PBL: A Great Place for SEL

What are today’s learning targets? To which curriculum standards does the activity align? How will students demonstrate content knowledge at the end of the instructional sequence? These are traditional inquires one might hear or see posted in a typical classroom. They are good questions. Such inquires give purpose to an instructional design and guide students’ learning. But are these questions enough to help students grow and develop? Should the focus always be on academic knowledge? There is more to being a productive citizen and preparing for life than memorizing facts and retaining information.

We as educators need to tap into students’ personalities to find hidden strengths, understand their emotional intelligence, and use their assets to peak performance. Bringing forth and supporting students’ social-emotional strengths is critical to success in and out of the classroom. Project-based learning (PBL) is a great method for supporting students’ emotional skills. PBL offers well-structured opportunities to learn decision-making, collaboration, and critical thinking skills that result in deeper learning.

SEL stands for social and emotional learning. It is the process through which students acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions (CASEL).

21st century skills are a hallmark of PBL. Authentic learning experiences nurture skills students need to live and work in a connected and diverse society. SEL embodies the 4 C’s of 21st century learning. It is worth the effort to integrate opportunities where students refine their social and emotional skills.

1. Critical thinking is about making responsible decisions.
2. Communication requires a social awareness.
3. Collaboration relies on positive relationships.
4.Creativity occurs when one is aware of their strengths.

PBL provides students with a joyful experience—one that stands out among other instructional activities. The many components of PBL combined are what give students motivation for learning and a sense of satisfaction when their work is complete.

According to SEL and PBL: Let’s Have One Conversation from edCircuit: PBL relies on the same conditions necessary for anyone to develop a ‘drive and thrive’ outlook: Experiencing mastery; finding meaning and fulfillment; and having a constructive relationship to a caring adult mentor. These are the exact three factors critical to effective PBL, which cannot succeed without a strong teacher-student relationship, a challenging, meaningful problem to be solved, and broad-based assessments that emphasize mastery and growth over time.

So how does a teacher infuse SEL in PBL? Let’s begin with a Nordic country of 5 million people known around the globe for its successful education system: Finland. The Finnish National Curriculum prioritizes aptitudes that support social-emotional learning.

SEL in Finland
Even though the Finnish education system is consistently ranked at the top of international educational benchmarks—despite minimal homework regimens and no standardized tests, apart from a nationwide matriculation examination for students when they are around 17—the curriculum has been tweaked further to keep it relevant (Straits Times).

One of the major components of Finland’s new curriculum are transversal competences. Study, working life, and active citizenship require a command of different knowledge and skills as well as competences in combining these. Each subject promotes transversal competence skills. What stands out with Finland’s transversal competences is the stress on managing daily life and taking care of oneself. When you speak with Finnish teachers, the conversation tends to always lead to students’ overall well-being.

What do Finnish schools believe students need for success in the 21st century?
  • A sense of coherence 
  • An understanding of the world
  • Ability to manage daily life 
  • A meaningfulness of being

With these aims in mind, schools influence students’ development as curious, responsible, and well-rounded individuals. Hence, students are prepared for much more than an academic test. They are prepared for the world at large. According to University of Helsinki professor, Lasse Lipponen as quoted in Straits Times, “The Finnish education system is hard to copy because it ties in closely with our societal values, which encourage cooperation and welfare (of students) instead of competition." When schools are encouraged to develop students’ love for learning and prioritize their welfare, the results surpass all expectations.

SEL + PBL = A Perfect Fit
Embracing students’ personal strengths and fostering social-emotional skills comes naturally during PBL. With PBL, learners explore an engaging topic or respond to an authentic challenge. Students have a voice in the topics they care about. Students use a variety of sources to acquire new knowledge and make cross-curricular connections. Often these sources are peers and mentors. Technology plays an important role, providing learners with information and creative possibilities. Through research and collaboration, students develop solutions and design products that fulfill learning goals. These learning goals extend far beyond content standards.

When a focus is placed on SEL, you will find that students breed a sense of empowerment. They become empowered to take charge of their own learning. Authentic learning experiences encourage students to take on the next phase of their academic and personal lives. By prioritizing social and emotional skills before, during, and after each lesson, you are setting your students up for success.

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