Yom YerushalayimAugust 20, 2020
Project-Based Learning: Start HereMarch 1, 2021
by Rabbi Mordechai Weissmann
We all know the unfortunate situation that plagues many of our mosdos. By the time a significant percentage of yeshiva bochurim are matriculated into high school, they either dismiss the value of General Studies as a whole or they see its benefit as something that will not be relevant to their own lives until they reach their early twenties. For some, they assume that the applicability of their studies may not even be pertinent until a much later age.
Many have attempted to solve this problem by looking outwards towards the most cutting-edge educational methodologies. However, to adopt these approaches without truly understanding the problems inherent in the current system will only continue to add newfound issues.
The transition from the current educational model to a new one needs to occur with an understanding of the past. The decision to rewrite our curricula needs to be one that is not done by entirely looking outwards. The recreation of our academic programs needs to be built upon those pieces of our chinuch that will always stay intact due to their eternal nature, namely those that stem from the bedrock of Torah values.
This is the fundamental principle from which we must construct the content of our courses. Rather than wanting to incorporate the enticing methodologies of the prevailing educational experts, one consideration and question must be debated before adopting any new method in the classroom: Just because this technique, method, or approach works in the public school system and is applauded by academics, is it necessarily transferable to the yeshiva world and our unique Mesorah?
This does not mean that our curricula cannot be informed by the chochmah of the surrounding nations. Rather, the starting point needs to be an internal one. A key qualification for the adoption of any educational methodology needs to be whether it will allow a student to grow in Torah and Yiras Shamayim in addition to whether it will provide the requisite skills and knowledge in General Studies. If we expect no less of our Judaic curricula, and would never fathom presenting a lesson to the next generation that was devoid of this growth-mindset, how could we expect anything different during the other parts of the school day? As Rabbi Chaim Friedlander, former Mashgiach of the Ponevezh Yeshiva aptly wrote, “Any wisdom that does not improve the human character is not classified as wisdom”.
There is a plethora of educational methodologies that need to be addressed. However, for the sake of brevity, the focus here will be that of Project-based learning (PBL).
Defining Terms: Project-Based Learning
PBL is often described as a form of pedagogy in which students learn about a subject or a topic over an extended period through investigation and exploration of real-world challenges. With a heavy emphasis on interdisciplinary elements and student choice, which allows for a more personal, meaningful education, pupils collaboratively work on a project and/or product intended to be displayed and delivered to a live audience. Many speculate that the formal idea of PBL stemmed from John Dewey’s 1897 article titled My Pedagogical Creed where he outlined the value of learning by doing and the concept of how a classroom should be a microcosm of the world at large.
The underlying theory is that real-world scenarios will cause students to learn the essential problem-solving skills necessary to educating youth. As most adults are actively involved in projects in their professional life, this educational technique informs future problem-solving scenarios. As opposed to a frontal lecture or learning through a textbook, students are provided a driving question (i.e.: How does the Industrial Revolution still impact our lives today? or What causes rain?) as a lead into classroom discussions and student choice of work. According to experts in the field, a true PBL assignment should be organized around an open-ended question or challenge, create a need to know essential content, require inquiry to learn or create, provoke critical thinking and communication skills, include student choice, incorporate feedback and revision, and result in a presented product.
It is important not to conflate PBL with a standard project. A project often is assigned by the teacher, without student input, at the end of an instructional unit and is often unrelated to the standards and skills of a classroom. Additionally, it is important to differentiate PBL from Task-Based Learning (TBL). With TBL, the focus is not the content of a lesson as much as it is the tasks used to facilitate the content. The end goal for TBL is to increase the communication skills of students. This allows for an increase in language acquisition.
