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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Editor's note: Today's guest blogger is Thom Markham, a psychologist, educator, and president of Global Redesigns, an international consulting organization focused on project-based learning, social-emotional learning, youth development, and 21st-century school design. He formerly directed the Buck Institute for Education's national training program in PBL and is the primary author of BIE's Handbook on Project Based Learning.

College readiness, always a hot topic, is getting hotter. The Obama administration has set a national goal of having the highest proportion of college-educated citizens in the world by 2020. Yet at the same time, researchers tell us that two out of five college students are not equipped to handle the academic, financial, and social responsibilities of college. (Download a recent report on college readiness from ACT) In other words, 40% of high school students aren't "college ready."

Predictors of College Success

What's really interesting is that, once again, the research reminds us that the deficiencies in college readiness don't represent cognitive deficits. I realize that many high school graduates require remedial courses to learn to write an essay or master basic math. But this research shows that the biggest predictor of college success is a student's conscientiousness, as measured by dependability, perseverance, and work ethic. The next best predictors are agreeableness, including teamwork, and emotional balance. All this, in my mind, leads to one conclusion: More project-based learning.

Role of Social-Emotional Learning in PBL

What do these personality attributes associated with college readiness -- dispositions, as they're known to psychologists -- have to do with PBL? Let me briefly digress to explain how PBL and social-emotional learning support one another.

In the last two decades, social-emotional learning experts have settled on three factors that support the success of a young person: (1) A solid relationship with an adult mentor, such as a parent, priest, teacher, or coach; (2) a sense of mastery that develops as the mentor guides the young person forward and reviews their performance; and (3) an internal sense of meaning and purpose that comes as the young person is offered opportunities to explore questions of value and relevance.

PBL draws upon these exact elements for success. Great PBL begins with a respectful relationship between teacher and student. PBL is also a process of learning, not merely a method for ingesting information for a test at the end of the unit. This process allows for plenty of regular, ongoing feedback, which leads to student mastery. And, at the heart of a good project is a relevant, open-ended, student-centered question that speaks to a student's innate desire to know more about the world and how he or she fits into it.

Bottom line: If you use PBL in the classroom, you are not only teaching the stuff of school, you are supporting the social-emotional development of your students and getting them ready for college.

PBL to Teach Student Behavior

I'll just add one other thought: What if you want to specifically teach work ethic, perseverance, or dependability -- the kinds of dispositions that really prepare a student to be a self-managing learner in college? PBL works well here, too, if you use well-designed rubrics that identify the exact behaviors you expect, teach students how to use the rubrics to guide their behavior, and -- the critical piece -- put a grade in your grade book that reflects how "dependable" a student has been in the project.

Common core standards for social-emotional learning are coming, but there will never be a test or national curriculum for "dependability." So you will need to judge these "soft" skills by "soft" standards. It's not that difficult, however. Most teachers and students know what this behavior looks like in practice -- and they can identify the necessary levels of performance. (If you need sample rubrics, visit my site and click "contact.")

Thom Markham, Ph.D., President of GlobalRedesigns, and Senior National Faculty member at the Buck Institute for Education, is a psychologist and educator who served as a Director with Active Learning, Inc., an innovative motivational and learning skills camp program for high school and college students, taught at an award-winning high school, where he led school reform efforts and developed a highly-acclaimed internship-based program, and co-founded the Marin School of Arts and Technology, an innovative charter high school in Novato, California.

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Terry Adkins's picture
Terry Adkins
High School Agriscience Teacher from Maryland

Teaching in the career and technology field of Agriscience, I frequently use project based learning. The secondary outcomes of team building, work ethic and perseverance are just as important as the content mastered. I find it interesting that soft skills are mentioned as as indicator of college success. When I meet with the employers in my community who will mentor my students, they constantly ask for the soft skills to be taught in the classroom and they will train students on skills at the job site. I can lay the foundation in my classroom of the basic hands on skills used in the greenhouse industry, but when the student gets at a particular job site the employer will put their spin on the way the task is handled at their business. Employers relate that more students lose jobs not because of poor skill execution but because of poor customer relations and employee to employee skills.This blog has also given me data to use with my college bound students who ask "Why are we learning this?"

Melody Singleton's picture

As part of the 5th grade team, the students are given a project to complete each six weeks. They typically enjoy these projects because of the invitation to learn outside of the daily norm of drill and kill in preparation for the standardized tests administered each spring. I share their enthusiasm, but for slightly different reasons. I have noticed that many of our students have poor social skills. You previously mentioned that employers have identified this as a primary reason for students losing their jobs. I have seen proof to validate the accuracy of this information. Before we began implementing small group assignments and project based learning, I was constantly redirecting students due to exhibiting bad attitudes, unwillingness to cooperate with teammates, exhorting airs of superiority over struggling classmates, and the list could continue indefinitely! To say I was exasperated does not seem to convey the frustration and hopelessness that threatened to engulf any learning that would take place; yet, as I persevered through the early stages of implementation, I found the outcomes of my efforts to be quite rewarding. Within this type of learning environment, each student has a vital role to play in order to complete the group project. The group members hold each other accountable to do their part, and each member has to depend on the other in order to experience success. It is this aspect of the project that seems to bring about the greatest results. Members tend to be more encouraging and create and hold each other to high expectations. They also become problem solvers, often making decisions about how to get the job done most efficiently while ensuring that each member do their share of the work. As they present their projects, the pride they have for their accomplishments is evident in the smiles on their faces and in the eagerness to speak about what they have discovered and produced. While the students are exposed to the required content through the projects, they learn so much more. They are being developed as a whole person, and it is amazing to see the process in action.

Anthony Hyman's picture

I personally believe that PBL is an excellent teaching strategy that crosses curriculum and global aspects. The problem that I encounter is when do you have enough time to do this. At times it appears that the research supports the efforts, but as a 7th grade middle school math teacher, I have certain responsibilities to maintain so my students have enough time to master the "standards" required by the state. I desire to pitch the idea to my principal and the rest of my grade level team, because we definitely could use more teamwork as a whole and the students need to see that from the adults/teachers. To get to my real question, when do you do it and how much planning do you put into it? I really want to know so I can prepare for my meeting to "pitch" the idea.

Terry Adkins's picture
Terry Adkins
High School Agriscience Teacher from Maryland

[quote] Within this type of learning environment, each student has a vital role to play in order to complete the group project. The group members hold each other accountable to do their part, and each member has to depend on the other in order to experience success. [/quote]

I've been reading about the formation of groups to facilitate differentiated instruction. I like the idea of rotating different responsibilities within the groups. Most of my students want to achieve a great project at the end and are willing to do their part so they do not negatively impact the other team members. How do you organize your groups for maximum learning and effort?

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