Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Why PBL is Hard for Students

As readers of this blog well know, I spend a non-insignificant amount of time thinking about and experimenting with Project Based Learning.  Over the past few years, one purpose of this blog has been as an outlet for me to express ideas about PBL and get feedback, and at the same time to share my own experiences in implementing PBL in the hopes that others who have an interest in trying it will be able ti find ideas to adapt for their own classrooms.

However, one area that I have rarely focused on is PBL from the student perspective.  One of the great selling points of PBL is its ability to increase student motivation and interest by providing them with greater "voice and choice" in their own learning, by setting up units with driving questions meant to spark their interest, and with seeking out authentic audiences that help students realize that the material that they are learning in class actually matters to the world at large.

All of that may be true, but on a practical level, I am constantly encountering a very big roadblock that students face when doing PBL.  While students may, on some level, crave independence and may enjoy the freer classroom environment that accompanies a PBL unit, the fact is that students need to be taught how to be independent learners.  Unless a school has been fostering this since 1st grade, most students have likely been taught to be good listeners and to look for "right" answers - and PBL often works against those impulses.

If you have ever had an obsessive notetaker in your class, then you know full well what I am referring to.  Think about that student who writes down every word that you say, and constantly raises his or her hand to make sure that they wrote down exactly the right thing.  Why do students do this?  Sometimes because they are really interested in learning, but more often because they have learned the rules of the game of school - come to class, get down really good notes, and ultimately turn those notes into correct answers on tests or projects or quizzes.  There is a certain comfort that accompanies this mindset - the information comes from a trusted authority (the teacher), can be easily checked for accuracy (by asking the teacher), and gets confirmed in its accuracy on assessments.  To top it off, such students generally earn praise as being "good students" for having mastered the skill of, basically, obedience.

And then those students enter a PBL classroom.  Now the trusted authority is no longer providing a reliable wellspring of information.  Instead, the students has to trust himself and his ability to find a source, know that it is reliable, read the source, and interpret it correctly.  Of course the teacher will be by at some point to steer the student back to the correct path if a mistake has been made, but that reassurance is not immediate and that time lag can be very jarring for some students.  As PBL projects are somewhat open-ended, students often ask myriads of questions as to whether their idea is acceptable.  Again, they are looking for something as concrete and well-defined as a test, and that type of assessment just is not forthcoming.  It can be unnerving.

How can we help students get past this roadblock?  In the same way that we teach children to do anything else, beginning with teaching them to walk.  We stand a few feet back and let them try, knowing that they will occasionally stumble but that they will eventually figure it all out.  When students in my PBL classes come to me with infinite questions, I answer the ones that I know are a bit beyond them, but I send them back to work on the ones that I am confident they can solve with a little more effort.  And if they make a mistake, so what?  I will be there soon enough to catch them before they drift too far off course.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Mercava - The Future of Jewish Education or merely a part of it?

For the past week or so, it has been hard to escape this video about a new internet portal for Jewish educational resources and material known as Mercava.  In a nutshell, the vision of Mercava is to make as much Jewish content available in as engaging a manner as possible, complete with all sorts of tools and bells and whistles that will make it "the future of Jewish education".

A number of educators have already chimed in to support or raise questioning eyebrows at these claims.  Over at the Lookjed listserv, several well-respected educators have expressed skepticism that Mercava is merely the latest "flavor of the month" that purports to be a cure-all to whatever ails us.  My friend Seth Dimbert has offered a glimpse into what currently exists on Mercava and is also not so convinced that there is a lot happening (in fairness, the end of the video announces this July as the real roll-out date).  Sounding a more positive note, the ever-thoughtful Tzvi Pittinsky, who has already viewed their live presentation a few times, is quite upbeat about all that Mercava has to offer.

Me? Not surprisingly, I have a few thoughts on the matter.

1) I know that this video is probably aimed more at potential funders than at teachers, administrators, or current day school parents, but why does every new idea in Jewish education have to refer to the current state of Jewish education as being abysmal?  This video starts out basically saying that without Mercava, we are going to lose thousands of children to Yiddishkeit.  Someone please enlighten me - is this really what funders want to hear?  And do they actually believe it?  Do they not see the growth in day school enrollment, fledgling Jewish communities, Shana baAretz programs, and so on and so on?  Of course we can be doing better, and of course we have problems and students that we do not succeed with - but I do not think that we are failing in the way that this video suggests.

2) Why do we think that Mercava is going to do something qualitatively different than the many tools that are already out there?  As Seth points out, we already have online texts (such as, see my review of it here), apps that can provide for all sorts of linking (such as ThingLink), many ways of creating instructional videos - and all of those things come free.  Yes, Mercava is planning on doing this with much better quality - but is the success of a classroom reducible to the difference between a video that I make on my own using Camtasia Studio and a similar video made by someone trained by Disney?

3) While Judaic Studies currently lacks a massive collection of online video-based material, such materials have existed for several years over in the world of General Studies.  Has there been a noticeable uptick in student interest and motivation as a result?  Have these tools even been around long enough for there to be any valid studies?  Without knowing the answer to those questions, I am not sure that we can make any concrete claims about similar tools in Judaic Studies.