Taking A Step Back: Establishing the True Problem
While much of the information regarding PBL would seem enticing to any school administrator, it is important to test it against the needs of yeshiva bochurim. Based on my teaching experience, conversations with my colleagues, and discussions on Machon Menoras Hachochmah’s General Studies Administrators Forum, the considerations that go into the crisis that finds itself within most yeshiva General Studies program, and contribute the “bochur mindset” include the following:
- Time of Day: Most bochurim do not begin their General Studies classes until the afternoon. They are, understandably, exhausted. They are intellectually drained and often have not had an opportunity for exercise to recharge their batteries.
- Lack of Chashivus: Much of what we feel we are required to teach in the afternoon (I write “feel” because most states do not require any specific content for private school education) contradicts the values and facts espoused in the mornings. When a teacher says something that is against what a rebbe said, students will often begin to dismiss the teacher altogether. However, it does need to be stressed there are variations of how students can respond. Those nuances would require their own article.
- Delayed Gratification: For those students who do plan on entering the professional workforce, or even for those who recognize the skills needed to become a rebbe themselves, they view the practical import of the general skills which they are learning as being far in the future. They are not preparing for the SAT or thinking about going to college at age 18. Even for these bochurim, the need to focus in class is minimized.
- Stimulating and Growth Oriented Morning: Everything about shiur in the morning is ultimately about growing in Torah, Yiras Shamayim, and one’s relationship with Hashem. Talmidim are taught facts; however, they are not intended to be seen as dry information. On the other hand, General Studies are often perceived as important since they teach a specific skill. Their import to one’s avodas Hashem is often not stressed.
- Lack of Administrative Transparency: Since many students value their Kodesh classes more than their General Studies classes, they naturally display greater respect for their morning hanhala over afternoon administrators. When students see their menahel and rebbeim leave the building in the afternoon, they recognize there is no communication between their morning and afternoon programs. There is a sense of non-importance regarding their entire General Studies education.
- General Learning Issues: Let us not delude ourselves and assume that if students took their classes more seriously that there would be no issues. As of 2018, 14% of all public school students received special education services, 34% of which had specific learning disabilities. While I have not found any statistics for the yeshiva world, my experience as a teacher and administrator lead me to believe the numbers are the same in our schools. If anything, the numbers of students who academically struggle may be even higher due to a lack of learned skills in the primary grades.
- Lack of Educational Resources: Due to budgetary constraints, hashkafic restrictions, and a lack of internet availability, students in a yeshiva do not have all the resources necessary to gain mastery over their subjects.
- Teacher Availability: Due to pay, time of day, and a lack of frum individuals choosing to become General Studies teachers, the pool from which to find teachers is often very small. When students develop a unique rebbe-talmid relationship in the morning, they are looking for someone they can grow with in the afternoon as well, not just someone who can provide them information and facts.
The methodology, positives, and negatives of using PBL all need to be considered against these factors.
The Positives of PBL
There are many benefits for students in a classroom that utilizes PBL. The choices given to students in designing their educational program allow for much empowerment. Students are curious and engaged in their subject matter. This, in turn, enables them to persevere through any difficulties that present themselves while involved in their project.
The problem-solving skills that students learn prepare them for real-world situations. Additionally, the critical thinking required to tackle the driving questions posed by their teachers allows for an increase in in-depth understanding. Students learn the value of trial and error and the importance of research over memorization of facts presented during a frontal lecture. Finally, the communication skills garnered during collaborative projects mimic the work environment that most students will find themselves in as they enter the workforce.
Only one question remains: are these reasons the secret to solving the aforementioned problems specific to the “bochur mindset”? They may be a solution to a problem, but not necessarily to our problem.
The Negatives of PBL
The concerns regarding PBL can be divided into three categories associated with students, instructors, and institutions.
- Students: The fact that choice of content is self-determined means that actual exposure to key information is not always attained. Additionally, the time involved in the creation of a product or the research needed for an elaborate presentation often takes valuable time away from other subjects. As well, for students who may be extremely organized, the uncertain nature of an undefined project may cause anxiety. For those students who are already unorganized and need structure, PBL will often not provide it. Regarding groups, students can become antagonistic towards one another. As a result, classroom decorum becomes difficult.
