Combine SEL and PBL for Super Powered Learning

I had the privilege to record a podcast with Batsheva Frankel over at Overthrowing Education. We had a great conversation. I told some stories and shared some tips from the classroom. We specifically discussed the importance of formative assessment, rather than grades to grow SEL competencies in students.

Check it out and let me know what you think.

Interested in how you can create a positive culture by developing SEL skills integrated in your classroom? Check out my virtual workshop this summer! I am also booking workshops with schools across the country on PBL and SEL.

PBL as a Response to “Learning Loss”

This has been a year like no other, and this summer teachers need to first take care of themselves and then prepare for next year. This is the third of a series of posts about how to plan for SEL and PBL as we hopefully return to face-to-face learning next year. Hopefully you have rested and reflected. Now it’s time to start thinking about the coming school year.

Asset Based Thinking

Count me among those who don’t like the term “learning loss.” It’s a classic example of factory model and deficit thinking. Every kid born a certain year needs to know the exact same stuff by a certain age or they are “behind.” Behind what? What’s next in education, expiration dates? What about all of the talents and knowledge that individual has that few others their age know?

Why does education always focus on what’s missing instead of what’s amazing about a student?

So the past 18 months were disruptive and not the routine that most people associate with school. But let me ask you, as a teacher did you learn new things this year? Were you challenged in novel areas? A common theme that I have heard over and over again from veteran teachers is that it was like being a first year teacher again. Most teachers were stretched more than ever. You learned new tech tools and protocols. You realized again how critical relationships are. You focused holistically at SEL beyond content standards.

Your students learned too. This year was not “lost.” It was difficult, challenging, and brain numbing at times, but kids still learned. Just like you they may have learned different skills besides the content standards. Many students had extra duties at home and learned to cook, clean, watch siblings, or even care for sick family members who had Covid. Others figured out how to manage their time and course work in an online setting without a teacher there to directly help them. Lots of students developed tech skills with new platforms and tools. They also researched and figured things out on their own. In fact, some of our students loved online learning and thrived! Next year instead of focusing on perceived loss, leverage whatever it is that they learned.

It is important to acknowledge that we lost some kids. They disappeared from our Zooms and in reality missed an entire year of school. Without a way to physically require them to be in our presence, some students missed a ton of school. The reasons vary from legitimate family crisis to outright truancy. Unfortunately, many of these students were our most vulnerable. At this point what matters is getting them back in school where we can love and support them.

Skills > Content

There are several problems of approaching next year with the need to catch up on missing content. This deficit thinking ignores what students did learn this past year. It also places too much emphasis on a discrete set of knowledge, rather than focusing on skill development. We should not worry about a few missed lessons as long as students are gaining the skills of self-efficacy and a love of learning. Project Based Learning offers a student-centered structure that zeroes in on specific skills. Students learn to manage the 3 T’s: their time, task, and team. They collaborate to accomplish challenging problems to impact their community. With PBL, there is flexibility around the exact content knowledge, but practice on academic and SEL skills.

As for the students who unofficially “dropped out” of the system of education, they are not going to get back into learning mode with boring, traditional school. We need to pique their interest and engage them. PBL can help here too. One of the takeaways from online instruction was the need to build relationships and connect with kids. The learning needed to be hands on to engage students through a screen. Project Based Learning provides the framework for fun, relevant learning by addressing current issues in the community. It’s a great way to motivate students who did not participate this last school year.

One idea for a mini-project to launch the year would be for students to share what specific new skills they developed during Covid. They could provide a demonstration to the class in a simple show and tell style. This would build community and give them informal presentation practice. A reflection at the end could ask students how they can apply their learning to face to face class this year. Ask the students what structures and practices from online learning they would like to continue and which ones they want to discard. Start the year off building community and buy-in for how they want to learn.

Differentiation

Whenever someone tells me differentiation is simple, I call BS. The reality of every class of students, every school year is that kids are all over the place in their knowledge base and skillsets. Of course, this year we can predict that this pattern may be even more extreme. Meeting the individual needs of every learner is one of the most challenging aspects of teaching. I have found PBL to be the best tool for differentiation (not perfect, but the best option).

PBL goes deep asking kids to answer complex questions requiring solid content knowledge. Students should lack the knowledge and skills at the project launch. Otherwise why would we waste time on this project? You wouldn’t have middle schoolers complete a project on how to add and subtract whole numbers.

Developmentally appropriate PBL should challenge students where they are at but allow a range of flexible entry points.

One of the advantages of the adaptability of PBL is that we can engage each learner wherever they may be. High achievers can be challenged to level up. Students who lack specific skills needed for the project can be pulled aside during work time and given workshops and scaffolding to ensure their success. The power of small group instruction during PBL is one of the least appreciated features of the framework. Students who already “get it” aren’t bored with whole class instruction but can charge ahead. Oftentimes these students will help their group members too. The teacher is then free to focus on the students with the greatest needs for remediation or specific instruction.

So this summer before you plan all kinds of remedial instruction to catch students up from what they may have missed last year, start by thinking about your pedagogy. Use PBL to engage students in your content in meaningful ways with multiple connection points. Your most important job this fall is to get kids excited about school and learning. If you can motivate them with an authentic project, then you can support the skills needed throughout the process.

Interested in how you can create a positive culture by developing SEL skills integrated in your classroom? Check out my virtual workshop this summer! I am also booking workshops with schools across the country on PBL and SEL.