“Rabbi, this is boring” complained a ninth grader after a Tanach class (Saks, 2012, p. 42). As a teacher and principal for over 20 years, I have heard this complaint many times from bored students and from frustrated faculty. It was this lack of interest or motivation of students when studying Tanach that sparked my investigation into the possibility of using Project-Based Learning to transform teaching into an enjoyable experience so that they would view Torah study as a lifelong commitment. Can a teacher successfully implement PBL in the Bible classroom?
I decided to teach a PBL unit in Tanach. The student sample was composed of eight eleventh and twelfth grade students at the Margolin Hebrew Academy in Memphis, a Modern Orthodox yeshiva high school.
The PBL unit consisted of a driving project delineating the deliverable expected of the students. It required students to present several elucidated commandments drawn from the Book of Deuteronomy, specifically the portion of Ki Teze. The class (two groups of four) was to select several mitzvoth and clarify their meaning to the school and the community. “The students’ task was to create a repository of explicated mitzvoth that will be lasting, durable, and dynamic. It will be this class’ living legacy, a resource for elementary or high school students, teachers, or the community at large. This resource will be a ‘living’ resource as it will be constantly updated with student work from other classes over time” (Final Product Assignment).
Since students were expected to chart their own course in a PBL unit, I did not script each day of the unit. Instead, I delineated the deliverable and expected students to develop the contours of their product, plan how they would construct their artifact, and execute their strategy. The Final Product Rubric provided them with a sense of what the deliverable should look like. The rubric included the following categories: process, content, and style. The process section delineated some working guidelines, the content section described some critical information necessary in explaining the mitzvah, and the style section explained stylistic considerations.
This description gave them a start, prompting them to clarify what was needed, and how it would be accomplished. Although the project was student-led and student-run, and students chose how to organize their time in their own way, I prepared several scaffolding guides to assist them along the way, as suggested by Ertmer and Simons (2006). I had expected them to conclude that their first steps would include defining the concept of commandment, classifying the types of commandments, and identifying the ones that appear in the portion of Ki Teze. The students moved quickly to choose the mitzvoth they wished to explore, and in the process, I prompted them to clarify where to find material discussing commandments. In addition, I provided them with assistance in securing resources such as books about commandments and guided them as needed and requested. I created various tools along the way, such as worksheets and guides to aid them in accomplishing their task. The days students worked on this unit were not consecutive, so that in the intervening time students were able to complete investigative work, such as conducting a survey or meeting with an expert.
In planning the project, I wrote a suggested approach to solving the driving project. This exercise helped me clarify my thinking and prepare myself to serve as the students’ guide. Nevertheless, students still had the freedom to choose their own strategy. As the unit progressed, I either created new scaffolding, worksheets, and guides, or distributed those that were already prepared in advance in case they were needed.
Throughout the project, I carefully recorded data through recordings, observations, interviews, reflections, and surveys and formulated three findings.
The principles of PBL were successfully applied to a Tanach unit and were incorporated in the mitzvoth unit. The driving project fueled the learning, and students took responsibility for their work. It was a realistic and constructive investigation where problems cut across domains. The students collaborated, planned and organized their activities, reflected on different aspects of their work, both as a group and individually, used the feedback to improve their website and finally presented their finished product.
The PBL method facilitated the achievement of the Margolin Hebrew Academy Tanach standards and accomplished additional learning goals. The PBL approach, specifically the driving project, guided them in their learning and taught them how to analyze a mitzvah, a lifelong learning goal. The driving project forced them to approach the mitzvah from the perspective of a 21st century person evaluating an ancient commandment. This necessitated articulating the mysteries and enigmas inherent in the mitzvoth and to uncover the mitzvoth’s expectations and meaning.
The students acquired this knowledge and understanding through serious engagement with commentaries. A Tanach teacher from the school commented, “It is clear, from reviewing the final product, the students’ websites, that the students understood the details of the mitzvah and its reasoning in an in-depth way.”
Almost all students learned about a mitzvah that they had never known. For example, Samantha said, “I didn’t even know that yibum and halitsah existed.” In a teacher-directed classroom the teacher may have taught the same material, but in this project the students learned the material, something that does not always take place in frontal education. They proved themselves to be self-directed learners where learning was done “in a proactive way rather than as a covert event that happens to them in reaction to teaching” (Zimmerman, 2002, p.65).
New understandings, patterns, and ideas flowed from their cycling through the material and reflecting on it. They understood the facets of the mitzvoth they studied and recognized the scope of the mitzvoth leading to a greater appreciation of the commandments. The more the students discovered details, reasons, and explanations of the mitzvoth, the more their appreciation for the mitzvoth grew. Sadie summed it up well when she said, “The more insights we gather about these mitzvoth, the more sense they make.”
The affective benefits of PBL were manifest in this unit. Since students were motivated and engaged, they thoroughly enjoyed the learning. Their engagement led not only to cognitive and social benefits, but students developed a personal connection with the material and underwent a transformation of attitudes. The collaboration developed cooperative approaches and provided the opportunity to appreciate teammates, leading to increased self-esteem. Presenting the final product engendered satisfaction and pride.
