George Lucas Educational Foundation
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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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Comments (8) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

We've been doing this with our Critical Skills Program for 25 years with great results. It really makes sense to teach the "soft" skills in the context of meaningful problems and projects- everything becomes more meaningful and learning on both fronts really takes off. I look forward to hearing what other folks are doing!

Maria Noel Cabezas's picture
Maria Noel Cabezas
English Teacher from Artigas,Uruguay (South America)

Awesome post!!!We are trying to work or to introduce the concept of "soft skills" in our class projects.I strongly believe that it is going to be really useful.Thanks!
Maria Noel

Sheri Edwards's picture
Sheri Edwards
Middle School Writing Teacher and Technology Coordinator

I believe in your message and so linked to your website. I loved the post Teaching young people to go deep-the power of purpose. I reflected on these posts here: Purpose, Pedagogy, and Beneficence
We have a new teacher at our school, and I'm hoping we will be able to develop projects that help kids discover their interests and talents, lending ideas toward career interests.

Twila Busby's picture
Twila Busby
Middle School, Tucson, AZ

Thanks for the post Thom! It's amazing how attending to the "soft skills" eases the way for any other learning. I wonder why we often forget this at the same time we want students to lear more and more content?

Katie Terry's picture
Katie Terry
Student Teacher from Georgia

The ideas that you speak of (caring relationships, desire of human meaning, and the power of mastery) have extremely relevant and beneficial implications for English language learners. These students are taking linguistic risks on a daily basis and would benefit greatly from the encouragement and caring that the teacher can provide. What is also important is to respect these individuals backgrounds and attempt to utilize or bring in their "cultural funds of knowledge" (Moll 1992) into the classroom curriculum. Cultural funds of knowledge can be thought of has the historical and cultural bodies of knowledge or skills that students and their families have. Rather than seeing cultural differences within the classroom as obstacles, the research done by Moll (1992) encourages teachers of diverse learners to see cultural differences as funds and become "brokers" of these funds of knowledge. Using cultural funds of knowledge can be a perfect platform for project based learning and social emotional learning as well. Research about teaching with cultural funds of knowledge suggests that students will feel their cultural identity is appreciated and be more apt to participate in achieving academic goals. As you have said, students are navigating a changing world and we do must alter our mindsets as teachers to serve them intentionally and proactively.

Marianne Riofrio's picture
Marianne Riofrio
10-12 grade science teacher in Columbus, OH

I just attended a 2-day workshop on PBL and a 2-week class on brain-based teaching and learning. Your comments are so relevant and build on what I've been learning. Thanks!

Margaret Berry Wilson's picture
Margaret Berry Wilson
Responsive Classroom Consulting Teacher

I really appreciated your post, especially your three bullet points about the importance of caring relationships, the desire for meaning, and the power of mastery. If those three elements are present, learning can't help but improve. When I was teaching, my second grade team and I did a "business unit" with our students. Students worked in three's to sell a product or service -- they borrowed start-up money from the class bank, had to keep track of their spending and income, and had to repay the loan at the end of the unit. It was a very successful endeavor. Looking back through your lens, I think the fact that students cared about each other and were part of a strong community were key to that success. The personal engagement that came from creating a product or service themselves and learning about money and commerce in such a meaningful way really was another important factor. And, the fact that the project inherently allowed students to master the material and complete a task successfully helped as well. Your framework is so helpful, and paying even more conscious attention to those three factors would no doubt make the project even more effective. Thanks!

David Eisenstein's picture
David Eisenstein
CEO Dear Wise Elders Foundation, Director Purplearn, Middle School math teacher

We are on a similar mission to change the world through social emotional learning.

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