learning companion


September means back to school here, as in much of the world. And as I watch the young students with book bags and backpacks… on their way to school or coming home, my thoughts are on school and learning, and especially on the difficulties attached to both. This year we didn’t have a teachers’ strike. But in the past, such strikes often coincided with the beginning of school. You wouldn’t hear many students complaining about how miserable they were without the pleasures of the classroom. On the other hand, unhappy parents were interviewed, moaning in protest as they asked, how are we going to go to work with the children stuck at home? And I would wonder if school wasn’t just a self righteous cover for babysitting.


As I have mentioned in the past, my teachers in the seminary would say, we’re not here to teach facts; we try to teach you how to learn. And one of the most impressive methods of study that I learned there, was studying with a learning companion. We could choose a friend to study with, or a teacher could suggest a match. The nature of the relationship was different from the sort of friendship that develops between people who find themselves thrown together and learn to love one another… or who discover a natural affinity with someone else. There are so many reasons that people become friends… and maybe as many reasons that friendships cool and wither.


The learning companion is more like a partner in sports. It is best that you both have a similar capacity to study, and similar enthusiasm. Because the role of the study partner is not to drag his friend to class or to help each other study for a test. The idea is that every person sees the world subjectively. And when you study with a partner, each understands what is learned in a different way. Often the student thinks he understands well what he has just learned, but sharing the different perspectives offers us a wider view of the possibilities.


I remember at times, having serious arguments with my study partner, and there was no obligation to come to an agreed upon resolution. Nor was there a need to agree to disagree. We could remain with our different conclusions, and in telling others of what we had studied together, I would mention, ‘my study partner came to another conclusion’, then telling what he understood regarding the subject. When we would study legal decisions made over 2000 years ago in the Talmud, the minority opinion was always recorded as well.


I have mentioned recently my discomfort, gleaning the news from the media. It often seems as if I’m hearing propaganda. There is a common agenda that sets the tone in so many areas. The newspeak of George Orwell’s 1984 seems to have come full bloom at the beginning of this century, and it not only washes out the color of speech; it dampens our thinking as well. So discussing things that matter to us with a comrade who has a different opinion is an important part of learning.


43 responses to “learning companion

  1. It sounds like an excellent idea, indeed. I have studied in groups but never had a study companion. Thanks for sharing.

  2. A wonderful reflection and commentary. Discussions unquestionably helps us learn – especially the sharing a different perspective – possibly learning something one didn’t consider. On the other hand, open discussions these days seem more rare as they seem to be more about telling, rather than listening and problem solving.

    • There are so many songs and stories about love, as well as the many references to loving one’s neighbor… and yet it seems as difficult as it ever was to relate to our fellow human with respect and tolerance. even when he’s got a very different view from ourselves. Those of us who’ve been married longer than we were children in our parents’ home know that it entails work as well. So we have to keep on working, just to show that it’s possible. Let’s hope that we’ll see more open and free discussion in the near future. Thanks for your comment, Frank.

  3. Soak up taxpayer dollars to go on strike when it’s time to put that money to use… On strike over what issue I wonder…

    • Unfortunately, teachers are not well paid for the essential work they perform, and often they have to deal with very difficult problems that have nothing to do with teaching the young. I imagine that the strikes are about work conditions and pay… and who would listen if they didn’t strike? Thanks for coming by and for your comment, Amanda. Glad to meet you.

  4. I pay little attention to news also. Use many filters.

  5. This is such a nourishing,enlivening notion – to learn to discover and discuss matters with a fellow student. Critical debate seems to be sadly lacking these days. People simply shout ‘fake news’ if they do not like a particular stance.
    They may not have any rational reasoning behind such responses. And the there’s a marked tendency towards aggression over consideration, and nasty tweeting and trolling on social media. And as for the mainstream press, even the best of it – it seems all news is controlled by trillionaire oligarchs who are dictating the world agenda. So yes. Welcome to the Orwellian World.