4) Finally, we need to understand what any talk of a crisis in Jewish education is about.  I rarely hear anyone bemoan the fact that students have not memorized the names of the Meraglim or that they have not learned enough mishnayot or that they have not completed part one of the Mishna Berura (all lamentable things, but not usually the topic of discussion).  Instead, the negative talk about Jewish education is generally about how well we are or are not communicating a love for Judaism and for learning to our students.  Love is not something that comes via a computer - it comes from people.  Mercava could wind up being everything that it hopes to be, and it will all be relatively worthless without well-trained teachers to skillfully implement it into their daily lessons and units.  So, yes, Mercava may be part of what the future of education looks like (and, let's be honest, it already is looking like that), but I do not quite see how they will be more than a very effective and useful tool.

Now, if someone wanted to develop some Torah-based video games that would be X-box worthy, that would be something...

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Guest Post: PBL in a 6th Grade Mishna Class

Rabbi Simcha Schaum (@simchaschaum) teaches 4th and 6th grade Judaic Studies at Yavneh Academy in Paramus, NJ.  He is an enthusiastic PBL'er and has used it to much success in his classes.  He has generously agreed to share with us his review and description of his most recent PBL unit in 6th grade.

One of my goals in teaching 6th Torah Shebe’al Peh (with Mishnah as its starting point) as a subject that is dynamic, exciting, and relevant. In my first year-or-so of using PBL to teach Mishnah, PBL seems to best accomplish this goal.

My 6th grade Mishnah classes were nearing the end of the 4th of Berachot – containing Mishnayot that are mainly about different aspects of prayer – and I was searching for PBL ideas that were could be somewhat ‘authentic.’ Since the two mishnayot we were up to (4:5-6) discuss some laws of how to pray on a trip – when many of the ideal conditions for prayer are unavailable – I decided that my students would use their knowledge of these mishnayot (and some related halachot) to create educational materials for a population that could actually use this knowledge in practical way: Jewish kids at sleep-away camp. After all, camps take trips all the time, be they sleepovers in the woods or days at an amusement park. The campers have to pray on the trips, and perhaps the camps may use their time on trips as a “teachable moment” to teach
some of these halachot – and our materials would come in handy to help them teach these halachot.

After clearing it with my supervisor (thanks, Aaron!), I pitched this idea to several camps, asking if they would take and use our educational materials and if they wouldn’t mind sending someone to whom we
could present our designs in person. Camps responded with enthusiasm and, while not everyone was able to come, three popular camps sent representatives – including Morasha and Moshava, whose directors came.

The PBL came in two parts: designing educational materials and presenting these materials in a way that shows mastery of the laws and their derivation from the Mishnah. To make their materials, I encouraged the students to make brochures or double-sided pages – small enough to laminate and send to camp. On these materials, they were to present the halachot about what to do in two typical camp situations. For example, what to do if one must pray on a moving bus (where one cannot stand up or may not know which direction to face). For their presentations, I required the students to write up their presentation  grade Mishnah is for my students to view scripts on Google docs (which is easy in our 1:1 environment), which they shared with me as well, so I could check their progress in real time.

In the presentations, they were required to cite parts of the Mishnayot in Hebrew and explicitly connect those citations to at least one of the practical laws displayed on their educational materials. This was
especially important, as these particular mishnayot give examples that are no longer common, such as one who finds himself riding a donkey or wagon. Properly applying these rules to modern situations was a
must, since it would mean that the students truly understood the legal principles behind the mishnayot and, would hopefully experience the relevance of the Halachic process as well.

The students really worked hard on their materials. Motivated, at least partially, by the opportunity to present to prestigious visitors (quite a few students attended or plan to attend these camps), my students got right
to work. They learned and worked with intensity (and would even start working before I arrived in the classroom) and ended up doing some really nice work. My students gave strong presentations showed materials that were nicely done.

For the first time, I created a project calendar that had important project benchmarks, such as when the materials were due, when they should start and finish making their presentation scripts, and, of course,
the tentative presentation date. At the beginning of each day, I would review the calendar with my students and point out what was expected by the end of that day. The calendar helped keep the students on pace
and focused on the task(s) at hand.

Aside from the project’s completion, I also included smaller “check-in” assignments along the way, to check how the kids were learning and who needed extra help. I gave a couple of quizzes on the wonderfully
simple iPad app, Socrative, and also asked my students to create notes, using Evernote, on the mishnayot they were learning. On these notes, they recorded themselves reading and translating the mishnayot out loud
and typed summaries as well. These notes also accomplished the goal of making sure the students pay attention to the Hebrew Mishnah text, which students can have a tendency to ignore in favor of the more flashy aspects of creating their projects.

In the end, I believe this project was successful. In terms of the content covered, the students were able to read, translate, and summarize the Mishnah, as well as apply it to real life situations. They seemed excited
by the “real life” application of the Mishnah and their being able to connect with an “authentic audience,” as well as by the opportunity to be creative and work independently.