Getting Started with PBL

Educational leaders have recently shown interest in the pedagogical approaches John Dewey advocated early in the twentieth century. These pedagogies endorse learning in which students mimic the world of work by solving real-world problems that force them to employ higher order, multidisciplinary thinking and engage students using their passions and interests. The educational models are known as project-based learning (PBL), inquiry-based learning (IBL) and student-driven learning (SDL). The growth in technology, our flattened world and the need for an innovative and creative workforce are making these educational approaches not only more attractive but necessary for today’s world. More importantly, these making-as-learning models infuse the classroom with joy and purpose and create empowered and creative lifelong learners.


While educators are intrigued by the notion of these pedagogies, many don’t know how to get them started in their schools and classrooms. One barrier is confusion about what PBL/IBL/SDL are, since many terms exist for the models and are used interchangeably.

Project-based learning is a dynamic pedagogical approach where students engage directly with real-world problems. Students work collaboratively with peers to investigate problems or essential questions, in depth, and produce an end project or product that has relevance in the real world. These culminating projects are diverse in nature and can be visual, musical, technological and physical.

Inquiry-based learning is also project-oriented and based on constructivist theories of learning. While both PBL and IBL have learners engage in collaborative work and multidisciplinary thinking as well as the creation of an end project with authentic purpose, IBL focuses on enabling students to formulate questions and come up with resolutions independently.

Student-driven learning incorporates either PBL or IBL, but also allows students to choose their projects based on their passions and interests.

This article will employ the term PBL to include all three models, unless one particular model is under discussion.

Efficacy Research

The empirical research on project-based learning provides a persuasive case for its effectiveness in developing high-level thinking skills, research capabilities and collaborative working techniques. PBL also results in enhanced creativity and innovation in students, qualities they will need for the 21st century.

While research supporting student gains in 21st-century skills as a result of PBL continues to be published, project-based learning has not been widely implemented in the American school system. The difficulty of appropriately training and supporting teachers to effectively implement PBL remains a barrier to adoption of the learning model.

Professional Development

The fact is that school professionals should feel confident about implementing PBL as long as educators are provided with the necessary scaffolding to do it well. The literature suggests that poor implementation of PBL might leave students floundering and lost, without the skill and ability to focus and apply themselves with necessary rigor.

This is because a PBL classroom must be run in a manner that is completely different from what educators are accustomed to. An overwhelming challenge for many teachers is having to “let go” of their idea of what it means to be in control of the classroom and of what it means to be a teacher. The research also finds that striking a balance between “letting go” and not providing enough structure for the students is difficult for many, resulting in students being given too much responsibility without the appropriate support and feedback.

Since teacher structuring of PBL is crucial to encouraging students to be both thoughtful and substantive in their inquiry, it is essential that teachers are given the appropriate professional development and support for effective implementation. The most successful models of teacher training provide cycles of collaboration, enactment and reflection, allowing educators and administrators to gain new visions of instruction, develop rich conceptions of the features of PBL, and learn strategies for enacting practices congruent with theory.

One of the most important features of PBL is its focus on process and mastery rather than on completion. At the culmination of a PBL unit, the teacher has not only assessed her students’ knowledge in a content area. She is also aware of the critical thinking, reasoning, and divergent thinking skills students have honed; the contributions they have made to their group work; the oral and written skills students have demonstrated in presenting their findings; and the creativity, artistic abilities, and/or digital literacy they have developed as they completed different parts of the unit.

Because educators have to learn how to structure a PBL classroom and how to carefully construct the complex layers of a PBL unit, schools must build time into the teachers’ schedules for professional development. At the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia, an inquiry-based learning public high school, students leave the campus every Wednesday afternoon to do internships, so teachers have two and a half hours of meeting time each week built into their schedules.

Also helpful for schools interested in PBL is the designation of an administrator not only to implement the methodology and provide ample opportunities for teachers to collaborate and reflect on their practices, but also to manage the scheduling of the PBL units.

PBL and Jewish Education: Case Studies

Within Jewish day schools, the focus on text learning born out of the Jewish tradition may seem to limit the kinds of curricular and temporal flexibility that PBL demands. However, the challenge of balancing text study and development of textual skills with creating meaning out of those texts for today’s modernized and technologized students could be answered by PBL. Having to complete multidisciplinary projects that have relevance in the real world enables students to see how their Jewish knowledge can be utilized across subject areas in authentic ways.