    • Yes, I agree with you about the lack of critical debate. Instead of listening to argument, I often have the feeling that I’m hearing an exchange of rants. But there is a lot of fake news as well. I’m not sure when or how public discussion spilled over to hysterical yelling, but I do believe that even if one side only stuck to moderate thought out replies, it would influence all involved in the discussion. If we speak honestly and with respect, even in the face of provocations and lies, the public will be able to judge who is right. One of the advantages of the internet, in my opinion, is that we don’t have to be rich to be heard. So I think we have less to fear from oligarchs. But we certainly have to be careful about the unsavory advantages of great monies in the political arena. Thanks for your comment, Tish

  6. Forgot to say, Shimon – those are such fun pictures.

  7. During my schooling, we often were paired or put into groups, but the purpose more often was the accomplishment of a project than the exploration of ideas. Of course we learned a good bit — cooperation being one of the most valuable lessons — but we remained essentially goal-oriented.

    I’ve more recently experienced the pleasure of learning partners as a result of my new interest in native plants. While the partners differ depending on circumstances, the willingness of others to share knowledge, or to explore puzzlements, is wonderful. Especially with plant identification, two people can come to six conclusions — and occasionally, neither is right. No matter. The learning process is what counts, not simply having the right answer.

    As for all things Orwellian, I remember precisely when I began to pay attention to intentional changes in language. It was the first time I came across “transparency” used instead of “truthfulness.” Not long after, the wholly ridiculous phrase “truthiness” entered the lexicon. My learning partner in dealing with these issues has been Lewis Carroll, who put these words in the mouth of the estimable Humpty Dumpty:

    “I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory,’ ” Alice said.
    Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. “Of course you don’t—till I tell you. I meant, ‘there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!’ ”
    “But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument’,” Alice objected.
    “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”
    “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
    “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”

    • It is good to hear of people working in groups… children especially. There is no avoiding aloneness, which is a very characteristic part of our mortal experience. But working together and learning together reminds us of our identity as part of a collective too. And the greater and the more inclusive the collective, the more wonderful things we are able to do as a group. On a large scale, it seems to me that the tremendous stride we have witnessed in technology was enabled by the increased communication and freedom among peoples of the world.

      I discovered the wonders and pleasures of plant identification when my eldest daughter took an interest in wild flowers. That period remains a treasured memory. And it’s a great example of learning together. I loved your quote from Lewis Carroll. Language is such a precious attribute in human society. Personally, I think it is one of the things that most attract me to the people with whom I’ve build friendships. Thanks very much for your comment, Linda

  8. Hi Shimon. I liked the pictures too. Yours? I had such a different development in learning that I speak of it often. Because of the date of my birth, I entered first grade at age 5. Most of my playmates had to wait a year to enter it. My reading started with DIck and Jane and Spot at age 5 and I quickly learned to read the cartoons in the newspaper. I didn’t have a real study partner and my first real friend until grade 4. That made a real difference…and followed such as you describe above. We didn’t have a Talmud to worry about. My reading was so bad (without me recognizing it) until college where I was required to enter a class on learning to read. Fortunately that was quick and I survived it. After that, the high majority of my reading and I mean like 99% of it was reading technical studies in medicine and surgery.
    But…I ALWAYS enjoy reading you Shimon.

    • The paintings appeared anonymously on a street curb in my neighborhood, and I just photographed them, which was no easy task, because they’re low to the ground. But I wanted to share them with others. Your difficulties in reading and the fact that you only really caught up when you were in college, illustrates something I discovered in a life of studies. Once we start learning, one thing introduces us to the next, and eventually we get to all we need. If we really want to understand, we’ll find the way if others did before us. Medicine was always a difficult subject, but nowadays it seems that even a well learned doctor can’t possibly keep tabs on all the research and developments in the field. It saddens me that I no longer understand exactly how all the tools I use work. But that is part of the price of the spectacular advances of technology. You and I Bob, we belong to a previous age… but we’ve been given the spectacular opportunity of catching a glimpse of the future. It reminds me at times of Moses standing on the mountain, and looking at the promised land from outside. It’s a gift. Thanks for your comment, my friend.

