Monday, July 16, 2012

Is Project-Based Learning Countercultural to Judaism?

I have been spending a fair amount of my time since the school year ended involved in Project-Based Learning (PBL). As readers of this blog know, I began introducing PBL into one of my Judaic Studies classes this year and I have been working to encourage other Judaic Studies teachers to do the same. As it is always easier to try new things when you have a community of people to support, encourage, and guide you along, I am trying to spur along the creation of that community. I delivered a webinar for Yeshiva University on this topic several months ago, and I have been meeting with my own teachers as well as teachers from other Jewish day and high schools in the months since, offering guidance and advice as to how to take our most ancient texts and teach them in a new and hopefully more thought-provoking fashion.

One thought that has been nagging at me all along is whether or not PBL is countercultural to Jewish tradition. By this I do not mean simply that PBL, by placing the student in control of his or her learning, represents a change from the normal and accepted method of teaching. That is true in just about any school context, certainly in the United States. However, it strikes me that this shift is even more pronounced within a Jewish context due to the importance that we place on Rabbinic authority, the wisdom of the ages, and respect for elders.

My friend Rabbi Gil Student has recently written about the erosion of Rabbinic authority in our world, and the ever-hardening stance of right-wing Jews towards total obeisance to Rabbinic authority and the corresponding Modern Orthodox flight from such a position is just one example of the tensions involved in this all-important issue. Seemingly, Project-Based Learning, by making the student the main engine of his own learning, would seem to decrease the perceived need for the teacher as the fountain of all wisdom, and thus would possibly lead to a sense that our revered teachers - revered as they may be - are not the authority figures that they once were. Taking this out to one possible logical conclusion, by encouraging the use of PBL in Judaic Studies classrooms, I may perhaps be unwittingly sowing the seeds of my own demise, and the demise of my profession in general. Perhaps all that we will need are teachers who can construct a good curriculum or lesson plan, and let the students go on their own from there.

Fortunately, I have come to the conclusion that the opposite is, in fact, the case. Project-Based Learning does indeed put students at the center of their own learning, but the teacher is still a necessary component of that learning, and perhaps an even more important component than when the teacher was the one standing at the head of the room, spouting wisdom to be lapped up by intellectually thirsty students. In a well-run PBL classroom, there is no question that the teacher is the one providing the framework and guidance for what is to be learned, that the teacher is the one directing the students to both sources and ideas, and that the teacher is the one who is constantly on the move, answering a question from one group and then another and then another. In fact, the students are more likely to see their relationship with the teacher as being one where they want to learn well in order to take part in the learning atmosphere created by the teacher as opposed to trying to memorize the information in order to score high on the test created by the teacher. The former represents a more collaborative context, whereas the latter is potentially competitive or, at worst, cynical.

I will take this even one step further. When I think about the hundreds of teachers that I have had, which ones stand out? Sure, some of the best are those who impressed me for their brilliance or their humor or for some other surface type of reason. But the teachers that I think about most and refer to the most are those who provided me with specific skills that I continue to draw from every time I learn. What is important from those relationships is not so much the specific material that I learned from them (although that is undoubtedly key as well), but the fact that they taught me how to do it on my own. And that is what a teacher is doing in a PBL class. He may not be the one imparting the specific bits of knowledge to the students, but he is the one showing them how to effectively find the knowledge, how to think about and analyze it, how to work with others in curating that knowledge, and how to think broadly and creatively about that knowledge. Those skills are universal and timeless, and they are likely to strengthen, not weaken, the respect that the student has for such a teacher.

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