Sunday, August 23, 2009

Thoughts on Teaching Big Ideas in Torah

Don Hewitt, the creator of 60 Minutes, just died.
He is quoted in an article in the LA Times as follows:

My idea was that television reality ought to be packaged as entertainingly as television entertainment," Hewitt said. "I believe that it all comes down to that ancient phrase: 'Tell me a story.' I think people are interested in stories, not issues, even though the stories may be about people coping with issues. In the Bible, the issue was evil, but the story was Noah."

What a wonderful trigger for thinking about teaching and learning Torah.

During the month of Elul we are close to the end of the Torah cycle, which means, naturally, that we are also close to the beginning. So perhaps in thinking about how we will learn Torah this year with our students we can remember to keep in mind that while the story is the "hook," the Big Ideas are the "issues".

Planning a lesson ought to begin, therefore, at the end:
I. Big Ideas/Enduring Understandings/What do I want my students to remember after they have forgotten everything else?

II. Essential Questions/What are the questions they need to challenge themselves to answer in order to reach these understandings?

III. Activities/What are the learning activities our students can participate in/create/view/organize to help them answer these essential questions? What are the resources to which I can direct them so they can be active participants in their learning?

IV. Assessment/How will I as the teacher be able to know if my students have learned the big ideas?

This lesson planning strategy is known as Understanding by Design, or, more informally, as Backward Design, and was popularized by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe. No matter what you are teaching, it suggests that you must start with the important outcomes you hope to reach. This is a different from a model that states goals and objectives as discreet bits of content knowledge. It is about learning things that are IMPORTANT.

If you want to learn more about this strategy, you can type the words "Understanding by Design" into any search engine and read about it on the web. While most of the articles refer to meeting state learning standards and other issues in general education, the ideas for planning learning are equally relevant in Jewish studies.

I would suggest that if our students are learning Torah without the sense that what they are learning is FUNDAMENTALLY IMPORTANT, then what they may know temporarily will soon be forgotten.

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