Project-Based Learning

Educating Hearts and Minds: An Interview with George Lucas

George Lucas and Daniel Goleman discuss the many ways that social and emotional learning enhance the education process.
November 13, 2007

To obtain the audio CD of the full interview, visit More Than Sound.

Credit: Bart Nagel
George Lucas: "When someone has an idea, you respect that idea and you learn in a respectful way to challenge that idea, without hurting their feelings, without calling them a lot of names, without punching them in the face."

Daniel Goleman and George Lucas may have taken very divergent careerpaths -- one is a renowned psychologist and author of the best seller EmotionalIntelligence, and the latter is a celebrated filmmaker -- but they share manythings. In addition to growing up near each other in the hard-baked farmlandsof central California, they both believe the classroom should be a rich emotionalenvironment that frequently touches and teaches the soul. They recently hada chance to sit down and talk about these issues.

Daniel Goleman: You and I grewup in adjacent towns in the CentralValley in a sleepy time in Americanhistory. It was the 1950s, and schoolwas very conventional. OK, it wasboring. Wasn't it?

George Lucas: Well, it was organizedin a way that was designed to mass-produceeducation. It was boring inthat, if you really weren't that interestedin getting great grades, and thatwasn't your motivation in life, it wasvery hard to get to the root of what youwere learning, because it was mostlymemorization.

It wasn't really arranged with aconsideration for what makes kidsexcited about learning. What happenedto you that got you excitedabout learning?

When I went to college, I was allowedto have much more say in what I waslearning. For instance, I loved socialscience, and I could take a social scienceclass, whereas in high school, we wereso focused on math skills, science skills,language arts skills, the sorts of thingsI wasn't very good at. It wasn't until Ihad a wider range of possibilities at mydisposal that I was able to say, "I likepsychology, sociology, anthropology.I like these classes, and I want to learn.I'm curious about this stuff and I want toknow more about it."

Today, I think weneed to focus on three things: teachingkids how to find information, figuringout how to test that information, andusing that information in a creative wayto do something tangible, as opposedto teaching abstract concepts, whichnever seem to have much relationship toa student's daily life. This is put forth inprocesses such as project-based learningand cooperative learning.

What do you mean by "project-basedlearning"?

An assignment like, say, to design andbuild a house. You use the house as away to get the kids interested in mathand science and design and lots of otherthings. PBL also promotes integrativestudies, so that students are learninglots of subjects at the same time -- notjust portioned out, learning this at thishour and that at that hour. So we say,"Here's your project: Build your house."

The students then have to control theenvironment in a particular way. Forinstance, they may have to build it for aparticular price; maybe the house has towithstand a tornado, or it has to be coolinside when it's 105 degrees outside. Youset a bunch of restrictions that have to bedealt with, so the kids have to figure outthermodynamics and math and all thesethings in order to build the house. Thenthey present what they've figured out.

What you've done is to get someoneexcited and motivated abouta goal that they have to achieve inorder to learn.

Right, and the goal is not necessarilysimply a grade. It's something moretangible. We have discovered that abstractionin education, while favored bythe ivory tower, doesn't really work thatwell for most kids. They want to havea practical, straightforward reason forwhat they're doing.

One of the other issues is that a lotof education in the past has been taughtin isolation: each student learning byhimself, the teacher not having muchcontact with the students other thanthrough lecturing, the teacher not havingmuch contact with other teachers,the school not having much contact withthe city it's in, and, most importantly,the students not having much contactwith one another.

We have discovered that in teachingsocial and emotional learning, ratherthan saying, "We'll have a class on it, andit will meet Tuesday at 4 o'clock," yousimply embed the social and emotionallesson into the educational process bysaying, "You have to do this projectwith four other people. You'll be gradedindividually, you'll be graded as a group,you'll be graded on the intellectualquality of the project, but you will alsobe graded on your emotional relationshipswith each other. How did you getalong? How did you manage to work as ateam?" These are the things ultimately inthe real world that are the main factorsin getting hired and getting fired.

I remember some years ago talkingto people at computer companies,high tech companies, who were sayingwe have a problem with peoplecoming out of schools like MIT, whichis that they don't realize that theyhave to collaborate here. We have toregroove them so they can work ona team.

There are human skills --how to get along, how to cooperate,how a group can have emotional intelligence,be self-aware -- that are offthe standard academic curriculum.They're part of what we call social andemotional learning, where kids learnself-awareness, how to manage theiremotions, how to handle impulse,how to empathize, how to noticeother people, how to see things fromthe other person's perspective. Theylearn social skills, how to get along, towork out conflicts. These are the skillsthat we find make people successfulover the long haul.

