by Mrs. Etti Siegel
Project-based learning. It is a topic on education websites, featured in educator’s magazines, and seems all the rage! So, what is it really? Why don’t more schools have more project-based learning happening? Is it feasible for a Jewish day school that is already crunched for time?
This article will be delving into and trying to answer the following questions about project-based learning:
The workplace looks very different in 2020 than it did in the 1950’s, but classrooms have not changed much at all. Years ago, the classroom readied students for factory work, so sitting and listening to teacher lectures, moving by the sound of bells, and showing proficiency through test scores made sense. Now, in a world of constant innovation and problem solving, proponents of PBL (project based learning) say the old way of learning is not preparing children for real life, and PBL is much more suited for this era by giving children skills in collaborating, critical thinking, and problem solving. It also gives children the chance to hone public speaking and presentation skills as they present their findings.
PBL gives students a chance to experience learning in real time about real-world issues, not just memorize information, or study teacher created material. PBL is a hands-on opportunity for children to tackle a problem or issue that they are interested in, which often results in more meaningful results and lasting retention.
Example: 2nd or 3rd grade: When the children are learning about bal tashchis (pachim ketanim in Parshas Vayishlach, end of Parshas Shoftim about fruit trees), either in Chumash or in Parsha, children can have the opportunity to discuss not wasting, read medrashim of how far our gedolim went to be careful not to waste and delve into the concept of frugality further. This can lead to a food drive for Tomchei Shabbos, a campaign to take less and throw away less at lunch, a lost and found/g’mach school supply box in the classroom or in every classroom in the school, and other such discussions and projects leading to less waste. It can lead into being happy with what one has… Children might also choose to make posters, skits or a song… or another appropriate choice.
Example: 5th or 6th grade: When the children are learning about fearing and respecting parents (two different pesukim), either in Chumash or in Parsha, children can have the story of Damma ben Nesina to read, meforshim on other gedolim who respected their parents and how, the halachos of Kibbud Av Va’Em in the Shulchan Aruch, passages from the Gemara, Rambam and Tur to examine and learn, and medrashim that the teacher makes available. The goal can be to make children in lower grades aware of the practical halachos. Children might choose to make posters, a comic strip, or a slide show… or another appropriate choice.
Example: 2nd-12th grade: Take a limud (like Pirkei Avos, for example) and choose a focus (like sports, for example) and put together an organized presentation (posters, comics, booklet with stories) tying the two together. The higher the grade the more source material should be required.
There are always students who take on much of the work in a group, and there are always slackers. Having the teacher assign a role to each person in the group will set the group up for success.
Another idea for encouraging participation is the Jigsaw strategy, a very helpful method of ensuring diligence and focused participation. This method organizes the class by forming groups that are dependent on each other for the whole picture. Group A studies topic 1, Group B studies topic 2, and Group C studies topic 3. They then become masters as they are re-divided into groups with one member from ABC who then share and teach their knowledge on topics 1, 2, and 3, respectively.
Interestingly enough, many experts are not totally sold on the PBL model. Education Week, an independent news organization that has covered K–12 education since 1981, published an article in 2007 that lists quite a few warning from experts in the field:
Some schools are mixing it up, taking the concept of PBL and adding it into lessons to make them come alive. Here are two examples:
A 6th grade teacher in Bais Yaakov of Queens just finished perek yud-beis in Sefer Bamidbar. She often does modified PBL in her classroom. This time, the students chose a group to join, and two teachers went group to group, assisting, facilitating, encouraging and guiding to help the students master their chosen topic.
A 5th grade class in Williamsburg put together a Fractions Fair. The girls worked in groups to make skits and design examples that would make fractions easier to explain, and then invited the parallel classes and the 3rd and 4th grades to visit as they performed in booth-like areas around a large room. The presentations were completely designed and executed by the students, and all met the criteria on the rubric they were given by their teacher.
Now that you know what PBL is, the pros and cons and the workarounds, what will you decide to do in your school?
Guido, M 2016. 5 Advantages and Disadvantages of Problem-Based Learning [+ Activity Design Steps]. www.prodigygames.com
Keller, B. 2007. Experts Warn of PBL Pitfalls. Education Week
Neusner, D. 2012. Teaching via Project-Based Learning. Behrman House
Mrs. Etti Siegel, Adjunct Professor, Coach and Mentor, Workshop Presenter, master teacher, holds an MS in Teaching and Learning/Educational Leadership. She is a coach and educational consultant for Catapult Learning, an educational coaching agency, is a sought-after mentor and workshop presenter around the country, and a popular presenter for Sayan (a teacher mentoring program), Yachad/OU, Hidden Sparks, and the Consortium of Jewish Day Schools. She can be reached for comment and feedback at email@example.com.