What If Students Could Learn Anything They Want in Tanakh? - Ma’ayanot’s PBL 80/20 Experiment

May. 26, 2016

Mrs. Leah Herzog has been involved in high school and adult education for over 30 years.  She has been a department chair, a professional mentor and has facilitated many workshops.  She gives international shiurim on topics in Tanach, Education and Psychology.  She holds a M.Ed. in Educational Psychology and advanced certification from the University of Cincinnati in Educational Administration.  She currently teaches Tanach at Maayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls in Teaneck, NJ and is also the Director of Israel Guidance there

At the beginning of the school year I asked the students who are enrolled in my senior Maayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls Honors Tanakh class, to ponder the question “If you could learn anything in Tanakh, what would you choose?” I asked this question as the kick-off of our Google 80/20 project, a year-long, in-school independent research project which culminates in a real-world product and a public exhibition.

Three years ago, I became involved with project, or passion-based learning (PBL) and what is called “21st century education”. I am now actively involve with the I.D.E.A. Schools Network, co-founded and directed by Mrs. Tikvah Wiener and Rabbi Eliezer Jones, whose ultimate goal is to improve Jewish education and engagement to incorporate the best elements of 21st century education. For me, PBL and the ideas of 21st century education were simply a reformulation of what I had always seen as Torah with a capital ‘T’: a way of integrating what I learn into what I live, and what I live into what I teach and learn. I found PBL, STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics), design thinking and maker spaces well-suited to the content, skills and methodologies involved in all Jewish studies subjects. The relationship skills that are developed involve teacher, the whole class, and the individual students, and are intinsic to a thriving classroom. The reflective process fundamental to spiritual development is inherent in the system, and the democracy and critical thinking demanded are basic principles of our traditional pedagogy. I began using “fail fast to fail forward” not only as a mantra, but as a model for teaching and learning, and constant reflection became an overt element in chavruta, individual and classroom work.

As the name implies, our Google 80/20 project is based on Google’s practice of allowing its employees to utilize 20% of company (read: paid) time to pursue their individual passions and projects: the rationale is that these independent, passion-driven projects will both energize employees and yield practical benefits on the work they are doing for the company. I adapted this model for my senior Tanakh classes by allocating one period (out of seven) per week for independent study. Similar to Google, my hope was that independent learning on topics chosen by the students would both energize the class and inform what we were accomplishing in the regular curriculum, in both content and skills.

As a first step, each student/group of students identified a topic, in or directly related to Tanakh, that she/they wanted to independently study during the mandatory (attendance was taken) weekly study-period. Students were then given a schedule outlining when I would be checking in with each of them on their progress, when initial presentations and feedback sessions were to be held, and when summary reports, product proposals and class presentations were to be completed. This framework placed responsibility on the students and on me, it kept everyone more focused, and generated a healthy sense of pressure and colleagueship.

A crucial aspect of this learning model is the production of meaningful products and a public presentation that showcases what the students have learned. As such, second semester began with product proposals and refining their focus, and culminated with product presentations. Each student or small group presented their work first to their class, and then at an exhibition which was open to other students, interested members of the faculty and administration, and even parents.

The culmination of our 80/20 project was called a Showcase. Parents, outsiders and other seniors and juniors were invited to view the products and talk with their creators. The students were extremely excited about this; even those who were hesitant, nervous and stressed at the beginning (or along the way), reveled and took tremendous pride in all they have accomplished. Many of them have created products that far exceed what one might expect from a high school senior; they are the foundations for public lectures, adult and children’s books, academic papers, educational material and beautiful art.

The Showcase was wonderful; the energy in the room as students talked about their process and their products was electric. I am tremendously proud of and impressed by the work that the students have produced. Torah learning, informed by PBL and 21st century education sensibilities fused seamlessly. It only confirms my belief that when schools support passion-based learning and train students to produce high quality work, when process, reflection and creativity are valued along with information, and when trial-error-refine-retry is openly encouraged, that the results are truly extraordinary. Ma’ayanot’s administration has been amazingly supportive of this endeavor, and the students and I are very grateful.

Want to hear more? Write your questions to Leah as comments on this article. Leah would be happy to advise you on planning or running your PBL projects in Jewish studies.

Updated: May. 04, 2016