PBL requires an essential or driving question; careful design of the project that includes not only a project plan but also a set calendar and rubrics for assessing the various components of student work; presentation of work, and reflection. The following case studies of PBL in the Judaic studies classroom and Jewish day school setting provide examples of how to get started with PBL in multiple ways. Not all the case studies contain all the elements of PBL described above, but that is an important point. The PBL model is flexible and adaptive, so in getting started, school leaders and educators should consider what is best for their needs.

PBL at Yavneh Academy and IBL and SDL at The Moriah School

Rabbi Aaron Ross of Yavneh Academy, an elementary school in Paramus, NJ, has been implementing PBL in his seventh-grade Chumash classroom for the past few years, particularly for a project where students research an area of the laws of kashrut. Ross provides the resources, which he collects on a wiki he created and in hard copies he makes available in the classroom; note the high- and low-tech learning management systems. Since Ross carefully structures his PBL units to ensure students emerge from them with a specific body of knowledge, he quizzes students, often using apps such as Socrative, which allows teachers to load multiple types of questions into a quiz that is graded instantly. Ross can see immediately who has grasped a concept and who hasn’t.

Ongoing reflection and assessment of student mastery of material is essential in PBL. Ross here demonstrates how that can be done using an app, but educators can feel comfortable knowing there are many ways to help students reach benchmarks: through quizzes or even longer tests; through reflective written pieces; research papers, and even through art projects. Another important part of PBL is allowing for student voice and choice. Ross has built that into his project as well, allowing students to choose not only the area of kashrut they want to research but the digital platform they will use in their final presentations: PowerPoints, videos, Prezis.

Educators must also create PBL presentations that have authentic purpose. This past year, Ross was highly successful in doing so. He used his PLN (personal learning network) on Twitter to connect with a seventh-grade history teacher at Denver Christian Academy who had taught his students about the Chanukah story and the restrictions on keeping kosher that Jews faced during Antiochus’ reign. Ross and the teacher arranged for Ross’s students to teach the laws of kashrut to the seventh-grade boys at the Catholic school. The presentation piece of the PBL unit, then, became one of tremendous authentic purpose, as Ross’s students had to explain esoteric religious concepts, ones they were familiar with, to those who had never heard of them before.

Ross’s PBL units are carefully crafted ones which he has honed over the past few years and keeps building on. It’s important for school leaders and educators to know they can begin small and then add to projects as they master PBL. For example, Rabbi Avi Bernstein, who teaches at The Moriah School, an elementary school in Englewood, NJ, became interested in IBL and SDL and piloted them this past year with seventh graders in his Talmud and Jewish law classes.

Bernstein’s project was on a smaller scope than Ross’s, and it was inquiry-based and student-driven rather than carefully guided PBL. Bernstein asked his students, “What is one area or mitzvah in Jewish life that you never seemed to understand and wish to know more about?” This simple but powerful question allowed authentic purpose in the IBL unit to flow from the interests and passions of the students.

Bernstein’s students chose myriad and wide-ranging topics to explore: animal cruelty, the process of a Jewish wedding, the laws of kashrut, and the laws of gossip were a few. Whereas Ross was able to preselect sources for his students because he had planned the topic of the PBL unit, Bernstein was unable to do so, since an inquiry-based classroom allows student questions to lead the learning. Instead, Bernstein worked with his students on how to curate information from the Internet; he showed them which sites they could rely on and which were faulty. As a result, his students’ digital literacy skills were developed in a different way than Ross’s were. Ross’s students learned how to have a meaningful conversation online about their religion with peers across the country, while Bernstein’s students learned how to use the web to answer questions they had about Judaism.

As one can see from Ross’s and Bernstein’s experiences, educators experimenting with PBL, IBL and SDL can employ any of the models, depending on their classroom needs. Furthermore, teachers shouldn’t feel they are sacrificing rigor or the need to teach textual skills in order to employ these models. Because Ross’s students were carefully led through the learning process, they emerged with as deep a knowledge as they would have had they been taught in a traditional manner.

