Interdisciplinary Project Based Learning

by Adam Levine

Today, we have the ability to access information that previous generations could hardly fathom. Consequently, the relationship between student and teacher has changed. No longer should the teacher be viewed as the gatekeeper of information, because much of the information we learned as students is now available at the click of a mouse. Instead, the role of the modern teacher has shifted to that of a guide or a coach. Of course, teachers are still expected to deliver information – we don’t expect children to learn grammar, math, or the value of tzedakah from a trendy new app. But, we also can’t be naive.

Modern educators are now expected to help students explore just what it is they are to do with this vast world of information at their fingertips; and these facilitators of learning are now expected to help students understand the world around them, providing authentic connections to “real-world” problems, thus making the learning more relevant. The modern educator must see the forest for the trees, keeping in mind the bigger picture.  Within our particular Day School context, the question is begged: are we actually preparing students to be responsible Jewish citizens in a rapidly evolving society?

For over twenty years, eighth grade students at Mandel Jewish Day School have engaged in a year-long interdisciplinary undertaking called “Integrated Project.” In line with Mandel JDS’ core value of Pardes, or multiple layers of learning, this program allows each student to select a theme or concept that drives his or her study for the course of the year. From there, the students are tasked with completing independent research-based projects in each of their core classes, all revolving around their central theme. For instance, if a student chooses to study “Censorship” as the thematic element, the student might:

  • In History class, create a research-based website about Freedom of Speech
  • In Tanakh, explore the Biblical laws surrounding L’shon hara and the power of speech.
  • In Language Arts, write a research paper about the strict censorship laws of China
  • In Art History, create a presentation about the life of an artist whose work was censored in Nazi Germany
  • In Hebrew class, write a short research paper (in Hebrew) about censorship and restrictive laws in Israel

This concept can be applied to schools of all types, with varying classes, language offerings, and electives. In order for Integrated Project to work, a great deal of planning is required of the teachers and administrators involved. Helping students develop meaningful themes driven by their interests is a critical part of the process.

Project Based Learning

While the students are working through their various projects in their classes, another element begins to brew behind the scenes – Project Based Learning. Project Based Learning (PBL) is a dynamic academic approach in which students gain domain knowledge and skills by working collaboratively for an extended period of time to investigate and respond to a complex essential question or challenge. The research-proven benefits of utilizing Project Based Learning in the classroom are numerous; students come away with deeper understanding, the ability to problem-solve and collaborate, a vastly improved retention of the learning in question, and many other critical 21st century skills.

Traditionally, a teacher will decide to use Project Based Learning in his or her classroom to deepen the students’ understanding of a singular topic, with an eye toward authentic learning.  Instead of lecturing about cost and profit, a math teacher might have his or her students start their own authentic businesses, incorporating the very skills required by the curriculum in their business plan. Instead of simply teaching about banned books and the dangers of censorship, an English teacher may have his or her students write a letter to a school board that banned a book for a reason they deem to be questionable. In this letter, the students would demonstrate their understanding of the essential concepts of the unit.

Traditionally, PBL units are not done in an interdisciplinary manner, or more simply, they are contained to one classroom. While this is still effective for particular classrooms, students often fail to make critical connections which can allow them to further deepen their understanding of the topic. This is where Mandel JDS’ approach to PBL takes an interesting turn.

The best of both worlds: combining Integrated Project with Project Based Learning

To connect Integrated Project and Project Based Learning, Mandel JDS teachers ask their students to consider conflicts found within the field of their Integrated Project themes. This serves as an entry point to the world of authentic learning. Using the construct of tikkun olam – the reparation of the world, a core value of Mandel JDS – students are tasked with healing the world in their own unique way.

The students are eventually paired with community mentors (e.g., doctors, professors, rabbis, lawyers, businesspeople, entrepreneurs), who help the students begin to develop ways in which they can make a positive impact on the field. With the support of the teachers and their mentors, students manage their own projects; from creating their own deadlines to setting up interviews with people in the community. All of these tasks allow students to become better prepared to both engage and influence the modern world around them. For example, if a student studied censorship, he or she might speak with an attorney who specializes in freedom of speech. From there, they would work together to answer the question, “How can I make a difference?” through a hands-on project of some kind. The student may decide to take a lead role in organizing a “Banned Book” week at school, or educate other students on freedom of speech in an educational setting.

One might ask, how can the stakeholders be absolutely positive that each project will be a success? The answer is simple: they cannot.  In fact, the concept of “failure” is a topic that the teachers and students routinely discuss. Every project eventually runs into some sort of blockade, but, as the teachers say, it’s how the students respond in that moment that is truly critical. The teachers coach the students through these experiences, and this is where the buzzworthy character traits “resilience” and “grit” develop.

Once the students have completed their studies in Integrated Project, joined forces with a community advisor, and developed and executed their own project based learning, they are ready for the final presentation: the Celebration of Learning, an evening program in which the students are tasked with presenting their work from the year (essentially a capstone project). At Mandel JDS, the eighth grade class is responsible for nearly every aspect of the program, from organizing the event, to writing the script for the evening, to welcoming guests into the building, to coordinating the technology and lights, and much more.  Guests are invited to the Celebration of Learning, including parents, the community advisors, teachers, grandparents, and alumni.

Ultimately, while the project requires a great deal of planning and coordination, the results are undoubtedly worth the effort. Students are equipped with many of the crucial skills for navigating a constantly changing society: adaptability, self-direction, empathy, resilience, research, and leadership.  Students come away feeling a sense of accomplishment and pride, as the self-directed learning fosters academic ownership, a critical component to successful student learning.

As we begin 2018 and the future at large, we must constantly reflect on the changing dynamic in education. Today’s teacher, just like today’s student, must adapt to the surrounding world, which is rife with overlapping subject areas and massive amounts of conflicting information. The focus must shift from what we teach, to how we empower students to learn.  We enthusiastically believe that Integrated Project Based Learning is a powerful tool to empower students with the critical skills needed for the world of tomorrow.

Adam Levine is a middle school language arts teacher at the Joseph and Florence Mandel Jewish Day School in Beachwood Ohio.

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