The Flipped Beit Midrash

For centuries, the primary 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 is not moreso than the time spent in a more formal classroom.

However, when teaching on the Yeshiva middle school or high school level, utilizing this tried and true method can be daunting. I can sum up in a sentence that I remember the Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Shmuel Kaminetsky, telling me at a Torah Umesorah convention where I showed him Gemara Berura, "but our students can't read". How does one give our students opportunities for independent learning prior to shiur when they don't yet have the skills to learn on their own? One solution to this problem is the flipped classroom.

I have blogged about the Flipped Classroom many times in the past. Look here, here, and here for example. The dream of Sal Khan when presenting the Flipped Classroom in his famous TED talk was to assign students to watch the videos for homework so students can do more exploration type activities during class. However, many of Rebbeim in my 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 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. 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. The rebbe requires that very 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) The teacher 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 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) The teacher 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 allows the teacher to focus in class on the areas 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 helping the students to become more independent learners through their watching, note taking, reading.

One other plus that I have experienced with flipped videos in my Nach classroom is that before an exam one 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.

So if your students have iPads or other web-based devices, even smartphones will do, give the Flipped Beit Midrash a try. You might find that students will enjoy the learning, gain more skills to learn more independently, and your shiur that follows will be that much deeper with more student input and higher order thinking because they have already mastered the basic "pshat" and are ready to bring their learning to a higher level.