The Flipped Beit Midrash

 

by Tzvi Pittinsky

“But our students can’t read! Will this help our students read?” I remember many years ago, when Rav Shmuel Kaminetsky told me this at a Torah Umesorah convention when I showed him Gemara Berura, a technology assisted methodology for learning Gemara. As a high school rebbe, I have utilized many strategies over the years to combat this common malady, that our students, even many in our highest shiurim, don’t have the confidence and skills to learn Tanach and Gemara in the original language on their own.

Despite my background in educational technology, I do not believe that technology always is the solution for this. Many times in fact it might play a role in the problem. However, technology might also provide part of the solution, as seen in our Flipped Classroom experiments.

Technology and Texts

A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of participating in an informal gathering of Jewish educators devoted to discussing issues important to Jewish learning, spirituality, and inspiration. This event was part of the greater Jedcamp movement which through the help of social media has allowed hundreds of educators to gather in the last year in events throughout New Jersey, New York, Florida, the Midwest, and California. Events like this could only take place because of the cognitive surplus, the ability to communicate en masse, that technology provides. One principal on a panel at this event made an insightful comment when he pointed out that through digital projectors, smart boards, and mobile devices, many students can go through an entire school year without ever opening a physical sefer. How does this affect the nature of Jewish learning?

In a world where translations are so readily available, how can we impress upon our students the value of working through texts in the original?

I posed this question to my own high school students. Some agreed that something was lost when using a digital book to replace the physical sefer in terms of our greater connection to the mesorah, the learning community surrounding the book. Others disagreed pointing out the easy access to all sorts of Jewish texts with their translations that technology provides. From The Mercava which Dr. Shalom Berger discussed at length on this forum to Mechon Mamre to the web-based Bar Ilan Responsa Project, technology has made Jewish learning ubiquitous with access for all who have an Internet connection. But what does this ready availability of texts and their translations mean for our students?

Dr. Shalom Berger argues in his essay that this can lead to a superficial understanding since our students are trained to look for easy answers online. I have found that, for many of my students, analysis and deep thinking are enhanced by access to more information. This is especially true for students in day schools with a strong dual curriculum which encourages higher order thinking skills in many subjects. However, one thing that is often lost on our students is the ability to independently read and analyze texts in the original Hebrew or Aramaic. This can have a dramatic effect on our traditional mode of transmitting the mesorah.

Technology and Skills

Technology can be one of the major causes of this. Our students might know how to think but they do not have the patience and persistence to work through texts in a language that is foreign to them when a plethora of translations are so readily available. As one Jewish educator asked me after I posted my mostly positive thoughts on The Mercava, “What do you think it’ll do for ameilus [hard work]?” In a world where translations are so readily available, how can we impress upon our students the value of working through texts in the original?

Flipped videos allow the teacher to focus in class on the areas for which he is needed most and where his unique skills as an educator are most apparent

This skill is a key to the success of the Yeshiva system that has been a primary mode for Jewish learning. For centuries, the method of learning in the Beit Midrash has been chavruta, cooperative learning, followed by shiur, whole classroom discussion and discourse. I fondly remember my years learning in Israel and then in rabbinical school where my rebbe would start by giving us a list of maarei mekomot, sources to go through with our chavruta for 2-3 hours PRIOR to our hour or two of shiur. Often, I found this independent learning to be equally valuable if not moreso than the time spent in a more formal classroom.

When teaching on the Yeshiva middle school or high school level, utilizing this tried and true method with our students who lack basic reading skills can be daunting. However, while I believe that technology is part of the problem, it can also be a part of the solution as well in the most unlikeliest of places, the flipped classroom.

Transforming Preparation

The Flipped Classroom involves teachers creating videos of the lecture portions of their classes for students to watch prior to the lesson. One famous proponent of this method Sal Khan when presenting the Flipped Classroom in his famous TED talk explains that this allows teachers to assign students to watch the videos for homework so students can do more exploration type activities during class.

