Ethics Now & Then 87 – Avot 5:15

Pirkei Avot 5:15

There are four characteristics among students: One who is quick to understand and quick to forget – his gain is canceled by his loss. He who finds it hard to understand and hard to forget – his loss is canceled by his gain. He who is quick to undertsand, then finds it hard to forget – this is a good lot. He who finds it hard to understand and is quick to forget – this is a bad lot.

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There are four characteristics among students: 

The ability to define and discern these particular characteristics in students is very valuable in the field of education. Whether it be in home-schooling, the public classroom and in college, as well as in Bible seminaries and yeshivahs. Modern psychology understands, just as the Jewish Sages observed, that human beings differ in their ability to learn and in the way they learn. This mishnah, or verse, examines two basic factors that are involved in learning: (i) the ability to grasp and understand the meaning of the material being studied and (ii) the ability to remember clearly and to retain in the mind what has been studied and understood.

The Sages list four groups that describe different students and their modes of study.

One who is quick to understand and quick to forget – his gain is canceled by his loss.

Some students learn quickly. They understand the material under discussion and can identify a problem and find a solution before most others in the group. Generally, the teacher may need to explain the concept numerous times, and perhaps describe different approaches to the same point, before the other students gain understanding.

Once understood, the second factor comes into play. How long will each student be able to retain that understanding clearly? There are different forms of memory as well. A fortunate few are gifted with photographic memory and can retain clear images of all they see or hear. Others are helped by visual aids and, in general, all students need much repetition and relearning of lessons in order to remember their content.

Thus, in the case of one who can learn quickly but then forgets as quickly, the Sages point out that what he initiallly gains is lost due to his inability to retain what he learned.

He who finds it hard to understand and hard to forget – his loss is canceled by his gain.

On the other hand, a student who is slow to grasp new material may be able to retain what he has learned far longer and, thus, his initial loss is compensated by his ability to remember the material.

Once a student is aware of this characteristic in himself, he can find ways to help facilitate his learning. For example, he can sit in the front rows of the class to avoid distraction. He can ask the teacher to repeat the point and also ask to see the teacher after class if further clarification is needed. Another possibility is to review the lesson with one of the quick-to-learn students, which would be of benefit to them both.

 He who is quick to understand , then finds it hard to forget – this is a good lot.

The ideal, of course, is to grasp the material being studied quickly and to retain it well. Together with healthy motivation, this student is guaranteed success in his studies.

He who finds it hard to understand and is quick to forget – this is a bad lot.

Conversely, one who has difficulty in learning and remembering will not succeed as easily.

In the realm of Torah study, however, the slower student need not despair.  Irving Bunim encourages: “Unlike other areas of life, for the study of Torah, the Word of the Almighty, there is reward for the effort apart from the achievements.”* Furthermore, he adds, “A factor of ‘heavenly aid’ operates in the study of Torah: with intense application a person may achieve far more that you might expect from his natural mental capacities.”**

Renowned scholar and commentator, Maimonides, comments that no praise or blame is awarded in this verse as “…mental capacities to grasp, absorb, and retain learning are indeed inborn and unalterable. Whatever learning powers a person lacks he cannot acquire”. *** Unless, in the case of study of the Word of God, he is inspired by the Lord for “…the Lord gives wisdom; from His mouth comes wisdom and understanding” (Proverbs 2:6).

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Footnotes: 

* Irving M Bunim, Ethics from Sinai, Vol. 3, 153

**Ibid., 153

***Ibid., 154

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