Friday, May 3, 2013

My PBL Class gives me a glimpse of the Future of the Classroom

I admit it.  Right now, I am being somewhat unfair to my 7th grade Torah class.  They are in the middle of a rather large Project-Based Learning (PBL) unit for me, while at the same time they have to work on a project related to the Torah curriculum.  Each year, we ask each 7th grader to pick one mitzva (commandment) from somewhere within the curriculum and to research it further, ultimately devising a presentation that is displayed, science-fair style, at our annual 7th grade chicken dinner (which is a topic for a different post).  In other words, my class currently has two units of learning that they are working on for me, often with different work partners.

Fortunately, we have found a way to take advantage of this situation.  Within the context of my PBL class, the students have our allotted class time to work on their research.  While, in theory, they could be doing homework for another class, they realize that it is best to work on the material that I have assigned them, as this is the time that they have me available to answer their questions and guide them through the sources.  Having two projects due for me has led some students to switch off - working on one project in class one day and another one on a different day, depending on which one they require my assistance for.

The result is an interesting window into what could be accomplished with greater adoption of student-centered classrooms.  A number of years ago, a group of educators in Israel published a paper imagining what a high school would look like if modeled like a Beit Midrash (download the paper here).  Their basic premise was that the focal point of both the physical structure of the school and the schedule of the day would be time spent in a Beit Midrash, with students required to attend both mandatory and elective classes throughout their years in the school.  However, the main learning would be accomplished by students working independently or in groups, and making their own decisions on how to allocate that time.

What if, instead of five periods per week of Chumash and five of Gemara, my students had three or four of each, with the rest being used for independent work time which could be used for either subject, or some other subject?  Obviously, with me or another Judaic teacher present during that time, they might be more likely to work on a subject in which I could be helpful.  However, this would provide the students with the chance to hone their time-management and prioritizing skills.  They would know what needs to be accomplished, but once in control of making that learning happen, they would have the freedom to also decide when it would happen.

I will grant that this goes back to what I feel is the main question about flipped learning, blended learning, and all of their cousins.  None of them are anything new.  It is the way that adults learn, and it is certainly the way that both college and grad school work - do the readings, then come to class to discuss them.  The novelty is that we are trying to accomplish it with students at ever-younger ages.  And so, the issue that we would have to grapple with is are we ready to allow students in high school or middle school or even younger to not only find the material on their own, but manage and discipline themselves and their time?  At what point do we loosen our grip on our students' hands, and by how much?  Truly a question that serious-minded educators must always ask.

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