  9. As travelling people my parents never trusted school systems or any other systems for that matter, so they were most happy to have us kids around the camp … I was the youngest and only girl of seven … and very much loved/ pampered … until age 16 … time to be married off to mr ugly … I rebelled and took refuge in a monastery … there I learned manners and I learned how to love learning … I stayed for 9 years … I never adopted their faith but I was surely adopted especially by mother superior … I still do not understand “the system” or any system for that matter, friend Shimon nor do I want to … Much love, cat.

    • When we start learning, my dear cat, we never really know what we’re about to find, and worlds open up that we didn’t even know were there. Even the best places in the world have been desecrated at times, but I’ve always had a great fondness for monasteries, and I’m sure there were things you learned there that have accompanied you through life. How good that you found refuge there, and how wonderful that you have continued to be adventurous and curious after that incarnation concluded. As for systems, there are all kinds. Some of them get in the way, and others keep us going. I admire your courage, with love.

  10. What a wonderful post, Shimon. So much focus has been given on so many other issues in the educational system, from primary- through graduate-level, that learning how to learn, and think, seems to have been lost. I say this from fairly recent exposure to not only my son’s schooling, but my continuing post-graduate work.

    Unfortunately, I don’t see any change in the focus in the near future. Instead, the schools will continue to be glorified day-care centers (yes, even in the under- and post-graduate world).

    • There are some special schools that offer great contributions to society, but for most students school offers certain materials and opportunities, but it’s up to the student to do all the work. Much like going to a good library; the knowledge is there but we have to discover it. Always good to hear from you, my friend.

  11. I love the artwork that accompanies your thought provoking post, Shimon. We learn from different perspectives and broaden our outlook, which creates an energy where we can thrive, Thank you, ❤ hugs for you and Nechama ❤

    • I liked the paintings too, Jane. They were so modestly located, on a curb of a major street. One of the nicest things about growing older is that we keep broadening our perspective. Hugs back to you. And purrs from Nechama and me.

  12. My husband has been learning with the same chavrusa for 28 years now, but unlike when he was in yeshiva, they learn only once a week. It is a unique friendship/relationship. I think being taught to learn expands the mind in different ways, and allows one to look at any situation on a different and often deeper level.

    • My regards to your husband, Lisa Elisheva. Yes there are many of us who continue to take advantage of the method all our lives. Learning is a very gratifying hobby. Thanks for your comment.

  13. What an excellent idea, which I guess would need a certain amount of maturity to sustain such a relationship.

    • It does take a certain amount of maturity to be a scholar, or maybe the intensive learning produces that maturity, but I can tell you that even among the most learned I would find now and then a spark of childishness that was most attractive (in modest doses). Thanks for your comment, Gill

  14. I’m with you in noticing that in news programs on television, and increasingly also in newspapers, much of what passes for commentary or analysis is just propaganda. Ever since I read George Orwell in the 1960s, I’ve been amazed at his insight and, alas, his foresight.

    • You know Steve, we’ve heard about presents that ‘keep on giving’. To my regret, this is a disappointment that keeps on disappointing. I used to read the newspaper ever morning, and listen to the radio, watch TV. But slowly I disengaged completely from the TV. And then I got to the point where I would only turn on the radio if ‘something had happened’, and I wanted more information. But I eventually realized that I was only getting the ‘agenda’, and the news was from a certain perspective. Now I miss those contacts with the world… If you want to check out another classic that seems to me even more brilliant after all these years, pick up ‘Brave New World’. It’s amazing how well Huxley understood the way things were developing.

  15. I love those pics. I remember studying with a pal. I learned the most getting to know people from different backgrounds and ethnic groups.

    • I certainly agree with you Ibeth about getting to know people from other cultures. Every culture seems to have its own wisdom and its unique perspective on society.