Definitely. Anybody who's an adult,working in the adult world, realizes thatyour ability to encourage other people,form groups, and get the best out ofeverybody is the secret to success. Oneof the things we discovered is that theprimary driving force for young peopleis curiosity: They naturally wonderhow things work. And the other oneis that they want to be adults. So, yougive them adult projects like building ahouse, building a rocket ship, running anewspaper. You've got to give them anactual goal, and it has to be a goal theyenjoy. Kids love to create things, andthey'll learn if you let them create.

From a neuroscience perspective,you're talking about helping kidsget in an optimal state for learning.You're talking about projects that areexciting, that move them -- projectsthat they want to do, instead of theboring, rote learning you and I had toput up with.

Well, it's also about changing the learningprocess, which is the gathering ofinformation, learning the facts, learningthe processes, learning the rules.But if you have a purpose -- I need toread the instructions to know how toturn on my VCR, for instance -- you'lldo it.

The next step is to have a skepticallook at the facts, which is this: Nomatter who is telling you something, nomatter where this information is comingfrom, always sit back and look at thefacts. Can I prove it? Can I test it? Howaccurate is it? You know, when you putthe board across a chasm, don't just runacross it. You slowly walk out and makesure it's not going to break. And thenuse this information you have tested ina creative fashion.

Creativity and thecreative process demand that you think.You're not learning, you're not learningfacts and laws -- you're thinking. You'resaying, "How can I create somethingcompletely new or use this informationin a completely different way and becreative about it?"

I like your pointing out that kidsneed to learn to question the value or the truth of what they're told,particularly today, when the kids aregoing to the Internet to get their informationbecause that's the way youcan get the most access to the data.One new learning skill is learningto evaluate the source itself. I thinkthat's absolutely crucial.

It also puts the kids in the driver'sseat, which is where they want to be,especially when you get above the sixthgrade. They don't want to be subjectedto the authority figures that have usuallybeen presented to them -- mainly theirteachers.

A really good teacher is not aperson who is dictating information tostudents. We have discovered that if ateacher approaches teaching saying thisto the student, "You are a bright intelligentperson who can figure this out onyour own, and if you need help, I'll helpyou" -- if you take the teacher out fromthe front of the classroom dispensing information,and you encourage studentsto find the information on their ownwith the teacher as a guide or facilitatorin their information-finding adventure -- the students will learn a lot more and bemuch more empowered.

The best thing that a teacher can beis a human being. There is nothing morepowerful for students than to have theteacher pat them on the back and tellthem they're doing a great job. It workswonders if a teacher asks a student,"What are you doing? Explain it to me."Or, "Have you ever thought about this?"For the teacher to be a guide, to sendstudents off in different directions, or tobe someone a student can go to for helpwhen they really get desperate, it makesthem, dare I say it, a mentor rather thana teacher.

Credit: Bart Nagel

Isn't it a paradox, George, that inthe digital age, when more and moreof what in education is becominglooking at a video monitor -- gatheringinformation and getting the data -- theteachers are still important?

The teachers are even more important.The digital age allows the teacher to getto know the students, to be on a one-to-onebasis with the students. There aresome teachers who like to be protectedby the screen of a plan that they do everyday and that they've done every year.They don't talk to the students; theyjust deliver their little spiel, and that'sthe end of the class. But there are a lotof teachers who understand that thestudents are discovering something, andthey like to watch that process. They liketo actually watch the lightbulbs going offover the students' heads.

The human connection is more vitaleven as kids are learning to use theircomputers.

Yes, and that's also where emotionalintelligence comes in, because, if you'reworking in groups, you really do have tolearn the process of argument, the processof presenting facts, of proving yourpoint of view, not just sort of demandingit, or hitting someone in the face, ortaking it at face value. You have to learnto let go of your beliefs when they areproved to be erroneous, and not let yourpride and other factors get in the way.You have to learn to admit when you'rewrong about something, like, "Theinformation I gathered is wrong, andwe're all going to use this other information,because it is better."

That is a very,very important thing to be able to do. It'ssomething that is not taught in schools,and it is extremely important in theoutside world. Otherwise, you have a lotof organizations that refuse to change,and change is the name of the game inthe twenty-first century.

