“We Broke the Glass Ceiling”: How a Small College in Israel Is Making a Global Impact by Teaching Thinking on edX
Discover how Al-Qasemi Academy uses innovative technology and engaging storytelling to teach the value of independent thinking in its edX Prize-nominated course, created as an important peace project between Israel’s Jewish and Arab cultures.
“Give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime.”
This classic adage—about the sustainable benefits of learning skills to become more self-reliant versus letting someone else do things for you—has inspired educators for centuries. At Al-Qasemi Academy, a small teacher college in Israel, the saying inspired both the title and pedagogical approach of its online course The Hook, the Bait, and the Fish: Approaches to Teaching Thinking. One of many offerings on the edX platform through IsraelX, a consortium of higher education institutions in Israel, the course was a finalist for the 2021 edX Prize.
“The idea behind the course is that, instead of just teaching knowledge, we should teach students how to think,” says Professor Yoram Harpaz, whose educational theories comprise the teachings of the course. “Using this metaphor of fishing, it’s important to not only give students tools for learning like the fishing pole—the ‘hook’ in the title—but also to give them the motivation to use these tools to think more critically, creatively, and effectively, i.e., the ‘bait.’ But then thirdly, we should also give students some knowledge, aka the ‘fish,’ so that they have a foundation of information upon which to grow.”
In his course, Professor Harpaz takes learners through the history of teaching thinking by connecting his three-part metaphor to three widespread approaches to learning: the skills approach, disposition approach, and understanding approach. Together, they make up a conceptual map he created to explain why this area of education has exploded in popularity.
“Being able to think for yourself—and not take all the common beliefs out there for granted—helps you make better decisions, solve problems faster, and reach your goals,” he says. “Giving people the tools to become independent thinkers sets them on the path to fulfillment.”
More Impact with Innovative Technology and Engaging Storytelling
As vice president for development of academic projects at Al-Qasemi Academy and an expert of MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) development and research, Dr. Abeer Watted explains why she was so eager to turn Professor Harpaz’s teachings into an online course on edX.
“Through IsraelX, there was an RFP to create a MOOC that teaches 21st-century professional development skills,” she shares. “MOOCs on edX are an incredibly important opportunity for learners all over the world to study anytime and anywhere—and to choose courses based on their interests that use innovative technology and high-quality materials. I told my friend, ‘You’re pioneering a theory about teaching thinking that deserves to be known by as many people as possible. We should give the entire world access to your vital work for free.’”
Adds Professor Harpaz: “She convinced me to turn my books into a MOOC because she said edX is the future of education; learning and teaching will all be mediated through this powerful online platform.”
As part of the online course development process, Professor Harpaz wrote scripts and created a series of light-hearted videos of him explaining various concepts connected to thinking versus good thinking versus educating for thinking. Shot in locations like a zoo, a library, and his own kitchen, the videos leverage Professor Harpaz’s gregarious personality to reinforce the course’s content.
“It’s difficult to study in front of a computer for a long period of time,” Dr. Watted says. “With our MOOCs, we like to use the latest interactive technologies and pedagogical methods to keep learners engaged. Integrating short video lectures that take more of a storytelling approach helps learners connect all of these ‘big ideas’ to their daily lives. And research shows that innovative thinkers exhibit four main behaviors: observing the world around them, asking questions, conducting experiments, and connecting with people who have different perspectives than their own. So we’ve incorporated course elements that align with these four behaviors like discussion forums, peer-review assignments, and activities that encourage learners to test out their ideas and arrive at their own conclusions.”
“This is the whole point of what I teach and why I teach it: to make learning more accessible,” Professor Harpaz says. “By our nature, human beings crave logical explanations for things; we’re always trying to make sense of our world. The course uses storytelling in a very systematic way, connecting every presentation to the one before it and the one coming next, building on each other step by step. I think that’s one of the main reasons why it’s been so successful. And then of course, once the pandemic hit, our MOOC on edX became even more useful for learners!”
“Nothing Is Impossible”
Developed in three languages—Arabic, Hebrew, and English—the course was designed from the start to appeal to a broad range of audiences in Israel. Professor Harpaz also points out that the course represents a significant cultural achievement for IsraelX, which is the international arm of Campus-IL. As the flagship project of the National Digital Agency and Council for Higher Education, Campus-IL aims to reduce social inequities by increasing access to education in Israel for all.
“Our MOOC is a joint venture between the Jewish and Arab people,” he says. “I am a Jew, and my good friend Dr. Watted is an Arab-Palestinian, so the course is an important peace project showing cooperation between our two cultures. Our mentality is that we are a nation under siege, so every Israeli who hears about this course is saying to themselves, ‘Wow, this is a great example of how to bring our two cultures closer together.’ That’s why this MOOC has even more special meaning for us.”
To date, learners from 69 countries have enrolled in The Hook, the Bait, and the Fish since it was launched on edX in November 2020. Given Dr. Watted’s expertise with MOOCs, the global interest and success of the course did not come as a surprise.
“I knew our MOOC would be very valuable to learners because we worked on it with all of our power,” she says. “But my friend Professor Harpaz laughed when I suggested submitting it for consideration for the edX Prize. He said, ‘With other big universities in the mix, we don’t have a chance!’ But when we heard we were in the finals—and when major news outlets began asking to interview us—I felt like we were kasrna alsaqf alzujajii.”
“We broke the glass ceiling!” Harpaz translates.
“With edX, nothing is impossible,” Dr. Watted says. “It’s just not a word in my dictionary, or theirs!”
Lifelong Benefits for Learners and Educators
Though the course takes learners through several exercises to help them think better and teach better in the here and now, it also plants the seed for future evolutions and applications of Professor Harpaz’s theories.
“As part of the course, I present a model for a new kind of school that emphasizes teaching thinking instead of just rote learning and the recycling of information,’’ he says. “It’s almost like a think tank, where teachers turn their classrooms into a community of thinking and students work through burning philosophical questions and existential problems. The model completely reinvents notions around curriculum, assessment, and organizational structure to help students use inquiry as the basis for developing lifelong learning skills.”
“After the dust settled from COVID, we saw how people actually prefer to learn online,” Dr. Watted adds. “Now, universities around the world are working to further develop and support self-regulated learning. It’s a human skill that’s going to be increasingly necessary for the future, so we need to start preparing students for it today. And edX is one of the most powerful tools to help us get there.”
Working with edX and IsraelX has also opened up discussions for the duo around other possible MOOCs to meet the needs of learners and strengthen their 21st-century skills.
“Creating this first MOOC was such an eventful experience because it gave me a formula for expressing and democratizing my ideas in a very clear and accessible way,” Professor Harpaz says. “As Albert Einstein once said, ‘If you can't explain it to a six-year-old, you don't understand it yourself.’ In online education, you can no longer hide behind what you claim you know. You must finally understand what you teach—and that’s all for the benefit of the learner.”
Discover the stories of other 2021 edX Prize finalists, including Harvard University’s Mechanical Ventilation for COVID-19 course as well as last year’s winners, the University of Canterbury with Exploring Volcanoes and Their Hazards: Iceland and New Zealand.
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