Tikvah Wiener
Head of School of The Idea School, the first project-based learning Jewish high school in America

Connecting PBL and its parts

Now that The Idea School, the new project-based learning, interdisciplinary high school my colleagues and I started this fall, has completed its first trimester and is in the middle of its second one, aspects of our educational model touted as useful for the real world are starting to seem especially so.


One of them is collaboration. In project-based learning (PBL), students are consistently being asked to work together, in pairs, small groups, and larger ones. Collaboration, therefore, isn’t something that students have to grapple with in certain classes or at certain points of the year, but on a constant basis. This means that our students have started to get a sense of who they are as team members and how they work, as well as how group dynamics can make or break a project.

During our first trimester, the major group project was a museum exhibit, where each team researched and created an exhibit about a different ancient civilization. One group was especially successful in managing themselves. At the end of the unit, when students had to reflect on their learning in a protocol we have called Presentations of Learning, we discovered that one group had decided to meet each morning to divide tasks and set deadlines. That habit was one of the ones that made that group’s collaboration so successful. Another was that team members had actually met their deadlines. One student in that group reflected during her Presentation of Learning (POL) that she had made sure to meet her deadlines, because she knew her group had been counting on her and she had wanted others to meet their deadlines, too.

JCC CEO Jordan Shenker, who was a POL audience member, noted that that student — a high school freshman! — had just unknowingly articulated the workplace concept of mutual accountability.

Active Listening

Another characteristic we’re seeing as crucial to project-based learning is the quality of being an active listener. One might think that listening is a passive act, but that’s actually not so. Listening requires strategies and techniques in order for it to be effective, as Idea School students discovered recently when they engaged in a Havruta [paired learning] protocol in the Beit Midrash of Judaic Studies Principal Rabbi Tavi Koslowe and Judaic Studies teacher Rabbi Zach Rothblatt.

Havruta learning is a common practice in many Jewish day schools, but Elie Holzer and Orit Kent in their book A Philosophy of Havruta: Understanding and Teaching the Art of Text Study in Pairs articulate the principles that underlie this methodology and help educators elicit the kinds of deep and rich responses that havruta learning aims for. To start, Rabbi Koslowe and Rabbi Rothblatt had students describe speaking and listening cues that they thought should be employed. Articulation cues are more obvious to the average person, I think. They include beginning statements with phrases such as “I think . . . ,” “It seems to me that . . . ,” and “It’s clear from here . . . .”

Meanwhile, listening cues are perhaps less intuitive, particularly for students. Ours said that a good listener is attentive and silent, would make eye contact, and would nod their head in response to a speaker. They might use verbal cues such as “Yes, I understand,” or “Can you please explain that in another way?”

Once students had internalized the difference between speaking and listening, they then received a piece of text to analyze, with each student first taking on the role of speaker and then switching. Rabbis Koslowe and Rothblatt also had the students record themselves, so the teachers had an audio of how the havruta learning had gone. Students took the task seriously, making sure they understood which role they were employing, gaining as much from the protocol as they did from the text study. Which perhaps is the point of havruta learning, as Drs. Holzer and Kent explain: the text is meant to come alive and take on the personality of the people studying it. A protocol such as theirs helped make that happen.

Listening is also an integral part of another protocol we have at The Idea School: the Socratic Seminar. We’ve had two in recent weeks, both connected to the overarching driving questions of our current PBL unit: what does it mean to be a good citizen, how do we make ethical decisions, and how do we pursue justice? So in Humanities students discussed whether the characters in the short story “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson were good people and good citizens, and in Beit Midrash students discussed the Talmudic cases they had been exploring, about when it was appropriate to use lethal force, who decides to sacrifice him-/herself, and what it means to be a hero.

If you Google Socratic Seminar, you might discover that its aim — as you may have guessed from the person it’s named after — isn’t to win a debate by proving one side correct, but rather to raise thought-provoking points that cause participants to question their own opinions and perspectives. The point of a Socratic Seminar is to enrich its participants by interrogating their thinking. This can only happen, of course, if those in the Seminar are willing to listen and hear each other, and in fact part of the protocol is for students to sit at a large table where they can see each other and to actively respond to each other’s statements and not simply make disjointed comments.

It takes practice to have a Socratic Seminar: participants are often used to simply stating their opinions and moving on. They might not intuitively return to what a fellow participant is saying, so having students be aware that they need to respond to their classmates is an important part of the practice. We’ve seen significant growth in students when we compare the way in which they participated in Socratic Seminars in the beginning of the year to their role in the Seminars now, and we can’t wait to see how they continue to refine their practice of speaking and listening to each other.

High-Quality Work

Finally, we want to note the role that striving for high-quality work plays in PBL. Ron Berger, a PBL aficionado whom I’ve quoted before, cannot stress enough how important it is to build a culture in PBL schools where students must produce high-quality work. This is because high-quality work is part of the way students demonstrate the depth of their learning, but also a way for students to show they care about what they’ve done.

High-quality work can manifest itself in many different ways.

It shows the rigor of what students have learned and can be seen in work that has been revised and is polished, revealing that students have mastered content and skills and have displayed stamina, grit and an academic mindset as they’ve gone deep into a subject and task. High-quality work might also be beautiful and evince mastery of a craft or artistic technique. In fact, at the High Tech Schools in San Diego, CA, the educational model for The Idea School, the pillars of their schools are deep learning and beautiful work, and this is because educators there know — and have proven — that high-quality work happens when this is the focus of school.

Why should it be? We want high school students not only prepared for college and its rigors, but also to take pride in whatever they do, whether they’re in school, the workplace, or pursuing an extra-curricular activity. This emphasis on the quality of work — rather than grades — is something that can have a profound effect on students. We’re seeing that at The Idea School when students prepare to present their work on even small projects — not only the major ones due at the end of each unit. They’re not asking what grade they’re going to get on their work, but rather are focused on seeing how their work compares to others’.

As one student recently presented a superhero she and a classmate had created and then programmed, a classmate leaned over and showed me his work, asking me nervously, “Did I do everything I needed to?” He was afraid his work wasn’t of the same quality. I looked down at the paper where he and his partner had written the values their superhero was defending, his powers and weaknesses, and noted it was all filled in. As well, he had programmed not only one, but two parts of his superhero, so both of his hero’s arms moved when connected to a computer. The student was taking natural pride in his work, not motivated by the external driver of grades, but by an internal engine of motivation and desire to do his best.

At a recent Idea School event, I noted that it’s hard — impossible, really — to create an elevator pitch for PBL. It has so many components and moving parts, and so trying to flatten it into a pat speech reminds me of an old story about a group of blind people who have to describe an elephant: they’re let loose near only one part of it and so one group describes the trunk, one the body, one the ears, etc. No one gets it right.

I’ve tried to describe some of the key elements of the PBL model, not only because I’m an educator who’s a proponent of it, but because these three key elements seem particularly useful for society right now: in a world that seems divisive and focused on superficial sound bytes, we could all use techniques to get us listening to each other and collaborating. And I daresay we — kids and adults alike who are feeding off the instant gratification technology provides — could all use a reminder that some things require slow work, patience, and care, in order to reach a high level of quality.

About the Author
Tikvah Wiener is Head of School of The Idea School, a project-based learning Jewish high school located at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly, NJ. www.theideaschool.org. She lives in Teaneck, NJ, with her husband and children.