Thank you to Rabbi Avi Bernstein of The Moriah School in Englewood, NJ for guest blogging about inquiry-based and self-directed learning in his seventh grade Talmud and Dinim [Jewish law] classroom:
As our ever-changing world continues to amaze us all while enhancing our lives, it challenges us to constantly advance our every skill in order to enable us to interact successfully with the rest of humanity. Being the precursor to and prerequisite of life, education forms the foundation and serves as the active laboratory that prepares us for this brave, new world. It is, therefore, the sacred mission and moral obligation of our schools to empower students with the necessary tools to function within the society around them.
Classically, one of the more difficult challenges in schools is to inspire students to become full participants in every class and maintain that level of interest. Children, as adults, have predipositions towards certain areas of study, areas that do not require much encouragement on the part of the teacher. In such areas, students are internally driven and thirsty for knowledge and understanding. How may we address the other classes? Which strategies may be conjured up to elicit greater involvement and present better opportunities for deeper learning, even among classes of interest!
Towards the end of this past year, I presented a rather radical idea to my 7th grade Gemara [Talmud] and Dinim [Jewish law] students. Essentially, I offered them a new way of learning, one that was inquiry-based and self-directed. I posed a simple, yet powerful question to them, "What is one area or mitzvah [commandment] in Jewish life that you never seemed to understand and wish to know more about?" After spending a few minutes elaborating on my question, the students sat in thought before writing down several options on index cards. After several more minutes, they were able to fine tune their choices and nail down a single topic.
In the ensuing week, the students diligently research their respective topics, unearthing facts that they were unaware of before. Among the fascinating topics were animal cruelty in Jewish law, the process of a Jewish wedding, mezuzah, factors of kosher food and the laws of lashon hara [gossip]. As the week passed, the students remained fully engaged and excited each time they learned something new. Once the material was collected, the students chose their own means of presenting and teaching their information to their classmates. Several students created Powerpoint presentations, while others decided to put together Prezis. Ultimately, the students were quite proud of their achievement and enjoyed a sense of mastery and ownership over their particular topics.
Reflecting upon the project, I believe that there were several facets that enabled the project to be as successful as it was. Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, the students truly appreciated the ability to choose, both their topic and style of presentation. This fact alone was at the very core of the success. Also, they each felt a certain uniqueness since no two topics were alike. They had a sense of purpose, motivation and ownership that fueled them forward.
Looking towards next year, I will undoubtedly incorporate and perhaps expand this system into the classroom as often as possible. I have witnessed the success it brings, both in terms of content and student engagement, all of which offer a heightened academic experience - the very goal of our profession.