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SEL and PBL: Let’s Have One Conversation

Bringing Social Emotional and Project Based Learning together

By Thom Markham

It’s always been of interest to me that an IQ test for students in 1910 contained questions such as this: What is the relationship between a dog and rabbit?

Even more interesting is the correct answer at the time: Dogs chase rabbits.

In 2016, such an answer would qualify the test taker for one of those scientific labels slapped on the supposedly deficient humans of the early 20th century, such as idiot and moron. Today, any 6th grader knows the right answer: Dogs and rabbits are both mammals.

That’s one example of how our notion of ‘smartness’ depends on social expectations and the surrounding culture. It’s also a marker of how the scientific model has penetrated our thinking about learning over the last 100 years and led to a deeply-embedded cognitive version of schooling that relies on categorization and logic. It’s a cognitive bias that shows up everywhere in the academic curriculum.rabbit in the grass

The problem is this, however: Our old notion of intelligence is no longer useful. Managers in private sector industries contend with this daily, as they try to tap the personal strengths of employees to improve communication and collaboration skills, deepen engagement in the company mission, and develop self-motivated leaders. They have increasingly turned to research into positive psychology and strengths-based thinking to give employees more autonomy, meaningful work, and opportunities for personal as well as professional growth—the kind of ‘thrive and drive’ mentality described by Daniel Pink in his books Drive and a Whole New Mind.

The challenge for managers is that no driver’s manual exists for teaching this emerging form of intelligence. Training works, up to a point, but intangibles of personality can’t be easily condensed into a set of bullet points or addressed through one-day workshops.

The same dilemma applies to teachers who practice project based learning (PBL), which mirrors industry preparation by focusing on skills, process, and performance rather than testing and recall. To succeed, PBL must also tap into personality, hidden strengths, and emotional intelligence—the kinds of attributes and assets that lead to peak performance. This is a core challenge for a PBL teacher. In fact, I would argue that this is education’s foremost challenge at the moment: How to bring forth, make visible, and support social-emotional strengths critical to success in life and work in today’s world.

It’s clear that teaching a strengths-based version of SEL into schools won’t succeed by putting more posters on the walls of classrooms. Nor can schools issue a textbook on the subject. We need a more powerful method—and I suggest that the path forward is to integrate the process of PBL with the practice, mastery, and reflection on SEL strengths.

There is good news here: PBL is becoming wildly popular. When done well, PBL offers students well-structured opportunities to learn problem solving, collaboration, and critical thinking skills that result in deeper learning, greater satisfaction, and better preparation for the world at large.

That’s a great start, but the next step is to power up PBL by paying attention to a second trend, also visible, but less developed: The rapid rise of social-emotional learning (SEL) as a key driver of student success. I use the term ‘less developed’ because much of the conversation around SEL still suffers from a cognitive bias hangover and the notion that emotions are a negative factor in learning. Obviously, it’s important to support students’ emotional well-being, but it’s critical now to transition to a strengths-based approach and focus on key intelligent behaviors such as curiosity, empathy, resiliency, social awareness, and self-management.

It’s clear that teaching a strengths-based version of SEL into schools won’t succeed by putting more posters on the walls of classrooms.

That’s a bit of a journey, but I’d suggest that PBL teachers can help shift the mindset by taking three steps:

  1. Focus on core factors.

Over the past decade and a half, I’ve seen how well executed PBL can provide a joyful learning experience for students. When projects offer the right mix of challenge, engagement, and personalized support, blended with a motivating, meaningful learning experience that reaches deep into the soul, joy is the outcome. You can see it bubble up in the animated faces, big smiles, body language, and open-hearted response of students at the end of a good project. In other words, we’ve reached the whole child.

This outcome can be explained by a little observed fact: PBL relies o