Behrman House Blog
A Rationale for Using Project Based Learning in the Jewish Classroom
This year, Behrman House editors are producing textbooks and teachers’ guides that emphasize project based learning (PBL). We have set this editorial priority for one important reason: PBL has the potential to liberate Judaism from the exclusive domain of the synagogue.
What do I mean by this controversial statement, and why is it important?
Simply put, too much classroom time in the complementary school setting is spent teaching synagogue skills required for bnai mitzvah ceremonies. This opinion is not mine alone. In 2007, Jack Wertheimer, professor of American Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary, published a study that explored trends in supplementary Jewish education. (Read it here)
Although he documented many positive changes since 1988, when Alvin Schiff chronicled extensive failures in afternoon schools, Wertheimer concluded that synagogue schools overemphasize the bnai mitzvah experience. “The consequence,” he warned, “is a distortion of Jewish education.” Instead of the values, rituals, language, and sacred texts of the Jewish tradition being presented as tools to help students craft a distinctive worldview and discover meaning in life, these essentials of Jewish culture are reduced to rote learning for a one-time performance in the synagogue.
Wertheimer’s perspective is not new. Seventy-five years ago, another professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary expressed a similar opinion. Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionism, cautioned that if Judaism is to withstand the forces of assimilation, “it must again break the narrow frame of a creed and resume its original function as a culture, as the expression of the Jewish spirit and the whole life of the Jews.”
Project based learning requires students to apply the knowledge and skills learned in class to solve genuine problems outside the classroom/synagogue. By its nature, PBL demonstrates that Judaism is relevant to every aspect of our students’ lives. (For more information on PBL, see www.edutopia.org)
Let’s look at a few curricular examples:
Jewish values are easily related to the real world because public policy dilemmas and interpersonal relationships often involve values choices. For example, a PBL approach to teaching rachamim (compassion) and pikuach nefesh (saving a life) might involve asking students to decide if society should embrace biogenetic engineering as a solution to world hunger. On the one hand, genetically modifying crops will boost yields and save lives, but doing so might have far reaching, unknown consequences on human health, and therefore, violate the Jewish obligation to preserve health (shmirat haguf).
Teaching Jewish History
A PBL approach to teaching Jewish history might invite students to draft a recommendation for Prime Minister Netanyahu on whether or not Israel should take unilateral action and attack Iranian nuclear facilities. Searching Jewish history for examples to support their opinions brings history alive and makes it relevant to current times.
Teaching Jewish Rituals
A PBL approach to Jewish rituals might ask students to explore if Shabbat rituals can bring families closer together, or cultivate personal happiness, or ease the stress of modern life.
Characteristics of Project Based Learning
1. Authenticity is the most important characteristic of projects in a PBL oriented classroom. The less contrived a project is, the more interest it will generate.
2. Students must make or do something concrete; for example, develop a petition for a public official, write a letter to the editor, or submit a plan to a synagogue board.
3. Students should have access to the tools that adults use to investigate and report the problem, i.e., Internet databases, video editing software, and presentation software, such as PowerPoint.
4. Arrange for subject matter experts to review projects or to attend student presentations.
Unlike other creatures on Earth, human beings do more than merely observe the world; we interpret it, and our interpretation enriches our lives.
We learn to interpret the world within a community. Every community provides a distinctive toolkit that its members use to interpret the world and find meaning in life. The highest task of Jewish education, therefore, is to equip Jews with the values, language, symbols, rituals, and sacred texts that they can use to construct a worldview that will provide meaning and happiness in their lives.
When Jewish education is drained of relevance to daily life, it loses its ability to achieve this important goal. Because project based learning is a classroom strategy that requires students to explore real life problems, it can be a vehicle to liberate Judaism from the exclusive domain of the synagogue and restore the transcendent value of Judaism.
About Behrman House's Project Based Learning Essay Series
This fall Behrman House Editorial Staff members wrote about ways to introduce this dynamic approach to learning into your own school, and provided an array of resources to get you started. Learn more and follow the PBL series here.