While the students focused on why they enjoyed learning, specifically Tanach, it was the PBL methodology that created the opportunities for enjoyment. They presented a variety of reasons, but all reflected a high level of intrinsic motivation. True to the nature of a PBL unit, the driving project piqued their curiosity and engendered excitement at the prospect of discovery. The freedom of choosing the mitzvoth and commentaries to learn was liberating and exhilarating. Therefore, they took ownership of the learning and began their research with great enthusiasm. While there was unanimity in their expressions of enjoyment, the reasons given reflect personal perspectives: they delighted in choosing the mitzvoth, exploring the puzzles inherent in the mitzvoth, researching and finding solutions to conundrums. Sally explained how choice led to her engagement. “We could have picked anything we wanted. It was a choice of what we wanted to learn.” Similarly, Nancy found the choosing “fun”, but also was drawn by the challenging aspect inherent in the mitzvoth and the search for personal meaning. As Wolk (1994) points out: “When children are allowed to choose what to explore, they become intrinsically motivated–more than happy to work hard and strive for quality” (p. 43).
Thus, Sadie, in the course of her research, was moved to expand her inquiry. “I finished reading the Sefer HaChinuch on a rapist marrying his victim. I now have so many more questions about this mitzvah and its actual practical purpose”. PBL pushes the students to research far and beyond what might be assigned in a traditional class. Leah commented about her struggle to find out about the mitzvah. “I looked up a mitzvah
that was troubling me. Not satisfied with the answers I found, but I’ll keep looking!” Since she generated those questions herself, the determination to find the answers was strong.
The students delighted in discovering the actual information. They echoed each other in explaining that they researched because they wanted to know the information. They were engaged in an authentic investigation, studying part of their culture and they wanted to gain an in depth understanding.
Randy expressed her joy in learning about the mitzvoth, explaining: “Once I read about it, I wanted to know more about it and why this is done in this way.” Samantha commented that, “I enjoyed the actual research part because I liked finding the explanations; I thought it made them more understandable.”
The students wanted to know because, as Orthodox Jews, they are required to observe mitzvoth. Hug, Krajcik, and Marx (2005) suggest that motivation is greater when projects are personally relevant and since the students were observant this could have heightened their motivation as well.
After embarking on this study, I realized I had previously underestimated the students’ intellectual and religious desire to understand their heritage. But, as the project unfolded, I found that students were excited, and enjoyed conducting the research because they were mystified by the mitzvoth they were studying, which corresponds to Kohn’s suggestion that an intellectual, rigorous investigation into religious texts excites students: “High school is the time when students tend to fall in love with academic subjects…It is only appropriate that they should be introduced to critical thinking skills in Jewish studies courses” (Kohn, 1996, p. 41).
Therefore, it seems that this project accomplished what Kohn thought should occur when teaching teenagers in a Jewish school: deep and thoughtful learning that motivates and excites the students in order to develop life-long, committed, and intellectually engaged Jews who will be drawn to Judaism for life.
The PBL approach to learning that emphasizes construction of meaning and in-depth study can touch a person’s soul. Tanach teachers seek this exact result – a transformative religious experience as well as an intellectual exercise. Thus, the students in my class developed an emotional attachment to the material and it transformed their attitude.
Leah commented, “I realized today how much one mitzvah entails and how careful you have to be about not violating it. For example, you have to go through a lot of steps to ensure your clothing is not shaatnez, including getting it checked by someone.”
Alexis said: “Changed my viewpoint to see how they are more important…I definitely understand the importance of them more.” Sally further explained: “It gave me a sense that every mitzvah has a reason since we obviously found reasons for mitzvoth that made no sense at the beginning.”
The students were so successful at choosing perplexing and confounding mitzvoth and posing bold objections that they couldn’t imagine discovering acceptable explanations, but this quickly turned into the thrill of developing satisfactory understandings and thus developed emotional attachments to those mitzvot.
In sum, the research revealed that the principles of PBL can be incorporated with success in a Bible class. The PBL process directly led to learning and achieving many of the Bible teachers’ goals providing the students with the lifelong and authentic skill of analyzing a biblical commandment. They did not acquire diverse pieces of knowledge that would remain as such, but rather they gained skills and developed views that they could apply throughout their lives. The students enjoyed the learning, valued the contributions of their peers, and most importantly transformed their views of biblical commandments recognizing their meaning and relevance to a 21st century person. They developed a newfound appreciation of the mitzvoth.
The findings demonstrated that students were interested, excited, and took an active role in their learning. Furthermore, the students recognized that they learned the material and developed specific skills. However, they did not learn as many mitzvoth as they would have if they were in a traditional classroom. Still, the depth of their learning and the ancillary benefits were considerable. Do they outweigh the loss of content? Pittinsky (2014) devoted his blog to this serious dilemma for Judaic studies teachers: “How does one design PBL learning encouraging student initiative and deep learning while covering the curriculum?” In a Jewish school where time is at a premium and we attempt to utilize every moment to cover as much ground as possible – is it worth it?
