It is easiest to remember something when you are in the same place you learned it. This is known as the psychological principle of context-dependent memory, and it helps explain why it is so much harder to recognize a colleague from work when you see them at the grocery store. The location of learning embeds cues about the content, but one’s frame of mind and experience in the moment also dictate recall. If you chew gum while reading this blog post, the research encourages you to have another piece for maximum recollection when describing it to a friend later.
How can I make use of this psychological principle at my placement as sixth grade religious school instructor at Adath Israel without overindulging my students on sugar? My classroom must be a place that inspires learning and offers appropriate conditions for memory consolidation. The room must be both inviting and functional, consistent in appearance from one class period to the next, but also with enough variety to draw on my students’ curiosity. I balance these contradictory needs when I set up the classroom and lay out the schedule for the day. My students can depend on a plan written on the chalkboard that always starts with a framing question, but we might place the desks in novel configurations or switch up the groups. The element of surprise with the arrangement of our room pushes my students out of their comfort zones, implicitly encourages socialization, and provides the vehicle for efficient learning. I hope my classroom is welcoming, colorful, well-lit, and optimally designed for our goals.
But the classroom alone does not dictate the learning experience of our class. So too, one must consider the disposition of everyone present: their energy, mood, and motivation. Some days, though the chairs are set just so and the schedule organized precisely, the learning process is obstructed by emotional turbulence, collective fatigue, or miscommunicated cues. When this is the case, it is all the more important to evade these potential education pratfalls with consistent instruction and uniform behavior on my part as the instructor. When a lesson is not being received as planned, it becomes necessary to adapt my plan, accommodate a challenge, or improvise a new option. No matter how much I learn about preparing to teach, I must continue to hone my ability to react to the unexpected. Perhaps these occasions when I have to make it up as I go are the most instructive moments for both my students and myself. Such changes are made possible by an adaptable yet organized space.
This pursuit of an ideal setting for learning is inspired by the recent parashat Terumah in which the Israelite people receive instructions for constructing the Tabernacle, the tangible dwelling place for their God (Exodus 25–27). The materials and dimensions, decorations and arrangements must all be precise each time the tribes make camp. Clearly this Tabernacle is of great importance to the people, given the valuable (and rare) constituent parts: gold, acacia wood, dolphin skins, precious gemstones, and colorful threads. With intention and consistency, the people create a place with incredible meaning to serve a communally beneficial purpose. When I prepare my classroom, I implicitly follow the guidance of Bezalel, the main architect and designer of the Tabernacle and its implements. The theme of place is so central to the Jewish faith that some refer to God with the term haMakom or “the Place” (e.g., Mishnah Avot 11:14). Others contend that God — and Jewish expression generally — need not be tied to any particular location. Although I am still exploring these theological questions, they guide my teaching philosophy. Just as the majesty of the Tabernacle motivated the work of levitical priests, so too perhaps the experience of learning in my classroom imbues the space with divine purpose for my students.
Benjamin Altshuler is a second-year HUC student and Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati education fellow at Adath Israel Congregation