- Instructors: Taking a broad topic and honing in on one or two driving questions which will act as the backdrop for a possibly semester-long project can be daunting. Additionally, the prep time required for the daily changes needed for the student-curated curriculum often leaves a teacher feeling as if he or she lacks control or direction. Preparing for multiple possibilities is no easy feat. On top of this problem, instructors need to monitor group interactions. Finally, the nature of PBL requires new ways to assess student success. Due to the organic nature of how projects progress, constant observation and note-taking is required of teachers.
- Institutions: Schools need to completely change how they approach education and the learning process. Veteran teachers need to be told to alter their long-standing practices. Schools will also need to provide additional staff development and support to facilitate this new approach. Many projects also require experts in various fields to be brought in to speak with students. This cost, as well as that of acquiring a variety of supplies, is often not feasible. Finally, classroom spaces need to be adapted and turned into multipurpose rooms to ensure that a variety of project types, such as those requiring the building of a product, can be facilitated.
Additionally, the PBL method does not necessarily address the crucial issues relevant to the “Bochur Mindset”. Even if a school could get past the concerns above, there are cultural problems that would need to be addressed. For example, PBL does not address the issue of student burnout caused by the time of day when General Studies are introduced. Of course, the goal of projects based on student interest would hopefully remedy this. However, if students do not value or see the relevance in the entire endeavor, all efforts will become fruitless. It could be the case that projects relevant to current events may cause students to be “machshiv” what they are doing. However, since many students do not see themselves leaving the walls of the Beis Medrash for many years, the practical import of many lessons falls on deaf ears.
For those students who do see the importance in taking standardized tests, PBL may not always provide the proper instruction on necessary content and skills. Students with learning issues can still get lost in the mix of the unstructured demands of an ever-evolving project. This can cause students to “slack off” and allow work to fall to their peers. Furthermore, a common technique for helping such students is by creating measurable benchmarks to track student success and progress. However, when creativity and ingenuity become the driving forces behind an entire course, leaving the attainment of skills varied and the mastery of content as secondary, these benchmarks become difficult to create.
Ever transforming projects also require access to resources that are often beyond the financial constraints of a typical yeshiva high school. This, on top of the fact that the shelves in school libraries are lacking and internet access is often not available, means that that projects with fantastic plans often have no means for commencing. Finally, for a system that often hires teachers who often have other jobs in the mornings, the time needed for the daily preparations of PBL classes is often impossible.
Designing a Culturally Appropriate and Educationally Sound Solution
Due to the many concerns above, I, in my capacity as a designer of curricula, do not make classic PBL the primary driving force behind the content that I create. PBL does indeed engage young minds in complex tasks while learning how to think critically and creatively. However, for students to truly be “machshiv” their education they need to see more of an instant relevance to their lives. As the goal of being in any yeshiva is one of personal growth, students need to feel they can also make similar strides in the afternoon. As such, I often borrow from both PBL and TBL.
Material that integrates Torah content, as well as interpersonal and communication skills, should be brought to prominence in yeshiva settings. For example, currently, an 11th-grade course, developed by Machon Menoras Hachochmah, that is team-taught between a Rosh Mesivta and a Language Arts teacher is being piloted at Mesivta Kesser Torah of Baltimore. The course has been designed to use the content of Torah as the framework through which writing and communication skills are taught. Every unit in the class lasts for roughly two weeks. On Mondays, the Rosh Mesivta comes to class and presents students with a question that he has on either the parshas ha’shavua or an upcoming Yomtov. Over the next two weeks the students, using the open-ended question provided by the Rosh Mesivta, work with their Language Arts teacher to craft Divrei Torah in the style of persuasive, descriptive, narrative, and other types of essays. Additionally, students are taught the research skills needed to delve into meforshim and a plethora of other resources, including online seforim-based databases, to craft their final product.
