciously with my master.” He had scarcely finished speaking, when Rebekah, who was born to Bethuel, the son of Milcah the wife of Abraham’s brother Nahor, came out with her jar on her shoulder. The maiden was very beautiful—a virgin, no man having known her. She went down to the spring, filled her jar, and came up. The servant ran toward her and said, “Please, let me sip a little water from your jar.” “Drink, my lord,” she said, and she quickly lowered her jar upon her hand and let him drink. When she had let him drink his fill, she said, “I will also draw for your camels, until they finish drinking.” Quickly emptying her jar into the trough, she ran back to the well to draw, and she drew for all his camels.

Genesis 24:12-21

Rebekah did not just “pass the test” she instructed Eliezer as to the standard of care. I think it is interesting how Eliezer believes that this test will be an evaluation. But the test is set up in a way that was not just right or wrong. Rebekah answered the challenge in her own way. His resolution that she is the right match for Yitzhak is not that she “got it right”, but that she did it her own way.

As an educators we want our students to be in flow. Are these question, quiz, test, and papers engaging? We learn from Eliezer that there can be right and wrong ways to respond to the challenges, but are there also ways to express themselves.

*Check out a set of principles, practices, and tools that supports inventive thinking in children ages 3-11 which can be found at “A Framework for Inspiring Inventiveness” 


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