From: J.E.Harding (BSP97JEH@sheffield.ac.uk)
Date: Fri Apr 09 1999 - 06:28:17 EDT
I have recently been involved in a very interesting discussion
off-list about new methods of teaching biblical languages. Although I
teach Hebrew, I have been using an educative strategy which may well
be of use to those teaching Greek, Latin and Syriac. I have been
working with problem-based learning (PBL), and I offer below a few
reflections which I hope will be of interest to teachers on the list.
PBL is a teaching method which was developed in the health sciences,
and has been developed further in professional education, mainly. In
some ways it is similar to the 'inquiry method' advocated by Neil Postman
and Charles Weingartner (Teaching as a Subversive Activity, 1971). The method
works by giving students tasks which are of directly practical
benefit. Students then work in groups (usually), bringing their
background knowledge and expertise to bear on the task at hand.
Knowledge is developed on a need-to-know basis, and learning takes
place on a 'deep' level, because students are motivated and have to
use their ability to think critically to solve the problem at hand.
This method was suggested to me by a marine biologist who is doing
research into PBL. His article (Tony Harland, 'Moving Towards
Problem-based Learning', Teaching in Higher Education 3.2 
219-230) is extremely useful, not least because it includes a good
bibliography. The course I had to teach was a Hebrew text course for
students who had studied lessons 1-20 of Kelley's grammar. I
therefore set up a kind of teaching experiment, asking students to
work together for 50 minutes, using whatever grammars and lexica they
had, to solve the problem: 'Translate and analyse the Hebrew of
Jonah 1:1-4'. I assessed this formatively, by giving a sheet of
responses to their attempt to solve the problem. I found they worked
very slowly, but with very little input from me managed to work
successfully through Jonah 1:1-2. Similar problems were set, including Exodus
20:1-3, Esther 3:1ff and Amos 7:10ff. Invariably, students made
outstanding progress with the language, and were able to learn from
each other and introduce creative interpretations of the texts.
The problem has been that the whole process is not time-efficient and
does not fit in well with an examination system because it does not
work within a rigid curriculum. It is an inductive approach, but
faces the problem that one reviewer noted with respect to Kittel's
Hebrew grammar-it is not a graded introduction to the language, and
thus creates problems for those who need to learn by using paradigms
and vocab. lists. The main advantages are that students are highly
motivated, think deeply and critically, have the opportunity to
relate their work to other courses, work in a 'research atmosphere
and acquire interpersonal skills which are of use in 'real life'.
I am writing a paper on this at the moment, which I intend to give in
the Academic Teaching and Biblical Studies group at SBL in November.
The most significant volume dealing with this educative strategy is
D. Boud and G.I. Feletti (eds.), 'The Challenge of Problem-based
Learning' (2nd ed.; London and Stirling [USA]: Kogan Page, 1997; 1st
ed. 1991; ISBN 0-7494-2291-2). This is a collection of papers by
those concerned with this method.
It would be interesting if several people could develop this method
in Biblical Studies. There is the whole issue of how this method
*could* work in this field, and what the implications are for
assessment procedures and the definition of the roles 'teacher' and
I hope this is useful.
With very best wishes,
James Edward Harding
University of Sheffield
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