  16. How lovely to hear of learning companions. I would have enjoyed that while at school. Those pictures have put a huge smile on my face. Just wonderful.xxx

    • I especially liked the pictures because they were painted in such an unexpected place, on the street curb. I could almost imagine the ants and bugs on the street, pausing to appreciate the fine art on display… and thinking, ‘finally they are sharing their lives with us’.

  17. Not only is a discussion companion with different opinions a route to learning, it is a core component for exercising and keeping alive and lively our cerebral matter. In days before, as now, opinions matter. As to their base in veracity, on that we should also opine.

    • Yes, for a thinking person, exercise is just as important as it is for the athlete. It often seems that free speech is reserved for the obnoxious and provocateurs. Different opinions are a challenge to our capacity for free choice, but as in other areas, the ‘home made’ is usually more attractive and sturdy than mass produced. Best wishes to you, menhir.

  18. Agreed! A learning partner is always a good idea..some opposite opinions & a little competition make me more productive, is what I’ve observed

  19. I’m late reading this one. Sorry. Another excellent post, Shimon. In grad school, I often met with study groups and enjoyed the exchange of ideas. I have also had study partners; not as you had, but with a particular friend or colleague with whom I studied the material of various classes. I enjoyed both types of experiences. I taught in an open classroom for 18 years with 3 – 4 other teachers, depending upon enrollment numbers. We worked as a team and had discussions and exchanges of ideas all the time. If an opinion seriously differed, it was considered, discussed and (usually) a consensus was reached. There is no such protocol these days. Anywhere, I sometimes think. The political polarization in this country makes it nearly impossible to ‘discuss’ anything rationally or without emotion rearing its ugly head. In a group discussion not long ago, I made a remark I thought was solid and not extreme (political discussion, alas). One member looked at me and said, ‘YOU watch Fox news!’ What? (No, I don’t, but that isn’t important.) There was no rationale for that comment. No argument consisting of fact. Just knee-jerk reaction because my opinion was different from that person’s. I see/hear the same types of responses from both sides of the so-called liberal/conservative views from friends, on FB, and in the media. Depending on the source, there’s no room for any other opinions. The news media often cherry-picks or twists items to suit their views and agendas. Distressing. On the other hand, I also had a discussion with another group last week; mixed bag of political leanings, but no theatrics, no screaming/ranting, just a discussion of issues. We didn’t agree on all things, but we listened to each other. It was wonderful. The world needs more of that.
    I loved the pictures! And teachers are not glorified babysitters. We have a job, and it’s one we take seriously. Sometimes, teachers have to strike, I guess, because, otherwise, no one cares or notices what some of the negative situations are. When my school was able to hire classroom aides, years ago, a large number of those aides were parents. A common comment was: “I had NO idea this was so hard.” No, you didn’t.
    Blessings and peace, my friend. Keep on making us smile and think! I welcome both.

    • Back in the days when I used to watch TV, I would follow the news religiously, and when there was some important football game they would show short videos of an important play or some such thing. What impressed me was the way the audience was divided into two tribes, and each group behaved would cheer their own and curse the opposition, as if a mirror image of the others. The mass behavior, and the lowly level of communication was a reminder of how precious the individual really is. It seems that politics has been turned by contemporary western society into a variant of the football game. I can only hope, along with you Myra, that people will find the inspiration to think for themselves. Very glad you enjoyed the pictures.

  20. The idea of a learning companion reminded me of my days in the one-room school. Our teacher had eight grades to teach so paired up students to help each other. I believe that was when I decided I wanted to be a teacher as so enjoyed helping explain things to other students. This is a good plan.

    • I too studied in a school where there were students of different ages in the same class room, and it was common for the more advanced students to help those who took a little longer. I was also very lucky to have some excellent teachers in my youth, and so I can well understand he inspiration that moved you to want to be a teacher. Thanks for you comment, Bev

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s