Design Thinking in the Jewish Studies Classroom

Posted by Evan Wolkenstein on May 30, 2018
Topics: 21st-Century Learning

Evan Wolkenstein (Graduate of the 2002 Pardes Day School Educators Program) has taught in the classroom for 15 years and now serves as Director of Experiential Education and Tanakh teacher at JCHS of the Bay in San Francisco. You can see Evan’s blog at

The following article comprises Evan’s reflections after attending Maya Bernstein’s “Design Thinking and Adaptive Leadership” deep dive at the 2014 Ravsak/PaRDeS Jewish Day School Leadership Conference.

“Design Thinking offers a set of mindsets and tools that can help schools be more creative, collaborative, and relevant in creating new opportunities for their student and parent bodies.” (Maya Bernstein).
“Design Thinking” is at once delightfully simple and deliciously complex.
Simple: Rather than learn by reading or writing, students learn by complaining, dreaming, planning, researching, prototyping, pitching, critiquing, revising and reflecting.

Complex: Exactly.

Each of these phases is its own world of inquiry, practice and expertise.

What I love about Design Thinking is that while I’m explaining or modeling a step in the project, to misquote Gertrude Stein, “There’s a there there.” There’s a “thingness” to it that no essay or test can match. And while students are working, alone or in groups, there is excitement to their process as they explore models they’ve chosen and researched and applied to their work.

One tricky element of Design Thinking is that it shines most brightly when the complaint or dream that inspired the project is “real.” Example: Design a classroom more conducive to your learning style. Or: Design a beit midrash for the 21st century.

But when you’re teaching a Tanakh course, what is the “real life” complaint that generates the creative process?

My suggestion is that every narrative depicts characters who may have existed long ago, but who experienced very real problems that are very applicable to our lives. If students can learn to empathize with characters’ situations, analyze the root causes of their problems and evaluate the contributing complications, then they have both gained a deep understanding of the text and also taken steps towards a Design Thinking approach to solving the problem.

Example: Shmuel Chapters 1-4 depict one of the most promising arrivals of a leader since Joshua. Shmuel seems poised to bring light and hope to a nation suffering from darkness and spiritual blindness. Despite this, three chapters later, the Israelites lose 30,000 soldiers in one of the worst military defeats in the Tanakh. The Ark of the Covenant is captured. The leadership is slain.

Rather than assume that we can determine the exact cause of this loss, let us consider it a symptom of a larger disease. Can this disease be eradicated? Can the illness be contained? Healed? And what are the implications for “real life?”

In my class, students read about the birth of this auspicious child and then read about the defeat. Then, the project is launched.

Unit 1: Theorizing about contributing or root causes.

Unit 2: Distilling “real life” analogous situations corresponding to the theorized root-case / problem.

Unit 3: Researching / interviewing “real life” experts and situations to gain a more informed, nuanced understanding of the root cause / problem.

Unit 4: Researching / interviewing “real” life experts and situations on potential SOLUTIONS to the root cause / problem.

Unit 5: Pitching the solution to a student team for feedback and critique.

Unit 6-8: Prototype 1-3

At this point, students have designed and revised a solution product. It could be a course on effective oration for new leaders, a PR campaign to inform the public of proactive ways to stop scandal, or an intervention for troubled families. All three of these are “real-life” solutions for what students identified as root-cause problems.

The next step is to design a creative depiction of the textual characters utilizing this intervention: a style tableaux showing Eli’s family in a special therapy, thus preventing the disaster. A video-montage showing Shmuel in a special Outward-Bound program to make him a more confident agent of change, before it’s too late for the house of Eli. An interactive video game for teaching the Israelites about the dangers of a leadership allowed to run unchecked by society.

Again, students do numerous prototypes, and finally, we take a trip to a nearby Senior Center to meet with residents, share the projects and use it as a conversation piece for the themes of the project…or wherever it may go.

Design Thinking is time consuming and has many moving parts, but is has an energy that can make even these ancient texts feel alive and electric.

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