That question assumes that there will always be less coverage of material in a PBL unit. Yet, if the teacher is skillful in implementing PBL, the coverage issue may be minimized. The teacher could attempt to utilize the time wisely to maximize PBL benefits and reduce focus on extraneous matters. Adept use of scaffolding will smooth over bumps and save time. In an area that isn’t as critical to a project more directive means could be applied. I could have moved things along faster along by inviting an expert to teach the use of Google Sites. It would have alleviated frustration and saved time. An overview of books about mitzvoth, their structure and purpose, would have given them the background to utilize these books more purposefully. I was focused on allowing them to discover everything on their own. However, not everything needs to be figured out and not everything requires a tremendous expense of energy and effort.
However, more importantly, Armon sees benefits beyond coverage of material:
In order to strike this balance of imparting knowledge to students while simultaneously developing their independent learning abilities, a teacher must be aware that “covering material”, chapters and commentaries, while laudable, is by itself insufficient and does not automatically produce students who can learn on their own (Armon, 1988, p. 13).
Armon views the advantage of developing lifelong learners outweighing coverage of material, and this advantage emerged from the research and in my findings. For example, Boaler (2002) found that the PBL students developed a conceptual understanding that provided them with advantages in a range of assessments and situations. The process trained students in a system of thinking which they would not have received in a traditional classroom. Additionally, Hmelo-Silver (2004) describes helping students develop flexible knowledge, creative problem-solving skills, self-directed learning skills, effective collaboration skills, and intrinsic motivation. Zimmerman (2010) touts life skill building and preparing students for the real world after their education. Hughes (2012) studied a high school agricultural program taught in a PBL approach and discovered that there were significant gains in the 21st century skills of critical thinking and problem-solving, creativity and innovation, collaboration, teamwork and leadership, communications and information fluency. These findings substantiate claims that PBL is a viable method of instruction for teachers who want to hone the students’ 21st century skills.
In the unit that I taught, the students felt, and I concurred, that they achieved an in-depth understanding of each mitzvah, its scope, and its meaning, something I probably would not have accomplished teaching more mitzvoth, frontally. They learned how to research a mitzvah. That translates into lifelong learning, a goal of both PBL and Judaism and a standard of Margolin Hebrew Academy. They gained in appreciation of mitzvoth in general and specifically those that at first seem unusual or even strange. The learning created a personal transformation in that it created a greater attachment to mitzvoth. The fact is they had a very positive experience learning Tanach and that will remain with them. Pittinsky (2014) tells us that:
Nechama Liebowitz said, kids remember nothing, but they remember the experience. They will remember areas in which they invested significant time and energy to accomplish something special and unique. This is why project-based learning can be so powerful (p.1).
The students certainly invested significant time and effort, and they will remember the experience, but in this case also the content. But, if they happen to forget, Samantha had the solution: “I don’t know if I remember all the details that I learned, but I know where to look to find the information”. She and the others attained the skills of lifelong learners of Tanach. And still they learned much less content than if they were in a traditional class. Krakowski, Kramer and Lev (2012) address the issue of PBL versus curricular goals. I think they suggest the correct approach:
The beauty of PBL, however, is that curricular goals (both content and skills) can be covered through targeted projects and problems…This targeted approach to PBL does give up some student choice, but many of the same empowering aspects remain, without sacrificing curricular goals. Ultimately, PBL may have the potential to transform Judaic curricula, as students feel empowered to use those domains to engage in their own lives in meaningful ways (p.8).
Armon, N. (1988). Methodology of teaching Tanakh or what does a teacher do after reaching the radical conclusion that one can’t just walk into class, read pasuk after pasuk, perush after perush and consider one’s job done?! TenDa’at, 11(2), 13-15.
Boaler, J. (2002). The development of disciplinary relationships: Knowledge, practice and Identity in mathematics classrooms. For the Learning of Mathematics, 22(1), 42-47.
Ertmer, P. A., & Simons, K. D. (2006). Jumping the PBL implementation hurdle: Supporting the efforts of K-12 teachers. Interdisciplinary Journal of Problem-Based Learning, 1(1), 40-54.
Hmelo-Silver, C. (2004). Problem-based learning: What and how do students learn? Educational Psychology Review, 16(3), 235-266. Retrieved from http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=13682403&site=eds-live&scope=site
Hug, B., Krajcik, J. S., & Marx, R. W. (2005). Using innovative learning technologies to promote learning and engagement in an urban science classroom. Urban Education, 40(4), 446-472.
Hughes, S. R. (2012). Exploring the 21st century skills used during a project-based learning experience at the secondary level (Ed.D.). Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Full Text. (1115148990).
Kohn, D. (1996). Teaching Judaism to teenagers using critical methodology. Journal of Jewish Education, 62(1), 40-41.
Krakowski, M., Kramer, J., & Lev, N. (2012). Empowering students through problem and project-based learning. Jewish Educational Leadership, 10(2), 4-8.
Rabbi Dr. Uriel Lubetski has been a teacher and administrator for 24 years in New York, Memphis, and Baltimore. Currently, he is the Director of Education, English Division, at Sulamot where he writes Judaic studies curriculum for English speaking schools. He welcomes any comments or thoughts at email@example.com.