Student Engagement

Want Better Project-Based Learning? Use Social and Emotional Learning

Blogger Thom Markham argues that the “soft” skills of SEL are a requirement, not only for PBL but for life.

June 21, 2011

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.

An unfortunate legacy of the cognitive model that dominates education is the belief that everything important in life takes place from the neck up. This belief is the primary reason that many teachers struggle with project-based learning (PBL). At its best, PBL taps into intangibles that make learning effortless and engaging: Drive, passion, purpose, and peak performance. But peak performance doesn't start with a standardized curriculum.

Outside of education, the success of PBL is no mystery. Over three decades, the field of human performance -- blending findings from organizational psychology, positive psychology, and emotional intelligence -- has identified the core factors that maximize individual effort and the desire to achieve. Most important for educators, these same findings hold true for research in youth development, adolescent mental health, developmental psychology, and social-emotional learning (SEL).

These factors can be condensed into three bullet points:

  • Caring relationships People perform better when they feel attended to. A caring relationship begins with recognizing and respecting the autonomy of the individual.
  • The desire for meaning Human beings work harder -- on behalf of themselves or others -- when they have a goal. The goal must be relevant to the person's needs and desires.
  • The power of mastery Achievement is a natural state of being. People enjoy doing tasks well, and feel an intrinsic reward that perpetuates a spiral of further achievement.

Organizational experts tell us to "search upstream in time and place" to identify the barriers to solving a problem. I suggest that if teachers want to put the powerful principles of human performance to work in projects, at least three steps would help:

Step 1: Redefine rigor

The factors underlying SEL match the mantra that drove education reform in the last decade: rigor, relevance, and relationship. More relevant education attempts to infuse learning with greater authenticity and meaning. Attention to student-centered teaching methods or improved school climate reflect the desire to harness the power of relationships.

But something's missing -- and the gap tells us why performance lags in school: The concept of rigor remains static. Rigor is still associated exclusively with curriculum, information mastery, and testing. Whether it's the quantity of problems assigned for homework, the amount of reading required for the next day, or the "hardness" of the test, rigor is defined in industrial terms.

In the human performance field, rigor is a measure of personal performance, not a standard to quantify how much information has been learned. As a PBL teacher, you can make this crucial shift and envision a mastery goal for students: To become a rigorous person. In the global world, knowing and doing are inseparable parts of the whole. We need to teach both, measure both, and honor both.

Step 2: Establish a "drive and thrive" culture

Meaning and mastery flourish under the conditions of self-reflection and personal attention. Before starting PBL, establish a culture of inquiry, excellence, and personal responsibility. This takes time and effort -- as well as undoing old attitudes about school. Some places to start:

  • Begin the year or semester with a culture-building event. Shaking the perceptions students hold about school is a good place to begin. Prior to introducing the curriculum, begin the year with playful, unusual exercises such as listening, team building, or other activities that stimulate curiosity and reflection.
  • Use a "project-project." If you've had experience with PBL, plan a short project that opens the year with questions such as "Why School?" or "Why Algebra?" Teach the basics of teamwork or presentation during the first week. Encourage reflection.
  • Retrain your students. School trains students in passive skills, such as listening and paying attention. Instead, teach students to be flexible in their skills (know when not to pay attention), introduce and identify the key skills of 21st century life, and reinforce this skill-building throughout the year.
  • Show them the "why." Give them data they've never seen. For example, recent research reported that the biggest predictor of college success is a student's conscientiousness, as measured by dependability, perseverance, and work ethic. The next best predictors were agreeableness, including teamwork, and emotional balance. A "drive and thrive" culture teaches these dispositions and habits.

Step 3: Acknowledge the "soft" skills as "hard" skills

Knowledge accumulation, critical thinking, reading, and writing have long been considered the essential skills necessary for preparing students for college entry.

These skills no longer suffice. Navigating a changing world demands a communicative, creative, and collaborative person with a flexible, empathetic, resilient, and persistent temperament.

But how easy or "soft" is it to be a good listener, an empathetic person, or to demonstrate persistence and flexibility in the face of challenge? This is the hard, meaningful stuff of life, not the fluff. It's time to make change our mindset and be far more intentional about teaching the dispositions and personality attributes that lead to better work ethic, more engagement, improved relationships, a greater sense of well being -- and better projects.

For more ideas, contact me at my website.

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  • Student Engagement
  • Classroom Management
  • Project-Based Learning (PBL)
  • K-2 Primary
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