Using Innovative Educational Methodologies to Improve Jewish and Israel Studies

In the work that we do for the AVI CHAI-sponsored Jewish Day School Collaborative and for Educannon Consulting, we have had the opportunity and privilege of visiting or connecting with well over 100 Jewish day schools across North America. The schools range across the denominational, geographic, size and economic spectrum. One question that we always ask the head of school when beginning a visit is, “What are the four or five biggest challenges that your school is facing?”

For many schools that list is headed by the cost of schooling and enrollment challenges. That being said, the top programmatic challenges of the school always include a subset of teaching Judaic studies, Hebrew, Israel or tefillah. The challenge is similar at almost every school: The students are not engaged sufficiently, they do not see the subject matter as relevant, and there is a shortage of effective teachers. This situation is compounded by a sense among some educators that using innovative educational methodologies is somehow antithetical or ineffective in the teaching of Judaics and Hebrew.

There are multiple reasons that explain the desire to maintain the status quo, including the belief that change negates tradition, and a concern that a focus on skills and engagement may lead to a corresponding lack of knowledge of core aspects of Jewish text and practice. This can lead to classrooms being teacher-centered rather than student-centered and an overreliance on instructional methodologies such as frontal teaching, Q&A and assessments that rely on recall and memorization. Conversely, the passion and success that teachers who utilize STEAM, game-based learning, project-based learning and student-centered education indicate that these new approaches are desperately needed for this generation of students to grow as literate and engaged Jews. These changes should be incorporated when teaching Jewish texts, traditions and practices; when teaching Hebrew language; when educating about Israel engagement; and when teaching tefillah.

Interestingly, there is much evidence that our tradition regards extrinsic and intrinsic motivation as not just legitimate, but almost inevitable. Perhaps the most famous example of this comes from Maimonides introduction to Mishnah, Sanhedrin, chapter 10.

Thus, the teacher may say, “Read and I will give you some nuts or figs; I will give you a bit of honey.” With this stimulation the child tries to read. He does not work hard for the sake of reading itself, since he does not understand its value. He reads in order to obtain the food. … As his intelligence improves still more and these things … become unimportant to him, he will set his desire upon something of greater value. Then his teacher may say to him: “Learn this passage or this chapter, and I will give you a denar or two.” Again he will try to read in order to receive the money, since money is more important to him than study. … Ultimately, the purpose of study should be knowledge, and the ultimate purpose of truth should be to know that it is true.

To be fair, Maimonides is not suggesting that using treats and money is ideal. However, he is addressing the reality that absent motivation, many students will not engage. A more positive way of framing this idea came from BF Skinner, who stated, “It is the teacher’s function to contrive conditions under which students learn.” Like it or not, the conditions under which students learn are undergoing an exponential change. If we are going to maintain relevance and engagement in the core mission of our schools, then those responsible for the teaching and leading in the areas of Judaic studies, Hebrew, Israel engagement and tefillah must embrace those practices around which learning is designed in general studies, and across our learning environment, including the games that are played at home.

While this is easier said than done, there are educators who are applying best practice to the subject areas within the Jewish mission. We would like to share a couple of strategies that have proven effective, together with some specific examples of how they have been implemented.

Game-Based Learning (GBL)

Game-based learning is an approach to teaching that focuses on process, the process of student learning and the process of designing an engaging learning environment. The Institute of Play, a resource for teachers and schools to learn about GBL, has seven game-like learning principles:

  • Everyone is a participant
  • Learning feels like play
  • Everything is interconnected
  • Learning happens by doing
  • Failure is reframed as iteration
  • Feedback is immediate and ongoing
  • Challenge is constant

These principles help to frame the approach to teaching content and skills to students, while at the same time highlight many of the desired goals teachers have for their daily classroom environment. More importantly, the principles prioritize students’ active participation, willingness to take risks and realization that “failure” is part of learning.

When thinking about creating a game for the classroom, a teacher decides the learning goals that he/she wants to focus on, and then develops a game to help students reach those goals. The game-like learning principles are part of the process of game creation and the experience students have while playing. This strategy helps students feel more in touch with the content, motivated to ask questions and to seek the answers in collaborative ways. Game-based learning does not negate the importance of teaching content and skills. In fact, it relies on the teacher’s understanding of the students, their needs and the specific areas that they struggle with or are less excited about, to help engage them in the learning.