In addition, Ross finds student engagement with PBL is high. All educators want students deeply engaged with learning, but in the Judaic studies classroom, that engagement has more import as it has the capacity to create a strong connection to Judaism. Bernstein’s approach also fulfills a goal of the Judaic studies classroom: making religion meaningful for students. Bernstein allowed the students’ interests to dictate how they would create a meaningful assignment about their religion, and the project worked. The students were excited about what they were learning and found meaning in what they created.

RealSchool: an IBL and SDL Program at The Frisch School

Two years ago Tikvah Wiener began RealSchool, an IBL and SDL program at Frisch, a high school in Paramus, NJ. RealSchool, which began as an extracurricular activity, has students decide what and how they learn and has them engage in learning by doing. RealSchool’s fashion show is an example of how to infuse Jewish values into a multidisciplinary project.

The fashion show, run by Wiener and Frisch’s art teacher Ahuva Mantell, arose out of the desire of many of the female students to incorporate their love of fashion into a school activity, but because RealSchool has members with diverse interests, the students were able to collaborate and create a show that went beyond mere fashion. For example, RealSchool has members on teams such as The Arts, Graphic Design, Religious Identity, and Social Action and Entrepreneurship, all of which contributed to the show.

This past year’s theme, for example, was “Who’s the Fairest of Them All?,” and the show’s aim was to advocate for fair-trade practices and the eradication of human slavery. RealSchool’s Social Action and Entrepreneurship team worked on the idea for the show and chose an organization the show would raise money for: Somaly Mam, a nonprofit dedicated to end female slavery. A member of the Social Action and Entrepreneurship team worked to bring a volunteer to the fashion show, to raise awareness of and funds for the organization. Meanwhile, a member of the Graphic Design team designed the show’s logo, which appeared on all the promotional materials as well as on the fashion show T-shirt. The RealSchool Arts team also got involved in the fashion show; under the guidance of Mantell, The Arts team created an exhibit about female oppression and slavery.

Of course, the Fashion Team chose the clothing the models wore, but here is where the show also became an opportunity to infuse Jewish values into student learning and passions. Because the show already had a fair-trade theme, Wiener suggested each grade wear clothing representing women in Tanakh who had worked for social justice. For example, a group of freshmen models wore formal gowns to represent Ruth as the royal forebear of David, while a group of juniors donned business wear to represent the daughters of Tzlafchad, who insisted to Moses on their right to own land even though they were women.

Wiener also worked with the Frisch Dance Team to incorporate their performance into the fashion show. The Dance Team captain choreographed dances that related to the biblical women the models were representing. On the night of the show, the Religious Identity team narrated the event, explaining how the models’ clothing connected to Jewish women’s fight for equality and justice.

Because RealSchool has been an afterschool program, Wiener has not had to create rubrics or assessments to help students meet benchmark goals. However, a rigorous learning process has emerged nonetheless, and all on the students’ own time. Students working on the fashion show meet once a week throughout the year during their breakfast time, and as necessity demands when the fashion show nears. Based on their own interests, students have specific tasks to complete, which the teachers make sure are done as needed.

The students don’t feel as if they’re working, however. Because they love the show and are excited about creating it, their work seems like play, and they remain enthusiastic throughout the planning process. Wiener uses that enthusiasm to help students see the multidisciplinary ways they can think about a project and how to create authentic purpose in one, not just by creating an event but by using Jewish values to create a better world.


PBL, IBL and SDL create innovative learners ready to tackle the complex issues facing the world today. In addition, applying these pedagogies to Jewish studies courses and in multidisciplinary ways enables students to think deeply and creatively about their relationship to Judaism. The excitement and sense of empowerment students feel as they undertake a PBL unit ensures that they will feel joyful about and can connect to all subject areas in a real way.

Tikvah Wiener is an educator at The Frisch School in Paramus, New Jersey, and runs RealSchool, an inquiry-based, student-driven learning program.

Andrea Rose Cheatham Kasper is director of teaching and learning at Krieger Schechter Day School in Baltimore and in the 8th DSLTI cohort. Akasper@

Tikvah Wiener and Andrea Rose Cheatham Kasper
Rising Ed Trends
Knowledge Topics
Teaching and Learning
Published: Fall 2013