Project Based Learning in the Jewish Studies Classroom – Part 1

Posted by Sarah Levy on September 16, 2018
Topics: 21st-Century Learning

Dr. Sarah Levy (Graduate of the Pardes Day School Educators Program 2010) is currently the Director of Jewish Life and Learning at Denver Jewish Day School. Since 2002 she has been involved in the field of Jewish education working, teaching, consulting, and writing in the areas of supplemental education, day school education, adult education, and experiential education. She holds a doctorate in education from Northeastern University and is currently earning her Masters in Business Administration.

Project based learning (PBL) is a teaching method in which students gain knowledge and skills by working for an extended period of time to investigate and respond to an authentic, engaging, and complex question through a project that integrates student voice and choice, sustained inquiry, opportunities for critique and revision, and reflection, all based around key knowledge, understandings, and skills.

Study after study has shown the impact of PBL on students, including:

  • Students learning through PBL retain content longer and have a deeper understanding of what they are learning.
  • PBL students perform as well or better than traditionally taught students on high-stakes tests.
  • Students demonstrate better problem-solving skills in PBL than in more traditional classes and are able to apply what they learn to real-life situations.
  • PBL students also show improved critical thinking and improved ability to work collaboratively and resolve conflicts.
  • In PBL classrooms, students demonstrate improved attitudes toward learning, exhibiting more engagement and more self-reliance than in more traditional settings.

But what is the connection to the Judaic studies classroom?

In many ways, PBL seems to be a natural fit for the Judaic studies classroom. The focus of education right now is preparing students for the future by focusing on the 21st century skills of communication, collaboration, creativity, and critical thinking (the four Cs, as they are often called). These are all skills that are highly emphasized in PBL, and these are all, incidentally, skills that are inherent to the study of Jewish text. For thousands of years, the traditional format of text study has been through havruta, an intense partnership that demands collaboration and communication between two people. While the method has been to question the text, to use critical thinking skills to consider what is being said and to explore it from numerous possible perspectives. Also, for anyone who has ever seen some of the more midrashic interpretations of Rashi or looked at certain pages of Talmud, creativity certainly comes into play. Furthermore, PBL is centered around the driving question and the concept of sustained inquiry. Learning Judaics is all about asking questions and seeking answers (and then asking more questions).

What are the benefits of PBL in the Judaic studies classroom?

The studies referenced above all go towards the benefits of PBL to students in general, but the benefits are even greater when considering implementing this methodology in Judaics classes. PBL engages students in their learning at a deeper level, encouraging them to integrate what they are learning into their lives and make real meaning of it. It forces them to take the traditional texts and make them their own by applying them to their lives. It gives them a place to integrate what they are learning in secular subjects with the content they are acquiring in Judaics classes and find the relevance. It makes them an important part of their learning, asking them to delve deeply into the the content area, examining it in new ways and create something with it, meaning that it is more likely to stick with them for years to come.

So what can PBL look like in the Judaic studies classroom?

PBL in the Judaic studies classroom, just like the secular classroom, revolves around creating a driving question and integrating some sort of project that drives the learning. Here are a few examples:

  • How can we build a kosher sukkah on our camping trip?Students examined the laws and guidelines of building a sukkah in a less traditional setting with different materials in order to fulfill the commandment even when away from home and then built sukkot while on a class trip.
  • Who is God?  Students looked at the different ways God is depicted in Jewish text and analyzed the relationship God has with different Biblical figures and created storybooks for young children that would start to address this question.
  • How can we create a wedding website for an engaged couple that explains a Jewish wedding to their guests?Students learned about the traditions, laws, and customs of the Jewish wedding in order to create an informational page for a couple to use to better inform wedding guests.

If you’re looking to get started with PBL in your Judaic studies classroom, the best way to get started is to just give it a try.

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