Many Rebbeim in my school, The Frisch School, myself included, have found it more effective to assign these videos for chavruta work in the Beit Midrash prior to giving shiur. With iPads for every student and the teacher using free apps like Showme, Educreations, or, the relatively inexpensive but more powerful app, Explain Everything, creating these videos and using them in the Beit Midrash cannot be easier.

One rebbe, Rabbi J. Z. Spier, for example has started making Showme videos translating, explaining, and underlining in colored pens the Gemara his students are learning modeled after the video in our iBooks Gemara on Makom Kavuah. His goal is to have students watch these videos in the Beit Midrash prior to learning the sugya so they can get the basic reading “pshat” done on their own and learn to read the Gemara themselves before they discuss the ideas together as a class. You can watch an example of one of his videos below. So far he has found this method to be VERY successful for the following reasons.

1) Students report that they prefer watching the videos instead of first hearing the Gemara being read in class since they can learn at their own pace. They can start and stop the video, pause and rewind or rematch the entire thing as many times as needed. They also find it very easy to take notes since they can watch the video at their own pace. Rabbi Spier requires that every student take notes on the video either using their iPad, a computer, or pen and paper, whatever they prefer, and then only can leave once they have shown him their notes.

2) Rabbi Spier also finds that for the first time he can really monitor how the students are learning while they are all watching the video. In a regular class, he has to focus more on his presentation as the teacher than on the student learning, and even in a usual chavruta assignment, students are constantly asking him questions about what they are learning so it is harder for him to take a step back and monitor how they learn. With the flipped video, they already have their rebbe in video form so he can just watch them, walk around to the various students and focus solely on observing their learning process.

3) Rabbi Spier reports that these videos are VERY easy to make since all he is doing is reading and translating and marking up the text. He says it takes maybe 5 minutes to make a 5 minute video. (He can do it successfully on the first try.) This is much easier than more involved iBooks and might even be more educationally beneficial if done in a consistent fashion since it just focuses on the basic textual skills and leaves the rest for learning through sources and ideas during classroom discussion where the teacher can explain, clarify, and bring concepts further.

Basically, these flipped videos allow the teacher to focus in class on the areas for which he is needed most and where his unique skills as an educator are most apparent while “outsourcing” the VERY important but often tedious reading portions to the videos. Simultaneously it helps the students become more independent learners through their watching, note taking, reading.

One other benefit that I have experienced with flipped videos in my Nach classroom is that before an exam I can share a playlist of all the videos for students to use as a study aid. The students LOVE this and might very well watch every video multiple times prior to the exam. You can watch my Flipped Videos on Sefer Yirmiyahu here.  ((I used an iPad and an app called Explain Everything to create my videos. This app, which costs $2.99, allows me to import texts from pictures or files that I created and saved in Google Drive or Dropbox. It also has a moving cursor so I can point to words as I am reading and translating them, in addition to my regular underlining and circling of key phrases. One can also use free apps like Showme, which Rabbi Spier used, or Educreations to achieve similar results. When using a computer, one can use free screencasting apps like Screenr or Screencastomatic to create videos.)) You can view a playlist of videos that I created in the past using Screenr and Screencastomatic here.

Flipping Flipped Videos

There is one strong critique of these flipped videos I want to address. It is still very teacher centered. The teacher is creating the videos for the students to consume. While these videos focus very much on the Hebrew text, the students’ role is still passive as watchers of these videos instead of their being actively engaged in creating meaning themselves.

With the ease of making flipped videos on the iPad, it is very simple to “flip” this flipped Beit Midrash assignment by having all of the students create their own screencasts. This obviously can be a powerful formative assessment tool for students to practice their reading skills. For example, as a review for an upcoming test, I decided to have the students create these flipped videos themselves. This was both a good review assignment for them AND I could then post the best student-created flipped videos in my study guide playlist for the entire class to benefit. I did a little of the leg work for the students. I posted online images of the Smartboard slides on King Yoshiyahu which I wanted them to create videos about. The student assignment was to review one of these slides and then to use it in a Flipped Video for the other students in the class using Showme or Educreations. They had one classroom period to review, plan, and create.