It is truly amazing to see what students can achieve once they are presented with a series of benchmarks to develop their ideas into writing. Additionally, while all students begin with the same question, one can see the personalities of students emerge by the sources and arguments that they use in their writing. As an example, based on a Medrash in Breishis Rabbah (1:4), the following question was posed to the class:
If someone asked you for which mitzvos was the world created would you really say “challah, maasros, and bikkurim”? Most would probably not. What is it about each one of these mitzvos that is so central to the world?
Students, as a product of their initiative, took the following approaches:
- Comparing the list of three mitzvos to Pirkei Avos 1:2 (“The world rests on three things: Torah, Avodah, and Gemilus Chassadim […]”)
- Connecting various aspects of man to mitzvos and the purpose of creation
- Finding the common denominator among the three mitzvos presented in the Medrash
- Utilizing stories of Gedolim to impart a lesson
While many of the students spent their time researching seforim on machshava, others utilized halachic works, while some looked at the classic commentaries of the Medrash Rabbah for the first time.
When students completed their essays they were excited that they were able to use sources to develop a Torah idea on their own. Many used their work as the basis for a Dvar Torah that they shared over Yomtov with their family. They felt ownership over their education. This assignment allowed them to grow in Torah and learn practical skills. Since the students valued their assignment and saw its relevance there were no behavioral issues. Additionally, students met with their teachers, rebbeim, and morning and afternoon administrators to brainstorm ideas. All of a sudden there became a smooth transition from morning to afternoon. An added bonus was that the teacher was able to communicate with the rebbe regarding the bochurim who could improve their analytical skills. This is not a conversation that occurs very frequently in most yeshiva settings. Finally, from the perspective of the yeshiva as a whole, it was felt that hashkafic topics could be taught to talmidim in a way that would not sacrifice from either the morning or afternoon schedule.
If we truly want to improve the educational experience and program of our students we must both borrow from educational methodologies from outside of the yeshiva system while using the growth mindset that is so crucial to the success of any talmid. While PBL has many advantages, when it is implemented in a way that is in tune with both our Mesorah and the realities of a “Bochur Mindset”, students will be able to find both value in their learning while concurrently gaining necessary skills.
Rabbi Mordechai Weissmann, a musmach of Yeshivas Rabbeinu Yitzchak Elchanan, has a BA from Columbia University in English and Comparative Literature, an MA from Yeshiva University in Jewish Philosophy, and an MLIS in Library and Information Science from The University of Maryland. He is the Director of Machon Menoras Hachochmah: The Institute for Torah-Based Curricula and the Curriculum Coordinator at Mesivta Kesser Torah of Baltimore. For curricula created in the style described by Rabbi Weissmann please visit www.TheMachon.org.
 Sifsei Chaim 2:66.
 Buck Institute. “What Is PBL?” PBLWorks, www.pblworks.org/what-is-pbl.
 Dewey, John. “My Pedagogic Creed.” The School Journal, LIV, no. 3, 16 Jan. 1897, pp. 77–80.
 Larmer, John, and John R Mergendoller. “Seven Essentials for Project-Based Learning.” Educational Leadership, vol. 68, no. 1, Sept. 2010, pp. 34–37.
 Ellis, Rod. “The Methodology of Task-Based Teaching. 2002, pp. 79-101.
 “The Condition of Education – Preprimary, Elementary, and Secondary Education – Elementary and Secondary Enrollment – Children and Youth With Disabilities – Indicator May (2019).” National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Education, May 2019, nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator_cgg.asp.
 Pawson, Eric, et al. “Problem-Based Learning in Geography: Towards a Critical Assessment of Its Purposes, Benefits and Risks.” Journal of Geography in Higher Education, vol. 30, no. 1, 2006, pp. 103–116., doi:10.1080/03098260500499709.