At Rav Teitz Mesivta Academy (RTMA) in Elizabeth, New Jersey, the teachers sought new ways to engage their students in the study of Gemara. One class in particular, a sixth grade boys’ class, had a few students who were reluctant to participate in discussion or activities. The teacher wanted to create a lesson that focused on the “give and take” of the Gemara and created a game, based on the seven principles, to assess the students’ understanding of the structure of Gemara. At the start of the lesson, the teacher declared with incredible enthusiasm, “Today your mission is to create your own Gemara!” The boys, a bit perplexed, looked at him and each other with a glimmer of excitement and suspicion. As the class unfolded, students were challenged to take a Gemara tractate and put it in the correct order. The classroom came to life with young boys debating, discussing and questioning why one’s order was more correct than another’s.

Afterwards, the teacher spoke about one particular child who began the lesson with his hood on and head on his desk. He said, “Once I had him, I knew that I had it [the excitement around learning].” This particular student has learning differences and would rarely become involved in the class; not only was it hard for him, it had little or no relevance to his world. When thinking about the Institute of Play’s gamelike learning principles, the teacher had touched on each one of them without losing the essence of his lesson: for students to understand the structure of a Gemara. He had also provided a space to debate, question and discuss one’s ideas without the fear of being wrong. This risk-taking environment allowed for deep learning and engagement. The game elevated the students’ experience of serious study; it provided a path to engage students in a way that merged their interests with text study and understanding.


Curriculum integration is an important part of the Jewish day school world. With limited time to fit in all the secular and Judaic subjects, finding curricular intersection points can become a method to ensure content and skills are being addressed. However, curriculum integration is not just a time-saving measure; it is the world that our students live in and will graduate into as they move into their future learning and professional lives. Disciplines are no longer silos, they exist in tandem to bring about new ideas and innovations.

To bring about greater creativity and engagement into their Judaics classrooms, several schools were interested in exploring how to best integrate STEAM. The challenge was how to ensure that the content of the Judaics classroom was not “watered down” by the desire to have STEAM-related learning as part of the units. Using the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), the schools looked for natural entry points into their curriculum. Each school used the chaggim as the organizing principle to bring authentic STEAM experiences into the classroom.

Every STEAM-related project was rooted in text study and understanding. At the Heschel Day School in Los Angeles, the students in first and fifth grade worked together to design a Tashlich pool that recycled water. In their study of Tashlich, the students understood that the water source had to be a moving body of water. They learned about water conservation, and how to create a motor to ensure that the water was constantly moving. The study of Sukkot was enhanced at Chicago’s Sager Solomon Schechter Day School by applying Rambam’s sukkah requirements to a mathematical-scaled model of a sukkah. The students had to use their understanding of a kosher sukkah and apply their mathematical understanding of scale to recreate a version of a sukkah. Again, the Jewish laws of the chag were the root of the learning, while the STEAM aspects brought about the use of math, study of the environment, creativity and trial and error. However, perhaps the most important aspect of the work was how the students were able to bring their learning to life in authentic ways.

When considering the classroom environment and what each student needs, the answers are varied. However, the changes in education and the ways in which our students learn urges us to question if we are providing an educational model that matches not only the world, but the lives and development of our students. The study of Tanakh or Gemara or chaggim shouldn’t be different. We can’t be afraid to look at new ways of innovating our work because we feel that the study of text will be sacrificed. Instead, we need to consider the possibility, look carefully at what our students respond to and decide if engagement and love of learning is central to our work.

It is becoming clear that, with the appropriate professional development and commitment, depth and engagement, instilling knowledge and inspiring Jewish learning are not either/or propositions. The alternative is to accept the phenomenon of students in our schools who don’t see the relevance of Judaic study in their lives and will not want to learn, to question or engage in the real purpose of education: the desire to keep learning. Developing the most effective learning environments will result in the best engagement and retention. Only when we embrace risk and are prepared for failure are we able to achieve success.

Jonathan Cannon and Alanna Kotler
Jewish Inspiration
Knowledge Topics
Teaching and Learning
Published: Spring 2017