PBL is Rooted in SEL | Tara Quigley | 6 Min Read

The primary reason I began to transition my Humanities classes to a Project-Based Learning program was to improve student engagement. I was struggling to keep my students motivated and working hard on the tasks at hand. With the implementation of a PBL classroom, students had more agency and purpose, leading to an increase in intrinsic motivation and engagement. What I didn’t realize until later was the important role SEL played in making my students much more successful. 

Shortly after I attended PBL World and began using PBL and Guided-Inquiry in my classes, I attended a workshop on the relationship between neuroscience and education. I read books such as Make it Stick, How We Learn, and Neuroteach, as well as designing, in collaboration with Six Seconds, two OESIS PD Pathways on Social Emotional Learning. I was surprised to discover, during all of this research, that student engagement (or Hot Cognition, as Six Seconds calls it) is a fundamental piece of the SEL equation and an integral part of making learning stick.  Having previously thought that SEL only concerned the “soft skills,” such as self-regulation and conflict-resolution we worked on in our advisory program, I had missed all of the important aspects of relationships, engagement, intrinsic motivation, and self-management that are foundational pieces of effective PBL work. Why is SEL an integral part of a PBL classroom in which competencies are scaffolded and explicit? Let’s take a look. 

Six Seconds talks about the importance of the Emotional Quotient (EQ), and scaffolds this concept into three different segments, identifying them as EQ for You, EQ Relationships, and EQ Classrooms. The work they have done which is most relevant to classrooms, and specifically the PBL classroom is, of course, EQ Classrooms. One of the most interesting ideas I have come across over the past few years is that a brain that is bored is a brain that is stressed. This has many implications for our work in the classroom, and gets at the concept of Hot Cognition that Anabel Jensen of Six Seconds talks about: “a highly activated brain state where optimal learning can occur.” By using practices such as those described in the document link above, “educators can improve retention and strengthen students’ ability to process information — and make learning a more positive experience for everyone involved.” We want our students to be fully present and engaged in their learning, activating their brains to full capacity. 

Learning needs to be meaningful and purposeful for students in the context of their lives. This is the main argument for the intersection of SEL and PBL or Inquiry-Focused classrooms. This doesn’t mean that students should have complete control over the content covered and the skills developed, but it does mean that carefully chosen driving questions and student-led activities can increase student engagement with and retention of the material they need to to know and be able to do to answer the driving question, thereby completing the project. If we look at the elements that Six Seconds outline for the EQ Classroom, it gives us real guidance in identifying the soft skills that will lead to a successful project experience. 

Relationships are the bedrock of learning. It is through creating connections with students and safe and inclusive classroom environments that we first create communities of learning. If a student feels seen and accepted for who they are, they feel safe and are more willing to take the risks necessary for real learning. This is a foundational SEL concept and one that can too often be glossed over in the rush of the beginning of the year.  However, the past year of Pandemic School certainly created a new understanding of how important creating a caring community is. To make PBL work, you need students who feel comfortable rising to the challenges of difficult, collaborative work. Start with your relationships. Once you have created a strong environment of inclusion, your students will be more likely to try new things and fully engage with a PBL format that demands more of them. In the PBL classroom, students are not passive, they must work together with their peers, challenging their assumptions, making decisions, managing their time. Assessing them on their ability to collaborate and to resolve conflicts within the group provides the opportunity to support students’ ongoing growth as members of the community. 

SEL emphasizes the importance of more student-centered classrooms where learning becomes more active and less boring, thus keeping the brain turned on and engaged. When having students do a true PBL project, many classes are more focused on the students’ independent work, and this agency can be a powerful tool in increasing student buy-in and enthusiasm, just what SEL principles recommend. This more active and varied experience in the classroom certainly resulted in much more productive class periods for my students. The Driving Question, which is the focus of all effective PBL projects, is a perfect example of a tool to make your classroom more learner-centered. A well-designed question puts student curiosity at the center of the experience and impels the learner to do the work to investigate the question. 

Regular scans and evaluations of the climate and mood in your classroom are additional recommendations from SEL. In Project-Based Learning frequent check-ins and feedback for students from both teachers and peers are emphasized. This allows for the teacher to keep track of where each student is, both in terms of their work and with their emotional state.  Provide times and places for students to give you a status report, something as simple as thumbs-up, an emoji, or sticky notes with numbers of smiley faces. Just taking the time to stop and think about where they are is a great practice for students in beginning to manage and regulate their own emotions and feelings. It isn’t a bad idea for the adults in the room either. 

Reflection is a powerful way to help make learning “sticky.” When students reflect on their learning or on what they just heard or saw, they are processing it, relating it to prior learning, connecting it to experience, and constructing their own thinking and understanding. According to Learning and Leading with Habits of Mind, edited by Arthur L. Costa and Bena Kallick,

Reflection involves linking a current experience to previous learnings (a process called scaffolding). Reflection also involves drawing forth cognitive and emotional information from several sources: visual, auditory, kinesthetic, and tactile. To reflect, we must act upon and process the information, synthesizing and evaluating the data. In the end, reflecting also means applying what we’ve learned to contexts beyond the original situations in which we learned something.

The best PBL classrooms make time for reflection at the end of every project, and sometimes during the process. Students are often so busy trying to get things done, rushing through the process to tick off the boxes. Reflection slows them down and ensures that they are connecting the dots you want them to connect. The use of Visible Thinking Routines and Exit Tickets are powerful tools to use for quick check-ins or more substantial reflection. But don’t just do it at the end of a project, make it a regular practice in your classroom and teach (and model) for students how to be thoughtful and reflective learners. In my classroom, I often have students reflect on the most interesting or most important fact they learned that day, write it on a sticky, and put it on the door on their way out. We also use the “I used to think…, but now I think…,” or Headlines Visible Thinking Protocols on the way out of class as well, posting them to our LMS discussion board. These allow students to see what their peers are thinking, compels them to draw conclusions and synthesize their understanding, and also provide a great place to start during the next class. 

The principles we can learn from SEL provide excellent models for ways in which we should build classroom communities that best support and encourage inclusion, challenge, and growth. Many of these elements are ones that are essential for best practices in a PBL classroom as well, and that is not accidental. It is part of a deliberate method of activating student engagement and making new ideas and learning stick. 

Tara Quigley

Tara Quigley, Director of Miss Fine’s Center for Interdisciplinary Studies, and 6th Grade Humanities Teacher, Princeton Day School (NJ), and OESIS Network Leader, has been a teacher since 1991. She has been serving as the Director of Miss Fine’s Center for Interdisciplinary Studies since 2014. She is dedicated to educating and empowering teachers to try new pedagogical practices and strategies, including: design thinking, PBL, inquiry research, Visible Thinking, and teaching towards mastery of skills and competencies. She is also a co-chair of the Academic Affairs Committee at Princeton Day School where she has been for 18 years. As an OESIS Network Leader and PBL cohort facilitator, Tara frequently shares her process and experiences with her colleagues at peer schools and at national conferences.

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