The important thing is that you arealways questioning what is going onand that you are respectful of otherpeople who are also questioning. And,when someone has an idea, you respectthat idea and you learn in a respectfulway to challenge that idea, withouthurting their feelings, without callingthem a lot of names, without punchingthem in the face.

So, you're talking about peoplein school learning the ingredientsof a healthy give-and-take. But let'sunpack the personal ingredients youneed for that. You mentioned thatsocial and emotional learning (SEL)helps kids with this component of success:working together collaboratively.And SEL teaches the skills of emotionalintelligence and self-awareness. In otherwords, first you need some introspection,you need some self-insight;you need to understand what you arefeeling about things and why you arefeeling that way.

Again, it's like project-based learning.It's one thing to learn these things in theabstract, but it's another thing when youare sitting in the middle of an argument.They learn in a very practical way thatwe're not going to get anywhere unlesswe readjust our relationships. And theway we readjust our relationships is totake and use the knowledge that theteacher has given us and that we arelearning about our own self-awareness.

It's much more effective to teach this ina situation where kids are actually confrontingan issue and say, "Now, thinkabout what you're thinking about here.Why are you doing it this way?" Andyou're also teaching the group, becausein this situation, if you're the student,you aren't by yourself.

In other words, SEL puts intothe classroom a live situation kids canextract these lessons from.

Well, also, one of the problems of themodern age is the remoteness fromwhich people deal with other people.And it's true on the Internet and oncomputers, but it's also true on talkshows and on radio where bad mannersaren't called out. We don't say,"Hey, you can't say that; that's hurtingsomeone's feelings." Some of thesetalk show hosts believe that if they'retalking to thousands of people, millionsof people, and they're hurting a fewpeople's feelings, so what?

You can havethat rationale, but when you get downto five people and you're modeling thatbehavior from these other situations,someone has to say, "Hey, wait a minute.If someone said that to you, howwould you feel?"

And that's a lesson in empathy.A very valuable one.

These people, on sometalk shows, trash peoplefor fun; but in the end,when you're the one beingtrashed, it isn't muchfun. You can make thedecision to trash someone,but no one is goingto want to work with you,nobody's going to respectyou, nobody's going topay attention to you. Ifyou are working on ateam, what does it do toyour team? This is somethingyou can learn in physical education;sports teams are all about this sortof thing. But it's time to bring it out ofthe gym and put it into the classroom.

I think so, and one of the greatesthopes for me is that kids will get,and everyone will get, SEL and learnhow to respect other people, howto empathize, and how to get along,rather than these other lessons massmedia -- particularly junk television -- is teaching, which is just the opposite.

Well, they're pandering to the worstpossible aspect of the human animal,which is to inflict pain on other peopleand enjoy it.

Doesn't this require something newof teachers? Is there a way to prepareteachers for that future?

Again, it would demand that teachersare trained much more in the world ofSEL and awareness, and know how toteach it and how to deal with difficultsituations. I think it also means beingmore one-on-one with the students.

Youneed to have interpersonal skills that arestronger than are demanded in today'sclassroom, which means you really dohave to become interested in the studentbeyond his or her name. You have to beinterested in the students' home livesand be able to reason with them and beable to take into account their personallives and how that affects all this. So, itis a much deeper relationship betweenthe teacher and the student, in which,ultimately, I think you can be muchmore effective, because you can get atthe root of some of the problems.

This kind of teaching goes beyondour standard model. It goes into caringabout kids in a deep way.

I am completely convinced that mostteachers really want to make a difference.The way the system is set up now, however,teachers feel like parents of a teenager:You talk, but you don't know if theyare listening. This is not very gratifying.

Ifteachers can become more involved withthe everyday lives of the students andtheir learning process, the teacher getsto experience the tiny, tiny victories. Andthose are the victories that represent thereason they got into teaching in the firstplace. They get to experience the joy ofthat student overcoming a problem andbeing proud of it. That student then getsto show it off to somebody personally, notgrandstanding in front of the classroom,but in the moment of discovery, beingable to say, "Look, I figured this out." Foreverybody involved, it is a much morerewarding and joyful experience.

What Is It?

Project-Based Learning

An experiential method of instructionthat engages students in group-orientedprojects, providing activeinstruction in an interdisciplinaryarray of skills, including math,technology, language arts, fine arts,geography, and science.


Social and Emotional Learning

A process through which childrenand adults develop fundamental competenciesto recognize and manageemotions, develop caring and concernfor others, establish positive relationships,make responsible decisions,and handle challenging situationsconstructively.