This was a great success. The students appreciated the extra period of review, they loved creating the videos, and I then posted 4 of them to help their classmates study. You can view them on our Flipped Videos page on our class blog here. For me as the teacher, not only was this more student-centered with students creating their own study guide videos, but I was able to listen to my students and gain first hand knowledge of their reading skills in Nach.

These two methods, the Flipped Beit Midrash and “Flipping” the Flipped Beit Midrash can be powerful new tools to add to any rebbe or morah’s repertoire. By utilizing technology to engage our students directly with the text, they transform one of the biggest challenges in the Yeshiva day school classroom, teaching text-based Tanach and Talmud reading skills in our digital age, into a tool that can be a part of the solution to the age old problem of how best to assist our students in becoming independent life-long learners.

 

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About the author

Rabbi Tzvi Pittinsky is the director of educational technology at The Frisch School in Paramus, New Jersey. He writes a popular blog on technology and Jewish education at techrav.blogspot.com

 
The opinions and facts here are presented solely by the author. Torah Musings assumes no responsibility for them. Please address religious questions to your rabbi.
 

7 Responses

  1. joel rich says:

    My father taught me: If you don’t know where you want to go, any road will get you there. What is the goal of the class? Love of learning? Information? Skills? (and which?) The average student?…….

    Tirst define these and then one can decide on methodologies. For example, if you don’t break your head over a sugya with variant texts, without rashi, let alone via translations, there is a level of learning you will never attain. On the other hand, technology is here to evolve and, from what I’ve read, our brains have already been changed by it.

  2. micha says:

    The goal of Jewish studies, in my humble opinion, is not the relaying of basic information, but in enabling the student to continue a lifetime of study. With some exceptions — basic halakhah, basic Jewish Thought, and other things the student needs to know to be both be able to and to want to live as an Orthodox Jew. But in general, the essential things to be transmitted are a toolset and an interest in learning.

    By flipping the beis medrash around, so that chavusah time becomes receptive, a time for watching a presentation, (1) we rob the student of time spent practicing those skills. (2) We make them more dependent on third-party material that they may not have available the rest of their lives. (It’s bad enough ArtScroll has robbed the measses of this generation of the need to learn classical Hebrew and Aramaic, so that there is less ability to learn the books ArtScroll haven’t gotten to.) And (3) we foster the idea that having the knowledge is more important than the process of figuring it out.

    • Gabriel M says:

      “And (3) we foster the idea that having the knowledge is more important than the process of figuring it out.”

      Who says it isn’t? I agree with you that, in practical terms, time in yeshiva may be better spent teaching a student to amass a life time of knowledge than packing in as much as possible in the years available. But ultimately, yes, the point is to know what you have to do, so you can do it.

      I would argue that the opposite to what you fear has come true. Most students leave yeshiva having found numerous examples of cases where the texts they read clearly indicate we should do (a), but the “olam” does (b) and so “we” do (b). After a few years the cognitive dissonance involved in revering Hazal while completely ignoring what they say dissolves. They also come to think of more than half of Shas as completely theoretical and have no interest or wish to take practical, rational steps to make it non-theoretical. Learning thus really does become a purposeless end in itself, but this is not something to strive for.

      • micha says:

        There is no chavrusah time in the classical sense, it becomes presentation time. And there is brainstorming time during the class, not the classical chavrusah’s working your way through it on your own. The process of figuring it out on your own is taken out of the curriciulum. My third point is that this process is the most important thing to impart to students, one of the centerpieces of their Jewish education, not removed from it!

  3. […] by Tzvi Pittinsky “But our students can’t read! Will this help our students read?” I remember many years ago, when Rav Shmuel Kaminetsky told me this at a Torah Umesorah convention when I showed hi…  […]

  4. Moshe Isaacson says:

    I think Rabbi Pittinsky and those commenting are talking about fundamentally different parts of the educational timeline.
    http://mosheisaacson.tumblr.com/post/75912362133/technology-and-gemarah-eilu-veilu

  5. […] blog here and here and then cross-posted in a more expanded more on Rabbi Gil Student’s Torah Musings. Please feel free to continue this valuable discussion on Lookjed or in the comments to this […]

 
 

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