Engaging the Four Students

by Benji Berlow

In his book Conscious Business, Fred Koffman articulates a concept that he calls “mental models”–models that depict how each of us perceives the world.  As a result of biology, culture, and personal experiences, we each have a unique lens through which we see the world, one that is often different even from those closest to us.  Many times, we get stuck in a pattern of seeing the world a certain way, making us oblivious to problems that surround us (even though they are obvious to others with different mental models).  Koffman goes further and suggests an evolutionary model for how mental models can change overtime, from the unconscious stage (not even perceived) to the impulsive stage (“it’s all about me”) to the conformist stage (herd mentality) to the reflective stage (not satisfied with conventional thinking).

As I read Koffman’s description for each stage, it hit me that each stage corresponds to one of the four children from the Passover story, and that each child has a different mental model for how they view the Jewish community.  It inspired me to analyze college students from this perspective in order to uncover engagement methods that fit their mental model:

First is the student that does not know how to ask.  He is unconscious and unaware of the Jewish community.  However, he is not at fault for not knowing how to ask, because he has no language, no background, and no connection to the Jewish community.  For this student, one must make the barrier to entry as low as possible.  Find out who he is and create relevant and attractive programs in the physical place where he is already. Being warm and welcoming will not work, because he will never step foot into Hillel.  Your approach should be accessible, sexy, and visible.

Next is the simple student.  She knows about the Jewish community, but only has a surface relationship.  She attends events with free food, but never will stay for the speaker.  With a sense of entitlement, she will take everything that Hillel has to offer, but give nothing in return.  For this student, one must demonstrate the value of community and purpose.  Find out what her passions are and connect her like-minded students.  Show her the power of organizing and shared value.  Your approach should focus on creating networks of interest groups and meaningful programs.

Then there is the wise student.  He is absorbed in the Jewish community, perhaps even a leader.  Although he gives all of his time and energy to his group, he also seems to be going through the motions of recreating the same, stagnant programs.  For this student, one must change the status quo.  As Wayne Firestone says, “If it ain’t broke, break it.”  Challenge his assumptions and innovate with compelling, never-before-seen initiatives.  Your approach should be out-of-the-box and anything but normal.

Finally, there is the wicked student.  She knows the Jewish community, but sees herself as better than the establishment.  She may come to events, but will not fully engage with the program because she will tend to point out what is missing or unappealing.  While the simple student may not feel part of the group, the wicked student sees all of the people not included in the group.  For this student, one must trust and take a huge risk.  Create a space for her to be independent and still part of the community.  Give her an internship with responsibility to do things her way.  You will take a leap of faith to engage this student, but listening to her will allow you to connect to others who are not yet engaged and who have difficulty feeling included in their community.

I once had a teacher who explained to me the difference between Shammai and Hillel.  When someone asked a question of Shammai, he would labor intensively for days to find the “true” answer.  When a question was asked of Hillel, he would answer with a question: “Who is asking?”  As we create different models for young adult engagement and assess their effectiveness, we need to know exactly who we are engaging.  Which type of student was Taglit-Birthright Israel designed for?  What would a successful experience look like through the lens of each of these mental models?  Should we expect every student to become a leader?  How should we engage students who are already leaders?  Is the student who sees everyone that is left out of the group truly wicked or just perceived as wicked from the mental model of the establishment?

It is important to remember that while we may get stuck in our own mental model, we are able to transform and grow out of them as well.  As we continue to evolve our mental models and our engagement methods from the unconscious stage to the reflective stage, what could the next stage look like?

Benji Berlow (@benjiberlow) is the director of Jewish student life at Carnegie Mellon University.

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